Monthly Archives: July 2011

Novel Pitching Made Easy

*taps glass*

I have an announcement.  A discovery, actually.  An epiphany that will make pitching your novel easy peasy.

Dear Daughter has been away at speech camp.  Yeah, they actually have such a thing, and it’s more rigorous than one can imagine.  Just last night, she had a four-hour-long, one-on-one coaching session from 7 to 11 pm.  That’s coming off a 7am start and a jam-packed day of speech prep.  Day five.

After a midnight text exchange–with her bouncing intro ideas off me–and another text session beginning at five thirty this morning, we finally pinned down her introduction.

And guess what?  It’s an awful lot like pitching your novel.  In theory, anyway.

The pitch (aka, DD’s speech intro) has the sole purpose of intriguing our potential agents/editors/readers.  We have, like, twelve seconds to nab their attention.  Gnats live longer than the attention spans of those we are pitching to.

A dry summary of our book is not gonna do it.  Five words in and our potentials will be wondering who’s going to text them next, or what they’re going to eat for lunch, or why we’re wasting their air space with useless words. 

The pitch has to grab them from word one, pull them into the story and make them want to read.  The last thing we want them to think is, “So what?  Why should I care?”

 And that’s exactly what DD’s speech coaches said yesterday with every intro she brought to them.  “So what?  Why should I keep listening to you?”

Ouch.

But for me, it really hit home, and I learned a thing or two that could help you when writing your pitch–whether it’s for a pitch conference or the beginning hook of your query letter.

Here’s what I think I know about the elusive pitch.

  • A pitch has to stand out from the crowd.  At a speech tourney, the judges hear dozens of speeches throughout the day.  In the writing world, agents and editors receive dozens–if not hundreds–of queries a day.  If they all started exactly the same…well, I don’t need to expound on that.
  • A pitch has to make a personal connection, whether through content, voice or unique phrasing.  At a speech tourney, it’s easy to let your mind wander to the clock, the glass of water in front of you or what the speechie is wearing.  In the writing world, it’s even easier to hit the delete key and move on to the next query that doesn’t hold your attention.
  • A pitch has to flow.  Every word must roll together, like a wave drawing a swimmer away from the shore.  It must be fluid and lyrical, and above all else,  crystal clear.  The minute you leave a speech judge or an editor scratching his head, wondering what in the heck you just said, you’ve lost your forward momentum.

…and the things that might help when writing one.

  • Find a unique bent.  First, sum up your novel in a few words.  (DD’s speech novel: it’s about a girl who gets addicted to drugs, is depressed and struggles to find herself.)  This theme is tired.  Hibernate for the winter exhausted.  So, your next step is to absolutely pin down what makes your novel different. (The loss of morality and the ease in which we can lose our moral compass.  How easy it is to blur the lines until they are so wide we no longer see what is wrong.)
  • Make a connection.  Consider your audience.  Why are you pitching them?  What makes each agent a good fit for your book?  Why will your future readers want to read your novel?  Once you uncover the nature of your audience, you can begin to make your pitch relevant.  In the case of DD’s speech: we have all blurred our moral lines.  Even I swiped a cute little butter dish from a restaurant once because we forgot a water dish for our puppy.  Not a proud moment, but relevant in context of DD’s speech.  If I were an agent, editor or judge at a tourney, my attention would be grabbed by a pitch that brought to light my own guilt.  Suddenly, I have an interest in hearing about the downward spiral from a simple misstep to a life of addiction and pain.
  • Make your words sing.  For speeches and pitch conferences, we literally speak out loud to our audience.  Our words must be fluid and  fresh.  They must entice us with their rhythm and leave little doubt in our mind about the message we are presenting.  In queries, we must show potential readers that we are capable of creating solid prose on paper with no words wasted.  Our written voice must be as compelling as our spoken one.

Consider these two versions of DD’s intro.

