Sunday, November 30, 2008

Clichés

I apologize for this post being late -- and for the fact that it's a fairly short one. The holiday season hit my house full-force this year, and earlier than I'd expected, so it's thrown me off-stride. (Note to self: do a post soon on how hard it is to write in the midst of frantic family festivities.) Still, I feel compelled to talk about clichés, because I just encountered two manuscripts filled with them.

So what is a cliché? According to Wikipedia, a cliché is an "idea that has been overused to the point of losing its intended force or novelty, especially when at some time it was considered distinctively forceful or novel." For "idea" I'd substitute "phrase or concept," since there are overused phrases as well as overused character types and plot developments.

Here are some examples of overused phrases, provided by Carol Gorman in an article called "The Critical Last Step: Revision" (in From Inspiration to Publication, edited by Pamela Glass Kelly and Mary Spelman, published by the Institute of Children's Literature): a shiver ran up her spine; her eyes sparkled; his eyes flashed with anger; her heart melted; his heart skipped a beat. (Lots of body parts here!)

Overused phrases pop up because the writer has been too lazy to come up with a fresh way to express a common idea. They're fairly common (even experienced authors sometimes get lazy!), but also fairly easy to root out during the revision process. Clichés related to plots and characters, though, are very hard to eliminate, because they're typically woven into the fabric of the story-- and they're also hard for a beginning writer to recognize unless the writer is widely read.

If someone hasn't read a lot of novels, from different genres and different eras, that person doesn't know that a particular type of character or a certain plot element has been overused. For example, if you're writing a fantasy but haven't read any, how would you know that other authors have employed so many evil black-cloaked riders on all-black horses that if you have them too, your novel can't be called entirely fresh? Or that if you're writing a novel about modern-day Antisemitism and show neo-Nazis breaking a shopkeeper's window with a brick tied to a threatening note, your scene will be one of many that have already been written?

Chances are good that if you've seen a certain type of character or scene in a movie or TV show, it's already become a cliché in novels -- so whenever you find yourself reaching for some old, familiar idea, stop yourself, shake away the laziness, and work hard to come up with something new. And if you're not already a reader, become one! I've said this before, but I'll say it again: I don't know a single best-selling novelist who wasn't also a big reader of novels prior to getting published -- or a single best-selling nonfiction writer who doesn't also enjoy reading lots of nonfiction. So make sure you read as much as you write -- even if it means slipping away from all those visiting relatives over the holidays. (Ahhhhh. Talk about an incentive!)

A postscript: Right after posting the above, I found a discussion of clichés in a book on screenwriting, Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder. He talks about the importance of having a huge body of knowledge in regard to films that have already been made (sound familiar?), saying, "Your knowledge of a few movies you like is not enough. It is also not enough to know all the movies of the past five years. You have to go back, see the lineage of many types of movies, know what movie begat what in the line of succession, and how the art was advanced by each." (And as I suggested earlier, the same is true with novels, if you want to be a novelist.) Snyder adds that "to explode the clichés, to give us the same thing . . . only different, you have to know what genre your movie is part of, and how to invent the twists that avoid pat elements." Avoiding "pat elements" -- that's what it's all about, when it comes to clichés. You can start with something tried and true, but you'd better add something new, something fresh, some twist to the mix, or your creation will fall flat.

Happy writing!!!!

Saturday, November 8, 2008

An Honest Appraisal

Yesterday I got a call from someone asking me if I would look over her 16-year-old son's book manuscript. "He's written a fantasy novel," she said. "And we've already sent it to several publishers and agents, but no one has responded. It's been weeks!"

I resisted the urge to say how rare it is for a minor to get a book contract unless his parents are 'in the biz.' Instead I asked a few questions about the project, and here's what the mom told me:

1. The book is for children in upper elementary or middle school -- or maybe it's for teens, or possibly for adults. Hey, wait, this is a novel for all ages!
2. The book is 150,000 words.
3. The book is the first in a series, so it has no ending.
4. The author has never written anything before or taken any sort of writing classes (except the English classes in his public schools), and his book didn't need to be revised after he wrote it. He's been submitting his first draft.
5. The author has never read a fantasy novel himself, but he really enjoys the Harry Potter movies.
6. In fact, the author's story is just like one of those movies. It's going to be a huge hit!

All of this told me that the kid's manuscript will never sell. Here's why:

1. The book doesn't have a well-defined audience. Most editors won't buy a manuscript they don't know how to market, so you'd better know who you're writing for. (J.K. Rowling broke into print with a children's book, despite the fact that adults read it too, and the marketing campaign was geared accordingly.) And in children's fiction, content is as important as reading level, because kids of different ages have different interests -- which is why books for young children typically involve home, family, and pets, whereas books for teens often concern social issues, relationships, romance, trauma, etc.

