Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Things I've learned lately about writing

1. Personalize queries. You hate getting those impersonal forms back, right? You love it when it sounds like there’s a real person at the other end, right? Well, do the same thing in your queries. (If you don’t know how to personalize something because you don’t know anything about that agent, well…maybe some homework is in order.) (Although true, if someone is extremely new, it can still be tricky.)

2. The plot development of everything jumping sideways. I forget whose blog I read this on first—but the idea is that somewhere after your inciting incident, when you’ve got your character moving forward and doing things—something completely unexpected happens that throws your MC’s plans in a different direction. (Yes, it still needs to fit logically within the book, at least if you have all knowledge, as the reader should by the end.) They discover a new element they hadn’t realized. They learn something new about someone that changes things. Etc. The book I just finished and am now revising was based on this idea, and I really like how it turned out. Plus, it keeps the plot from being stale: And then we went on a long, long journey to destroy the magical artifact that wanted to take over our minds. And then we battled the dragons in the way. And then we walked some more, so we could destroy the magical artifact. Etc. Boring! This technique livens things up beyond just a long, slow trudge to the end.

3. One model of worldbuilding involves laying out magical or real world skills/situations that, in the time of climax, your MC can use. Ie, the solution comes from the extraordinary tools the character already has rather than those skills just being window dressing. This idea is from a fabulous essay on magic systems by Brandon Sanderson (see my previous entry for a longer discussion and a link).

4. Piggybacking off of this idea is my own that if you make a character’s weaknesses become tools they can turn inside out and use as solutions in the end, you will give them an even sweeter victory.

5. Or, you may choose to take the Austen plot approach, discussed by Cheryl Klein, where the MC, in wanting something very much, acts to get it but doesn’t have the full knowledge they need. So they end up complicating the plot themselves, making the situation worse for themselves, to the point where part of the plot becomes solving that very problem. I think that characters’ actions should cause plot complications.

6. It’s always best to write those scenes that emotionally pin your work when they’re hot in your mind. A book I wrote and rewrote many, many times has one scene that is virtually unchanged from when I first set it down. It’s the one scene that readers (including hardened agents) respond to every time. True emotional punch is stronger even than lots of pretty word polishing. You can always polish. You can’t always catch that feeling.

7. When stuck on your revision, write a new book. Even if it’s completely unrelated, that new book just may teach yourself something about the old one. Mette Ivie Harrison has commented on this before—I believe she writes a whole new book before going back to revise the last one. Not sure I can write quite that fast, but even just starting a new one opens up new ideas in my head. I highly recommend it if you’re stuck!

What about you? What things have turned on lightbulbs for you in your writing lately?

Monday, November 22, 2010

On endings and payoffs

I've been reading Brandon Sanderson's middle grade action/adventure/humor series, Alcatraz versus the Evil Librarians, to my kids. We just finished the third book, and I'm still taking apart the solution/payoff to that last book in my mind. (For those who have read it, the Himalayan kickboxing scene.) The books are funny and seemingly chaotic and rather chatty--which drove me crazy the first time I read them, but somehow on subsequent reads I've become very much hooked. The thing is, they're not chaotic at all. In the midst of all that seeming chaos and chattiness are actual plot points and character clues.

Sanderson's known for his intricate magic systems--and while this book is meant to be light and funny, the same skill shines through here. To get to that kickboxing scene, he had to use stuff he planted over the course of at least two books, things that seem completely unrelated and random. But just as Alcatraz learns to power his Talent (the unusual ability to break things, sometimes spectacularly) at a distance and to conduct it through other material, Sanderson does that with plot/structure. Somehow you get to the climax and find everything's lined up, and all Sanderson has to do is activate it. The solution is a surprise and at the same time, it's been there all along. Plus, the payoff is great regarding the characters. It's really extremely well done!

Because I'm trying to set up clues and solutions and a payoff in the book I'm drafting right now, I naturally started analyzing this. I hopped over to Sanderson's site and found this fascinating essay on magic systems. The thing is, though, it doesn't just apply to magic systems. It's really how he deals with plot.

Basically, there are two ways to look at fantasy setups and solutions. One (what he calls "soft magic") uses the magic as sort of atmosphere, and the plot solutions come from real things anybody could do, magic or not. The other, which he calls "hard magic," is where the magic rules are laid out very clearly, like tools, and the MC uses the tools at his/her disposal (ie magic we know about) to solve the problem. The point is, instead of springing new, surprise powers on the MC in their time of need, the MC has to scramble for whatever they've got on hand. Like the here-are-five-ingredients-now-make-a-gourmet-meal-of-them sort of show. So the ingredients aren't a surprise, but the final outcome is. Which is very satisfying.

What I'd add to this is that if the tools you combine to solve that problem are actually past failures, the payoff is going to be even sweeter. So, take the first book in this series. Alcatraz has gone from foster home to foster home, pushed around and abandoned because he always breaks stuff, and people can't take it. But then, he learns it's a Talent--and so when he uses it to solve a problem, it's a triumph. Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson does this, too. He goes from school to school, always having problems because of his ADHD. And then--it turns out he has this because it's all part of his half blood survival makeup. It makes him good at fighting monsters. Those are sort of along the way sorts of developments, but think of how Harry Potter finally defeats Voldemort. (Um, hopefully this isn't a spoiler to anyone...) He uses the spell everyone gets onto him for, the spell he's always used instead of killing someone, the spell people sort of think is a weak copout. (Actually, HP uses both hard and soft magic for the ultimate climax--the first part of Harry's confrontation explicitly doesn't involve magic at all. The combination of both of these, I suppose, sort of makes it the amazing adventure/fantasy/human story it is.)