We all make mistakes, and when we do, the consequences can be devestating.  Crossing a moral line can lead to drug use and alcohol addiction.  This is what happened to (insert author’s name) in (insert title here). 

versus

Have you ever felt your morals slip?  Taken one step to the left of the line when you should have gone right?  It starts innocently enough.  A kiss that lasts too long—who was that guy anyway?  One drink too many or a quick toke on a MaryJane—after all, pot’s not a gateway drug.  Or how about that super cool glass at the restaurant?  Yeah, you know the one.  It’s in your cupboard now. 

Have you ever felt your morals slip?  If you have, watch out for the downward spiral.  It happens.  Drugs, alcohol, theft and one bed too many.  Before you know it, you’re addicted, (insert title here that actually flows with the sentence), a memoir by (insert authorn).

See what a difference word choice makes?

Have you ever pitched your novel live?  If so, share your tips for success.  Query writers: have you ever taken your audience into consideration when writing your query?  I mean really paid attention to who they are and what they like so you can connect with them better?

Curious minds want to know.

Absent Writer. Busy Writing.

It’s always great when stories come together.  Great for writing on the WIP that is.  Not so fabulous for the blogging.

And so, I will continue writing and see you when the muse slows down.

hugs~

I had a dream: the writing life

Last night I had a terrifying dream.  It was so real my lungs closed up and my limbs became paralyzed.  Even after waking, I couldn’t shake the physical affects of my nightmare’s ghostly grip.

I love dreams–even the scary ones.  I love living in them, directing them (I’m a lucid dreamer) and remembering them upon waking.  I also love writing about them.  In fact, my first paid byline came from a dream.  I woke up, wrote furiously and subbed my short story. 

Sorry for the short post, but my fingers are itching to hit the keyboards and bring my dream characters to life.

And so I ask, dear friends, how do you dream?  Are your dreams vivid and realistic to the point of pleasure or pain?  Do you remember them in full upon waking or do they slip away into the morning mist?  Can you lucid dream?

Fellow scribes: have your dreams ever prompted you to put pen to paper?  How successful were you at this?  What difficulties do you face when translating dreams into stories?

Curious minds want to know.

Forced Schedules: Writing Pitfall #27

As many of you know, we own an eccentric puppy.  To her, socks = crack.  When she eats too many she gets a tummy ache.  Being a highly vocal dog, she moans–yes, sick dogs moan just like sick husbands–and rolls around in her kennel, milking her discomfort for all it’s worth.

She’s also not housebroken yet.  I am.

Sock Dog is a finished hunting dog.   This means she came to us fully trained.  She brought all her year-old quirks with her as well.  The most frustrating is her complete lack of bathroom etiquette.  Having been kenneled outside throughout her short life, she could stop mid-anything to go potty.  She never learned that front yard grass is more appropriate to piddle on than a white living room carpet.

So, I get up from my writing at various intervals throughout the day to let her outside.  I stand in the yard and croon to her, begging her to please quit chasing ladybugs so we can go back inside.  And when she’s done, my “such-a-good-girl-go-potty” praises can be heard blocks away.

We tromp back in where she plops down on the carpet, curls her lips at me in contentment and heaves a huge sigh.  “Such-a-good-owner-I-got-you-trained.”

And she does.  I hate cleaning up piddle spots and she knows it.  I’ve created a schedule for her based on when I think she should go potty.  I’d love to hear her take on this, though I can guess based on the smug smirk she gives me as she dilly-dallies around and my muse begins to wander. 

Writers are also guilty of this forced scheduling.  We don’t want too many messes to clean up, so we direct our characters’ actions.  We steer them to perform the way we want them to in an attempt to tidy up all the loose ends and resolve the conflict.  We write what’s convenient, rather than allowing ourselves to be interrupted.

In other words, we intrude on the story and feed our characters the right info at the right time and unleash them outside when we deem they are ready–when it works for the plot.  Chapter 7, Chapter 16 and Chapter 23.

Sadly, we fall victim to Writing Pitfall #27.  The one where we are housebroken, not our manuscripts.  The one where we force the writing to perform on our timeframe rather than allow it to unfold naturally. 

Personally, I would prefer if Sock Dog whined to be let out instead of piddling on the floor minutes after I let her back in.  In this same way, I prefer to let my characters take the lead in the story.  I want an organic feel to my manuscripts.  Too often, I read stories that feel forced.  As if things happen because the author needs them to happen. 

