Thursday, April 28, 2016

Mysteries of the Goldfish Pond (And Your Draft) by Dianne K. Salerni

I’ve been sitting beside my goldfish pond a lot. Partly, it’s because I’m mulling over my current WIP. Partly, it’s because I’m waiting for the monster to reappear.

It’s amazing how mysterious a self-contained pond with no access to the outside world can be. You’d think we’d know what was in it. Oh, frogs come and go on their own. They can hop away. But fish can’t come and go as they please, right?

Not true. Every year, we see things swimming around in there and think, Where did that come from? One year we were visited by a school of two dozen Mystery Fish that seemed to fall into our pond from outer space. Someone suggested to us that their eggs may have been carried into the pond on the feet of a bird or in the leaves of an aquatic plant. Three years later, the entire school disappeared. Beamed back up to their home planet? Possibly. (Although it might have been a heron.)

Also goldfish change color over time. Babies are often black or gray and then develop markings later. Keeping track of them is hard, since their color changes so rapidly it sometimes seems as if new fish have appeared from nowhere.

In addition, my daughter has a habit of dumping into our pond critters she a) wins at carnivals b) finds in streams. We think that’s where the monster came from.

It crawled out from under a rock last week. It was only visible when the sun shone directly on it, because it was the same color as the rocks beneath. It had giant claws and numerous pairs of scuttling feet …

It was a crayfish, maybe eight inches long.

I vaguely remember that my daughter may have caught some crayfish once … last year? … the year before? … They were an inch long at most at the time. They sank to the bottom of the pond, vanished under a rock, and were never seen again. Until now.

I keep hoping to get another glimpse of it. Them. Who knows how many there are? Or how big?

Of course there’s a parallel to writing here and everything I need to make my WIP come together.  The closed system (that crappy first draft) – the fish that change colors (revisions) – the monsters out of the deep (eep, my subconscious?) – and the visitors that arrive from bird’s feet, eggs attached to pond plants, or critters dumped into the water by adventurers (your beta readers, agents, editors). 

I’m sitting by my pond.

I’m writing.

I’m watching for the monster.


Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Luck and Talent by Kell Andrews

“You’re so talented any agent would be lucky to have you.”

I overheard that the other day, and no, it wasn’t about me! But it struck me because this sentence uses the words “talent” and “luck” in a way that misleads. You don't get representation or a book contract or success just because you're talented, or even by earning it through hard work, deliberate craft, and persistence. You need luck too.

A few years ago, I got an offer of agent representation from the first and only query I ever sent. I might be forgiven for my momentary conviction that my talent was unmistakable – that first agent had seen it, so surely everyone would. That agent was lucky to have me. After one query, my success seemed assured and inevitable.

But it wasn’t. Getting agented quickly wasn’t a sign of genius. It was a stroke of luck. I queried the right agent at the right time – or maybe the wrong one, because that book never sold and that agent – a respectable one with a respectable agency – left the business.

I sent 100 queries for my next book, then another 200, and then I lost count. I did not get another agent. Was I less talented than before? I don’t think so. I think my craft was stronger. Maybe I was less lucky -- my timing was wrong, whether querying after the market had cooled off, or having my email hit a possible right agent's desk right as they spilled a cup of coffee on their sweater.

But I wrote other books, and eventually I got another agent. I sold two books two years apart, and I counted myself lucky.

Along the way, I’ve received more rejections than acceptances by a factor of a hundred or more.  I actually found the first contract offer I received in my junk mail. My email program was so used to rejections that it filed good news away as spam.

And I’m unagented again. Less talented than I was when I still had an agent? I don’t think so. I have more rejections now because I’ve been at this longer. Because I’ve been at it longer, I think I’m better – a better writer, a more resilient person. We writers have to be.

So am I less lucky than I was when I sent that very first query? I don’t think that either. I still have a book coming out June 14, and I'm lucky to be where am I. Sure, I know other people who are more talented, and others who are luckier -- often, the same people. 

