Friday, March 28, 2014

The Bray-Stiefvater Effect

Libba Bray and Maggie Stiefvater. They are the Bray-Stiefvater Effect.

I read them and I think, oh, there it is. There's the definition of the difference between Not-Ready-For-Prime-Time writing and The Real Thing. The standard of excellence.

Because each has a talent for drawing me into the guts of a sensation, for dissecting feeling. Their observations of these moments can be vibrant or hushed or somewhere in between, but they always pack a physical wallop.

For example, there's Bray's description of the wind - the wind! - in her opening scenes of The Diviners. She devotes several pages to the wind and its travels out of the house where the careless socialite awakens Naughty John. It's lyrical, stunning, a song in itself, the kind of prose that, if someone were reading it to you out loud,  might cause you to sway without even knowing it.

If I had written that much about the wind, it would likely have been clumsy and drawn well-deserved admonitions to not be so "internal". The wind, of course, is not internal, but our feelings about it are. Our observations of it are. But Bray makes the wind an actual character, whose movement is action and capriciousness is palpable, just like Evie's and Theta's. She makes the wind matter, which only a skillful writer can do.

And then there's Stiefvater. Her characters' needs and wants and internal voices are so vivid and so well entwined in dramatic, fast-paced narrative, you hardly know she actually had to design them, build them piece by piece. They each seem carved of one branch of driftwood, with no wood glue or nails.

I actually think I KNOW Gansey from The Raven Boys! I have said the same things as he - when he and Adam fight, and he defends his comfort in using big words naturally, and he tells Adam he's sorry his father didn't use three-syllable words around him. I too have grappled with the guilt of privilege. (Let's be clear -  my privilege is that I was raised by intelligent, thoughtful people. I am comfortable, but not rich. Rich would be nice. I think.)

Also from Steifvater's The Raven Boys:
Of Blue, "...something behind her lungs felt icy. A dangerous, sucking sadness seemed to be opening up inside her: grief or regret."

And of a terrible moment between Whelk and Gansey: "For a moment, there was no time: just the space between when one breath escaped and another rushed in."

These sentences by themselves are not the drama. The drama, the story, is Death, Ghosts, Redemption, Pain, Loss, Abuse, Guns, Psychics,and Supernatural Earth. It's amazing stuff. But the most well-crafted moments describe what's inside and how her people process all of that.

THAT'S what I go back to when I edit. I ask myself whether I have met the bar of the process, or rather, can my reader feel the silent moments  - the ones between the external, dramatic plot movements?

And I ask myself. do I have the equivalent of the lyrical not-character like the wind, that quite literally take my breath and stand a chance of taking someone else's as well?

So far the answer is not yet. Which is why I keep going back to the drawing board. I am confident I will one day, but I'm still working.

There are, of course, other authors whose work I look up to, but these are two I wanted to talk about today.

Who are the authors that make up your literary bar of excellence? What do they do that you use to measure your own writing?

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

#PitchMadness Lessons Learned

First, let me say a HUGE congratulations to those who earned the 60 slots in the agent round. Well done, writers, WELL DONE. So happy for you!

For those of us who didn't make it this time: you've heard it before, but I'm going to repeat:
Don't. Give. Up.
(I say that as much for myself as everyone else). It's tempting to feel fatally discouraged, but,
Just Keep Writing, Keep Querying.

As we all know, the #PitchMadness feed during the slush read was a treasure trove of good advice, but sometimes hard to follow because there were so many other conversations happening simultaneously.

L.L. McKinney - otherwise known as @Tangynt - graciously agreed to distill some of her thoughts for us.

Before I get started, want to be clear that anything said is my personal viewpoint on the matter. I am no expert of final authority in any case, and my opinions are my own.

1) What were the top 5 problems/weaknesses you saw in pitches?

Vague phrases or terms that don't give the reader a sense of the story. Saying the character has to face evil, defeat darkness, will risk it all, discover mysterious pasts or secrets tells the reader nothing. This goes for saying someone's world was turned upside down/rocked, or their lives will "never be the same" as well. These describe almost every book ever written in some way. Trying to be mysterious often results in being unclear, confusing, or downright boring. Details set stories apart. 

No mention of the stakes. What does the character have to lose if they don't take action? Saying a character must solve a mystery, uncover a truth, discover what it means to be loved, unlock their past, is only part of the equation. That's the setup, and people tended to stop there. Follow through! Tell the reader WHY all of this happens.They why is often the draw.

