Sunday, February 27, 2011

Even Vampires Need Good PR

So, Changeling Press is calling for submissions through 3/17/2011. Specifically, they want sexy stories about:
Cyborgs, vampires, werewolves, dragon shifters, cat shifters, aliens, genetically altered alien cyborg dragon shifters...
Ye-ah.  And I was having problems thinking up knitting erotica!

I'm not sure whether my problem is that I don't get out enough, or whether I get out too much.  Be that as it may, I have never given much thought (until just now) to writing an erotic story about cyborgs, gay werewolves, cat shifters (gay or straight), etc.  I have enjoyed reading stories about vampires (which are now so common I almost expect to run into vampires in the grocery store,) and Kerry Jones' Quinguard Immortals Series about statue shapeshifters.

But, too bad for me, I haven't written anything along those lines.  Now, if you have such stories on tap - now you know a good place to take that story!

However, one of the things that struck me as I was reading their guidelines, and which I have heard from my own agent, is, more and more, publishers expect authors to market themselves.

Here's an excerpt from Changeling's submisssion guidelines: 
A brief promotional plan, including links to your website, blog, journal, etc., and loops and chat sites where you plan to promote, should we accept your work for publication. Although we have an in-house promo staff, an author's ability to promote is critical to the success of any book's sales. You will also be expected to promote your book through active participation in the Changeling Readers' loop, the Changeling Insider, and our online E-Zine, The Cheeky Changeling, and other regularly-scheduled promotions.

 In other words, boys and girls, remember the days when an author meekly turned in a manuscript, and the high and mightly Emerald City Publishing Department did all the PR, all the planning. and just told an author:  go here, smile, and sign books?  (Me neither.)  And if that day ever existed, except in an author's fantasy, it's gone, baby, gone.  (Hmm, wouldn't that make a good title for a book or movie?  Just sayin'.)

This means, we've got to think about branding ourselves.  We've got to think about starting (and maintaining - starting is the easy part) a blog.  We've got to think about Tweeting (I admit, sheepishly, I haven't yet got much farther than the "thinking about" part, myself.)

We've got to recognize, that except for a very, very few authors (Stieg Larsson comes to mind, and who knows what they'd make him do, if he wasn't dead,) writing the book or screenplay is only half (or less) of the work.  Promotion is part of a 21st Century author's job.

If that thought scares the pants off you, if you know you could never, ever write a blog or go onto a radio show or do online chat to promote your work... Perhaps you'd best write in secret, and let your genius be discovered after your death.

If not, if your dream is to write and be published, in your own lifetime...  Cowboy up and write, then.  Get some critique - and try to develop the toughness to bear it, and the sensitivity to accept it.  And consider, during the times when the main work is stalled, for whatever reason, developing the PR side.

What have you written that could go to Changeling Press?  Or some other esoteric market?
Tell me about the weirdest thing you ever wrote, in the comments, below.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Guest Post: Hook vs. Heart from The Editor Devil

In our first few pages, we need to show the reader what our Main Characters look like, and what they are trying to do.  Because, class, repeat after me: "A story is about a character with a problem.

In Hook vs. Heart, The Editor Devil suggests:
Well, besides the necessary scene details--setting/location, time (at least night or day, future/past or present) and POV--we should get a physical and emotional glimpse of the main character. A few details will suffice.

Sketch details set in context work great, such as "she wore a short-brimmed hat over her straw hair and wide-toe flats beneath her pantsuit, so she looked more like a grumpy clown than the corporate attorney come to rattle our CEO's cage." That gives us enough physical elements to latch onto the woman while giving purpose and characterization to her presence.
Giving us a peek at a character physically is why doing it in first person can be so clunky.  You can't easily reveal it in dialogue, "Gee, Frank, you're so tall and dark and handsome!"  (Actually, that might work, in some circumstances.)  Mostly, we have to play with mirrors.

We need to do more than tell what the character look like, though, if we really want to grab a publisher (and our readers.)  Editor Devil goes on: 
But most of all we need a hook and a heart to the story. Just one or two lines to tell us her unique dilemma (hook) and why we should care (heart). Maybe even tell us what she’s after (goal). Most classes and books teach you to include the hook on page one, but they never mention including a heart. Or what I call the heart they call the character goal (either internal or external).
Okay, I know what a hook is:
Perhaps this is not what she meant.
Photo via Gourmet Yarn Co.
At least I know what Heart is:

This isn't it, either? (I don't care, I still love Ann & Nancy!  And musically, there's a very good hook in this song.)