I try really hard to practice what I preach.  At one point in my YA, my MC acted on her own behalf and dragged another character out the door with her. 

“Noooo!  What are you doing?” I shouted at her–I guess I’m vocal too.  I had no place for the drunk girl in my manuscript and I considered taking her out of the apartment altogether.

It wasn’t until after I let her stay that I realized my MC had remained true to her character.  She acted on her natural impulse rather than let me direct her actions via the delete key.  My story is much stronger because of it. 

So, dear friends, how do you write?  Do you follow a strict guideline to make sure you input all the proper info at exactly the right time, or do you allow the story to control the timing?  What are the pros and cons to each of these types of writing?  Is housebreaking a manuscript even a good thing or are we better off minimizing the chaos by adhering to a more structured form of writing?

Curious minds want to know.

The Element of Surprise: popping beetles and plot twists

Our home has been invaded.  With four kids (and their friends), two dogs and a handful of overnight guests, our door is opened more often than a drive-thru window at Mickey D’s. 

This morning a lone lightning bug reconned through the kitchen in search of a way out.  Yesterday, I scooped up a very cute spider and transported him to the deck where the mosquito population explodes at dusk.  I’ve also noticed a new kind of beetle.  It’s small and black and really kind of unassuming.  At least until I tried to pick it up.

As soon as my fingers/paper/twig appeared in front of it, this tiny creature sucked its legs underneath it.  After about three seconds, it popped into the air with an audible click.  Not that it’s ready for the Olympics, but my popping beetle has quite the vertical.  It cleared a good two inches.

The first time I tried to save one, his behavior made me jump–just slightly higher than he–and curse–a very mild expletive of shock, followed by delight. 

This element of surprise is crucial in all writing.  I repeat–ALL writing.

Surprise isn’t just for mystery novels.  Every piece of fiction should have some element of surprise or it’s not worth reading.  At least in my humble opinion.  The reason is thus: if I already know the ending, there is no point in reading.  If I will not be shocked, surprised and delighted along the way, I simply cannot justify the time it takes to read a story from beginning to end. 

Instead, I want to be drawn to a plot/sub plot like I was to the beetle.  I want to put my nose right up next to it, feeling like I have the upper hand and am in complete control, only to ooh and aaah (or mildly curse) when the unexpected happens. 

I like to shout, “No, NO, Noooo!” as characters fall victim to imaginative plot twists.  I revel in the tightening of my gut or the sudden urge to laugh or cry that accompanies a scene gone wrong–or unexpectedly right.  I hope to be blind-sided by delights and disappointments and love more than anything when I am.

How about you?  As a reader, do you like formulaic books where the outcome is suspected in chapter one and confirmed by the end of the novel?  Or, do you like to read a story that takes you through a series of twists and turns, only to take your breath away with an, “Oh my God, I can’t believe that just happened!” ending?

As a writer, how do you surprise your readers?  And more importantly, how do you keep your plot twists relevant and logical? 

Curious minds want to know!

Psychological Writing Series: Loyalty

Loyalty: the last character trait and personality quirk I’ll throw at you–for now.

As I child, our frequent moves resulted in me being the “new kid” more often than not.  Because of this, I learned to leave friendships with relative ease.  It was a survival skill that has a backlash into my adulthood.

Don’t get me wrong, I adore my friends.  Relationships are extremely important to me and I enjoy the company of others.  I’m a people person in many ways.  I would do anything within my power for my friends and would suffer their greatest woes if I could.  However, when it’s time to make the next move, I can disconnect so completely that it’s downright scary.

I hate to think this quirk, forced on me by childhood events to protect myself from the pain of loss, makes me less loyal than individuals who grew up in diapers alongside another. 

So what is loyalty?  By definition, it is a feeling of attachment, responsibility, devotion or duty.  It is the state of being loyal.

But what, exactly, does this mean?

In literature, we adore loyal characters and feel betrayed when our beloved literary friends walk out on one another.  We tend to view them as having no virtue.  Yet nowhere in any definition of loyalty did I find a stated length of devotion, attachment or sense of duty. 