Too much/little information. Everything in moderation and all of that. The pitch is to hook the reader and provide a glimpse of what the book is about, not tell the whole story. Manuscripts are complex things with colorful casts, complex plots, and interlocking subplots, but all of that cannot be squeezed into a pitch and folks shouldn't even try. Pick the MAIN conflict and goal and focus on that. The rest will be revealed when the book is read. On the flip side, there's a balance to these things and not giving enough info is just as bad as packing it in too tight. Refer to the previous statement about trying to be mysterious.

Rhetorical questions. Sometimes they work, most of the time they don't. Especially if said question is put to the reader in a "what if you/your" phrasing. "What if you met the love of your life one night but didn't get his name or number?" Firstly, I know exactly what I would do, so ends any mystery about it all. Secondly, this isn't about me, it's about this character, who I now know nothing about.

This meets That pitches. Comparisons are great, don't get me wrong, but if I've not read the book or seen the show/movie, I have no idea what to think of a manuscript. Using widely known stories for comparison will help. Some agents/editors auto-reject if a current worldwide bestseller is used, say The Mortal Instruments meets The Hunger Games. This doesn't bother me personally, but to avoid said auto-reject try substituting a popular story for one that's well known. Buffy meets Thunderdome for instance. Both are well known, but neither are part of any current trend fever.
2) Top 5 problems/weaknesses in first 250?

Passive voice. The ball was thrown: passive. He threw the ball: active. It can be taken further with verb choice. He hurled/chucked/lobbed/tossed/flung the ball.

They were standing in the hall: passive. They stood in the hall: active. Verb choice, they milled/gathered/congregated in the hall.

Research passive and active voice to get rid of the former and better utilize the latter.

Telling instead of showing. Saying a character is scared, or embarrassed, or angry doesn't pain a picture for the reader. Show them trembling as they crouch in a corner, heat branding their face while they can't make eye contact, or their fingers curl into fists as their jaw clenches around a curse.The same works for setting. "It's cold" should be icy temperatures biting exposed skin or eating through layers of cloth.

Vocabulary unique to the world or story that isn't explained. This was a big thing with fantasy and science fiction stories more than others. Made up words and such is totally fine, but without context clues to help the reader understand what's going on/being said, the story may as well be written in another language altogether. That goes for steampunk and such as well.

Prose in need of tightening. The internet is full of lists containing ugly/fluff words unnecessary in writing. They take up space and slow the pace. For instance: 

"She blinked her eyes as she backed away from him, certain that he was the one who killed those other women."

"She recoiled, certain he'd killed those women."

The sentence is physically shorter and reads quicker.

Info dumping was another issue. This can cover a lot of things, but I'll focus on two that cropped up the most, in my opinion: Lots of description, and background information.

Personally, I don't need a paragraph containing every detail of the character's appearance on the first page. Hair color and length, eye color, height, weight, etc., work that stuff in as you go along, and those aren't the important bits in this moment. Give me a name, gender, where they are, how old they are, and who they're with. Those last two can even come a little later, but not too far.

Keep in mind how any time taken to describe something or someone is time taken from the action. Imagine watching a movie, and it's getting good. You're on the edge of your seat, attention rapt. Then the person you're watching the movie with pauses it to point out/explain something about the character, or the setting, or how this guy is like this because blah-blah-blah happened to him in the past. 
I've gone into full blown melt-your-face mode on people for pulling me out of the story/world with stunts like that. Am I going to miss anything without their explanation? Is the information they have to share that important right now? Half the time the explanation given is something like "But I want to make sure you understood what was going on so you wouldn't miss the big picture." Thanks, but I got it.
3) Since we learn so much about our own writing when critiquing others, did you have any special "aha" moments that made you want to go back and edit something in your current WiPs?

Nothing in particular. I tend to go back and look for everything I mentioned and more when editing because--whether folks like to admit it or not--all ten of those issues crop up in first drafts. I'm sure I have loads of unique vocab I haven't properly explained, passive voice, or prose that needs tightening and what not in my current WIP. Rounds of editing and revision help smooth  that out.
4) What was your favorite part of doing the slush reading?
Saying yes. And not just yes but omg, this right here, pick it pick it PICK IT!

THANK YOU so much for your time, @tangynt!!

About L.L. McKinney:
Fantasy is my first love, particularly urban fantasy. There’s nothing like imagining the impossible happening right here at home. Though science fiction is a close second.

Very close.

