Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Writing Advice

This is the kind of advice that is neither simple nor easy.

If I were to sum up the resource I'm about to share, it could be done like this: if you want to write a great book, then you have to just, well, do EVERYTHING.

The first time I read this advice, I threw my hands in the air and thought, "Yeah, right". I think on some level I recognized that it would be a world of work to do all of THAT to my book.

Much later, after being rejected repeatedly, I came across this advice again and decided to implement it all. I'm not saying I've necessarily done it successfully (some bits came easier than others), but it was a helpful guide for me.

I cannot take credit for compiling this advice, as it originates with Sarah Davies of the Greenhouse Literary Agency, but it was so helpful that I had to share it. Here are her tips for writing "the breakout novel". I'll list the titles here and redirect you to her website for the details.

Sarah recommends the following:
1. Start with an inspired concept
     She uses Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher as an example of taking an idea that's been done before, and doing something different and riveting with it (both in structure and plot).

2. Include larger than life characters
     Among other things, she describes how characters can reveal themselves through whispers. A MUST READ. I'm reading Ransom Riggs' Ms. Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children right now, and I'm struck by how these characters-- even people in Florida, not just the peculiar children from the home in Wales-- jump from the page.

3. Have a high-stakes plot
     She especially emphasizes that novels are not like real life. Well, you're thinking, "duh", but it's worth saying (and me repeating) because it's natural to tell a story in real-life terms. We feel a natural desire to protect our characters, but those extremes are what make a story riveting. I'm also reading Laini Taylor's Daughter of Smoke and Bone this week, and boy howdy, does she weave a high stakes plot. Just when you've got a firm stance on the rug of her world, she rips it from beneath you, again... but I should save my talk of DOSAB for Friday's book club.

4. Incorporate a deeply felt theme.
     This is one of my favorite bits of Sarah's list, because it was something I wasn't thinking of AT ALL. She says, "THE BEST BOOKS TEACH US MORE ABOUT OURSELVES THAN ABOUT THE CHARACTERS". She cautions about overwriting or preaching, but charges us to find "A NEWLY PERCEIVED TRUTH ABOUT WHAT IT MEANS TO BE HUMAN". *Gulp*  Remember in Stephen King's On Writing when he describes in the first pass after writing he edits the book, and in the second pass he looks for a theme just below the surface and pulls it out? In my mind, they're talking about the same thing here. Maybe it's as simple as the concept of hope or instinct... but the idea is not to let it hide in the shadows, or worse, turn it into a morality lesson, but find that theme and emphasize it within the text.

5. A vivid setting
     We hear this all the time, but I think we can stand to make it pop no matter whether the setting is meant to be a bland, suburban landscape or a magical mystical world.

6. The final mystery ingredient: Voice
     A tall order, and universally acknowledged as hard to define, your character's voice sets your story apart.

So, see what I mean? Ms. Davies advice is simply: do everything, and do it well.

It's daunting, but this is a great resource for any writer.

(Note: she acknowledges that there is more than "one way" to do anything, this is just her advice.)

Friday, October 21, 2011

30 Pitches, 30 Days: Cooking ideas

Sophia's post today for the 30 pitches in 30 days blogfest is fantastic. 

She laments that she is dismissing ideas without giving them a chance. 

I'm afraid I err on the other side of the spectrum of ideas: I'll write anything down in my mystical spreadsheet.

Sometimes, I read ideas later and find them lame, embarrassing, maybe even stupid. 

That being said, while I write all my ideas down, I don't choose to pursue them all. 

Something happens with time, when the idea cooks a little, that can take it to a place worth pursuing. 

That's what I love about the spreadsheet, holding my ideas in place until they're ready, or I'm ready, but hopefully both. 

Sometimes moving from idea to pitch is the hard part for me. 

Margo writes this week about how the third character in the pitch can say a lot about a pivotal change in plot. 

She and Sophia both are great about turning out true pitches, whereas I've come up with lots of great ideas, but I haven't pushed them beyond the one-line stage.  

So, I thought I'd share a real pitch today. It's not a new idea. I hope it will be the follow-up to my first bug-girl book. A post I found long ago that has helped me envisioning pitches, and even queries, can be found on the edittorrent blog here

So, here goes, but be warned, it's pretty rough:

Bea and Mila are hunting a ghost at the Mulberry Bed and Breakfast. When they find a packet of letters in the attic about an abandoned silkworm plantation, they think they've found her identity. But can they understand what she lost, and what she wants now, before it's too late?

What tools do you use to write pitches?

How do you take ideas from "ideas" to a true development stage? 

Monday, October 17, 2011

That book

We all have THAT book, don't we?

For me it was a paperback I bought at a Scholastic book fair in approximately 1984. A book I loved and re-read, but for whatever reason disappeared from my life.

The book I'm thinking about is one I kept for many years, probably until the mid 1990s, and probably on a random weekend when I was cleaning my closet I put it in the goodwill bin.

For years I have thought about that book.

For decades I have wondered about that book.

Since the invention of the internet I have performed more than one search for the book, but seeing how I know neither the title nor the author, I could never find it.

Well, this week I attempted again to piece together some search terms that might solve this very important mystery.

Yet again, I got nowhere. That is until I found this site.

Loganberry Books of Shaker Heights, Ohio's STUMP THE BOOKSELLER feature.

I typed my crazy combo of words into their search bar, and lo and behold, I'm not the only person wondering about this book.

I found it! And I could not be more thrilled.

My long lost book love was The Missing Persons' League by Frank Bonham.

What's yours?

Friday, October 14, 2011

Friday Fives: Favorites from Childhood

This is easy.

