Tuesday, March 30, 2010

How Important is Research?

A reader e-mailed me (all the way from New Zealand! Go kiwis!) to ask this question: All the writer sites I visit and book acknowledgements I read have something in them about research. How important is this? I mean, I know its important to get your facts right, but is that enough to get by? Do I need to have every aspect of my stories researched, will it be terrible if I don't?

The answer, as it often is, is both yes and no.

Some things you just plain need to get right. Like if you're writing a historical novel (a book set in a time period other than now) it's very important to get your facts right. How people dressed, the political environment, social standards, etc. Nothing takes me out of a historical novel quicker than when I read something that I just know is wrong. (Only slightly more annoying is what we call "info dumps," where the writer has obviously researched a subject and darn it, they're going to use every fact they know about place settings in the 1820s!)

Or if you have a plot line about someone getting killed by a poison. Make sure it's a poison that could actually kill them. Or if a character says something like, "97% of all sea turtles live to be 50." Research that, and make sure you know where that character read it.

Some things you should get right, but for some reason it's acceptable to not. The topic springing to my mind right now is pregnancy. Oh my gosh does TV get pregnancy wrong. Like, only 10% of women have their water break. And there's no "moment" when you first feel the baby move. Instead you're like, "Was that the baby? Or gas?" And you do that for about 2 weeks until you get your first definite kick. But you know what? Wonderful TV shows that I love and enjoy misportray pregnancy all the time, and I still tune in.

Some things you can fudge because it makes your audience happy. Again, babies are coming to mind. (Boy, you'd think I'm pregnant or something.) Like on the last (second to last?) episode of Friends. Monica and Chandler are in the delivery room with the girl having the baby they're going to adopt. The baby comes out, and ... yay, it's a boy! How exciting! But wait. There's a surprise for us. Turns out the girl is having two babies and she was just too dumb to know it. The next baby comes out a girl, and now Monica and Chandler have their perfect family, and we can all be happy.

Yeah. I can maybe go along with the fact that the girl is too dumb to realize the doctors had told her she was having twins (maybe) but what I can't go along with is that the adoption agency wouldn't know, and wouldn't have done a special search for parents who wanted to adopt twins. There's just no way. But am I going to complain? No, because I'm happy with how things turned out.

I'm also guilty of something like this in my book Out with the In Crowd, but I've yet to hear anyone complain about it. (If you've read the book and don't know what I'm talking about, e-mail me and we can chat. Don't want to ruin a surprise for those who haven't read it yet.)

Some things are different for everybody. Like turning 16. Or how they feel about their parents getting divorced. Or what their first kiss was like. Or the effects alcohol has on them. These are things that you maybe do a little research about, but you do it slyly, just by living life. There's no need to google, "How does one feel about turning 16?"

I hope that's a sufficient answer. Have a question of your own? E-mail me, and I'll see what I can do.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Enter to win a copy of Out with the In Crowd

So I rarely post on Fridays on here, but wanted to let all you fab GTW readers know that Novel Teen is giving away a copy of Out with the In Crowd. Just leave a comment on the Novel Teen blog to be entered. (U.S. residents only - sorry Emii!)

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Journaling your Characters

Okay, did I sufficiently cover the topic of how to acquire an agent? If you have follow-up questions, please feel free to e-mail me. It's such a huge topic, I'm sure I missed something.

Moving back to actual writing.

At conferences, writers often ask agents, "What is one of the biggest reasons you turn down manuscipts?" A frequent response is, "Cardboard characters."

This week, I came across a method called a "Voice Journal." It comes from James Scott Bell's insanely fabulous The Art of War for Writers. You should seriously think about investing in this book. It holds the place of honor with my three other favorite craft books - Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, On Writing by Stephen King, and Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook by Donald Maass. Anyway, back to the Voice Journal.

There are all kinds of worksheets you can dowload for getting to know your characters. You spend lots of time tediously answering questions like, What's your favorite color? What's your family like? What's your greatest fear? These things have never worked for me. Probably because I find filling them out insanely boring, and I never see any reward for my time investment.

