Monday, December 29, 2014

Another manuscript done!

Why, yes. That IS another manuscript completed. Thank you for asking. 

Answers to your questions:

  1. This is my fourth completed novel manuscript. 
  2. It is 59,000 words (plus or minus) or 218 pages long. 
  3. It took about 2 years to complete, start to finish.
  4. During those 2 years, I also finished (and sold) Fuzzy Logic, the book that is coming out in 2015, and I wrote an adaptation of A Midsummer's Night's Dream, also premiering Summer 2015. 
  5. The title of this book is Sparks. 
  6. The elevator pitch is: A woman struggles with not only a new love affair, but the fact that the monster which she doesn't want to believe lives under her barn gets pissed when they tear the barn down. She doesn't want to believe in magic, or buy a cow. She just wants things to go back to normal. 
    1. I'm still working on the pitch. 
  7. Yes, I'm shopping this manuscript around. If you are a publisher or editor who is intrigued or piqued, please contact me. Otherwise, I'm compiling a list of places to send query letters. 
Finishing this manuscript is a FANTASTIC way to finish this awesome year. Thanks for coming along on the journey with me!

Monday, December 15, 2014

Reader Question--Why do writers do that? #1

A friend sent me this really interesting question, and I asked him if I could use it as part of a blog post. He said I could as long as I took his name off of it if I made him look dumb. Heh heh heh. Kenny’s never going to live this down.

This sparked an idea. If you have a question about something you read or saw on TV or a movie that seems like an odd choice for a writer to make, send it to me! I’ll either try to explain it or agree with you that it was a lazy writer move.

So, with that out of the way, here is Kenny from PDX’s question:

Hey Maren!  
I was hoping maybe you could either explain something to me or validate a writing criticism I have regarding a particular technique in film and TV (and, presumably, literature as well. Here it is, as an example from the episode of Orange Is The New Black that we just watched, although it could be from anything:  
Larry, husband of Piper, is recounting a gossip during an NPR interview about inmates that he heard from her. He says that she is afraid of her cellmate, Claudette, because she might shiv Piper any night. This was because when Piper first Claudette, she had heard that Claudette was in prison for murder. Since then, they have become friends. Claudette hears the radio interview where Larry describes his wife's cellmate as a murderer. 
Claudette goes to Piper and says....  
Claudette: Is that what you think of me? ...that I will kill you? (Something like that.) 
Piper: [Mouth agape, says nothing.]  
Claudette: [Looks disgusted, storms off.]  
Drama ensues.... 
Here's my criticism of this kind of thing each time I see it: Piper could have easily explained why Larry said that and diffused the whole situation. 
Piper: I'm so sorry! When I first met you, I had heard that you were a murderer and you were so cold and mean. I was afraid of you. That's what I told Larry, but that was before you and I became friends. I don't feel that way now and I haven't had a chance to tell him how things have changed because he isn't answering my calls.  
Maybe Claudette stays mad at Piper, but at least she has an explanation. I see this kind of thing all the time and it feels like sloppy, lazy writing because it's not realistic to me. People don't just fail to respond to false accusations without any explanation in real life. It seems to me like the writers need to come up with some drama, so they made Piper be so shocked that she couldn't respond and then cut the scene off to leave it suspenseful.  
Am I being overly critical here? Have you seen this type of thing? I don't know how you could miss it since I see it in just about every show and every movie I watch. Is this sloppy writing? And more importantly, how many shitty writing mistakes have I made in this email while critiquing the writing of others? :)  
Kenny from PDX

Hi Kenny—

I’ve seen this scenario in lots of TV, movies, and literature, too. And, you’re right: it can be annoying. 

Let’s look at a couple legitimate reasons a writer might create a scene like this.

1) Actual people (like me) often feel gobsmacked by confrontational situations and cannot get words out of their mouths in time to keep the other person from storming out of the room...especially if that person wants to storm out of the room. 

2) DRAMA! does not ensue from rational conversations. So, a writer who wants to create DRAMA!, avoiding rational human behavior is a good idea. 

So, the next question is why do readers/viewers like you have this reaction? I was immensely frustrated with Pride and Prejudice when I first read it (at 9 years old). Why don't these idiots TALK to each other? Answer: the book would be 500 pages shorter (and more boooorring-er) if they did. 