I'm hoping to be one of them the next time I query. The odds are always long, but I'm playing a long game. Sometimes luck catches up.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Lessons Learned During 10 Months of Writing, Editing, and Working Extraordinarily Hard by Stephen Bramucci

Steve Underwater
On June 15th of 2015, I started a job as the managing editor of the brand new travel, food, and adventure section at Uproxx.com. Two days later, I received the edit letter for my first middle grade book, Ronald Zupan and the Pirates of Borneo, from my publisher, Bloomsbury.

From the outset, Uproxx proved to be an insanely demanding job.  As a longtime freelancer, I was used to breaks in my day – meetings, calls, errands – and suddenly those things fell out of my routine. I was always on. I don’t think I’d have been fired if I’d taken some breaks, I don’t even think I would’ve been accused of slacking. I just think that I was new and wanted to excel and responded by becoming so mega-focused that I started eating lunch standing up and worked until my eyes ached.

Meanwhile, Ronald Zupan required some major edits. I had a series of substantive changes to wrap my head around and Uproxx swallowed up all of my mental energy. I was drawing water out of a well and at the end of every day the well was bone dry. Around this time, I remember talking to other writers about my friend Varian Johnson, who writes, works a full-time job, and has kids, and I’d say, “It’s insane to me how he does it all and still manages to be the nicest guy on the planet. I just don’t have that level of capacity. Also, I really need eight hours of sleep per night.”

For the first three months, the entire summer of 2015, I floundered. I struggled to toggle between Uproxx and novel writing. I wasn’t getting quality work done on Ronald Zupan on weekdays and the work I did on weekends was fragmented and shaky. Then an important thing happened: My book editor sent me a letter, asking when she could see my edits. To which I responded like any mature, thoughtful, well-balanced adult would: I freaked out and I dove headlong into a pit of despair. Writing a novel has been a dream that I’ve worked very, very hard for. Was I going to screw it up by missing my deadline? Moreover, I loved everything about my editor and publisher, the last thing I wanted to do was frustrate them.

After particularly hard-on-myself day, I was visited by my dad, in a dream. It was the first dream I’ve had of him since his death in 2014. In the dream, I laid all my angst bare and asked him, “What do I do?” He simply smiled and said, “You’re doing it.”

Upon waking up, I took a look at things and realized that my dad was right. I was doing my best and learning and improving and “doing it.” I hadn’t even realized that, but when I looked at it I could see that I was indeed making progress. Somewhere along the way, I’d gradually learned the secret of Varian and artists-with-day-jobs everywhere: What do you do when your well is bone dry at the end of the day (before you’ve gotten to give an ounce of energy to your creative work)? It’s simple, really: You dig a deeper well. You expand your available level of output…somehow. Over the next few months, I learned to sleep less and still function, I learned to toggle between Steve Bramucci novelist and Steve Bramucci managing editor more quickly, and I taught myself – through what can either by viewed as “admirable force of will” or “almost-decimating fear of failure” – to increase my max capacity.

You dig a deeper well. You’re doing it.

Those are good mantras.

Since September, when I really started in on the edits on Ronald Zupan, I’ve worked harder than any other seven-month swing in my life. In the process, I’ve learned a few things about this craft of ours, both through my own work and through editing a team of writers who I absolutely adore. Here are five realizations about the writing life from the past 10 months:

