Let’s Talk about Stet, Baby

Or, revision in general, really, is what I want to hit on. Because no one really teaches us how to do it, and it’s the most important part of writing.

Because what is it, really? You’ve already “finished” your novel, so maybe revisions are just about moving commas around and changing some dialogue and maybe cutting a paragraph or line here and there. Yes. It’s those things. And it’s SO MUCH MORE.

Here’s the analogy I like to use: Your book is a house you built out of Legos. Your editor looks at it, and tells you there are some things missing or not working, and hands you over a whole new pile of Legos. Your job isn’t to stick the new bricks all over the outside of what you’ve already built. That’s not going to fix anything, really, and in most cases will make things worse. Your job is to completely take apart what you’ve built to incorporate the new stuff. Not all of it will fit, and some of what you’ve already got will have to go to make way for the new pieces, but in the end, the whole structure will be stronger and more aesthetically pleasing.

Often when I’m doing face to face critiques, I’ll tell a writer something that their manuscript needs and they will point to the printout and say “where should I put that?” as though I’ve told them their room needs and end table, to extend the house metaphor. And that’s when I know I’m dealing with someone who doesn’t fully grasp revision. I can’t tell you what to put where to fix things, because it’s not that easy. As the writer, you must consider the new pieces and think about shifting things around to make it work as a whole.

And you may have to do it 3 or 4 times before you submit your work to an agent. And then you might have to do it 2 or 3 times before your agent sends it out. And then you’ll have to do it 3 or 4 or 8 times with your editor. And all of that renovating is before the line editing, where you finally get to move commas and tweak dialogue (painting and floor waxing and choosing fixtures). And after that is copyediting (dusting and vacuuming and filling vases with fresh flowers before company comes over). And only then do you get to say “stet”.

After all, Rome, or houses, or Lego houses, weren’t built in a day.

Who Are You?

So many picture book manuscripts begin with a character introducing her-or-himself.

My name is Jiminy and I’m 5 years old! I love chimichangas!

With only a few exceptions, very few books begin this way. I mean, this is how we make new friends, right? We introduce ourselves and maybe share a few details about what we like. But how often do we walk away from that meeting thinking  “that is a person I can’t wait to climb a mountain with? She really gets me.” For me, it’s rare. Comparing things we have in common is baseline acquaintance stuff. I mean, we all like Kimmy Schmidt, right? But I’m not writing you into my will because of it.

The more interesting conversations and meaningful friendships are ones in which we relate to something deeper that our new friend has experienced and subsequently shared. In books, real emotional connections are formed when people feel like they’ve been in the shoes of the protagonist (whether kid, adult, or chicken).

The best picture books are not just about a character and a list of their traits, or a list of things they did that day. They are about a person who is growing and changing and having experiences and reacting to those things and getting feelings and then dealing with those feelings.*

As you draft your picture book, think about who the protagonist is, and what they are like after you’ve hung out with them for a year or two, instead of who they are on the first meeting. Your book will make a much more lasting impression on readers who think of the character as an important friend.

 

*Yes, this goes for non-fiction too.

YA Fantasy Titles

To make a YA fantasy title that fits into today’s market, all you have to do is pick two of the following words, separating them with either and or of:

Ashes    Blood     Bone     Crown

Crow    Forest     Fortune     Glass

Shadow    Smoke     Storm     Stars

Sword     Thorn     Throne

To be fancy, choose three, separating the first two words with of and the second two with and. If you want to be sure your YA fantasy appeals to girls, you may add daughter or queen somewhere in the title. Et voila!

OR if you want your YA fantasy to stand out in a crowded market, you could give it a truly unique and interesting title that is easy to remember and evokes a rich and exiting world, or makes a reader pick it up and wonder how this book is different from all the others on the shelf. (Please. I’m begging you.)

 

Rah Rah Conferences!

This weekend is the gigantic party known as SCBWI Winter Conference, here in Gotham City. People who do not attend conferences, or have been to one or two, often ask me whether I think they are important. And my answer is a big, fat YES.

Writers’ conferences excellent sources of information about craft and the publishing industry. Hearing first-hand stories of other writers’ experiences are invaluable as we try to navigate our way through this madness known as publishing. But moreover, they function the same way as pep rallies. Nothing fuels inspiration more efficiently than getting the whole team together to cheer each other on.

