Category Archives: Art & Craft

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

 

Butt in Chair

BIC. Butt in Chair. Time to return to writing. This year with a shortened conference timeline~posting registration in May and selling out in July~ It seemed like I lost a couple of months of thinking, mulling, musing and writing time. I did. Back now!

I don’t get to many of the sessions at the conference, not because I can’t, but because I want to make sure that I focus on the conference and all that it entails. Sigh. I value multitasking, but that was in business where the thought was not deep, the stakes were not as high and the opportunity to use subordinates existed 🙂

I make up by reading the books recommended by the speakers [I use NC Digital Library when I can] and I stack them up against my own story-not the writing- but the story. What is the voice?  What about the pacing of this novel. Can I chart the synopsis, the major crisis, show where the denouement comes in? I look at presenters website and follow their process. It is a personal journey that I recognize for some is shorter than for others. Who is their editor? Who is their agent? What are my possibilities?

So I am always attuned to how writers write.  The Techniques of a Bestselling Writer, Five-Second Rule to Transform Your Life, The Writer’s Journey. Oh, there are many! They are great reads. Thank you. But no.

I remember at a NESCBWI conference in the last century Barbara Seuling said she never delivered a book to her editor where the editor kept the first two chapters, they were always cut! This gives me hope, but not. It is a different time since Barbara first penned her first manuscript and submitted.  Today we talk about The Most Valuable Real Estate in Your Novel~The First Page & THE HOOK!  Admittedly, our conference first pages session shows that editors and agents, tho they are not on the panel, also look for that indescribable ‘I’ll know it when I see it’ line or paragraph. How many of those books they accept? Who knows? But yikes, no pressure!

Anyone who knows me, like my own critique group, knows I start a book with the end scene. I know where I want the character to end up~ solving a mystery, finding family, accepting but still unhappy with the solution they themselves wrought, successful, improved, better than they were at the beginning.  In that moment I know the character at that place in time. What they want, why, and how. I’m not always sure how to describe it [and mayhaps I have blown many a query in not being able to articulate it.]  Then my only problem is to go back to the beginning and start the story.

And there you have it. START THE STORY. Full confession: while I did learn to diagram sentences [actually loved that] the outlining of an essay, chapter, story has never been in my skill set. I sort of consider it the same as not being able to get out of San Francisco heading south~ needing to go north to Marin county, turn around, head across the Golden Gate and then get on the right highway. Maybe now with GPS it would be different, but…. Sigh. It is just the way it is, I have accepted this. But always felt a bit backward and incomplete.

I also belong to Sisters in Crime. the quarterly InSinC magazine appeared in my mailbox on Saturday and as I leafed through I came across an article by Jill Kelly, author of six novels and a member. Defending the Rights of Pantsers. I laughed at the title. Truly! Yes.

Like most of us, being a pantser was not her choice. But she wrote. Every day. At least 300 words. [do emails count?  Probably not.] After writing four novels she happened on a book Story Engineering by Larry Brooks.  Yes, I may buy it, but not really sure why. As Jill says in the article about the main character in House of Cards: ”he is the god of his little world….he is the CEO and everyone does his bidding. I think this is how story engineers do it.”

And then she says, “my relationship with my characters is very different. We’re friends, collaborators…sharing a mutual experience, they are writing this book with me.”  She names pantsing a ‘call and response tradition’ like jazz musicians improvising off one another. I so get that. I get emotional over my character’s problems and solutions. I feel, deeply, the points in the story where she is faced with choice. I worry with her over how this will end. While I cheer for her success, I can see how she could fail! I cry. I get angry. I am amazed when a character shows up to help or hinder. Where were they before? Should I know that? Why do I see them so clearly today but not even know they existed yesterday?

Ms. Kelly’s tips include: Write everyday. Write the first thing in the morning. Gather possibilities. Draft fast, rewrite slow. Be proud of how you work. Nice!

Maybe because of the thirty years spent in corporate America, being paid on the basis of goals met, her tips feel like a set of performance appraisal goals that are attainable, worthwhile and straightforward. There are four months left in the year! These are not strident, difficult or unmanageable goals.