  1. Short sentences are objectively better. David Foster Wallace was able to write incredibly long sentences that unfolded methodically and therefore felt like short sentences. Maybe you can too. But just in case you can’t, don’t trot out your long sentence in the first paragraph unless you know, down to your very bones, that it works. Having edited more that 2500 short, medium, and long form articles in the past 10 months, I’ll tell you this: Cutting sentences length in the first two paragraphs of a piece of writing is my #1 most common action. The fact is that 9/10 times short sentences are clearer and I’ve just never heard a reader say, “The writing was too clear.”
  2. Reading work aloud in front of an audience is the best way to self-edit. When a writer is working on a long form piece, I’ll ask them to read it to a spouse, friend, or family member. The piece always, always, comes back shorter and I never miss what was cut. I was recently asked to cut a few thousand words from Ronald Zupan and, since the scenes are all pretty locked, I had to do it on a line-by-line basis. I read the book start to finish to my girlfriend and she helped me slice every single superfluous word. I’m sure that no one will miss them. 
  3. You will get lucky. I hope some of my writers feel lucky to have found me. I know I feel lucky to have found my editor at Bloomsbury. Working with her has been a true joy – from day one. And this, to me, seems like a simple proof of the law of averages: There are a lot of variables in writing. Statistically speaking, some will work out your way and others won’t. This might feel obvious but it’s also very important: It’s a relief to know that you’ll catch a break or the ball will bounce your way at some point (particularly because you will also, statistically speaking, get unlucky at some point). Another important note here: The harder you work, the less you’ll need luck, which perhaps makes it easier for luck to arrive.
  4. You can do it. Over the past few months in particular, I’ve been digging the well from which I draw the energy to write deeper and deeper by the day. It hasn’t been without sacrifices. I’ve canceled so many plans that my friends now forget to invite me to things. I’ve hurt people I love by not returning calls promptly, or writing emails, or showing up to parties. I’ve demanded an insane amount of patience from my girlfriend, who works very hard herself and has every right to wish that weekends could feel more relaxing than they have. But I’ve done it all in the name of my artistic dreams and none of the relationships I mention has gone terminal. The people who love you will understand, they’ll accept your apologies, and they’ll celebrate with you when it’s all over. (I’m not advocating treating everyone in your life like the boy treats the tree in The Giving Tree, I’m just saying: If you’re working on a very big project, people will stick with you.) 
  5. We all “need eight hours of sleep per night”…but we can live without it. Looking back, I think it’s almost quaint that I would suggest that other people somehow didn’t require as much sleep as me. Of course Varian wants his eight hours too. But he wants to be a writer, and a good dad, and a good engineer worse. So he does those things.  He digs a deeper well. 
I wish you all deep wells, nourished by inspiration and joy and when, when the going gets tough, and your dreams are caught in a resource conflict with other parts of your life, I hope you give yourself some credit. “You’re doing it.”


Monday, April 18, 2016

Action Matters by Robert Lettrick

When we hear the word action, our brains may conjure up images of Bruce Willis jumping off the Nakatomi Tower with a fire hose cinched around his waist. Or maybe it’s Stallone, inexplicably slathered in coconut oil, blasting the bad guys with a machine gun. Or possibly Vin Diesel behind the wheel of an expensive sports car, jumping from one Abu Dhabi skyscraper to another.
When it comes to writing middle-grade fiction, action is so much more than fast cars, explosions and corny catch phrases. For many children, the excitement and energy action brings to a story are critical for a successful reading experience. And critical for their transition into lifelong readers. 

According to a recent Scholastic survey, American children show a decline in reading for enjoyment after the age of eight. The numbers are troubling. “62 percent of six to eight-year-olds enjoy reading books for fun, but that percentage drops to just 46 percent for kids aged nine to 11”. Why the sudden lack of interest in books? There are several factors, but the survey singled out the fact that parents often stop reading to their children just around the age when kids begin to hear the siren call of electronic devices. But what does this steep drop-off mean for writers? It’s like the old Spider-Man motto says: “With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility.” We are tasked with the privilege of turning children into lifelong readers, and action is one of our most useful tools to get them over that dangerous 8-11 divide.  

With a background in sequential art for comics and storyboarding, it should come as no surprise that I love writing action. If writing action is something you struggle with here are a few tips that might help. 

1). If you’re writing a book that would be classified as action/adventure, it’s not a bad idea to follow the trend of summer blockbuster movies and start your book off with a gripping action scene. It’s a great way to hook a reader from the get-go. Movies like Jaws, Star Wars, and Raiders of the Lost Ark all started off with a bang (or more accurately a chomp, a pew pew and whatever sound a giant rolling boulder makes—crunch, I guess).

