Category Archives: Art & Craft

What you know….

When I started writing, it was ‘write what you know’.  This has always been a trick question for me~ exactly what do I know? How to tie my shoes? How to get across LA at seven in the morning? [well, maybe not anymore] How to make great gravy?  How to buy Christmas gifts? I know a lot of things. I can be, if warranted, my own trivia course. Sometimes I am even amazed at what I remember, aka ‘know.’

Then it was ‘no stretch yourself’ what about what you would want to explore, about what you would like to do, where you would like to go. And I thought that was wonderful. And it seemed to me at that time we started to see a lot of, well, more and more world building. Whole universes designed to the greater good of what was essentially the same story–either boy loves girl, gets girl, girl becomes powerful, gets boy [lol] or man is ascendent to a throne but nobody, everybody wants to stop him. It didn’t matter if it was a love story, a thriller, an adventure, a mystery or a combination of all of them. Go ahead, stretch yourself!

Now if feels as if we are back to write what you know, with the added caveat of ‘how dare you!’ if you write outside what you know, and that means color and culture. A recent blog I visited spoke of all the white gatekeepers in publishing stoping the needed diversity. I was moderate, stating there are not new gatekeepers in the pipeline who are of a diverse background, i.e., people of color, marginalized voices, to take the place of those in position. I thought that maybe education, the opening of the mind, the possibility that there was a career in being a scrivener, that this is a hard slog for anyone wanting to publish.

First off I was told the author had a Ph.D., I am still unsure what that means, I have a masters. So? I was told it wasn’t education, because that was just another code word for system. And the system limits your interactions and holds you back from finding positions in an all white world.

I was told that I needed to ‘ponder’ the idea that marginalized voices are being held back purposefully by white gatekeepers, and I wonder at the self righteous anger, the victimization of their writing and the need to hold others accountable.

I wonder if these people know the editors and agents I do, the ones who continually go to conferences, SCBWI of course, who go through slush piles, who find those marginalized voices, hire sensitivity readers, and work to put out to the world stories that are important and necessary to everyone. I wonder if they ever saw Chimamanda Adichie in her ted talk on The Danger of A Single Story.

I come from the generation, while not me personally, walked the streets for equality, were chastised by fire hoses, jail, killings, and who were told “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”  and “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

I believed him. My dad preached the same message to us, not in front of a huge crowd, just at the dinner table. I too thought we were all created equal, that is what I read in my Baltimore Catechism! there was no caveat for color or ethnicity. Not made, not kept, but created. I thought that it didn’t matter what color your skin, were you honest, generous, giving, truthful.  I believed. Yeah, this little white girl from the San Fernando Valley in Southern California with freckles across her nose and dark red hair. And so did my parents, a lovely white couple from Scranton Pennsylvania, of Irish heritage who understood what discrimination meant~ they were not that far removed from the time of ‘no Irish need apply’ and “no catholics hired’.

And, I thought we had made progress.  Here, I’ll say this true, true for me, because each person’s truth lies in their values, morals and ethics.  I don’t believe Donald Trump made us more racist. And I believe that  Mr. Obama, not made,  just took advantage.

I am pretty positive that when, under what ever administration it was, we moved from being a melting pot of immigrants who came to this country to be a part of the ‘the great American experiment,’ agreed, nay took an oath, to follow the laws,  learn the language, participate in the civil, cultural and political life of this country and leave behind what was their native culture moving to the reality that this was now their home, in the physical, political and, yeah, even metaphysical sense and they accepted this home as it was, bringing the richness of their former lives to enhance ours we lost. When we became a ‘salad bowl‘ with millions in our country without the benefit of that oath, that commitment, that willingness to be a part, well, we, Americans and America,  lost big time.

We have places that no longer follow our, yes OUR laws, who no longer believe that we were, are, that place where freedom rings. Still brings a swell to my heart to hear that. We are no longer that melting pot. We no longer believe in that truth~if you listen to the blogs, pundits, news, cable, even TV shows~ sigh and how they disappoint in presenting one side of a political discussion. It is a discussion, you know. A discussion we have had since the first words were penned on the US Constitution.

I think, believe that if those of you canting about equality and justice truly understood the meaning of the words, that we are created equal then perhaps you would not be so angry and so quick in seeking to blame others.

To paraphrase Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, memory is tyrannical~~ This is what I know. This is what I write. 

Beta

So. Beta. The second (usually second-brightest) star in a constellation. Or, denoting the second of a series of items, categories, forms of a chemical compound, etc. Or, the 2nd letter of the Greek alphabet.

Nope, not never first. Beta is second. According to Literary Rambles, A beta reader is, essentially, someone who reads your work and offers input while it is in draft form but no I say, it is less than that and yet more.

 I have critique partners, you say.  Well, yes. And a critique is more than just an up or down ruling.