In dictionaries across the web (and even the huge, hard-bound, blue one of my childhood) loyalty is defined in terms of intensity rather than duration.

Christopher Robin is a devoted, loving and supportive friend to the Hundred Acre Wood crew–until he grows up and leaves behind his make-believe world.  The fact that he eventually leaves behind these friendships does not diminish the intensity of his loyalty at the time.

On the flip-side, Pooh would have given every last bit of fluff for Christopher even after CR left the woods.  Pooh’s devotion extended above and beyond his friend’s need.  Yet both of these characters would be considered loyal almost to a fault. 

In THE HUNGER GAMES, Peeta is fiercely loyal to Katniss and puts himself at great risk to keep her safe.  Katniss, on the other hand, is driven by her will to survive and keep her promise to her little sister–the one who own’s Katniss’s loyalty.  As much as I adored Katniss in this book, she was not loyal to Peeta.  Not emotionally, anyways. 

She cared about and for him, but Peeta never earned Katniss’s unfailing emotional devotion.  Instead, he incited her strong sense of responsibility based on her own guilt.  By definition this is still loyalty and yet it feels sullied to me.  Not pure.  Maybe because there was motivation behind her sense of duty and love.

Dissecting the relationship between Peeta and Katniss makes me question the reasons behind our friendships and the way we attach meaning to loyalty.  As readers and writers, we extend our own values onto another’s intentions.

We declare that someone can’t possibly be loyal if they walk away.  But what if walking away is the right thing to do to best protect and love the one we are devoted to?  We diminish an individual’s value as a loyal friend if they hurt us in some way.  Yet I’ve never read anywhere that hurting someone breaches loyalty.  In fact, I’m sure I hurt my Dear Hubby every day and I’m fiercely loyal to him.  In the same way, we brush away loyalty that comes out of necessity and not love.

But loyalty is how an individual feels.  Not always how those feelings manifest themselves physically.  At least in my humble opinion.

What is yours?   Does the reason behind loyalty matter?  How does the duration of a relationship impact the sense of loyalty one feels?  Are there degrees of loyalty based on the type of relationship people share?  Is one motive more acceptable than others?

Curious minds want to know.

Psychological Writing Series: Honesty and Truth

I know, I know.  You’re learning way too much about moi through this series, but please bear with me.  And promise not to hold any of my childhood naughtiness against me, as I have learned some restraint in the intervening years.

Honesty.  Or rather the lack of it–as my story goes.

I was the world’s biggest liar as a kid. 

“Did you lose your earring?”  Nope.  Really, that’s not it in the heater vent where I dropped it two days ago.  Even if it looks exactly the same as the one in my ear right now.  Even if I spent hours trying to fish it out before you noticed it was missing.

I lied my way into and out of things.  I also lied myself into the corner more often than I could count.  Seriously.  I might as well have had my name on the living room corner for all the time I spent with my nose in it.

According to Merriam-Webster, honesty is “adherence to the facts: sincerity.”  I could argue this point, as I was very sincere in every one of my lies.  But if I don’t try to twist the definition, it really comes down to this: honesty equals the truth. 

 Or does it?

I’ve worked as a child advocate for many years and the most eye-opening thing I’ve learned is this: there is no such thing as absolute truth.  Instead, we all bring our experiences to the table when we interpret and remember the facts of an incident. 

Example: ask five witnesses to a crime the same exact question and you will get five variations of the “facts.”  Sometimes these factual accounts can differ so tremendously as to ring false.  Yet each witness is providing the absolute truth–according to them.

Confused yet?

I’ll simplify.  Remember back to the last disagreement you had with your significant other, parent or friend.  Now, what happened?  That’s right, really think about what happened.  Try to remember the exact words that were used. Where you were standing.  How you crossed your arms over your chest or tapped your foot. 

Now what does that look like from your adversary’s perspective?  Will s/he remember the exact same words, the places you both stood, how you looked and what you did?  Maybe they didn’t watch your toe tap, but noticed the ear tug and scrunching eyebrows.