2). Cliffhangers are useful for prodding reluctant readers from chapter to chapter. It may be a tad gimmicky to end every chapter with the character literally hanging off a cliff (or in some form of mortal peril), and I’m not endorsing that approach at all. But we should make effort to reward readers for moving from one chapter to the next. This can be achieved in several ways: A literal life-or-death scenario, the promise of an important reveal, the introduction of a compelling character, the threat of looming danger, a discovery, etc.  

3). Action can act as seasoning for otherwise “quiet” moments. For example, in Harry Potter and The Chamber of Secrets, during the scene in Hagrid’s hut when the characters discussed the racist overtones of the word mudblood (one of the most serious and poignant discussions in the entire series), Rowling decided Ron should be belching up slugs into a basin, the victim of a boomeranged charm. In this way, Rowling was able to infuse some levity into an otherwise serious scene. The action was minor but well-placed and purposeful.

4). Onomatopoeia, or words that sound like the action they describe, are never more effective than they are in kid lit. BLAM, KA-POW, SPLAT are as close as writers get to painting a picture with a single word and kids absolutely adore them. Use them early and often. 

5). Action doesn’t have to be telegraphed. Writers like Tolkien and Lewis spent hundreds of pages preparing their readers for epic battles, but just like in life, action can come out of nowhere and when you least expect it, and in an instant, can change the course of your story. Earthquakes, car accidents, ninjas… whatever works. If you find your plot is too linear and predictable, don’t be afraid to alter course with action.

6). My last suggestion for enhancing your action chops may seem a little strange, but from my own experience, nothing beats reading comic books to develop a sense of pacing that will resonate with kids. Comics, specifically those in the superhero genre, are typically 22 pages long and writers in the medium naturally develop an innate sense of pacing and a finely tuned balance between drama and action. Now that a single issue of a popular monthly can reach into the $4.00 range, comic book writers must routinely deliver on all fronts or risk losing their readers for good. A well-written comic has all of the elements of a good kids’ book: Compelling drama, strong character development, dynamic action, humor, fun and more, usually capped off with a powerful cliffhanger. That’s a lot to pack into 22 pages, but like soap operas and other serials, comic books have to attract and captivate an audience and keep them coming back for more.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

The Enneagram for character development by Joanna Roddy



I have to confess, I put little stock in personality tests. They seem too generic, like magazine horoscopes that, with a little finagling, could apply to anyone. The tests are fun to take, but they're more like acceptable vanity exercises. Only the saints and psychologists among us really dig into understanding types other than their own. At best we say: "Oh you're an INFJ? I'm an ENFJ!" and remark on our shared traits and the differences between introverts and extroverts. 

But recently a psychologist friend introduced me to a personality system she uses in her practice, and I have found it incredibly helpful, both personally and in my relationships. Recently I decided to use it in my writing as well. I was having a hard time making certain characters distinct and clear. Using this system, two-dimensional characters suddenly popped up off the page. I began to understand what motivated them, how they would react in situations, what they might say (or not say), what vice they might gravitate toward, and what core virtue would emerge under the right circumstances. In short, it was character development magic. 

The Enneagram:

The personality typing system is called the Enneagram, and it articulates nine personality types that are interrelated. In an extremely condensed form, here are the nine types and their core motivations:

Type 1: The Reformer/ Perfectionist. "I must be/ do right."
Type 2: The Helper/ Giver. "I must help others."
Type 3: The Achiever/ Motivator/ Performer. "I must succeed."
Type 4: The Individualist/ Artist/ Romantic. "I must be unique."
Type 5: The Observer/ Investigator/ Thinker. "I must understand the world around me."
Type 6: The Loyalist/ Skeptic. "I must be secure."
Type 7: The Enthusiast/ Adventurer. "I must seek new experiences."
Type 8: The Challenger/ Leader. "I must be in control."
Type 9: The Peacemaker/ Mediator. "I must have/make peace."