About me, let’s see, I’m a freelance writer, a published poet, and a core member of Novel Clique, a writers group that meets weekly here in the Midwest. I’m also a member of YA Lit Chat, and an affiliate member of the Oklahoma Writers Federation, Inc. via Midwest Pen and Ink. So many groups and clubs, almost makes me sound social, doesn’t it?

What else, I live the single life in Kansas, surrounded by more nieces and nephews than I know what to do with. I write for the joy of it, and when it is time for my voice to be heard, God will provide the means.

He always has.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Wrangle the Word Count

I've been trolling the #PitchMadness feed these last few days. It's fascinating.

The (Amazing) slush readers are throwing out tidbits here and there about what works in a pitch and first 250.Some of it we've come to expect:

  1. Avoid cliches (don't start with a crash! Or a dream! Or looking in the mirror!)
  2. The first 250 really have to be TIGHT. Eliminate Dead Wood!
  3.  Know your genre
  4. Watch your word count

The last pops up repeatedly - seems people are writing long books.

I sympathize with the long writers - I am one of them. The YA ms I am currently querying (and entered in #PitchMadness) was originally 125K.
Wow. And I had no idea that was a bad thing!! Until the first agent I queried very kindly told me I needed to cut the book in half.
I did cut dramatically, and, no surprise to my seasoned readers, made the book a billion times better. It is now 80K, which is within that genre's target.

So, for those who don't know or those who need a reminder, here are links to some great word count resources:

 If  you discover you need to do some trimming, get to it - and don't enter another contest or query again until you do. No joke - your ms WILL be a joke if you don't wrangle the word count.

Next week - Lessons Learned from #PitchMadness

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Be Nice

Did you guys sees this?


Ugh. Seriously?

First off, I've been fortunate - the people I know in this amazing writing community are all professional and polite.

But every now and then I see agents online saying things like this, from Julia Weber of j. a. weber literaturagentur in Germany:

And I think, really?

And then I think, yah, I guess those people are out there. People who either didn't ever learn what professional behavior looks like or people who let their emotions get ahead of their rational responses.
People who send hate mail or do creepy calling after a rejection, plus the people Ms. Weber is talking about, the ones who ignore the polite requests NOT to call instead of sending a query.

What exactly do they think they'll get in response to their tirades or complaints?

I mean, this? "Oh, that writer was so awful/creepy/weird to me, I think I'll  take him or her on as a client! That kind of behavior surely motivates brilliant writing."


So even though you all - my readers - are cool people and don't do these things, I have to rant because - argh. The whole thing about one bad apple, you know?

I wanted to say to Ms. Weber, there are so many of us out here toiling at our WiP's and excited for the day we can follow your sub guidelines to show you our work in the hope that we can build a career together.

I'm sure she knows that. But I felt bad for her anyway.

Yes. It's completely humiliating to get rejections, especially lots of them. And as many times as people say it's a subjective business, and you  know it's not personal, you still want to cry and feel like the worst writer in the world. But take it out on the agent?  Please. Don't.

This, in my opinion, is a better coping strategy.

Did anyone else see these posts from Julia Weber? What did you think? 
What other coping strategies do you have for your rejections?

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Pitch Critique - Michelle Hauck

Michelle Hauck is with us today - yay!

For those of you don't, you should go follow her on Twitter: @Michelle4laughs. She was the "Snow" half of the "Sun vs Snow" contest last month - a terrific contest that resulted in many requests!! She also hosts Query Kombat and Nightmare on Query Street.

She's a great writer and gives really smart, targeted feedback - I know because I've had the benefit of her critiques!!!

So - get your pitches in! First 10 get critiqued. For those of you getting ready for #PitchMadness, remember your pitches need to be 35 words - that's a little different from the traditional pitch party of 140 words.

After Michelle is finished with her round, feel free to comment as well. The more the merrier!

Here's how this works:

1) Post your pitch in the comments section.  Tell us your genre: YA, MG, or NA. And for reference, tell us your ms title.
2) The first 10 to post will get a critique from Michelle. As I said, after she leaves feedback, I hope others will leave feedback as well - the more the merrier.
3) Use the "reply" button to do this rather than making a new comment - I am hoping that will help us keep the feedback organized and easy to follow. Just to be sure, reference the ms title you're critiquing to minimize potential for mix up!
3) As always, please keep your feedback constructive, not mean.

For those of you polishing pitches for #PitchMadness Clue Edition hosted by Brenda Drake, Sharon Johnston, Summer Heacock, and Rebecca Weston, the contest rules and info are HERE .