Friday, May 29, 2015

GUEST: Harrison Demchick, Editor Etc. The Godzilla Effect: How Climaxes, Twists, and Turning Points Work (and How They Don’t)

For all the novelists out there struggling to work out that brilliant, unforgettable climax, here’s an idea: Why not just use Godzilla?
Think about it. You want your climax to be exciting and surprising, right? Well, Godzilla is exciting. You can get all kinds of excitement from a giant atomic lizard stomping its way across your carefully constructed settings. And if your novel happens to take place in, say, Victorian-era England, then Godzilla is pretty damn surprising. You’d better believe your readers won’t see it coming.
So why doesn’t every author just toss Godzilla into the climax of every book?
Well, it would be repetitive. And there are probably copyright concerns. But the real reason is that there’s much more to a climax than being exciting and surprising.
Narrative Relevance
The climax, of course, is part of our basic plot structure. It’s preceded by the inciting incident and rising action and followed by falling action and denouement. But what we need to keep in mind is that these elements are not five checkpoints to hit over the course of your novel. They’re connected intricately to one another by a concept we call cause and effect.
In short, everything that happens is the effect of what precedes it and the cause of what follows.
This means that inciting incident is the start of a chain reaction that culminates in the climax. The climax, then, is the inevitable result—eventually, the effect—of that incident two hundred or three hundred or however many pages ago. It needs to be an organic development of the story. And if your novel has included nothing related to the emergence of a giant scaly monster, then chances are Godzilla doesn’t have any real role to play in your story.
And that’s not just a matter of rules or procedure. It’s this chain reaction that gives a climax its power. Think of it as a domino rally. If you walk over and knock down the last domino on your own, it’s not all that impressive. If the last domino falls due to the five thousand dominos that preceded it, then that same result is amazing.

Setup and Payoff
So what makes a dramatic moment dramatic? The answer is in that domino rally. Dramatic moments, emotional moments, and even funny moments have their basis not in the individual scenes in which they happen, but rather in all the other scenes that lead up to them. This we call setup and payoff, and it applies not only to the climax, but to plot points and turning points throughout the manuscript.
A man completing a marathon is not all that dramatic. But if this man was three hundred pounds at the start of the novel, and his struggle throughout has been losing that weight for the express purpose in running in this marathon—the marathon his late wife had always wanted to run with him—then completing the marathon is a powerful moment. We set it up early so that it pays off later.
Emotion and drama can’t be forced upon your reader. They need to be built, and setup and payoff (alongside cause and effect) is one of the tools we use to do that.
The same applies to Godzilla. Godzilla doesn’t need setup to be destructive, but if the rampage is a tragedy that could easily have been averted were it not for one scientist’s reckless decision early in the story, then the scene has drama. Then, perhaps, it works as a climax.

A Culmination of Everything
Here’s another problem with the Godzilla climax: A climax has a broader role in the narrative than simply being exciting and relevant. Your climax is the culmination of everything that has happened in your novel to this point, not only from a plot perspective but also relative to character.
Your character arc, like your story arc, begins with the inciting incident. The climax, traditionally, is when the protagonist finally succeeds—or doesn’t, in the case of a tragedy. She achieves her wants and needs. She overcomes her flaws, or else specifically fails to do so. And if your entire focus as a writer is ensuring that your climax includes enough explosions to be exciting, then you’re quite likely to forget about how this action within the climax specifically enables your protagonist to accomplish her goal.
That’s not the only consideration. The climax should relate back to your themes. It should address, if not necessarily resolve, your subplots. There’s a reason climaxes can be so complex and difficult: There’s a lot going on. And just throwing in the most exciting thing you can think of is going to fulfill the surface requirements of the moment, but little else.

Surprising vs. Random
Hey, remember that amazing twist in The Sixth Sense where it turned out that Haley Joel Osment was really Godzilla all along?
No? Well, there’s a reason for that, and for that matter a reason that a good twist is so difficult to pull off. Anyone can be surprising in at least some respect. Cheering on tacos at a baseball game is surprising. Walking into your boss’s office on your hands is surprising. But these things are also random, and random is not the kind of surprising that makes for an effective twist.
That’s because an effective twist makes sense relative to the preceding events of your narrative. In fact, it’s based upon those preceding events, just like the climax or any other plot point. But just because a moment emerges as a chain reaction of everything that came before doesn’t mean it’s anticipated or predictable—not if you’re clever, and the clues are well-hidden, and the narrative carefully constructed.
This is what makes twists difficult, and effective twists like the one in The Sixth Sense so memorable. Twists play fair with the reader. Once revealed, they make perfect sense. Go back through the novel and you’ll see how the twist happened. If you’re unable to do this with your own twist, then chances are it’s more random than genuinely surprising, and consequently not as effective as you need it to be.