1. Ferdinand the Bull

I loved it so much I made a painting of my fave scene for my kids' room

2. My Book about Me is fantastic- you fill out all the details of your life, count things around your house, and even get your mailman's signature!

3. Goodnight Moon

4. Richard Scarry's works

5. The Little House

30 Pitches: Week two

I'm loving this blog fest.

My favorite idea this week is for a children's picture book called

...drumroll please...

Guess Who Ruined the Planet.

I'm thinking of it as a kind of tongue-in-cheek book that may not really be for kids, in the vein of Go the F*** to Sleep (but, you know, minus the F bomb).

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

30 Pitches, 30 Days: A great idea

I'm late to the party, but Sophia of My Fleet-Footed Self is hosting a fab blog fest this month.

The idea: come up with 30 pitches in 30 days.

Here is Sophia's original post, but she includes a few follow-ups with tips on writing more fleshed-out pitches that are also worth reading.

I spent about 40 minutes last night agonizing over new book ideas and nearly gave up, then decided to think WAAAAAY out of the box.

When I sat down today, I came up with 39 ideas of books including picture books, non-fiction chapter books, and of course the requisite YA and MG that I love so.

These ideas are now ensconced on the good ole excel file where I put all my ideas. I let them sit. I percolate. I give them a little space. Then I check back periodically to see whether I think they're a great idea or completely nuts.

If you're in a rut, or even if you're not, give it a whirl this month.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Suspense in writing

I love these tips on writing suspense, which were a big help to me while I worked through my last WIP.  I supplement with stills from some of my MOST favorite hitchcock films.

The post is originally from the Writer's Digest site and written by Simon Wood.

Some of my favorite of Mr. Wood's tips include:

Use time constraints. Ahh, all hail the ticking clock. It can amp stakes up in a big way.

Keep the stakes high! As Wood points out, it's not necessarily about "global annihilation." Instead, "the story must be about a crisis that's devastating to the protagonist's world."

Apply pressure. Your protag must face seemingly insurmountable odds. "All [her] skills and strengths must be stretched to the breaking point in order to save the day."

Create dilemmas. I love Sophie Kinsella's ability to set up an awkward dilemma that turns into a misunderstanding at the MOST inopportune moment. As Wood puts it, "the choice must seemingly be a lose-loss situation for the protagonist."  

Complicate things. Or as Wood says, "Pile on the problems."

and finally, Create both real good villains and really good heroes. 

Wood closes by saying "suspense writing is all about creating a pressure cooker with no relief valve."

All excellent advice about building suspense in your writing.  Please check out the FULL article.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Friday Fives: Aspire to climb every mountain

1. Reading books I love. Sometimes I read things that are similar to what I write, but I get just as much inspiration from books nothing like my style and way out of my genre.

2. BETA reading. I feel lucky to have fallen into a fantastic group of writers: The ladies of the Weekend of Awesome. Not only does reading their work introduce me to new things, but I love seeing how their work evolves over time. It is truly inspiring.

3. My family, and not just because we're expected to be inspired by our life partners and our kids (this is especially true for women in our society... but don't get me started). It is more that I feel they have made an investment in me. When I take time to write, I am dividing up the time that goes to sleep, housework, cooking, myself, and them. That they are counting on me to make something of that time inspires me.

4. Non-fiction and documentaries. Because most of my books have an environmental theme, I get a lot of inspiration from the reading and films that are a part of my job. I've been watching FLOW: For Love of Water with my students this week and it never fails to inspire me about worldwide water issues.

5. Seeing others succeed. It seems to me that the road to publication is a series of peaks on a ginormous mountain range.
You write that book (one peak), you edit that book (another peak), you query it (a big peak), then maybe you do that a few times (peak, peak, peak). Maybe you get an agent (huge peak). Maybe you sell a book (enormous peak). Maybe it becomes popular (gigantic peak). Maybe you get the chance to do it all over again (peak, peak, peak, peak, peak).

It feels like an endless series of obstacles.

But because of the openness and transparency of the web, you can see people working their way through those obstacles every week.

When you realize it truly can happen --that it does happen all the time-- it's inspiring.

Monday, October 3, 2011

The elusive "perfect" novel: a contagious post

Just in time for flu season, a contagious post.

No, wait... put down the Vitamin C and the flu shot.

This is the good kind of contagious! I promise.

Katy Upperman has a great post today about perfect novels, and more so: what makes a novel perfect for YOU. What a great idea-- this would make a good blogfest, Katy!

Katy's list included romance, relatable main characters, flawless writing with engaging dialogue, a unique setting, and the unexpected. Visit her post to find out how she elaborates on these, and provides examples of exactly what she means.

Now, what would you find on my list?

I love a circular story with twists and turns that keep me intrigued. But by the end they must make sense in a logical way, like Jellicoe Road or Holes. I don't want twists and turns that leave me frustrated an unfulfilled.

I love when the MC is someone you think you know, but then realize is more complex. Maybe the main character is headstrong and you discover that she/he is vulnerable. Maybe the main character has been a total jerk, and you finally understand why. Melina Marchetta does this well, but in very different ways, in both Jellicoe Road and The Piper's Son.

I love a book that makes me think. Books that you puzzle over long after you've read them. Feed, A Wrinkle in Time, Divergent, and When you Reach Me come to mind.

Finally, I adore a mystery, but it doesn't have to be the "Mrs. Peacock in the drawing room with the lead pipe" sort. I think almost all books have a mystery, it's just not as emphasized in other genres (for good reason). This ties in with my love of twists and turns above. I love a mystery that gives you just enough clues to make guesses along the way, and one where you discover the truth just as the MC does. Or even better, a page or two ahead of the MC, but not in the first chapter.

What would be in your perfect novel? What makes a novel perfect for you?