Each personality type perceives these motivations as the means for them to be safe, to have meaning in their lives, or to be loved.

There are a lot more details to each type, like key fears and desires, and basic virtues and vices. Check out this cheat sheet from Wikipedia (click to enlarge):


Integration/ Disintegration:

What I like about the Enneagram is its nuance and complexity. We all know that a healthy or growing person and an unhealthy or stressed person behave in totally different ways, even if they share personality traits. The Enneagram predicts what traits emerge under stress and during personal growth.  Every Enneagram type uniquely integrates to the healthiest characteristics of another type and disintegrates to the least healthy behaviors of a different type.



For example, threes integrate to a six and disintegrate to a nine. Achieving threes can be self-focused, but with maturity, they look more like other-focused healthy sixes. Threes can be driven, but under stress they begin to look like unhealthy nines: disengaged and apathetic.

Wings:

Enneagram types can have an even greater degree of complexity by demonstrating traits from one of the numbers adjacent to them, which are called wings. The wing augments the primary personality. So you can have an observant five with an artistic four wing, which might produce a professorial art school type, or an achieving three with a helpful two wing might be an front-person for a non-profit organization. These are gross generalizations, but I find the flexibility of wings accounts for a wide array of personality manifestations, even among people who share a primary type. It keeps it all from becoming too canned and stereotyped, but not so general as to become meaningless. 

In Writing:

The Enneagram goes much farther and deeper than this crash course, and those who are interested could spend a lot of time learning about it. I think most of us instinctively pick up on others' personalities, especially writerly types who want to write believable characters. If people were clocks, we immediately perceive the difference between a cuckoo clock, a grandfather clock, a digital clock and an alarm clock. We get, on a basic level, what makes them tick. The Enneagram, then, is effectively like a screwdriver that removes the backing so we can see the actual mechanics at work. 

The most helpful aspect of the Enneagram for me is the basic fears and desires. It helps me to know how a character is going to react to the sticky situations I put them in. For example, one of my characters is an adventurous seven. When his parents want him to go into the military for a war he doesn't agree with, his response is to hop a plane out of the country. A seven's core fear is being trapped or in pain and their spontaneity can make them impulsive, so this response makes sense for him, drastic though it may seem. Another of my characters is a loyal six. A six's basic fear is making the wrong decision. They need guidance to orient themselves. In this situation, my six character would have struggled with living up to his parents' expectations. In fear of making the wrong decision for himself, he probably would have enlisted despite his own reservations. And that would have made for an entirely different plot.

A Warning: 

Fully fledged characters will still surprise us. They should never act against their own character, but they might step out of the box that a personality type wants to put them in. A challenger-leader eight who tends toward domineering might unexpectedly resist the urge to step into an argument, which would mean something substantial for that character. Perhaps they are moving in their direction of integration to look like a helping two, or they've newly realized that winning a fight is less effective than leading by example. This flexibility is how we avoid stereotypes and wooden characters. I like that the Enneagram allows for the changes brought on by maturing or devolving or blending a couple of personality types together. But once these type of tools have helped you build your writing, like scaffolding, they should fall away and let the real, living world on the page play itself out as it must. Using the Enneagram as a tool, not as a law, is the best way. 


Resources:

Start with the Enneagram Institute site and the Enneagram of Personality Wikipedia page. From there, there are lots of books, sites, and articles available to learn more about the Enneagram. And here's a link the the long version of the test if you want to find out what Enneagram type you are and to a shorter version and another type of short test. The last one is my favorite. I apologize in advance for the productive time you will inevitably lose on those tests, but if it gets you to an understanding of good character building, then I think you don't have to feel too guilty about it. 

Please leave a comment if you've used the Enneagram or other personality typing for character building! I'd love to hear your insights. And here's something I'm deeply curious to know: do the main characters you write have the same personality type as you do? Happy writing!