The Godzilla Effect
The truth of the matter is that every novel has its own Godzillas—and very rarely are they actually Godzilla. Your Godzilla is the plot point that hits the reader square across the jaw thanks to the chain of events that brought us here. It’s the climax that enables your character finally to understand her place in the world. It’s the twist you plotted a mile away that the reader still never saw coming.
It’s exciting, and it’s surprising, but it’s also honest and organic to your story. Keep that in mind and remarkable moments will follow.

Harrison Demchick came up in the world of small press publishing, working along the way on more than fifty published novels and memoirs, several of which have been optioned for film. An expert in manuscripts as diverse as young adult, science-fiction, fantasy, mystery, literary fiction, women's fiction, memoir, and everything in-between, Harrison is known for quite possibly the most detailed and informative editorial letters in the industry—if not the entire universe. Harrison is also an award-winning, twice-optioned screenwriter, and the author of literary horror novel The Listeners (Bancroft Press, 2012). He's currently accepting new clients in fiction and memoir at The Writer’s Ally ( Find him also at and

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Reading and Writing a Child’s Voice

A few weeks ago, I was on a panel of MG fantasy writers at Books of Wonder in NYC, and one of the attendees asked:

How do you manage to write in a voice that engages a child’s interest when all of you (he inserted a half-apologetic smile and shrug here) are well past being children yourselves?

The panel members answered the question individually, but basically we all had the same answer, in slightly different words:

In our heads, we are still children.

To be completely honest, I think that answer should have been obvious. I was, after all, sitting next to a grown man wearing a cardboard Pharaoh’s headdress.

To be a writer of children’s books, you need to be a child inside. You need to write like a child would write (except with the skill of an adult), and you need to read what your child-self wants to read. I’m not saying that I never read adult books, but the vast majority of what I read is chosen to entertain my child-self, not my adult-self.

In fact, an elderly librarian recently confronted me on my reading selections. I had just checked-in a stack of MG fantasy and adventure books and was checking-out more of the same. She looked up at me, squinting in puzzlement, and asked: “This is what you read?”

Behind her, a librarian who knew me cringed in embarrassment. For my part, I was rather shocked by her question. I said, “This is what I write, and this is what I read.”

At first, I thought that was going to suffice, but then she asked, “Why? So you can find ideas?”

I bit back my first thought: Right. I have to steal ideas from other books. Instead of being sarcastic, I gave her a better, truthful answer. “No. This is what I like to read.” I wasn't picking out these books as research or to learn the market or assess the competition. I wanted to read them.

She clucked her tongue and promptly suggested other titles I should try – all of them adult memoirs or literary fiction. The kind of books that makes my child-self want to say, “Yuck. Sounds booooooring.” But I didn’t. Because I respected her reading choices in a way that she wasn’t respecting mine.

For all I know, maybe this librarian comments on everybody’s choices. “Thrillers? Is that what you read? Basket weaving? Is that what you read?” But I doubt it. She disapproved of an adult woman coming into the library and checking out nothing but children’s books and she thought she could improve me by suggesting something of supposed greater value.

That’s exactly the kind of person who cannot write children’s books and who will never capture a voice that engages child readers. The best children’s literature is written by adults who think they are still children, not by adults who want to "help" children grow up.

I am proud of my reading choices. But I do regret that I didn’t snag one of those Pharaoh headdresses from Michael Northrop to wear the next time I visit the library.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

The Power of a Good Verb

Verbs are my favorite parts of speech. (Is it weird to have a favorite part of speech?) Adjectives and adverbs are fun, too, but sometimes they can be unwieldy. It’s easy to go overboard, and too many adjectives and adverbs can really clutter your writing. Verbs, on the other hand, are nice and streamlined. After all, unless you’re using a fragment or incomplete sentence for artistic purposes, your sentence has to contain a verb—and a well-chosen verb can easily take the place of an adverb.

In my opinion, “She stormed to the door,” is not only more streamlined but also more visual and packs more punch than something like, “She marched angrily to the door.” “Stormed” conveys such a definite sense of anger that you don’t need the adverb to tell your readers how your character is feeling. You could argue that “marched” gives off a bit of angry tone too, of course, but I just don’t think it’s as powerful.

But probably my favorite aspect of verbs is their ability to completely alter the tone of a sentence. Compare the following:

Waves tickled the shore.

Waves slammed the shore.

Waves caressed the shore.

This sentence can convey a playful, threatening, or gentle tone simply by changing one word—the all-powerful verb.