Okay, back on point.  Hook and heart, as it applies to the opening of a story.
In fact, the heart is the only reason to care whether the character achieves any of their goals. Heart gives humanity to the book. And humanity, not the cleverness of a hook, endears the reader to the story. It gives readers emotional entrance not just mental entanglement.

Again, a hook is some unique character situation or problem that intrigues us, while a heart is something about that character’s plight or their situation that warms us and make us empathize with them. Because the modern reader won't wait till page 20 to get emotionally hooked into your story, you need to deliver hook and heart early. Agents and editors know this, and they want that meat on page one.

One of my students wrote a story with a woman arriving in a remote airport who finds she has no rental car. She's stuck. That's the crux of the first scene. I advised the author to layer in a hook and a heart and see how that transforms the character and her plight enough to propel a whole story. Otherwise, the scene's just a cranky woman stuck in an airport. Not a story builder.

Now, a woman having the best day of her life who finds out she's stuck at a remote airport in a third-world country with an orphan she just adopted, a child who needs a heart medication refilled ASAP... that’s a hook. And let’s say this woman is one of those Doctor Without Borders nurse volunteers who helps kids get surgeries. And let’s say that she’s been waiting to adopt since she discovered ten years ago that she can't have children, which broke up her first marriage. That's a woman we care about, a woman who deserves a little happiness of her own and we want to cheer her toward that goal. That’s a heart. Get it?
Find more great advice at The Editor Devil.  (She offers online classes, too!)

I realize, reading this, that perhaps part of why my latest novel isn't catching fire, though I'm getting "positive rejections"  (Writing Goddess is a good writer, BUT.... we don't want to buy this) is that I need to punch up both hook and heart factors as I introduce each character. 

Hoo-boy!  <rubbing my hands together>  Lots of good work ahead.

Does your work lack enough hook and heart
Does this give you ideas how to fix it?
Leave a comment, and let me know (and visit the ED site and thank her!)
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Friday, February 18, 2011

Guest Post: On Finding a Worthy Critique Partner

Stolen Borrowed from The Rejectionist   
Hey Rejectionist,

I am in a bit of a dilemma if you will. I can't find a critique partner worthy of my work.

Now let me explain before I make myself sound any more like a Pretentious Bitch.

Currently, I am in a critique group with people I love. I mean, these people are really great. But there are problems with this group.

1. They write all genres. YA, Horror, Sci-Fi ... nothing is off the table for anyone. So no one's particularly focused in any one style.

2. I don't write genre. My heroes win Prestigious Awards. One day, I want to win Prestigious Awards.


from Pretty Pink Unicorn Land
Ha ha! Oh, dearest Author-friend! You DO understand that asking us "where do I find the Ideal Reader" is sort of like asking us "what bar should I hang out in to meet The Great Love of My Life" or "in what city would I find the Perfect State of Enlightenment" or "is there something I can eat that would make me Realize My Fullest Potential, and can you tell me what it is, thank you." The Ideal Reader is like a fucking UNICORN, okay? You hang out in the forest for a couple hundred years and act REALLY AWESOME, and MAYBE you will get lucky. Brilliant editors are as rare, and as precious, as brilliant writers. Editing is a skill like no other, and it is a skill that very few people have. It requires one to be diagnostician, surgeon, and diplomat all at once; to see where it is a writer is going and why it is she is not getting there, AND the ability to explain this to her in a way that helps her move forward. Although many great editors are also great writers, hello Betsy Lerner, plenty of great editors are not great writers at all; they are not really gifts that have much to do with each other. 