So. Butt in Chair.  Yes, Pantser! Officially, proudly,  joining the club!

 

Structure

Radio. No, 1930-1950’s radio. Old Time Radio, well they call it Radio Classics, hosted by the nicest person, Greg Bell, who responds wonderfully quickly to email. As I said, nice man.

What does this have to do with structure? Tom and I travel a lot in our car. It’s easier to car ride to Baltimore than to fly. Fly, ha! it’s an hour south to the airport, be there two hours early, go through TSA, wait, board, wait, fly, deplane, wait or pick up car. And by the time you are done, you have saved maybe an hour or two and you are frazzled, have spent more money than you planned and, well, yuck!  So back to travel. We listen to XM radio or Sirrus, whichever, now they are one. While it’s interesting to keep up on the news, sometimes that overwhelms you, you can only hear about one story told four different ways for so long.

On Radio Classics they have Bob Hope, Jack Benny for laughs–not quite vaudeville, not quite tv either. Then you have the shows! Richard Diamond, Johnny Dollar And The Action Packed Expense Report. Not to mention, the Shadow and the Dimension X series. So, variety shows, detective stories, murder, fantasy, science fiction….all done in twenty minute blocks, THE WHOLE STORY. Radio Classics fascinates me because the stories have a beginning, middle and end…they are complete. Listening to one show back several years I could not get it out of my head. I’ve tried several ways to figure out how to write this story, because, well, I need it to be longer than twenty minutes and I want the hero to be a kid. Enter Greg Bell who not only sent me the mp3 recording of the show, but the transcript!

I’ve vacillated between a girl or a boy. It could be either. I finally chose a girl because the end of the story is one where I want a hard choice, not an easy one, and one where not everyone lives. And I’d like to see a girl make that choice.  But the structure of the story has alway eluded me. How, just how do I get from introducing the characters to the end where the reader <hopefully> is sympathetic enough to the main character to see her ending as not sacrifice, but simply ‘the right thing to do’.

And last night, while researching how I was going to get the main characters from point A to point B so that the denouement is believable, I got it. I had, a while back,  decided that to put them on a plane would be a quick way to get them where they need to go, but there was no way to have the story unfold. So I put them on a train. Last night I really started to research the trains. From California to Chicago is the California Zephyr. and then from Chicago to upstate New York is the Lake Shore Limited. And all the stops along the way. A little research of the stops and some interesting tidbits for the story line emerge.

So I got two things out of making this one decision to have the story revolve around a train ride. One I found the structure for the story, basically about four days, maybe more, but along a train route. Have not factored in train changing time, etc. yet, but that’s not a deal breaker.  And two, I can add a dimension to my character by having her interested, engaged and sometimes overwhelmed by each of the stops as well as the story itself.

Very cool! Lol, now to work.

Heroes

Who is a hero? The one who saves the day, right? <BTW, what is with the capes? Glory Be! Like having something around your neck is not an invitation to a villain to grab it and strangle you with it? And, d’uh, why don’t they, the villains I mean?>  But I digress. Again, who is a hero? Is it enough to save the day? Today it seems like they have to save the world, no the Galaxy.  And then do what? Retire? Are all the criminals and the villains gone? I get that a story, be it a movie or series, must end. We need to know <although there is the ending to The Giver (Lowery)and the ending in Peachtree Road (Siddons)>  we are at the end of the story.

Grimm’s last show was THE END. They were honest. Give them points for that. But they tricked us. <spoiler>  Everyone dies and then everyone comes back because we have this cool magical object that says we can do that. But they went a step further–sort of like JK with Harry. They showed the next generation of Grimm’s fighting the Wessen. So, they saved the planet, well, all humans, but no one is ever really saved. So there was a smidgeon of truth.

We don’t even suspend disbelief anymore. We know there will be something to bring them back. Ironic. In the 21st century, when we say that science is fact, we all believe in magic.

There was a book I read a long time ago, [can’t remember the title]  back in the 1970s, a sci-fi/fantasy book. It was about good triumphing over evil. Evil was powerful, huge armies, lots of people participating. Good was small, a boy, if I remember correctly. And maybe an old man and not much else. The upshot is <was> that good will always triumph even with the full force of evil against it. But like with Grimm, the battle is never over. Maybe the major one is one and done, but there will always be brushfires.

