Sunday, June 7, 2015

The Art of Patience

While walking around my neighborhood today I passed this sign which quotes Confucius. “It does not matter how slow you go as long as you do not stop.” It's good advice, but I especially appreciated the second half of the sign, offering a discount on wine. I thought it was a perfect message for those of us who call ourselves writers. Nothing can’t be solved by patience, persistence, and wine. 

One thing we’ve learned the past few years is that the hardest thing about writing isn’t the writing itself. Sure, it’s hard to sit down at stare at an empty word file, or struggle with plotting and revising.

But writing is active, so it’s easy to get caught up in all the things that you can do to make it better, to grow as a writer. You feel like you’re working toward something as long as you have tasks to do.

To my mind, the absolute hardest thing is waiting.

When you finish a draft, you wait for feedback, unsure if your CPs will love it or hate it. Then you revise, send queries, revise those queries, and wait some more. Then maybe you’re lucky and you sign with a lovely agent. As excited as you both are to work together, you still need to graciously wait for him or her to find time to read your work and provide more feedback. After all, chances are that your agent has other clients.
And then you go on submission and the real waiting begins. Here is where you have to be a waiting ninja, a patience guru. And it’s hard. Really hard.

When you are waiting on queries and you get a rejection, you can just send out a new, sparkly query. You can send out ten of them at a time. You’re actively contributing to your own career.

But while you are on sub, you’re not following up with more agents or editors. You’re trusting your super competent, knowledgeable agent to do that for you. 

So here’s what you can do to help.

Write something else. It does make the time go by faster. 

You can binge watch Parks and Rec. Well, that helped me. 

Read a lot in your genre or another genre. You never know what the next project will be. You may even fall more in love with it than your current project.

Take up another hobby.  Maybe your tap dancing lessons will clear your mind and lead to a great idea about a group of tap dancing grannies. You never know. 

What not to do:

Don’t compare your journey to anyone else’s. We all have friends that signed with an agent after writing for three months, and sold a book after two weeks. That’s the exception, not the norm.

J.K. Rowling was turned down all over town before finally selling Harry Potter. I think we can agree that things worked out pretty well for her, right?

Don’t give up. I was recently at BookCon and a debut novelist said her book was not her first, second, or even third novel. It was her fourth, and she was thrilled that it worked out that way because even though it took 7 years from that first blank page to publication date, she was sure that it was meant to be her debut.

In the meantime, there is always wine.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

But wait! There’s more! More first chapter tips

We had a wonderful time as judges for the Freshly Squeezed #C1blitz. Before the contest we posted a blog with some tips, however, we were surprised by some other issues that came up quite a few times and thought we’d post about some of them, in case it helps. 

Issue 1: The first few paragraphs are slow.

Fix:  It’s important to grab us from the very first sentence. Think about how you can surprise the reader and really draw us in. For instance, one of our favorite openings is from Feed by M.T. Anderson.  The line is: “We went to the moon to have fun, but the moon turned out to completely suck.” Why does the moon suck? As a reader, you need to know. It’s impossible to not keep reading that paragraph. 

Issue 2: The story starts in the wrong place. 

Fix: A lot of early drafts start at the wrong moment in a story. The reader wants to be thrust into an inciting incident. Making your opening scene more important sets you up for better pacing. Get into the action as soon as you can, or show us something about the main character that makes us what to root for him or her. 

Issue 3: You’re telling us rather than showing us.

Fix: The best way to get a reader involved with a story is to make us experience what the character is experiencing and feel what they’re feeling. Don’t just tell us school sucks. Show us, first hand, what’s sucky about it. Make us smell the gym socks and taste the cold mystery meat.  Put us in the story by focusing on the surroundings and sensory details.

Issue 4: There’s too much backstory in the first chapter.

Fix: Sprinkle in the backstory – don’t give it to us all at once. Think of the opening chapter as going on a first date. What you don’t tell is sometimes more important than what you do tell. Leave the reader wanting more. Otherwise it feels like an info dump and slows the action down. If you’re writing YA, you have at least 50,000 more words. There’s no need to tell us everything in the first 2,000. Reveal secrets and history in drips and drabs through dialogue, letters, and ways other than straight narrative.

Issue 5: Nothing much happens in the first chapter.

Fix: First of all, make sure you’re book is starting at the right place in the story (see above.) But also, the first chapter should include conflict and tension. It doesn’t have to be the biggest plot point, but it needs to set up a problem that the main character is forced to deal with. Think of it as an inciting incident. For instance, in The Wizard of Oz, it’s the tornado that brings Dorothy to Oz.

Issue 6: Starting with an ordinary day.

Fix: We understand the inclination to start with the first day of school, or something equally normal, but in general, we would recommend not starting with an everyday activity like walking to school, unless it involves magic powers or something else surprising (like a tornado that whisks the main character off to Oz.) The first chapter in your story should jolt the main character and the reader out of the ordinary and into the extraordinary. Again, think of the inciting incident. What happens to the main character that propels the story? Our guess is that it’s not riding on the school bus or cleaning their room.