However! That is not very useful to you, now, is it. Okay. Well. First, in your situation, which we have certainly been in, we would look deep into our secret heart and ask ourself if we are the proverbial Workshop Butthead. There is nothing WRONG with being Workshop Butthead. The Rejectionist is absolutely, truly, irredeemably Workshop Butthead (and is ALSO a Pretentious Bitch, now that you mention it). We have, as we mentioned on Wednesday, made people fucking CRY in workshops. PEOPLE as in PLURAL. There's not much you can do about it, if you are Workshop Butthead, but it is an important thing to know about yourself, because it means you have no business being in workshops. Here is the secret of workshops: you WILL encounter people who are terrible. TERRIBLE. Not just people you THINK are terrible; people who are OBJECTIVELY TERRIBLE. MFA, online, hometown writing group, middle of Brooklyn or middle of South Dakota, it doesn't matter. You will be exchanging your work with people who are terrible and who are not going to get better. And the unwritten contract you sign, when entering the Workshop, is that you will give their work the same attention and courtesy that they are giving yours. Even if YOU are not terrible in the least (in all fairness, back when we were in workshops, which was a Very Long Time Ago, we were pretty fucking terrible). The payoff for entering into this agreement is the optimistic assumption that, at some point, you will find someone whose feedback is useful to you--and make no mistake, it will have NOTHING TO DO with how good a writer they are, what kind of work they write, or what they read for fun. We mustn't EVER assume that someone cannot tell what makes a great story because s/he writes YA, or science fiction, or romance, okay? OKAY. Even if s/he writes GODAWFUL YA, or science fiction, or romance. Plenty of great stories ARE YA, or science fiction, or romance.

To read the rest of the article, click HERE.

I've been lucky enough, for the most part, to be working with people who are actually quite good at offering feedback.  I've also personally invested a fair amount (sometimes, an ungodly amount of time) into gathering together said people into said feedback group.  People willing to read one's work and offer suggestions, do not simply fall into one's lap; people willing to read who are excellent, are, in fact "like a fucking UNICORN" as the Rejectionist puts it.

from SupaNet - Bath Spa Universtity course
in Contemporary Circus and Physical Performance
Here's the thing.  If your goal is to SELL A BOOK (or a screenplay,) all feedback is useful, because, you're looking to sell it to everyone - aren't you? You're not looking for an audience solely made up of left-handed circus performers with Lithuanian fathers and Brazilian mothers, right?

So, if it doesn't grab the sci-fi writer or the young adult writer or the genre romance writer in your group, people who really and truly want to like your work... what makes you think the average reader browsing a Borders Barnes & Noble or Walmart will decide to buy it?  

Maybe the problem isn't that your readers don't understand your brilliance, maybe the problem is that your project needs work.

So, be grateful for what you have, and if you don't have, quite, what you need in terms of readers, follow The Rejectionist's excellent tips in the rest of the article for finding additional readers to polish your work.  Knowing that you are going to have to put in the energy, time and patient need to capture that Unicorn.

Much praise and pettings to the effing Unicorns I've found
(you know who you are.)

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Monday, February 14, 2011

Character is Destiny...

...and a character who uses lots of cliches, like that... could be dead boring, or excruciatingly funny.  How he talks, walks, looks, sneezes, whether he pets or kicks his dog, whether or not he and the other characters are interesting, will help the readers decide whether they want to stick with a book or screenplay, or pass on and go on to the next.

When I was lucky enough to hear D.C. Fontana speak at an AWG General Meeting, the thing she kept repeating was, "A story is about a character with a problem."

Not a person, mind you - although a character can be a person.  But the stories we become most emotionally invested in are about a character we hook into, somebody we are willing to spend time with.  We want to know if ET can phone home.  If Scarlett O'Hara can save Tara from the carpetbaggers.  If Elizabeth can get past her Prejudice and Mr. Darcy past his Pride.

This is what a lot of "plot-driven" movies and books are like:

Just a bunch of dressed up, identical figures being moved here, there, everywhere, by "the hand of God" as it were.  Now this one is blonde, now that one is wearing pants instead of a skirt, but they are never really connected to the action.

If you're writing a screenplay, you're asking moviegoers to invest 2-3 hours of their lives with your imaginary people.  A book - minimum 3-4 hours, probably more.  Why would they want to spend it with flat, boring, colorless people? 

This is why I'll never read another Dan Brown novel.  Name three distinct or interesting things about his lead character (not Tom Hanks, but the character played by Tom Hanks.)


Yep, thought so.

There's a lot more to character than physical appearance, though that's helpful to know, too.  Women should not all be Barbie dolls, interchangeable except for hair color, nor men tall and ruggedly handsome (except in genre romance, of course.)  Is a man short with a taste for tall leggy blondes?  How does that work for - and against him?

How about musical tastes?  Any personal characteristic can be used to further the plot - remember in A Clockwork Orange, how the character of Alex (played by Malcolm McDowell) loved Beethoven and had it turned against him as a punishment?