Did someone see or hear this conflict?  I bet s/he remembers something else as well.

And yet when recounting the incident, you will all swear your version is true because that’s what you remember. For realsies, people cannot recount the absolute truth.  Our personalities, past experiences, moods and focus all affect how we see and feel things at any given time.  I call this personal truth.

Conflicting personal truths can make navigating relationships extremely difficult both in real life and in fiction.  Especially when each party is sincere in his/her version of the truth.

Often, however, confused is what we want our characters to feel.  In romance novels, it benefits us to have our characters misinterpret intentions.  In thrillers, we need to plant seeds of doubt in our MC’s mind about what is happening and how it happened.  This confusion creates conflict.

As writers, it is our job to know the facts of our tale.  Only then can we effectively allow our characters to bend the truth to fit their life experiences and personalities.  When each character is sincere and honest in their version of events, our stories retain natural conflict just like in real life.  And this, my fellow scribes, is the absolute truth.

Does recounting a personal truth make someone a liar?  How do we, as writers, learn to see all the variations one truth has to offer?  How do we reconcile this for our characters and, in real life, for ourselves?  Can the ability to understand the inherent falsity of truth make us more honest?

Curious minds want to know.

PS: my spellchecker isn’t working at the moment, so please forgive any typos!

Personality Post on From the Write Angle

Please join me on From the Write Angle for a post on Nature and Nuture as I continue discussing the psychology of creating characters.

Thanks so much and see you back here tomorrow with another post  on my Psychological Writing Series.

hugs~

Psychological Writing Series: Integrity

My absolute favorite quote comes from William Backus.  In TELLING EACH OTHER THE TRUTH, he writes:

“The concept behind personal integrity is wholeness. When a person is the same without as within, when what others know about him is the same truth he knows about himself, he has integrity.”
 
I love the poetry of these words and the very clear message they send.  Personal integrity is acting out what you believe and believing what you do.  It is honesty at its finest.
 
As a child, I distinctly remember The Summer.  The one where I got caught snarking behind someone’s back.  My sister and I were visiting rellies.  Our aunt and uncle took us to visit extended family on the other side of the relations. 
 
We’d done it before and I loved the experience.  Okay, I loved the bologna sandwiches my uncle’s dad made.  He put lettuce in them and it rocked my socks off.  What I didn’t love was my uncle’s little sister.  For the life of me, I can’t remember why.  Likely it was me being a booger and not through any fault of her own. 
 
Yet, this didn’t stop me from complaining about her to my sister–in private.  I guess I didn’t realize that hiding behind a camper in the dark wasn’t private, because my aunt over-heard and I got my rear end chewed.
 
I learned a valuable lesson that day.  If you don’t have the guts to say something to the person’s face, you have no business saying it at all.  Apparently I hadn’t taken Thumper’s mom seriously and needed to learn this through my own embarrassment and humiliation.
 
Integrity.  Who am I and does the inside match the outside?
 
Lack of integrity is probably the easiest conflict we can give our characters.  Learning it through the events of a story can help our characters change and grow.  Losing it can create more conflict than we have imaginations to capture on paper.
 
INTEGRITY QUESTIONS TO PONDER
  • Can a person have integrity and still be villainous, or does integrity always mean being good?
  • Do you agree with Mr. Backus and his definition of integrity?  If not, how would you change it?
  • Can you compromise your integrity and still have it?
  • What if you are better on the inside than you show the world?  If these two don’t match, can you still be considered as having integrity?  What if the opposite is true?
  • And does it really matter if you truly have integrity or just fake it?

I like the idea of wholeness in the characters I write.  It gives me boundaries to work with so I know how they will react much of the time.  For example: my current chapter book MC only believes in the facts.  Whimsy has no place in her life.  Therefore, when she’s asked a question, her answer is always the unadulterated truth.   Makes it easy for me as a writer…not so easy for her to live with the consequences.

In my young adult novel, my MC had ideals about who she was.  They didn’t match with what she showed the real world.  Striving to reach this place in her life drove her to seek painful answers.  Her desire for integrity (and self-preservation) motivated her. 