2. Each audience, and each genre, comes with its own word-count requirements. Most middle-grade books are around 30-35,000 words. A teen novel is usually no more than 60,000 words. Fantasy novels tend to run longer, sometimes lots longer -- but 150,000 words is really really REALLY long, and most publishers don't want to invest so much money in a new author. (The longer the book, the higher the printing and shipping costs.) Stephen King was able to write all those huge books -- after writing the very slim Carrie the first time out -- because he'd proven he could sell lots of copies of them.

3. Every story needs an ending of some kind. It's never okay to say, "Well, I can't figure out how to resolve this plot thread, so I'll just deal with it in the next book." Your last pages can suggest that your novel's world and its characters and/or story will be revisited -- in fact, your ending can make this necessary, providing you've already been guaranteed publication of a follow-up novel -- but you'd better give your readers some sort of satisfaction at the end of your novel or they'll be very unhappy with you. (We'll talk more about endings in the future, when I start discussing story structure.)

And as for the notion of a series -- it's difficult (though not impossible) for a first-time author to get a contract for a series, again because of the money investment. But the ones who achieve this feat typically have a fresh new idea that really excites the marketing guys. Examples of this would be Generation Dead by Daniel Waters (which I'm assuming was sold as a series because the ending is fairly open-ended, though a main plot point is resolved) and the "Five Ancestors" novels by Jeff Stone. Stone got a six-figure deal for his series because his books were the first martial-arts fiction aimed specifically at middle-grade boys; Waters' novel has a clever premise bound to appeal to its teen audience: teenage zombies are just like living teens -- partying, dating, going to school -- but experience painful discrimination because they're, well, dead.

4. I've got to admire the kid for tackling a novel as his first writing project -- but trying to sell it is just asking for disappointment. He needs to study his craft and write a lot of things before leaping into the marketplace. And NO author should send out a first draft! Multiple revisions are a must in this business. (Hence the old saying: "Books aren't written; they're rewritten.") And while an experienced author might be able get away with turning in a less-than-perfect effort (with the notion that it will be 'tweaked' later, during the publication process), a first-time author needs his or her manuscript to be as fine-tuned as possible.

5. I don't know of any successful fiction authors who aren't also passionate readers. But if they're out there, then they at least read novels in their own genre, so they know how such books are written. If you're not familiar with your genre, you're doomed. (And no, movies don't count -- unless you want to be a screenwriter instead of a novelist.)

6. Do I need to comment on this one?

So now you're probably wondering whether I told the mom all of this. Yes, I did, though with more tact than I'm using here. And in the end, she still decided to hire me to help her son revise his novel, and to develop a list of fantasy novels and how-to-write books for him to read. I'll let you know how this works out -- and in the meantime, I hope you get lots of your own reading and writing done!

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Controlling the Message

I feel like a complete slacker!

I'd intended to post here at least once a week, but it's been about a month since my last post. Even worse, in the interim I didn't look to see if anyone had left me any new comments. Shame on me!

(I'll do better in the future, honest!)

I'm thrilled to have some feedback -- and now that I know I have a reader who's interested in academic writing, I'm going to talk about something that's critical when it comes to this type of work. But don't turn away if you're not into academia! At the end I'm going to connect this discussion to other types of writing as well.

So what am I going to talk about? Bias.

All of us have biases, prejudices, strong opinions . . . but many publishers of academic materials insist that authors hide their biases. "Be completely neutral," these publishers say. "Let readers form their own opinions, instead of pushing them to adopt yours." This is particularly important when writing nonfiction for kids. In fact, if you can develop a knack for discussing both sides of an issue without showing which side is your side, you'll probably have schoolbook publishers waving writing contracts under your nose while shouting, "Please sign this! Please!"

The demand for truly objective writers is high because, in an age of Internet blogs and the like, people just can't seem to keep from sharing their opinions anymore. And even when they try, little signs of their opinions creep into their writing anyway. To test whether you can write without showing your biases, write a short pro/con essay on some political or social issue -- censorship, for example, or global warming -- quoting experts on both sides of the issue without intentionally giving your own views on the subject. Then show the essay to six people and ask if they can tell what you believe. If they say they can't, great! If they say they can, but no more than three people get it right and the rest say you believe the exact opposite, also great! Otherwise, examine your writing more closely to see what words might have given you away. (We can talk more in the future, if you like, about words that tend to do this.) And while you're at it, count the quotes on each side of the issue to see whether you've unintentionally provided more, or better, fuel to one side of the argument than the other.

But what about other types of writing? Didn't I promise to take this discussion outside of the realm of academia?