As writers, our characters are our children, and we need to know everything about them.  One helpful tool can be an organizer like this one.
from Jeremy Robinson's Screenplay Workbook
I use my worksheets all the time (and there's lots more good questions on the back, which I'm not showing here, plus tons of good info on plotting outlining.)  Some of this might not be known to us before we start writing, but as we write and the characters reveal themselves to us, we need to keep track of whether their daughter is named Melissa or Maleficent.  Names for our characters are very important; we can show a lot about where she comes from just by calling her Rosarita or Roseanne.

We can be surprised by what our characters reveal to us, "Wow, I never would have picked him to be a Catholic!"  Or the adult child of an alcoholic.  Or stocking his closet full of brown pants and blue shirts, a la Al Bundy, because someone once told him he looked good in blue.

Is our heroine struggling to get by, financially, dependent on an old car that's always breaking down?  Allergic to cats?  Envious of her gorgeous older sister?  Trying to quit biting her nails?  Even if not used as part of the plot, everything that we know about this character will help us write her as a rounded and full person.

The biggest payoff and interest comes about if the character's own strengths and weaknesses drive the plot.

From Writinghood:
Another important fact is that a truly well rounded hero must have a weakness. Writer John Ames states that, “There’s a law of fantasy and horror fiction that states: The hero must have just enough magic to fight back. A completely invulnerable character would be a dramatic dud because there would be no suspense when he or she was in danger.” A hero with no weakness is unbelievable and boring.
This is why James Bond has never done it for me.   James Bond is like Barbie for grown men - he looks pretty and has lots of nice clothes and fast shiny accessories, but in the end you know he's simply going to blow something up in a cinematically impressive way, and the bad guys will be foiled again.

The biggest mistake I see is when writers so closely identify with their characters they don't want to be mean to them.  They don't want to make them look foolish or unattractive or silly.


That's our jobOur job is to torture our characters and ridicule them and push them to find strengths they never knew they had.  We want our audience to understand the problem they face, and why it's so hard for them, to cheer for them to solve it, to groan when they fail, and really be cheering in the end when they solve it despite all their foibles and personal weaknesses - or perhaps, because of them.

So, what characters are you going to torture today?
Share about it in the comments, below.

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Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Pimp My Novel: Anatomy of an E-book

B & N's Nook - Color & Touchscreen

Stolen  Borrowed from Eric at Pimp My Novel:

"I've gotten a few questions from the more tech-oriented among you, fair readers, as to what, exactly, an e-book file looks like. So! Allow me to illuminate... the EPUB format.

If you're looking for the short (and somewhat inaccurate) story: The EPUB format is the industry standard, and the file is sort of like a zipped up website. The book itself is written in the same code used to write web pages, and fancier books have extra files zipped into the final package.

If you're not familiar with the idea of "zipping up" a file, just imagine it as packing up all the stuff in your room. Your unpacked room represents all the various files and formats you'd like in the finished product; the single box you end up with that contains everything from your room is the zipped-up file.

For the more involved (and more technically correct) story, a basic EPUB file consists of the following:

· A bunch of pages written in XHTML that contain the written content of the book;
· CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) to provide formatting;
· An XML file with the extension .opf that contains the book's metadata (title, the language it's written in, &c);
· An XML file with the extension .ncx that contains the book's hierarchical table of contents.

These last two XML files are what really separate an e-book from a website: they provide a linear structure to the book that require (for the most part) that it be read in a certain order. (Many books do contain hyperlinks and allow you to skip from page to page this way.)

Now, although EPUB is the standard by which the industry operates, not all e-book retailers use it (and those who do generally modify the files they receive from publishers or individuals to suit their particular standards). This is why e-books often look different from device to device.

for the rest of his article, go here: Pimp My Novel: Anatomy of an E-book:

Amazon Kindle with Lighted Cover
Eric goes on to explain why Kindle is its own snobby little beast, how coding systems doesn't always play nicely together, and why one format for all handheld devices is unlikely to appear any time soon.

I confess, I was a book-you-can-hold-in-your-hands holdout.  Then I moved.  And as I was hauling really heavy box #16 of books up a steep flight of stairs to my new apartment, my lower back killing me, the thought occurred, "Gee, maybe e-books wouldn't be so bad, after all."

Especially when I considered the twelve equally heavy boxes still waiting in the truck.  Because someday, I will want to move again, and I do tend to collect more books  <shudder!>

Now I have a Kindle, with a pretty blue cover just like the one in the picture, and "dead-tree" books, and... I'm digging the Kindle a lot more than I thought I would.  For a long trip, the Kindle is a no-brainer.  It means I can bring all the classics I mean to read, someday, like War and Peace, non-fiction, chick lit, in one snug little handful.  If I get bored, I can just just make another choice.  It feels "right" in the hands, and the page turning experience feels much like a "real" book.