For me, my critique partners see the story first,  from the very beginning where it is just words on a page, a smidgen of an idea,  to the way it forms into story where we talk about the main character as if s/he exists in real time.

We worry about what is said, how it is said, what are the MC’s feelings or not, is s/he hurt or in trouble. We  want s/he to get out of that trouble, to solve the mystery, to change and grow, to be better than what they were at the beginning.

So all the ins and outs of the plot, the obstacles for the main character, the needs and wants, yes all, we want it all! And then you are done. You like what you wrote. Your critique partners like what you wrote. Now what.

Second reader. Yes. someone who is not familiar with the story, the way the MC first struggled with the mystery and now struggles with emotions. You want someone who can read the story without the weeks, months, probably year or so, of attachment to the character. Yep, just like an editor or agent. Someone who is coming to the story for the first time.

I have asked one other person out side my critique group to read one of my stories. But I have recently been a beta reader for another, a friend. It was a great opportunity to see the story without introduction, like I would pick off a library or bookstore shelf or on the digital library site. I enjoyed staying with the story but making comments on the character, the nuances, the plot. Why? because most often what you see in another’s story is also happening in your story. It do make you a better writer, a better storyteller.

Yay for Second!

Dreaded…

A pain in the neck, bent over your computer or tablet, typing or writing, it is the dreaded synopsis. DREADED, that is the adjective most often accompanying the word synopsis. And I do get it. It is hard to write, to think through your whole book. You must decide what is a main plot and what are the sub-plots. You must decide who are the main characters, when and how are they included. And whether it is 50K or 90K, it is a lot of thinking to do. But do it you must.

SCBWI Carolinas recently sponsored an online program, Wait! What? A Synopsis? not too long ago. The gist of the presentation was that the synopsis should represent not only the plot but the motivations of the main characters. And Yikes! all of this in under 600 words! One page!  And, at the same time you want to do two, maybe three things:

  1. show the uniqueness of the story
  2. show the believability of the characters
  3. show the ending

And that is not, as Stacy Whitman put on my synopsis, ‘spoilery’ [which may or may not include a dash].

There were multiple corrections on my synopsis for typos and I blame that on my learning to read by sight and not by phonetics and on a mild case of dyslexia which translates into poor mechanics. Sigh. Excuses done!

The most important addition to your writing and publishing according to Ms. Whitman is the synopsis shows that you have thought out your plot and can distinguish it-from beginning to end- along with the main characters in your story. Somehow that seems basic, but no. To me it’s like the pitch. How would I pitch this story?

In BECOMING THE ONLY, twelve-year-old EMILY POUVERAIN DELAQUA, living in the shadow of her successful grandma after whom she is named, struggles with death, intimidation, and deception. A contemporary middle grade novel of 54K words, BECOMING THE ONLY is a genre mash-up of Moon Over Manifest meets a middle grade The Brief History of Montmaray. 

The question I have to answer, I have come to realize, is does the synopsis augment or betray the pitch. Augment is far better, right? Therefore the synopsis should include good details, the
most telling details including the motivation of the main antagonist, whoa!

I like this image because I have come to realize it is true, motivations are the muscle of the story, the heft that brings the story from being a plot with a beginning, middle and end–a hundred pound weakling–to a robust and fulfilling story and it is for story we strive, amend, revise, and edit.

As pain in the neck as it is, a synopsis speaks to the truth of my story and for that I will work it and work it and work it so that I can do the exact same thing for the story itself.

 

 

 

 

 

Done!

I like that word. Done. When you say it it is a puff of air, it is hard, singular and finite. 

I am done with a synopsis [well, almost, awaiting a critique on that one] a query letter [one more critique and it will be] and the novel itself. Weighing in at 54768 words. A lot! True not a 90,000 word great american novel.

I have lost count on the number of revisions to this story. It began as a short story with adults in the main character roles. And I liked it, sent it to Ellery Queen for a contest and got nothing back. Which was okay. I didn’t really expect anything. It was really my first attempt at working a story after thirty years of writing abstracts of articles, job descriptions, policy papers, work procedures, how-to’s for managers and supervisors, newsletter and employee handbooks. It was a challenge to add in more words, to describe a room, or to see a scene through the eyes of a character and it started me on this path, this one that I am on now.

It took me a while to understand that writing for adults, while hard~ please do not get me wrong~ was just not the same thing as writing for a kid. And then it took me longer to understand writing for children today. The stories I read as a kid, mostly were either historical fiction where the event was the pivot point, or mysteries where the murder/theft/crime was the pivot point. I mean, consider the girl detective of the post war period. She was clever, confident. You knew somewhere along the story she was going to be in jeopardy, but you also knew she was going to get out of it.