But in The Art of War for Writers, James Scott Bell describes the Voice Journal method, and I'm sooooooo addicted. The Voice Journal is letting your character talk in a stream of consciousness mode. You simply ask one or two questions, and then without editing, you answer those questions using your "I voice." Here's an example from one of mine:

My name is Shea Estelle Wingate. I'm 25, but I'm not like any other
25-year-old I know. I've been a widow for four years.

While my friends were recreationally dating in high school, I was with
Jeremy. Jeremy was ... Well, who your parents would pick for you to date. Sweet,
attentive, adoring. Good grades, nice teeth. Nothing that would ever raise a red
flag, not even with a girl's dad.

And this goes on and on for five notebook pages, front and back. Not only is it a ton of fun because it feels like "real" writing, but I'm getting to know Shea in a whole new way. I've gotten a much better feel for her voice, and I've even thought of new plot ideas.

What a great exercise to use for all the major characters in your novel. It'll keep your characters from all sounding the same, and it'll clarify everybody's emotions about situations. Signing off to return to my voice journal...

Back on Tuesday to answer more of your questions!

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Book Proposals (Getting a Literary Agent Part 3)

Part one

Part two

Okay, part three - book proposals. I used to haaaaaaaaate book proposals. But like most other things in life, the more you do it, the better you get.

By book proposal, I basically mean the first three chapters of your book and a synopsis, which is a 2ish page summary of your book. Sometimes book proposals also include market summaries and stuff like that, but agents I’ve dealt with usually just ask for the first three chapters and a synopsis.

First three chapters should be easy, because they should be done already. Your whole manuscript should be done before you query agents, unless you write non-fiction. Use a basic font, like Times New Roman, double space it, and the header on each page should have the page number on the right, and Your Title/Your last name on the left.

Now. The synopsis. While I used to hate them, I actually really enjoy writing synopses now, and apparently have developed a – er – reputation for being somewhat hard on my writing buddies when I critique theirs.

Synopses are kinda like back cover copy in that you’re selling your story. It needs voice and pizzaaz, and should have a rhythm of its own. The way they differ, however, is you’re not building intrigue. You’re giving everything away. EVERYTHING. Your clever plot twists, your fab ending. All of it. Agents (and on down the road, editors) need to see all your brilliance coming through, so no holding back.

All of my synopses open with back story, which is amusing and frustrating to writers since we work so freaking hard to keep back story out of the first few chapters of our novels. Here, however, you put it in. So here’s the opening paragraph to a synopsis of mine:

Sixteen-year-old Marin Young has always believed sex should be saved for
marriage. It’s a principle her parents raised her with—but of course they also
said marriage was forever. This summer, her father moved out and now lives with
his former high school sweetheart. Who’s due in December with Marin’s
half-sister. Now it’s just Marin and her mom rattling around the large house.
It’s been three months since Dad left, but Mom still hasn’t said a bad word
about him. Marin’s worried that before too long, Mom will run out of surfaces to
clean and she’ll crash.

Like you might gather from that last sentence, this book doesn’t actually start until three months after her Dad has left, but those first few sentences are the set-up of the book, and are therefore important to the synopsis.

After you get your first paragraph down, you work through the rest of your novel in semi-chronological order. While you still want to build up to the climax in the book, there’s no need to build cliffhangers into your synopsis. In this book, Marin’s dealing with a lot of issues involving her two best friends. They’re strung throughout the book, but I don’t write it that way in the synopsis. In the synopsis, the friends basically get their own paragraph, and then I move onto Marin’s issues with her mom. And then Marin’s issues with her hunky-hunky boyfriend.

Then there’s a paragraph that describes the climax, and talks about how Marin feels about everybody in her life at this point. You know in writing when we say, “Don’t show, tell.” Yeah, that doesn’t hold up in a synopsis. In a synopsis, it’s all telling. “Being broken up with is a first for Marin. She’s used to being in charge of her relationships, of saying when they start and end.” You would never actually say this in a manuscript, but it’s a vital piece of information in my synopsis.