Also, my agent has asked me to try writing some short e-books - and to know what to write, I needed to get an e-reader and familiarize myself with what's currently in e-book circulation.

This is not my bathtub. (Except in my dreams)
However, if I was in Australia, I'd  seriously consider staying here.

I still need "real" books to read in the bathtub, though.  Instinct and sad experience with other electrical devices  tell me that bubbles and Kindles won't play well together either.  While "dead-tree" books shouldn't be dunked in water either, at least they're salvageable if you do fall asleep in the tub.

What do you think about E-books?  Love 'em?  Hate 'em?  How are you reading yours?

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Friday, February 4, 2011

The Heroic Quest of Joan B.

Writers tend to admire lots of people.  This writer has a lacy, poetic style, that one virtually grabs your hand (note: grabs, not grasps, not gropes) and yanks you into a terror-filled adventure.  Another somehow manages to be simultaneously funny and poignant.  We read their work, we love it, and perhaps feel more than a little envious that they can express something in a writing style that we haven't mastered.

Image via Karen's Whimsy
I've always wanted to write sci-fi fantasy, but heroes need the right quest, and so far, there are no appropriate quest listings in the Craigslist of my mind.

There are other kinds of quests, though, and my friend Joan B. has been on a very long one.  At age 47, bright, talented, attractive, with an amazing variety of life experiences, she was on her way to a pitch meeting at Universal for a script she'd written about game wardens.  She knew it was an excellent script, and that her very original subject material would make a perfect made-for-TV movie.  Possibly even a series. 

If you're an as-yet unpublished screenwriter, you know that pitch meetings with legitimate producers are along the lines of finding the Holy Grail.

Joan never made the meeting, because she had a stroke.  Right in the ladies room, as she was changing clothes with her best friend Kate, who was also part of the pitch meeting.  Kate (also my hero - more on her in a future post) recognized what was going on, called Joan's neurologist (she'd been receiving treatment for migraines) and drove her to the hospital.  (Kate also called the producers to reschedule the meeting, because, of course, you do.)

Instead of battling to bring her script to life, Joan was battling to hang onto her own life.

But she's a fighter, and she did.  At first she couldn't speak, couldn't write, but after much hard work, Joan was back, almost to where she'd been, physically and mentally.  If her speech had lost a fraction of its old zip and speed, she could still communicate clearly and without much visible effort.

A little over a year later, and Joan was ready to go back to her day job, and immersed in writing again.

And then, the unthinkable.  Another stroke.

This time, sadly - and now it's been about fifteen years down the road - it didn't all come back.  Despite tremendous effort and much therapy.  The aphasia (difficulty in speaking, reading and writing) stuck this time, and although Joan's speech today is clearer than it was immediately after the second stroke, it's nowhere near her old fluency.  
from prozac1 at FreeDigitalImages

Her right side remained numb.  Joan can move that side of her body to a certain degree, but when you can't feel your hands, feet and such, they are very hard to control.

She learned to dress herself.  To drive again.  She learned to ride again (Joan, Kate, and Kate's husband Keith are all horsepeople,) and to care for her "babies" (foals) right down to cleaning the stalls.

And she learned to write again.

She re-learned to use a keyboard, and work the mouse with her left hand, although she used to be right-handed.

Like Laura Hillenbrand, who suffers from chronic fatigue syndrome, Joan can't simply sit at a keyboard and quickly bang out a paragraph or two.  Because of the numbness of her fingers, typing anything is a long, laborious process, and writing by hand is even worse.  Because her strokes affected the rhythm of her speech, the current speech-to-text technology doesn't work well for her.

Joan can write the words, the sentences, the flow of the story perfectly in her mind, but then the struggle begins.  She can visualize everything she wants to say, almost like reading this screen - but transferring it from inside her head to down on the page or screen is like trying to move the ball through the Green Bay Packers defensive line.  The aphasia sacks each sentence, tackles each word, although occasionally a few get through more easily than others.

Yet she writes.  And she writes well.

I have only two quibbles with Joan's writing:
  1. I don't get to read enough of it, because she too is a writer whose beautiful style I wish I could emulate.
  2. She makes me feel guilty for not putting more time and energy into my own writing for wussy, inconsequential reasons excuses.