But conferences might only be a once-a-year extravagance. They can be pretty expensive. There are smaller things to attend, like author appearances, lectures, online webinars, even write-ins. I think using these moments can help to solidify the feeling of belonging to the writing community. Anything that gets you to admit you’re a writer is a good thing.

Maybe something even smaller would be good. Book yourself into a hotel for a weekend. Or volunteer to housesit for a weekend while your friend is away. Get out of your house and get down to the local pie-shop. And commit that time to writing.

Anything you can do to make your writing feel special and important is something worth doing for yourself and the story you need to tell. Elevate the time you spend with your words so they aren’t always something crammed in between laundry and the PTA. I myself am looking forward to hearing some words of inspiration tomorrow, and seeing some great artwork along with friends and faces I haven’t seen since last year. My community.

My Mantra

I have a simple mantra I use at work that helps tip me to a decision: Maybe is no.

It may sound a little harsh, but hear me out. I see dozens and dozens of submissions, and in between, I critique manuscripts for conferences and hear pitches. Most of those are no (because they have to be) and a very few are yes. The rest, I’m afraid, are maybes. And maybe is ultimately Not Yes.

I struggled for a long time with the maybes. Seeing the potential in something that isn’t all the way there yet, or not close enough, anyway, is hard. I get excited when I read things that could be good if only they…I have spent cumulative weeks of my career hemming and hawing over the maybes. And 99% of the time, it’s just wheel-spinning.

Sometimes there is a very exciting maybe-plus. And those do get some extra-attention, usually in the form of an invitation to revise and resubmit. Some days I wish I could work with all the maybes to get them to yes. But unless what comes back is a YES DEFINITELY, it’s still a maybe, and maybe is no.

Guest Post: Melissa Edwards on Copyright Law

Ever wondered whether you need to register your manuscript for copyright before you send it out? Agent, lawyer, and friend to Doug the Pug Melissa Edwards has some things to tell you. Let’s learn things!

Copyright and Wrong by Melissa Edwards

Here’s the scene: you just wrote your first manuscript and you’re ready to send it out to agents to shop for representation. Congratulations! What an achievement! But before sending, your mouse poised over the send icon on your computer, you think, “uh, are they going to steal my book? I just put my blood, sweat, and tears into this manuscript and now I’m going to send it over the Internet without any protection at all?! PANIC!”

Take a sip. It’s going to be OK.

Your manuscript is protected as soon as you put it into fixed form (type it on a computer, hand write it on a legal pad, etch it into stone, etc.) The Constitution of the United States (with extra help from the Copyright Act of 1976) protects you from harm.

First, let’s get some lingo out of the way. The protection you seek for works of authorship is copyright protection. This is not the same as trademark protection, which protects a brand in commerce, and it is not the same as a patent, which protects inventions. Those are entirely different types of intellectual property law and the words are not interchangeable.

For the most basic copyright protection, all you need is a work of authorship, that is original, and fixed. Protection under the Copyright Act of 1976 will get you approximately your life plus 70-years’ worth of exclusive use. Registration with the U.S. Copyright office is not necessary for protection. Generally, your work is registered by your publisher, after it’s fully edited. If you register an unedited manuscript before you send it out to agents, it’s going to be slightly problematic to register another draft of that same work later on. That being said, you must register your copyright before you’re legally permitted to bring a lawsuit to enforce it and timely registration creates a legal presumption your copyright is valid. If you’re planning to self-publish, registration is not a bad idea.

“But what if someone steals my idea?!” Ideas are not copyrightable. If you have an idea for a novel but you haven’t written it, you have no protection. Just because you thought a book about a boy wizard would be cool in 1995 doesn’t mean J.K. Rowling infringed on your work.

You may have heard the phrase “derivative work” being bandied about. A derivative work recasts or transforms some expression from a previous work and thereby creates a new copyrightable work. You still need permission to use the underlying work—hence fan fiction is technically infringement. The exceptions to this rule include works in the public domain (i.e. when a work is so old, it’s no longer protected by copyright) and fair use.

Fair use is another often misused phrase. The courts use a four part fair use test when determining if a derivative work was fair use or infringement. These questions include the purpose of the new work (commercial v. educational?), the nature of the original work (factual v. fictional?), the amount of the portion used (heart of the work?), and the effect on the potential market for the existing work. The answers to these questions can be argued in every which way, thereby racking up the legal fees. The most famous type of fair use is parody. Be careful if you’re borrowing copyrighted material in your work—fair use is a wobbly leg to stand on! You can always seek permission from the underlying rights holder—this is called, unsurprisingly, a permission.

