Pet Peeves! Part 1

I adore metaphors. They are the wind beneath my wings. I love descriptive writing. The sparkling dialogue reverberates through the whole history of my being like a breeze through the Redwood forest.

Know what I don’t like? Eyeballs. Specifically ones that fall on things.

You know what I mean. “My eyes fell on the hot guy in the corner.”

Eyeballs are always getting up to mischief, and it’s time we stopped them!

“His eyes slid down my dress.”

“Her eyes followed me as I backed out of the room.”

“Sharon’s eyes landed on the fruitcake behind the centerpiece.”

“Marta’s eyes glided around the dance floor.”

ETA: “Her eyes flit around until finally resting on what she was looking for.”

“Juan’s eyes lingered on Patrick’s new cleats.”

There are so many different and arguably better ways to say these things that don’t involve squishy spheres leading independent lives. Let’s try those ways and then decide which sounds better. K?

Share your favorite abuses of this one in the comments.

Beginnings Part 1

You know what’s the worst? When I read a query and it sounds AWESOME and then this happens:

“Once there was a boy named Pauline who did an extraordinary thing that you can’t wait to read about, and before I can tell you anything about that, I must explain the entire history of his life from the day he was born, plus the whole rest of his town and family. You see, there was this house. It was a gigantic Gothic thing, built by Dr. Gormless von Bandcamp, Pauline’s mother’s father’s father…” And then approximately five more pages of this before anything resembling the real story starts.

I feel like I’ve been duped. I’ve been offered a story about a kid doing something extraordinary, and what I’m getting is backstory. Which is like getting backwash when someone offers you a sip of cool, refreshing lemonade. And you know what happens if I can’t skim the bliz blaz to quickly find the real story? I stop reading.

You know how They say to start in the action? Yes, do that. It’s a very good idea. Ungrounded, random narration with nary a character to connect to is as disorienting as opening a door into zero-g. I wonder why it’s happening, and when there will be something to grab onto so I can stay upright.

Starting in the action doesn’t mean opening with your character running to catch a speeding train, but I will dedicate another post to that. I mean that a scene should open on a character doing something; delivering cookies to a homeless person via unicycle; changing the toilet paper roll, it doesn’t entirely matter. Readers are pretty smart, they’ll catch on. And when they do, you can layer in the backstory as you go along, revealing exciting things at moments that maximize the information.

Beginning at the beginning doesn’t mean the beginning of time, or of someone’s life, or even (especially?) when they wake up in the morning. It might take some thinking to figure out what the real beginning of your story is. But you’re a writer, and good portion of writing is thinking, yeah? Look for that thing that sets off a chain of events and start slightly before that. It’s the difference between a tome and a page-turner.

Don’t be dense.

 

 

Niche Job

There are lots of different kinds of publishing. Trade is the one most think of when they decide to write and publish a book. Who doesn’t want to see their book on an endcap at Barnes and Noble? Who doesn’t want to do a reading and sign copies at their local indie?

But sometimes, the books people write and submit to agents and editors are definitely not trade books. Very often, they are educational. For example, I have lost count of queries that hit my inbox beginning with “Childhood obesity is a national epidemic.” While this may be true, it does not make a trade picture book. Other examples of books that will not likely find a trade home: Explaining cancer, diabetes, or other diseases/medical conditions. Explaining adoption, alcoholism, incarceration, abuse. Basically if your main character is a doctor or social worker or adult of any kind who is explaining something, you’re writing a niche-market book.

Recently, an incredibly smart single mom I admire very much asked if I knew of any books explaining the process of artificial insemination. I said no, trying not to cringe. She said, “I guess I have to write it, then.” We don’t know each other well enough yet for me to have told her all the reasons I think that book doesn’t exist. And if she writes it, well, that’s a bridge I’ll cross later.

I’m not discouraging books on these topics. They can be very helpful to have when kids start asking questions about heavy life-stuff. They are great educational tools. But they are unlikely to be the ones pulled off the shelf for multiple reads night after night. Of course there are exceptions, but as the saying goes, they prove the rule.

There are, of course, ways to approach these subjects that are more widely accessible, one being to write a character who is dealing with said issue, without making the story about that issue. For example, I have a friend who, as a kid, found out he had diabetes and had to start taking insulin shots. But he was also a smarter-than-you Thrasher-reading skater/alter boy whose holy grail was a vinyl Space Oddity single. A story about a kid who has to take insulin shots is very niche. A story about a well-rounded character who just happens to inject himself daily as part of a larger story is going to have a wider appeal.

Niche-market books take niche-market publishers to make them successful. Do your research before submitting. Find agents and editors who know that market well, and understand that many do not.

I Like Big Buts (and Therefores)

I have a confession that may polarize my readers, but here it is nonetheless: I like South Park. Sure, it’s sometimes vulgar, but I like the social commentary, and the fact that they put out episodes in just a week, so it always feels timely. And some of the simplest and best writing advice I’ve heard comes from a talk the creators, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, did at Tisch School for the Arts at NYU.

It’s been around for a few years, so you may have already seen it, but if not, and if you don’t feel like watching the video, here’s the gist: If your story goes something like “A happened and then B happened and then C happened”, change all of those and thens to buts and therefores. So now your story goes “A happened, but then B happened, therefore C happened.” And that’s a much more engaging story, doncha think?

Beyond the Great Whatever

A while back, I talked about slang and how a little goes a long way. But I’d like to dig a little deeper into one of my personal pet peeves: the use/overuse of whatever.

Whatever is crucial to the teenage language, is it not? It ends sentences. “It’s this old show or whatever”.

It IS a sentence.

“Danica, do you hear me?”

“Whatever.”

And that’s how kids sound. I understand that. But it’s not the only way kids sound. And even the ones who sound like that sometimes don’t sound like that all the time. The thing I find so upsetting about it is that whatever is the end of the line. It’s the period. It’s the conversation ender. And in writing and reading, it’s hard to bounce back from.

I think as adults, that’s how we hear it. A kid whatevers us and the conversation is over. You’d have to pull pretty hard to pry that conversation back open. But that isn’t always how kids talk to each other. And as YA and middle grade writers, it’s our job to give kids a window, not a mirror, to paraphrase something I’ve heard often (and believe completely). And so we have to imagine what comes after the whatever when we’re not present. What does whatever stand for? Write that instead. It will make your characters endlessly more interesting.

Here’s an example.

“Dude, why do you always call me a Herman Munster in that singsong voice?”

“It’s from this thing my dad likes about some old election or whatever.”

Sounds like something a sullen teenager would say. Or even a kind of charming teenager. But that conversation has been shut down. There’s nothing to pick up, no thread to follow. As a writer, you could leave it there, OR you could dig deeper and find out more about your characters.

“Dude, why do you always call me a Herman Munster in that singsong voice?”

“It’s from this old song parody from the Bush-Kerry election when my dad was working as a staffer in the Senate. He sings it all the time. ‘This land is my land, this land is your land. I’m a Texas tiger, you’re a liberal wiener.’ It’s those same guys that made that stupid dancing elf video your aunt sent us all at Christmas. I think This Land was their first video. It’s pretty funny actually.”

This conversation is open. There are lots of places to go, and your characters have interests and we know what they think is funny. It might sound like whatever in real life, but most of you are writing fiction, so your characters can be as open and non-sullen as you want. And interesting characters and open conversations are more likely to make it out of my inbox than even the most realistic mirroring of teen-talk. Or whatever.

PS That video still exists and I still think it’s funny.

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.