And then to conclude, you basically tell what your character learned. Why they went on the journey in the first place. And just like in your novel, the last line should be something poignant. Something that makes the agent think, “Wow. I’ve got to request this.”

Just to make things complicated, your synopsis is single-spaced. I know, I know.

For those of you young people who are actually at this stage, send me an e-mail and we can figure out a time for me to read over your synopsis and give you feedback. Which really shouldn’t be more than two pages. Three at the most, and only if it’s like a 100k book.

See y’all back here on Thursday.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Query Letters (Getting a Literary Agent Part 2)

Part One of this series is here.

I can’t tell you how to write a fabulous query letter. I rarely garnered interest for my manuscripts with this method, but I do know what information needs to go in said letter.

1. Your genre and word count. As in, “This is a 55,000 word young adult manuscript.” Your word count is easy to find, your word processor tallies it for you, but the genre can be a bit trickier. Most writers I know, particularly new writers, don’t like being “boxed in” by one particular genre and are tempted to come up with some new name for the kind of stories they write. Like Family Dramas or Heartbreaking Romances. Just say no to the part of you that wants to do this. Where would your book best be shelved in a bookstore? That is what the agent needs to know.

2. If you have a snappy one-liner, it’s great to work it in. The one I’ve used that’s always received a good response is, “When you’re bored with your life and don’t want to marry your fiancĂ©, isn’t the obvious answer eloping with your ex?” Another option for a one-liner is something like, “Veronica Mars meets small town Kansas.” Or, “Gossip Girl meets 24.”

3. A short pitch. Think back cover copy. “During a dangerous event at a summer party, high school senior Skylar Hoyt decides it’s time to change her ways…” Keep it to a minimum and really sell it. Your goal is to make the agent think, “I wonder what happens next.”

4. What makes this book different than the others in its genre? This can be a single sentence. “While lots of young adult novels feature blah-blah-blah, mine is the first to feature something.” Like for 24 you might say, “Fans of action shows will love it, but it’ll also draw other fans because of its unique ‘real time’ format.”

5. Who you are. This is going to be tricky. It always was for me because, frankly, I wasn’t anybody. I finally had to join an organization just so I could have something for my stinking bio. If only I were joking. When the Skylar Hoyt series sold to Revell, my bio read something like, “I live in Overland Park, KS with my husband and daughter. I’m a member of ACFW.” Seriously. Play up anything that makes you the best person to write and market this book.

6. “Thank you for taking the time to consider my manuscript. Sincerely, Your Name.”

7. An SASE (self-addressed stamped envelope) if you’re doing snail mail. If it’s on e-mail, just make sure to include your e-mail address and phone number beneath your signature.

Like I said, I never had much success with this method, so I’m not going to post a query letter of mine. But according to Nelson Literary Agency, here are some examples of query letters that caught their eye.

We’ll continue on Tuesday with writing book proposals. If you have questions in the meantime, give me a holler.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

What I didn’t know – and what you should – before querying literary agents

Just that you know literary agents exist puts you far ahead of where I was when I started submitting manuscripts for publication.

In theory, this is how the process of getting an agent works. (In theory. More on that later.)

1. You select a handful of agents you think you would be interested in and send them a query letter. (Don’t worry, I’m going to expand on all of this.)

2. You wait for the agent to respond. If they say no, you find another agent you’re interested in and send a query to them. If they say yes, they will most likely ask to see the first three chapters of your manuscript and a synopsis, also known as a book proposal.

3. You send your book proposal and wait some more. If the agent says no, hopefully they will give you a helpful reason. (The beginning was slow, the idea isn’t fresh enough, I don’t think I could sell this, etc.) If the agent says yes, they usually ask for the full manuscript at this point.

4. You send your full manuscript and wait some more. Again, if the agent says no, you hope for some kind of advice that can help you get a yes in the future. If the agent likes what they read, they usually want to set up a time that you can talk on the phone. From there they either offer you representation, in which you agree to pay them 15% of whatever you earn, or one or both of you decides this isn’t the right business relationship.