Last point before I bore you to tears with all this legal nonsense, authors should always keep the copyright in a publishing contract. The book should be registered in your name, not the name of the publisher.

Now go off and send your manuscript to agents without concern! (And don’t mention copyright in your query. It’s unnecessary and the mark of an amateur.)

Follow Melissa on Twitter @MelissaLaurenE

Aaaand ACTION!

I read a lot of YA manuscripts that are super interesting. Great premise, smart, insightful writing, nicely developed character arcs, marvelous dialogue. But they just aren’t working.

Interrobang! (WHAT!?)

It’s true. More than once I’ve read a manuscript I really like but for one fatal flaw: nothing happens. I’d say, when I was an editor, this was the number one reason a manuscript got the gong at acquisitions.

In picture books, it’s generally pretty easy to spot. Texts in which nothing happens usually come in the form of a list. It might be a list of things a kid does in a day. It might be a list of something that kid loves. Maybe it’s a list of traits they enjoy in their menagerie of monster friends. But a list isn’t a plot.

It takes a bit longer to identify in middle grade and young adult novels. I’m usually reading along for a while, enjoying some great banter, the dialogue carrying me away like the best late-night conversation with a friend. But then I realize, the scene is a late night conversation between friends. And so was the last one. And the one before that was at lunch. And the one before that was in the car on the way to lunch.

It’s a trap some of the best writers fall into. Scenes of people discussing things that have happened off-page are stories in which nothing actually happens. I want to see the character actually run their grocery cart into the ankles of their crush, setting off a chain of events they have to react to, instead of telling their sister about it the next day over mochaccinos at the mall. A next-day dialogue (or whenever it happens) removes the reader from the scene, creating an impenetrable barrier between the reader and the action.

Here’s a little test to tell if your manuscript has enough action: act it out, or at least imagine it as a play. If your scene is of your protag whispering deep thoughts at the library, it’s not so fun to watch. The conversation might reveal a lot, but it’s a bit of a snooze for the reader. If your protag is at the library whispering, and then decides to throw a paper airplane at the jerk librarian (just kidding, all librarians are the coolest), that’s action. If that happened on stage, it would be fun to watch, and it likely makes something else happen.

It’s not the most exciting example, but I think you understand that your character needs to do things. Do things that lead to other things, I mean. Because sure, stirring mochaccino foam and sighing and thinking are technically action, but a whole play of that would be pretty tedious. We’d be in a pretty weird place if Nike had told us to Just Talk About Doing It.

 

Too Many Cooks!

I’m doing a webinar in a couple of weeks about how to be a great critique partner (hey, it’s my blog, so I can self-promote all I want), and as I prepare, I keep coming back to a side point.

Having friends/your writing group/beta readers/classmates read your work is invaluable. Getting outside opinions can help get through those rough patches, or fix that plot hole, or round out flat characters. But having too many readers, or having readers too early, can make a potentially rich stew into yesterday’s oatmeal. The problem is not having the work critiqued, it’s having the work over-critiqued. Too many cooks spoil the manuscript.

I sometimes get queries accompanied by a litany of other editors and agents who’ve offered up their opinions on the work, and those I read with trepidation. You know how in art class when you’re learning to mix colors, and you add in one too many and it all turns to an indescribable shade of poo? That happens with editorial opinions, too. Too many dull the edges instead of sharpening. (Mix metaphors! I don’t care!)

Something I’ve noticed of late is that many manuscripts (and books) seem to fit the same mold. Nothing really stands out loud and proud. I can’t say for sure why this is happening, but it seems to be a symptom of writers trying to incorporate too many opinions too soon. If a manuscript is critiqued after only one draft, how does the writer have the time to find that bold, weird, singular voice and style before the group steers them to a safer place? How can a story take a bizarre, unexpected turn if the hive-mind wants a predictable path?

Consider this both a warning and an encouraging hug. Write the story. Write the whole story. Let it consume you, and then rewrite it and feel brave in your weird ideas. Don’t listen to your inner critic, and by all means, finish it before you share it with your outer critics. But like, truly finish it. Don’t start asking for opinions before it’s done. And for the love of cayenne pepper, be bold about your work. Stand proudly in it instead of meekly offering it up.

You don’t start a stew and invite your friends over to season it in the middle. You serve it to them when you think it’s perfect. And if they have opinions, you take some and you leave some and maybe it comes out better next time. As that old earhanger says, you can’t please everyone, so you got to please yourself.