Issue 7: One thing writers hear a lot is that the reader is not connecting to the voice.

Fix: This came up a lot in the contest, mostly when something was written in third person.  Writing in third person is great, especially in fantasy, but it can be more difficult to convey the main character’s distinctive voice because of the narrative distance. Our suggestion is to read some books that do it really well (like Harry Potter or Graceling for instance) and pay attention to how the narrative reveals the character’s feelings, motivations, and unique personality, without being in his head.  

When you’re really stuck, sometimes it helps to take a paragraph and re-write it in first person, just to see how your main character is really feeling and how they would express themselves through their gestures, thoughts, and actions. Then rewrite it in third person. We guarantee you’ll learn something.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Hooking the Reader in the First Chapter

So, no pressure or anything, but it turns out that first chapters are pretty important. Readers don’t want to wait until page 50 for a book to get good.

Luckily, there’s a contest to help writers with their opening pages. We are delighted to have been asked to be judges in the Freshly Squeezed C1Blitz contest for emerging YA writers. We’ve learned so much from contests ourselves and we’re more than happy to give back in the name of good karma. 

As part of the contest, we’ve been asked to share tips for killer opening pages. We’ve spent plenty of time on the revision process for the first chapters of our manuscripts, so we’ve definitely got some thoughts on what to do and what not to do. In addition, it happens that I just finished volunteering at the San Francisco Writer’s Conference, where I attended some great panel discussions that touched on this subject.

So here are a few things to think about:

You only get one shot with a young reader. Teenagers aren’t exactly known for patience. If they aren’t hooked in the first page, or even the first paragraph, they could very well put the book down. Better yet, come up with an awesome first sentence.

Make sure the first chapter is active and full of energy, so that the story compels the reader to keep turning the pages. A reader needs to feel an instant connection to the protagonist, and a desire to find out what happens next, so the first chapter should set up who the main character is and the conflict or problems that they may soon face.

Be careful not to get bogged down in backstory details, or lengthy in-depth physical descriptions. Go ahead and hint at things or give clues to a character’s past, but don’t force-feed a reader every single detail at the beginning in the form of an info-dump. Sprinkle backstory details into the action, but keep it moving!

Your novel needs to start in the right place in the story. It’s not always easy to figure out where that place is, though. What you think might be the beginning when you first sit down to write, might actually be backstory. Sometimes the first 10, 20, or 50 pages are just warm-up – an exercise in character development (which is often very valuable time spent as a writer) - but not where the real action begins.

Whatever you do, don’t start with a dream, or running through the forest, or looking out a car window on the way to a new town, or moving into a new house. Unless you can make an opening like this totally unique, it will read like a cliché. (Note, we’ve made pretty much all these rookie mistakes. Learn from our experience, young Jedi.)

Don’t forget voice. We want to root for your character and get a real sense of who they are. A fantastic, strong, unique voice that jumps off the page will make us want to keep reading.

Lastly, go to the library or bookstore (or download the free sample pages of eBooks) and read the first chapter of as many books in your genre as possible. You’ll quickly get a sense of what works and why – it will be clear which novels you want to keep reading and which you could easily pass on. Some of our favorite first chapters include those of Hex Hall by Rachel Hawkins, Graceling by Kristin Cashore, and Anna Dressed in Blood by Kendare Blake. In terms of pace, mystery, action, voice, and conflict, these are delicious examples of great opening chapters.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Valentine's Day Post: On Toxic Characters

In the lead-up to the release of Fifty Shades of Grey film, there has been a lot of talk about the casting, the acting, and the adaptation of the book into a film, but the thing I’ve been thinking about most is this: what is a writer’s responsibility to the reader?

It’s easy to make the argument that Ana and Christian’s relationship is emotionally and physically abusive, but the question I’m asking is whether as writers we have a moral code to avoid situations like that, or show them in a less positive light. This isn’t a diatribe on kink in books, or in people’s lives. It’s worth noting that even people within the BDSM community are upset by the book and the movie and that it is very possible to write a book about the subject in a more responsible way (see the wonderful, witty MinaVaughn, for example who writes sex-positive, female positive "kink with a wink"). 

I realize it’s a fine line. I don’t have to admire characters  or agree with their motives, but why, for instance, do I love Gone Girl without feeling like it is promoting cheating, lying, and framing your spouse, but Christian Grey gives me the creeps? 

Is it that Amy is an anti-hero and framed as damaged while Christian is more of a Byronic-romantic lead, like  Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights? Or is Gone Girl written more as a metaphor (i.e. marriage is hell, we’re all Nick and Amy, slowly killing each other)?

I can’t say that I know the answer for sure, but I do personally believe in putting out better vibes in the world. Especially as someone who writes for young and new adults, I wouldn’t want anyone reading something Carrie and I wrote and thinking it’s okay to let someone treat you disrespectfully or hurt you. 