That is a very, very, very simplified version of how you get an agent. Two other ways are through a referral (where a writing friend of yours refers you to their agent), or through a writing conference. Most writers I know acquired agents through these two methods, including myself. I met my first agent at a conference, and my current agent and I were referred to each other by the lovely and talented Jenny B. Jones.

But I’m guessing if you’re like me in high school, you don’t have author friends or a thousandish bucks to spend on a conference, so we’ll start with the basic query letter method.

I’m going to break this topic down into several posts. Today we’ll just talk about how you find these agents.

One way that you can find out about agents is to join a writing community. Pretty much every genre has one, and you can find free ones on Yahoo Groups just by doing a search, or you can Google whatever genre it is you write. Like, “Resources for romance writers.” A few examples are:

If you write for children or teens, you can join the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators.

If you write Christian fiction, head to the American Christian Fiction Writers' page.

Or if you write romance, check out Romance Writers of America.

There are many, many others. I’m positive that every genre has a group these days.

By joining groups like these, you network with other writers and gain knowledge. You learn who has an agent they love, what agent just left their agency and is starting up their own thing, etc. So something like that is an excellent place to start.

Another option, and what’s more along the route I took, is to check out AgentQuery where you can get a list of agents who represent your genre or authors you admire. You can also see who’s interested in taking on new clients, what they’re looking for, and what they’re NOT looking for.

You can also buy a book like Jeff Herman’s Guide to Book Publishers, Editors, and Agents. It’s been ages since I looked for a literary agent like this, so I’m not sure what advantages and disadvantages there are to a book versus AgentQuery. You’ll have to let me know.

If you have more agent questions like why you need an agent, what are an agent's responsibilities, and what questions should I ask a prospective agent, check out Chip MacGregor's answers here. (Click on "Resources" tab, then on the left the thingy where it says "Choosing an agent." Not sure why it won't let me do a direct link - aargh.)

Come back on Thursday and we’ll talk about query letters! In the meantime, if you have questions, shoot me an e-mail.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Writing Main Characters Based on Yourself

A reader e-mailed me to ask, is it normal to always write about a character who's basically me?

I hope so, because I did it all the time.

I think this is an easy thing to do for a couple reasons:

1. We often use writing as a way of exploring ourselves. Our thoughts, feelings, principles, etc. Creating a main character who resembles you is an easy way to go about this.

2. The old adage, "Write what you know." Who do we know better than ourselves?

While it's certainly normal, I eventually figured out that I was limiting myself by making all my main characters me. When I started writing characters with different family backgrounds, religious viewpoints, etc., I stretched my creativity and made my story bigger than myself.

My first attempts at this was Me, Just Different, so I'd say it paid off big time.

So if you routinely create characters who are similar to you, try branching out and see what happens.
Have a question? E-mail me.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Taking a sick day

Today I'd normally answer a reader question. Instead I'm doing whatever the blog version is of calling in sick. My head's really fuzzy and congested, so I'm not sure how intelligently I could answer your questions anyway. Back to reguarly scheduled programming on Thursday. In the meantime, if you think of a question you'd like answered, feel free to contact me.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Writing a Good Ending

So since we’ve covered Writing a Good First Line, Writing a Good Opening Scene, and Writing a Good Middle, it’s only natural that we talk about what makes a good ending.

This is one of those topics that has a variety of answers because a good ending is more of a feel than a formula (in most cases – more on that later), and because what works for some readers won’t work for others. Like some reviewers thought my first book, Me, Just Different had a great, satisfying ending. Others felt like it left on a cliffhanger. But there are some basics we can go over.

One is if you’re writing a romance, they have to end up together. This is why I said an ending is sometimes a formula because romance is: Boy gets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back. Otherwise, it’s simply not a romance. Gone with the Wind—not a romance. Scarlett and Rhett would have to be reconciled for it to be a romance. But while there’s the sense of inevitability in a romance, there also needs to be an unpredictability about how it all unfolds. Which is why great romance writing is truly an art form.

Most readers I talk to prefer happy endings. And yet Jodi Picoult continues to sell books by the millions, so…?