So when you're looking for ways to solve the problem you've painted yourself into, take a look at what tools your MC has built up over the course of the book. Look particularly at their failures. What new and surprising--yet inevitable--solutions can you come up with based on these tools?

Monday, November 15, 2010


Mostly I record general things I'm learning about writing on this blog, or reflections on literature, or other book-related ideas. I don't just talk about writing, though--I actually write as well. I'm quite excited about my current project. I am not a superfast writer (I have five small kids, for starters), but I'm making good progress. It's a middle grade action adventure book set in Idaho, and some of the research I need to do involves the Large Hadron Collider. Fun, huh? My 10 year old tells me that for a book to be truly good, it needs at least five explosions, so I'm trying to work that in as well. I figure he should know, being the target audience and all.

When I was small, I used to be sad that somehow my sister ended up with an imaginary friend, but I never had one. Now I realize that I may have been premature in my assumptions. It's always exciting to realize it's not over. I love the characters in my other books, but it's always fun to meet new ones, and to realize that that magic process of bringing them to life is a repeatable one.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Illustration portfolio

There is always a lot of confusion about illustrations among people who have just gotten the idea to write a picture book. Just so you know, you do NOT submit your work to an editor or agent along with pictures. You do not need to draw your own, get your child to draw for you, or hire an illustrator yourself. This looks horribly amateur and clueless. It is not how the industry works. The illustrators are professionals who have actually gone to college and gotten a degree in illustration and design. They make a living at this. If you don't think you could make a living at illustration alone, then that should be a sign to you that you should not attempt your own illustrations. What happens with real books and real publishers is that you submit your picture book text to an editor, and assuming they like it and buy it, you do some rounds of revision with the editor and then they pair your text with an illustrator that THEY hire. Illustrators, you see, send samples of their work to publishers they'd like to work with, and when an art director likes it, they'll keep it on file and when the right text comes up, the publisher will pair the two.

Now, let's say you ARE sufficiently skilled to do your own illustrations, whether you've been to art school of some kind or not. I still see people posting portfolios on line that have seriously, nothing to do with children's illustration. It's a bunch of stuff they drew in art school, and maybe it was appropriate for the class they took, but it's not targeted to a children's book publisher. Allow me to direct you to a fabulous post on what you SHOULD include if you want to build an attractive portfolio for children's books. Jennifer Laughran is an agent at a top agency specializing in children's books, and she knows of which she speaks. Listen to her and learn! :)

Monday, April 19, 2010

Why you should not fear editing

Occasionally I admit to people I know that I am a writer. Generally this is either because I can sort of tell they must be kindred writers, or because I need to explain just exactly what I do all day. Most of the people I tell this to don't have a clear understanding of how publishing works, however. Some of them think that the writer is supposed to pay for all this. Some have maybe forked over cash to a vanity publisher. Some have maybe done some self-publishing (not the same thing, although self-publishing is NOT traditional publishing, either). Some are beyond me and have maybe just gotten pages and pages of editorial notes and are wondering if the editor who bought the story really wanted that one at all? The thing that many of the self-published writers I know are most worried about is that some editor is going to go in and change their stuff, tell them what's wrong, and the work will no longer be wholly theirs.

I can sort of understand this fear. I am reasonably skilled at drawing (by "reasonably skilled," I mean I have won art contests that funded some of my college education, sold illustrations, and was even a studio art major for about a year and a half, until I realized that words were more my thing). Something I learned early on is not to draw on other people's art. Let them do their page, and you do yours. Book illustration, of course, is subject to editing just as writing is. But painting is more of an individual event where you channel your glorious muse into your own personal creation.

Well, publishing isn't like that. Publishing is more like building a house. The design is still yours, but there are other people involved to double-check and make sure your house doesn’t fall down. If the paint job is great but your house is built on land that won’t drain, it will soon flood and rot away. You need that percolation test first. Editors (and critiquers) are people who test your idea along the way to make sure that your idea won't fall down at the first stress it meets. They're there to let you know where it's confusing, where Suzie's eyes turned from brown to green, to let you know what is physically or logically possible/impossible for her to do, according to the rules you've laid out in your story. They are not madmen swinging axes at your dream house. They want your house to not only look nice, but to survive a hurricane of readers all coming from different places. They want to help you so that the message you are sending is by and large the one that readers are getting. They let you know of possible problems. Then it's your job to figure out how to fix them. "But!" you cry. "They think I should put George on a motorcycle and give him piercings, and he isn't like that! He'd rather sit on the porch, listening to opera." Well, maybe the suggested solution is way off, in your mind, from what's really going on. But the suggestion is still helpful because it lets you know that your idea isn't getting across yet. That's when you go in and rev up the opera aspect, making it clear to the reader what's really going on in your book.

Recently I used Word 2007's combine document feature to compare my latest draft of a book with my very earliest. I knew it had changed (it's nearly 30,000 words shorter, for one thing), but I was amazed at just how different it had become when I saw pages and pages and pages go by before finding, here and there, an original word left. And yet--after all those critiques and drafts and suggestions, I feel like it's the version most representative of my original idea.

So don't be afraid of editing. When you're done, you'll see that your story will be yours more than ever. Really!