Then again, are we not giving readers enough credit? Can they separate fact from fiction more easily? After all, Fifty Shades has sold millions of copies, and, as far as I know, hasn’t inspired a trend of domestic abuse. That said, if even one woman or young girl thinks it’s okay to be coerced and beaten against her will, isn’t that one woman too many? As a writer, I think it’s better safe than sorry. 

We know that the last thing a reader wants, especially a teen, is to be lectured by an adult in any form. Teenagers are cynical and smart, which is why I love writing for them. Therefore, as Carrie and I create new characters or work on existing ones, we seriously consider our responsibilities as writers and how we can create diverse, complex, characters. The characters we want to write don’t always make the right choices, but we do our best not to romanticize the wrong ones.  

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Confessions of a Cryptozoology Addict

I have a confession to make. It’s something that I’ve tried to keep under wraps for a while now, but I suspect that those closest to me have already seen the signs and will no doubt soon stage an intervention. So it’s time to come clean.

My name is Carrie, and I’m addicted to monster hunting TV shows. 

I’ve always been into the ghost shows – recreationally, of course. For years, my DVR has been filled with shows like “A Haunting,” (not to be confused with “The Haunted”, also excellent,) “Celebrity Ghost Stories,” “Haunted History,” and of course “The Dead Files” – I loved them all. I even hate-watched those did-you-hear-that ghost hunting shows, in which a bunch of bros stumble around in the pitch black, antagonizing ghosts into making a distant thump or scratchy, inaudible EVP

But, I could quit anytime, I thought.  

Then I started experimenting with more hardcore stuff. Crossover shows that featured both ghosts and monsters, like “Fact or Faked: Paranormal Files,” “Monsters and Mysteries in America,” and my favorite, “Paranormal Witness.” Suddenly I found myself craving more information on Bigfoot and Nessie. I would lie awake thinking about the Chupacabra. The Moth Man and Jersey Devil haunted my dreams. I wanted more crypto

This is about the time that Betsy and I came up with the idea for Sasquatch, Love, and Other Imaginary Things. This brought two of my favorite things together. I could indulge in my obsession while we wrote a quirky, romantic comedy. I mean, how could we possibly write a story about searching for Bigfoot without knowing the full “Monster Quest” cannon back and forward? Brilliant!

But, I was lying to myself and everyone else when I said that I needed to binge watch every season of “Finding Bigfoot” as research. Things started to spin out of control and soon, I was Nexflixing documentaries and scouring cable for anything with a mythological beast. I blew through “Mountain Monsters,” “Ten Million Dollar Bigfoot Bounty,” “Swamp Monsters,” “Cryptid: Swamp Beast,” and “Alaska Monsters.” I even dug up some vintage episodes of “In Search of” hosted by Leonard Nimoy. Classic. Delicious.

Now, I’m not saying that I believe in all of this stuff. I’m actually sort of a skeptic. But it doesn’t matter whether I believe or not, because THEY believe. The people on these shows. The witnesses. The hunters. They all have personal, emotional stories to share about their experiences, and that’s what I crave. That ancient delight that comes from sitting around the campfire, scaring the crap out of each other. I can’t get enough of hearing folks tell their individual tales of spooks and goblins, monsters and beasts, the strange and unusual. 

And if those tales happen to be accompanied by cheeseball dramatic re-enactments or infrared camera shots of midnight Squatch hunts, well, then that’s just fine with me. 

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Nice is Different Than Good*

Musical theater geeks, Carrie and I ditched our husbands one night over the holidays and headed to an independent movie theater in the east village to go see Into the Woods. While there was much to be excited about, including some stellar performances (hello, Chris Pine!), we couldn’t help but leave a little disappointed. 

Not at first, mind you, but it creeped up on us, the more we thought about the sum of all of the film’s parts.
In fact, our friend who joined us, who is not as versed in musicals as we are, remarked that it was really boring and slow. To which we replied, “Wait until you see Sunday in the Park with George, or A Little Night Music.”

She asked if A Little Night Music was about vampires. 

Sigh. If only.**

Anyway, it got us thinking about how important structure is to any work. While the acting, singing, and production were all great, what left us cold was the removal of the structure that made Into the Woods work so well on stage. Without most of the transitions, asides, and narration, some of the darker themes and allegories just didn’t come through. This was felt most deeply in between acts. 

There should be a major shift and separation between happily ever after and what happens after happily ever after, which one could argue is the whole point of the play. If we, as the audience, don’t see and feel the frustration and disillusionment the characters experience, we can’t take that journey with them. 

As writers, it was a good lesson about the importance of narrative arcs, structure, and transitions.  Plus, did we mention Chris Pine?

*lyric from "I Know Things Now,"  from Into the Woods
** For the record, Assassins is our favorite Sondheim musical.