So let’s use the term “satisfying ending.” Look at some your favorite books, read the last chapter or so, and analyze what it is that makes the ending so good. Alternately, you can reread the last chapter of a book you thought sucked and see what didn't work for you. Sometimes I feel like I learn more from reading crappy fiction than I do really stellar stuff.

Actually, I just finished reading a generally sucky book that had a decent ending. Here’s a few things I gleaned from it:

1. The ending highlighted change in the main character. We saw how she was different inside, and that makes me feel like I hadn’t wasted the last 200ish pages reading her journey.

2. Not only did we see how she had changed inside, we saw how the world had changed for her. We saw glimpses of what might be different from now on.

3. While the ending was not picture perfect, the author did a good job of bringing forth the shreds of happiness that we could. Was our main character 100% happy with how things had turned out? No, but she could see the silver linings. I happen to think these are the best kind of endings. Maybe her boyfriend dumped her, but she’s now on speaking terms with her best friend. Maybe she still suffers from giving up her baby for adoption, but she sees how happy the adopted parents are and that makes her feel good.

So those are a couple things that you can check your ending for, or that you can work toward if you’re still a long ways away from typing THE END.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Getting Published as a Teen

This is a question that came up in the discussion of another post: Can you get published when you’re a teenager? It’s something that I wondered about—that I hoped for—as a teen, so I’m guessing there are a few of you out there who’d like to know the answer.

Here’s why it’s difficult:

You have to be every bit as good as writers who have spent years and years honing their craft. People who have gotten creative writing degrees in college, who have spent money to go to writers’ conferences and seminars. And people who have lots of life experience to draw on.

I remember about five years ago when I read an article about a group of teen girls who’d written a novel for teens. In the interview, they were quoted as saying something along the lines of how it seemed dumb to them that only 30-year-olds were writing for teens when they (fellow teenagers) understood them so much better.

I don’t remember any of the girls’ names. I don’t remember the title of the book. I remember nothing except what appeared to me as an obvious marketing ploy. The publishing house, whoever they were, saw a great marketing angle and took it. My guess is—and since I don’t remember names, I could be totally wrong on this—none of these girls have a writing career five years later. And my guess is that you would rather have a career as a writer than become some marketing strategy.

Here’s why you might not really want to be published just yet:

I know it sounds like crazy talk, but bear with me.

1. Being a published writer is totally different than I thought it would be. Don’t get me wrong, it’s awesome. But it’s hard. I’m not talking about the writing part. The writing part is a breeze. If that was all I had to do, how sweet life would be. But guess what? Books don’t just land on bookstore shelves and sell themselves. Selling those books is up to me. Yeah, my publisher does marketing stuff too, like ads in magazines, but I’m not their only author. This means the bulk of marketing efforts (and marketing expenses) fall to me.

2. Unfortunately, there’s no IQ test for posting reviews on Amazon.com. Oh, if only there were… Same goes with blogs. Anybody—anybody—can start a book reviewing blog and say whatever moronic thing they want about your book. In high school, this would have totally crushed me. But after spending several years in a critique group, going through the horrendous process of finding an agent, my skin has thickened.

3. Time. Wow, does this job suck away the time. And if a publishing house signs you, they’re expecting you to treat this like a job. Much like you have school that demands your time and attention, I have a 2-year-old daughter who demands mine. When she’s sleeping, I’m working. I work evenings, weekends, whatever it takes to make deadlines and stay on top of my very demanding job. Guys … this isn’t something you need in high school. Or even college. Those are days for staying up too late and sleeping past noon. For spending countless hours playing Wii. Being an author is not a pressure you need.

Okay, so then what’s the point of even trying…?

If you’re like me, the above points were really discouraging and you’re contemplating not even trying anymore. DON’T DO IT. No, none of the stuff I wrote in high school got published. Yeah, it all sucks. But if I hadn’t been so focused on writing in high school, I never would’ve received my first book contract at such a young age. (Twenty-four.) You learn more with each word you write, with each story you plot, with each manuscript you complete. If you’re serious about writing, do it. Write.

Obviously, I think there’s great purpose in writing as a teenager. It’s why I started this blog. It’s why I care about questions and fears and concerns that you have. Please feel free to e-mail me.