Likewise, the antagonist in my YA exuded a smooth exterior, yet was hideous on the inside.  To make his nasty deeds ring true, I had to show small fissures in his exterior all the way through.  The hints were subtle, but there.  In this way, readers are more willing to accept the outcome.

Good, bad or indifferent, writers must maintain consistency in their characters’ behavior.  By keeping in mind the wholeness that comes along with integrity, we can create strong characters with depth.  Also, when we challenge their personal integrity, we can ramp up the conflict within our stories on an internal level that rivals any external difficulties our characters may face.

How do you use integrity to create physical conflict for your characters?  How do you challenge your character’s inner sense of integrity?  What literary examples do you have of characters with strong integrity? 

Lastly, can a good character lack integrity?

Curious minds want to know.

Psychological Writing Series: Honor

Once upon a time, I provided child care as my day job.  It allowed to me to stay home and raise my family in the way I wanted to.  After all, I had a lifetime ahead of me to work.

When my oldest kids were about four and two, I had taken my little crew of daycare children on a field trip to the store.  After purchasing our items, we prepared to leave.  Just before we walked out, the dismal sky opened up in a torrential downpour.  While I debated whether to wait it out or drag six kids into the rain, the tornado sirens went off.

We hustled back inside and gathered with the other patrons in the home goods’ section.  We cuddled pillows and prepared to pull sleeping bags over our heads to protect us from the impending disaster.

The news reported the path of the tornado over the loudspeakers. 

“…sighting four miles from town…”

“…touched down…”

“…two miles and moving fast…”

All the while, I sat on the floor with six kids in the circle of my outstretched legs.  On the outside, I talked with them, sang to them and laughed with them.  But inside, I wrestled with the greatest question of my life.

If the tornado hit the store, which children would I hold onto the tightest?  Would I hug my two babies to my chest and pray that the other four wouldn’t get swept away?  Or, would I cling to the four children in my care who didn’t have their own parents to protect them and ask God to save my own when I didn’t have the ability to do it myself?

And where is the honor in any of those answers?

Honor = integrity, respect and adherence to ethical standards.

Honor can be a huge motivator for the characters we love.  And yet, it often feels stilted, as if the writer tried too hard to make his character too noble, too good, too perfect. 

Readers often scream, “No way.  She’d never do that.” 

What we really mean is, “No way.  I’d never do that.”

You see, people are inherently flawed.  We are selfish and proprietary where our wants and needs are concerned.  It is very hard for us to set aside what we desire to do something honorable.  It’s counter-intuitive to be a loving parent and hold onto someone else’s children.  Yet, it’s unethical to vow to protect another’s child and fail to do the absolute most you can when danger swoops down from the sky.

But people do make hard choices in life and honor often leads the way.  We have firemen who walk into burning buildings.  We have police officers who take a bullet and we have everyday citizens who step forward to rescue others at grave danger to themselves. 

Honor is making a name for yourself and adhering to the standard you set out to achieve.  Sometimes we do this unintentionally and don’t even realize that living up to that name is nearly impossible.  Whose children do we hold onto, indeed?

The more integrity a character has, the more she has to lose.  This makes for great conflict in a novel.  Likewise, the realization that a seemingly average character has honor can drive a novel forward and create a satisfying climax…but only if done well.

I think too often, we have honorable characters without other flaws.  Nobody loves a goody-two-shoes in real life, and having a perfect MC will do nothing but incite a riot in our readers.  On the other hand, suddenly allowing our MCs to jump through burning hoops and plow through blizzards in a t-shirt without laying the groundwork will ring false and have readers tossing our novels in disgust.   

Readers: who is the most honorable character you’ve ever read and why do you think so?  Is it possible to have a fabulous novel with an outstanding and lovable Main Character who is not honorable?

Writers: what tips do you have for balancing a character’s personality to include a strong sense of honor?  How can we create believable honor in an unexpected hero?

All: Whose children would have gotten the tightest grip from you?  (You don’t really need to answer this.)  Is honor even possible in a situation where no matter what you choose the consequences will lead to heartache?

Curious minds want to know.