Yup! And here's how: by saying, "No matter what you're writing, it's important for you to be in complete control of your message." It's fine to let people know what you think -- but only if you want them to know what you think. It's terrific to let people know you care deeply about a subject -- but only if you want people to know just how much you care. So any time you put pen to paper, ask yourself: Am I saying what I intend to say? Am I letting unintentional messages creep into my work? It's okay to share your opinions passionately -- but not sloppily. Choose your words carefully and know exactly where, how, and to what degree you're presenting your bias.

(And when it comes to deciding just how much bias you want to show, be aware that many people don't take strongly biased writing as seriously as less biased or neutral writing. To understand what I mean, consider a strongly biased political commentary in which the author paints his own candidate as a saint and the other as a sinner. The typical response to such a commentary is a dismissive remark: "Oh, you're just saying that because you're such a partisan!")

We can talk more about controlled writing if you like -- or about any other aspect of writing, nonfiction or fiction. I look forward to seeing more comments that might guide our discussions. But I promise that even if I don't get any, I'll still be back next week with another post.

In the meantime, happy writing!

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Writer's Block -- with Knitting!

Yes, it's been a while since I last posted -- because I've had a whompingly serious case of writer's block lately.

Knitting is to blame.

I've long been a knitter, but not an obsessive one -- until a couple of weeks ago, when I decided to try lace knitting. It's a craft that uses stitch charts to create designs in the fabric (yes, knitters, I know this is a clunky explanation, but it's the best I can do in my lace-induced haze), and the charts have put me in a left-brain-dominant state.

And while left brains are the masters of editing, they need to stifled if you want to get any new writing on the page.

But does this mean I'm going to lock my left brain in a closet? Nope. Instead, I'm going to let it run amok until it wears itself out -- whereupon my right brain will take charge with a flurry of renewed creativity.

I've learned from hard experience that this is the best way to deal with writers' block. Fight it and you prolong it. Let it run its course -- give yourself permission to do anything but write -- and it will not only end relatively quickly but leave you with a new passion for your writing.

(You'll also end up with a really beautiful lace shawl.)

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Apples and Oranges

So far I've talked largely about the craft of writing, but today I'm going to discuss something related to writing for publication: rejections, and what they tell you about your work.

Submitting your work to publishers can be pretty discouraging. You send a manuscript to a faceless editor, wait for eons to hear back from him or her, and then just when you're thinking, "Hey, maybe it's taking this long because the editor is seriously considering whether to publish my work" . . . BAM! You get a rejection in the mail -- and it's a form letter. Wah!

The standard advice -- and it's good advice -- is to get right back on the proverbial horse and send the manuscript out again to someone else, before your tears have even had time to dry. But this can be very hard to do, because each rejection leaves you wondering whether your writing is really any good. "Am I wasting my time?" you ask yourself over and over again. And as you amass more and more rejections, you're increasingly tempted to quit writing altogether.

DON'T!

Getting rejection slips is no reason to stop writing -- and it's also no reason to think that your writing is bad. You can't assume you're gathering rejections because of the quality of your writing. Instead, the most likely truth is that you're trying to sell apples at a citrus festival.

"Huh?" I can hear you saying. "What does fruit have to do with this?" Well, here's what. Think of your manuscripts as apples -- the most beautiful, most delicious apples on the planet. Imagine you've decided to sell them at a farmer's market. You load them up in your truck, knowing they're so perfect (and they really are!) that they'll sell immediately, but after you set up your booth at the market you find you can't give your apples away. Not one customer wants them -- and after several dozen rejections, you finally figure out why. Yes, you've accidentally arrived at the market on Citrus Day, and the only thing people are buying is oranges.

To avoid this calamity, do your market research to make sure it isn't Citrus Day where you're selling your wares. That is, know which publishers are buying what, and then be sure to give them what they want when they want it.

But this brings up another issue: should you write only for the marketplace? That is, should you let the marketplace dictate exactly what you're going to write? Well, let's go back to our apple discussion. Your apples, remember, were perfect -- and they probably turned out this way because you love growing apples and know a lot about them. So if you were suddenly to decide to grow oranges instead, and you hated oranges and/or didn't know or care about knowing anything about growing them, your oranges certainly wouldn't turn out to be market-worthy. So no, don't change your crop just because you've been going to the wrong marketplace. Instead, find the right marketplace -- even if it takes months, or even years, for the next Apple Growers Festival to come around again.

(And in the meantime, don't get discouraged!)

Oh, and one last thing. At the beginning of this post, I said I was going to talk about what rejections tell you about your work. And as you've probably figured out by now, they tell you very little or nothing about your work -- but they tell you a whole lot about your marketing tactics. So use those rejections as a nudge to spend more time doing your homework, in regard to researching editors and publishers. (We can talk more about how to do this research in the future, if you like.)