I am a child of the post-war. Not the war to end all wars. That was a silly way to identify it, because the treaty of Versailles only exacerbated the problem and set the world up for a second war. I am a baby boomer. The stories I read were of the men and women who resisted the evils of totalitarianism, oppression, genocide, and communism. Primary text, I think they are called. These individuals did what they could to limit the devastation, to eliminate the threat of an over-class rule. They were common people; maybe bankers, housewives, farmers, shopkeepers, or they were not, perhaps they were earls, counts, government officials. They did not think of their lives as forfeit, but in many cases they were. There was no coming back. There was no magic.

What I read in the 50s were the original memories, the heroic stories of their realization that no one else would stand. They knew literally they had no choice. Today we say we always have a choice. What we mean is you can say yes, or you can say no. Everything we read and see brings this mixed message. The truth is no, no you can’t say no. You can’t.

At an SCBWI conference one of the speakers, Tony Horowitz, I think, said that if nothing else we should be truthful to our children, we should terrify them with the truth. And so, we are back to heroes; those who recognize there is no choice, that saying yes is the only thing, and that doing what you must, even though you are terrified is the right thing.

I call that bravery.

Naming

My favorite biblical story is where Adam and Eve get to name everything. I always imagined them sitting on a log side by side. Sun shinning, nice breeze and,  “Lion,” says Adam pointing to a fluffy white ball with a puff tail.  “No, silly,” says Eve, shaking her head, pointing elsewhere. “That is a lion. Look at the teeth, the mane, the eyes.” And so it would go, day after day until they almost ran out of words…LOL, nobody runs out of words.

Almost every child has a naming story. For me the doctors were sure I would be a boy born mid to late January. Well, I must have been very comfy, because I didn’t come out until February 2 and at that I was born at around 11:40 PM, noticeably the last time I was truly a ‘night’ person. With the boy thing, my parents picked a name: material grandfather and paternal uncle. Oops!  My mom suggested the name of her favorite cousin. Turns out my dad was not enamored of said cousin. Compromise time. Part of the name but not all. [as was the custom then and turns out the perfect saint for me–Teresa of Avila! another blog posting for that one] with a very Irish nickname. At home I was rarely called by my baptized name–well, unless I was in extreme trouble–and yes–I did hear it often enough. But I considered my ‘nickname‘ my real name. Ah, sly parents trying to trick the middle child!

What made me think of this? An article in the WSJ: DO WE LOOK LIKE OUR NAMES?  The consensus is that people come to look like their names. Ha! I don’t think people LOOK like their names. I couldn’t pick a Joe from a Ralph, or a Mary from a Susan. But I do think most grow up, and in that process of growing, they perceive how others say, write, add adjective and adverb to that name! The author of this study talks about naming her daughter Lilac,  “and already, she says, people are cooing that Lilac is blossoming into a beautiful flower and smells just as sweet.”  Poor child!

My name…nickname…was very different. [From 1880 to 2015, the Social Security Administration has recorded 23 babies born with that name in United States. The name was first given to 5 or more babies in the year 1967. The highest recorded use of the name was in 1969 with a total of 7 babies.] It is/was consistently misspelled, miss-pronounced, made fun of–yes the bullying part [except by the nuns who were uncanny in singling me out–was it the name? or the child?], one of the reasons why I don’t use it except with family and close friends. And here’s the deal: I don’t think we look like our names, but I do think we PERCEIVE ourselves as our name. Add to that birth order and you have a combination, for me, that could keep a panoply of mental health professionals busy for a lifetime. Ha!

So. Naming. For a story it is like from the inside out–the idea comes with a name–the story and the character who will have both the active and emotional fortitude to take the story to the conclusion. It has taken me a while to figure this out. I’m slow :). Not prone to a lot of internal examination, so this journey to understand where the names of my characters comes from has required more time than I wish. But! And here is the cool part. When I look up the names I am mostly right on in my choice. Damn! This could have saved me a lot of time in my revision!

Next time!