There’s a reason job-hunting experts always recommend using “power verbs” on your resume. Words like “engineered,” “developed,” “overhauled,” and “designed” have much more impact than boring old standbys like “organized” and “managed.” In fact, many job-seeking websites compile lists of power verbs as resources for resume writers. Likewise, I think it’s a good idea for fiction writers to compile their own lists of handy power verbs. You can save this in a separate document, one you can easily keep open and refer to when you’re working on your manuscript. You can even categorize your power verbs by the tone you're trying to convey. In scenes of intensity, for example, you’d be better off using vivid, dramatic, attention-grabbing verbs. Instead of following the stranger in the dark trench coat down the street, your main character should stalk him. Instead of her heart pounding when a gunshot goes off, it should throb or hammer. It’s okay if a power verb is a little unusual, too. One of my personal favorite power verbs is “spike.” Sure, it conjures up somewhat violent images, but it’s just so gosh-darn visceral. I love it: “Fear spiked her like a bolt of lightning.”

I also think it makes an impression when a word that isn’t typically a verb is used as one:

With the battlemented towers,

Crimsoning in the morning hours,

Girdled by their southern clime,

Stand a group of olden time.

from “The Vow of the Peacock” by Letitia Elizabeth Landon

“Crimsoning”—awesome! So colorful and visual. Of course, I wouldn’t go overboard with this technique. Personally, I don’t think I’d use it more than once or twice in a manuscript. It’s kind of unusual, and I think it would get distracting if used often. But when you really need to make an impact—what a great tool! Just another example of how powerful verbs can be.

Okay, weird question of the day—do you have a favorite part of speech? Favorite power verb? Please share.

-Dawn Lairamore

photo credit: Lightning 9-9-2011 via photopin (license)

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Scary Debut Author Social Media Mistakes

When you're marketing your debut, your excitement level (and anxiety level) are going to be through the roof. It doesn't matter if you're traditionally published or you did it all on your own, you need to get the word out there at all costs, but are you doing right?? Here's some simple tips that will help you along the way and hopefully save some authors from themselves. 

Social Media Overkill: We've all seen it. The author that won't shut up about their upcoming or newly released book. Whether you are on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, or the like, the message is always the same and it gets, well, annoying! It's totally fine to publicize your new book on social media sites, just be thoughtful about it. Make sure your tweets, posts, etc, aren't just the same message over and over again and you put up posts about your book sparingly. We want to know about you as well as you book. Marketing overkill will cause your friends and followers, to either ignore you or even block you altogether. Show that you're a real person and then will want to know about your book!

Friend me and then immediately ask me to buy your book: I cannot stand this. You send me a friend request on Facebook or you follow me on twitter, I return the favor assuming you're a fellow writer who's just trying to connect, and then, BOOM, seconds later I'm hit with a timeline post or a direct message asking me to buy your book, complete with a link to make it easier on me. Gee, thanks. Please don't do this. This is not the way to garner more book sales. I don't know what others opinions are on this, but I find it very presumptuous and generally I unfriend the person ASAP or just ignore the request. Instead of trying to get instant sales gratification, build a Facebook or Twitter audience well before your book hits the market. This will give you time to build relationships with potential buyers and actually make some valuable connections. Writers aren't dumb, don't treat them as such.

Admonishing the Critics: Yes, book critics can be scary, but please, for the love of all that's good and holy in the world, never ever do this! I can't tell you how many new authors (and even some well published ones) think that it's okay to go after a bad reviewer online. There is no quicker way to burn your career to the ground. Whoever said there is no such thing as bad publicity was a total idiot! Once you start this, it's like a car crash. Everyone will come and watch to see the show and anyone you're connected to will start spreading the word, until it's so out of control, even if you delete all your bad critic bashing juju, it'll still be out there and the sharing of your notorious meltdown will continue. If you start bashing people who gave you a bad review, you lose all credibility as an author, not to mention you look plain crazy! If you get a bad review, even a scathing one, that's okay. Everyone is entitled to their opinion and even if they aren't kind with their words, just ignore it and move on. Even the most celebrated authors get horrible reviews once in a while and if they went after those reviewers online, publicly trying to "bring them down" that would only lead to very bad things for their career. Think about it, it's kind of creepy that an author would take the time to call out a critic, making them way more scarier than the critic. 

I guess my key point in all this is be thoughtful. Think about how all of your actions cause a reaction. Put yourself in your would-be readers' shoes and ask yourself how you would react to all of the above as a reader--not the author.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Building a Writer's Support Network by Donna Galanti

We can write alone but we can’t get published alone.
I have found that while writing is a solitary job, to truly succeed you need to be in a room alone – and surrounded by a crowd.

By Marjory Collins [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The young adult author John Green wrote, “Writing is something you do alone. It’s a profession for introverts who want to tell you a story but don't want to make eye contact while doing it."