Until next time, happy writing! (And a big THANK YOU to Desert Rose, for leaving the very first comment on this blog. I hope to see many more!)

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

On Audience

I haven't posted here for a few days, largely because I'm not sure this blog has an audience. (Comments, anyone?) I'm used to writing things I know that someone (my editor, at the very least) is going to read. And because of this, when I write I keep my audience in mind, choosing my words in accordance with whom I think they'll be reaching.

Beginning writers often have trouble with this. They need time to identify their audience (who am I writing for?) and to learn how to adjust their language and their content to suit this audience.

So what kind of adjustments do you need to make? If you're writing for young children, you'll need to use simple sentences and simple words that match the reading level of your audience. (You can check the grade level of your writing via Microsoft Word's readability statistics; to activate this option, go to "Tools," then "Options," then look in the "Spelling and Grammar" tab for the box that, when checked, tells the program to show the readability index.) And as far as content goes, you'll need to think about the interests of your target age group, asking yourself, "What do my readers care about, and what kind of world do they live in?"

As an example, imagine the world of a young child as opposed to the world of an older teen. A four-year-old's world is very limited; he's primarily concerned with his immediate family, his pets, his house, and his toys and games. He might have friends outside his family, but he might not. (Remember, not every four-year-old goes to preschool or daycare and/or has a mom who arranges playdates.) A 16-year-old, on the other hand, spends most of his time in the 'outside world' away from home and family, driven to separate from his parents so he can form his own identity. Consequently he's primarily concerned with building new relationships, earning money, learning skills associated with independence, and figuring out what he wants to do with his life. So a story set entirely at home, perhaps involving the family pet, would be of high interest to a young child but probably of very low or no interest to a teen.

Since I don't (yet) know my audience here, I'm not sure if the information I've just shared will be of interest to my readers. Some of you might be saying, perhaps with some frustration, "I already knew all this stuff!" But I do get stories from some of my writing students that, according to those students, is for "all ages" or "ages 8 to 17" or some other broad audience -- and if you think you're writing for "all ages" too, think again. Are you sure that a four-year-old and a 60-year-old would both be equally interested in your story or article?

In fact, even if you're writing just for adults, give some thought as to who, exactly, those adults might be. Seniors have different interests than 20-somethings (as TV producers and advertisers have long known), and if you can target your writing to one group or another and then market your work accordingly, you'll probably have more success at getting published. (One of the reasons that Chick Lit took off so quickly, I believe, is because it has such a narrow audience, which makes it easier for publishers to market.)

We'll talk more about audience in the future. In the meantime, why not leave a comment about this topic, or about some other topic you'd like me to discuss? I'd love nothing more than to tailor my posts to the needs of my readers -- but first I need to know who those readers are!

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Great Novel-Writing Guide

I'm currently reading an excellent guide to novel-writing, which I plan to recommend to students in my book-writing course who are working on fiction. It's called How NOT to Write a Novel: 200 Classic Mistakes and How to Avoid Them -- A Misstep-by-Misstep Guide by Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman.

And I'm delighted that the authors were grammar-savvy enough to hyphenate the compound adjective in their title. To know whether your own adjectives need hyphenation, just consider whether each word could stand on its own without its companions. For example, in "a cold-weather scarf," the hyphen is there because it wouldn't make sense to say "a weather scarf." That is, "weather" must be linked to "cold" in order for it to function as an adjective without causing some head-scratching.

This example, by the way, was inspired by the fact that I've just spent the past fifteen minutes looking at knitting patterns. I received some alpaca yarn as a gift but don't have enough yardage for the shawl I want to make, which means I'll have to make a scarf instead. But people in Southern California rarely wear knitted scarfs, especially ones in alpaca (which is very, very warm), so I'm going to be very out-of-fashion. (There's another example for you. I'm not going to be out. I'm not going to be of. I'm not going to be fashion. All the words have to be linked together for you to understand exactly what my dilemma will be.)

See? I told you that some personal stuff would be mixed in with my writing tips. In fact, the subject of knitting will probably pop up quite a bit around here. If you're one of my knitting friends from Ravelry, you're probably thrilled with this. Otherwise you're probably saying, "Huh? You mean, authors knit?" (Yup, they do. You'd be surprised how many knitters I've encountered at writing conferences.)

Monday, August 18, 2008

One Small Step

Well, I've finally done it! I've created a blog -- as if I don't already have plenty of writing to do! My goal here is primarily to share tips about writing and to chronicle how my own books go from idea to publication, but I'll also be talking about 'the writing life' -- or at least, a version of 'the writing life' where the writer is a mom with a chaotic household and plenty of pets and hobbies (including marathon knitting and, now, blogging too) to distract her from her writing.

(And you thought only unpublished writers use busy-ness as a way to procrastinate? Ha!)

So here we go . . .