There were the Bobbsey Twins, Nancy Drew, Trixie Belden, Cherry Ames, and the one lone boy, Encyclopedia Brown. No, I take that back, there were the Hardy Boys. They were always more about the mystery than the kid!  And I loved that. It’s not that I didn’t care about Nancy and her cousins Bess and George, it’s that their lives really did not intrude on the story. They were somewhat independent even though Nancy was when I was reading them, rather young for the responsibilities and opportunities she had to go off on her own. I think too, I always liked that George was a girl!  I was less interested in their lives and more interested in how in a small town like River Heights there could be so many crimes. [I find I have the same problem today with series that are outside major cities, that involve so many murders.]

I digress. Done! The story, the action, the mystery and how it unfolds has been less of an issue for me than the internal story. When I was first asked to describe the emotional journey of the character I immediately thought of my best Sarah Berhardt imitation~ flat of the hand across the brow, a slight sinking of the knees and a huge sigh. It took me a long time to grasp the need for children to connect with a character before they connect with the story. At least that is one of the ways I see it.

We are ruled in our social media by emotions. Do I like? Why is there no don’t like on Facebook? We use pictures~ jpegs., gifs, memes~ to describe what we are dubious about putting into words in places that almost require, nay, demand, the quick short cut. So while we are describing our emotion, it is nothing unique! nothing original. When I use a smily face with stars  in it’s eyes, do I mean it the same way that some one else does? Okay not a lot to worry about, because most of us do not spend that much thought on others thoughts.

But in a book, short cuts do not work for emotions, or better stated, they shouldn’t work for emotions. For a child to read the story and get what the writer means, it should be clear, upfront and a goal sought after through the whole book.

Upteenth revision later, I think I am as close as I can get by myself. When the synopsis critique comes through. When the second query critique comes through, I think I am ready to submit. Not that I did not submit before, I did. I tried and no, nothing. But this time, I think I have a best hook. I think the writing is the clearest and cleanest and most soundly representative of the main character I can come up with. Ha! We shall see.

In truth, tho, Done only means one thing.  there is another story to work on!

Blindsided

I had a critique at a recent SCBWI conference. And. I did everything wrong.

I have had a string of very good critiques, one not so good, but on the whole, good stuff. And, I have handled them all well. But this time. Whoa! Was I surprised. I suppose it was because I had had a really good critique on the same manuscript not that many moons before. I was feeling confident! The previous critique had mentioned all the great features of the manuscript: voice, character, setting, plot. What more is there? And the one issue was the name of the book.

Naming is hard. I often wonder how Adam and Eve came up with all the names for the animals even the ones who are not indigenous to Eden. But I digress. The title to me was a running gag line throughout the book. Death by bananas. No that wasn’t the title, but it could have been.

So in the more recent critique I did change the title. Good so far.

Then Boom! The initial fifteen minutes of face to face time was so far from any thinking process I have had, or any feedback I have received from my critique group, or from the beta readers, or from other critiques about the manuscript that I was thrown into outer space. Well, for all the good it did me in the session, I could have been in outer space. It was cold, dark and unfortunately I remember little else of the time. I froze. I do remember being upset. I’m not sure I handled myself well and for that I am embarrassed! I truly blew an opportunity.

But almost like Sisyphus compelled to roll that stone up a hill, and almost as a punishment,  I’ve toted this critique~ the two pages of the SCBWI Gold form and the ten pages I submitted AND the synopsis around with me for months. The psychic weight was difficult. It hung on me, depressed me, and almost took away my enthusiasm for the story.

Still, I do not succumb easily to failure. I always have considered failure nothing more than another door opening. I trudged on. I attended a couple of online programs on query writing. What was the essence of the story. Not the hook, but the central concept. What was important about the story. I studied pitching on line. I participated in a program on how to write a synopsis, read blogs and continually wrote and rewrote the story line for my critique group.

At issue is that I like this story. I have been writing it in one form or another for maybe twenty years. There are so many parts that are me…the main character, the grandma, the interaction. I can see those things in my own life as well as in video format.

It has taken me a couple of months to actually pick up and read the written critique, I found that the critiquer liked the story too. “The writing is restrained, never giving information dumps or otherwise overly explaining backstory. I like how you allow Emily’s story to unfold slowly, forcing the reader to follow the breadcrumbs trail you are providing about her situation. I really like the presence of a very strong matriarch in this family with a powerful corporate/scientific career–unusual in kid lit.”

What was I thinking? Well. I wasn’t, was I? So. Now I have read the entire critique. The two pages of the SCBWI Gold Form.  The ten pages, heavily annotated, and the synopsis, also annotated. And I remembered something I heard from an agent who attended a Carolinas conference several years ago. That it was, is, harder to critique a bad manuscript, than a good one. With a good one, you can point out all the ways the writer can make it better. 

And, you know what? I am grateful for this critique. It is right. I strayed from my original voice. I over-reacted to the story device. And, while I disagree heartily with the opinion that the character is a ‘little bit of a cipher’ I now get what the critique is trying to tell me.

Here’s hoping. #amthinking #revising #amwriting