This is true in your creative space, but today authors are called on to live uncomfortable public lives which can be hard for us introverts. It IS hard to put yourself out there as a writer when mostly we just want to hideaway in our fiction dream worlds (note to me: give yourself a pep talk for that first school assembly coming up!).

But we are also SO lucky to be writers in an age where the writing community is wonderfully accessible. We can meet authors in person and online and get to know them as mentors. We can engage with our peers and share resources. Yes, it takes away from writing time but it also opens up so many more doors for opportunities to improve our writing and get published.

I’ve found no other job like writing that involves constant change…and constant rejection. You need a positive support buoy to keep swimming in this career or you will sink. Wherever you are in the writing journey, look to elevate yourself now with people that can help you finish that first book and get it to market.  

Where to start? Here’s the crowd that filled my space (and still does) when I was working toward getting published.  

Hundreds of people
I was surrounded by writers of all levels at writer’s conferences like The Philadelphia Writer’s Conference, Push to Publish, and SCBWI. Scared stiff, I went to my first writer’s conference four years ago, The Write Stuff, and met other writers for the first time. From this one event my entire life changed and my network of peers expanded into an amazing circle today. This spring I went back to that conference – as a presenter. I grew into my role as an author, and putting ourselves out there enables us to do this.

Dozens of people
I’ve surrounded myself with dozens of people as an attendee of the Philadelphia Liars Club Writer’s Coffeehouse and at local author readings and book signings. As writers we need to do this! Get out there on a regular basis in small groups and mingle with writers and readers. It’s the human contact we need to keep our spirits up. Sometimes I didn’t always feel like going out of the house, but I’m always glad I did because every time I met a new person or learned something new. I still am.

The same goes for connecting with dozens of folks by joining writer organizations like SCBWI and International Thriller Writers (ITW). Over the past three years I’ve volunteered for ITW doing social media for the debut authors and as a contributing editor to their magazine the Big Thrill. I’m working right now with a volunteer group to propose a children’s thriller track within this organization. Having mentors and peers to boost you up within your genre is gold. Authors like to pay-it-forward, and someday you will too. I was just honored to have given my first book endorsement.

A Dozen People
I fell in love with writing for children on a challenge to myself. I heard of a class called “How To Write A Children’s Novel in 9 Months” and thought – wouldn’t that be different from my writing thrillers for adults? I signed up right away. It was hard. I knew nothing about writing for kids. I hadn’t read children’s books in years. So I read and I wrote, and I learned from my teachers and my peers. And along the way I fell in love with writing for kids. You never know what road you will go down in thinking outside the box, and taking a risk. I’m glad I did.

A Handful of People
For a few years now I’ve been meeting weekly at Wegmans CafĂ© with a wonderful group of women writers. We call ourselves the Weggie Writers (sounds like Peggy not wedgie!). This informal group has grown over time to be eight of us. We don’t all come each week, but when we do we sit and write side-by-side. We give advice, share resources, and offer shoulders to cry on. We are a giant brain collective that elevates each other! Since getting together we’ve celebrated getting agents and book deals and MFA graduations. We are awesome. I hope you have your awesome handful.

Me with some of my super-talented and generous Weggie Writers!

This involves the nitty gritty hauling-water-uphill-barefoot-and-both-ways-in-a-storm work. I hired an amazing developmental editor who went three punchy rounds of edits with Joshua and the Lightning Road over the course of two years. Working with her was also like getting a mini-MFA in writing as I applied what I learned from her in my writing going forward. This was all in-between the rounds of rejections one-by-one from agents, many who provided insightful feedback to make my story stronger. And in-between that was one-on-one feedback gathered from my first-readers who knew how to deconstruct a story for its strengths and weaknesses.
Once you get a book deal there are more people in your room of course! An agent, a publisher, a publicist, and more editors – and more editing. Check out my articles on the 8 steps to an agent, a publisher, and a two-book deal and how to get your manuscript past the gatekeeper, based on my experience as a literary agency intern.

And once your book comes out, you can chuckle over the many ways folks can butcher the title. Because they will – and it will be funny!

Funniest Blooper Titles of Joshua and the Lightning Road:
Joshua and the Lightning Tree
Joshua and the Lightning Rod
Joshua and the Lightening Road
Joshua and the Lightening Rod
The Joshua Tree (one of my favorite U2 albums ever!)
I’d like to see the cover design for these, wouldn’t you? I'm waiting for Joshua and the Lightning Pee to show up...

But it’s not all hard work. There are lots of fun rewards like the week your book releases, talking with readers, getting great reviews, and creating fun book trailers. Check out mine!

Oh, and check out
Joshua and the Lightning Road
It’s real and it’s here - out today!
The crowd in my room helped.
Do you surround yourself with people as a writer? 
Do you recommend any other ways to build yourself a strong writer’s network?