I think it speaks to your comment about how easily the situation could have been diffused. If you were in a similar situation, you would have simply provided the information needed and bada-bing, bada-boom, no drama. If these were real people, I’d have no patience with them, either.

As I alluded to above, though, this doesn’t make for dramatic reading. It doesn’t make you need to turn the page, or stand around the water cooler and complain about what idiots the characters are. Why tune in each week to watch a bunch of people going about their daily life, being polite to each other and considerate of people’s feelings? We want to watch other people make fools of themselves, make bad choices, and date the wrong people.

There are deep-rooted psychological reasons for all this, but let’s just use the word “catharsis” for now. “Catharsis” is loosely defined as: “Things could be worse. Thank heaven they’re not as bad as what I just read/saw.”

At the end of a show, you can sit back with your wife and say, “God, those people are dumb. She shoulda just said ‘I didn’t mean it,’ and it would have been fine. I’m glad we’re so much smarter and better adjusted than they are.”

“Oh, and not in prison.”

See? Things could be worse.  

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

NanoWrimo Blog #4--What does it all mean?

You are sooo close. You can finish, I know it.

Let me tell you a story about my first Nanowrimo:

The last week of November that year, I hosted a birthday party for my 1 year old, cooked and hosted Thanksgiving dinner, and had the stomach flu for the last two days. And I finished, anyway!

That’s meant as an inspiring story, by the way. I don’t usually brag about having the stomach flu.

As you finish up, on thing you can do is look at your story and ask “what does it mean?” Thematically, that is. Most of the time, I have no idea what themes are going to be in my book.  Even I have a plan for what themes I want to stress, but until the book is written, I really don’t know what is actually going to pop up.

Hence, the “Theme Spider” exercise. This is also from the Book in a Month text that I use in my class.

I use the Theme Spider as a way to identify more scenes I need to write to fill in the theme (which is really helpful in Week 4 of Nano), and as a tool to help revise the draft.

The “spider” looks like this:

Theme Spider
Why you wrote this story:

What you like about this story:
What you want readers to “get.”
Props used to express your theme:

How your main character and theme are connected:
Places where your theme is too overt or too subtle:

Scenes crucial to conveying your theme:
Personal message you want your story to convey:

Choices made to ensure your theme gets conveyed:

I fill out the Theme Spider by asking questions like these:

A.     Do the “Corners” first. Don’t fill in the “theme” box until you have a pretty good idea what it is.
B.     Why did you write this story? Maybe something sparked the idea for you. Maybe that idea was triggered an emotion in you. 
C.     What “personal message” do you want to convey? Is there a “reason” you wrote this book?  
D.    What is your goal? What do you want readers to “get”? What do you want your readers to understand when they set the book down after finishing it?
E.     What choices have you made to put the theme into your story? Consider the things you made a conscious effort to include.
F.     Think about the scenes that already have theme expressed. How are they working? Are they working? Are you too subtle? Too overt? Have you stuck a good balance?
G.     How well are your hero and the theme connected? Does your cynic of a rom-com hero eventually see that love conquers all? Does your heroine’s shortcomings make her learn something?
H.    Props can express theme. Use them. Think of the ship in “Heart of Darkness” shooting cannonballs into the jungle. Think of the catacombs in “The Cask of Amontillado.” Sorry. I’m a literature professor. I have to look up pop-culture references. Forgive me.

Message and Moral are different. Try to be subtle. You probably aren’t re-writing Aesop’s fables or a children’s book, so you won’t really want a “moral” to the story. If you are writing for grown-ups (and, frankly, any kid worth her salt), the reader isn’t going to want to be lectured at. Themes and messages in literature are meant to be suggested and then discussed over a bottle of wine (or chocolate milk). If you want to be direct, write a sermon. If you want to write stories, be subtle.

So, I guess that ends my month-long Nano Tips stint. Let me know if you enjoyed this series.

Next, I’ll add my voice to the cacophony voices discussing “I have written a book, what then heck is going on in the publishing industry right now?”

Have a wonderful Thanksgiving, and write, dammit, write. You’re almost done.

The tips come from Book in a Month: The Fool-Proof System for Writing a Novel in 30 Days by Victoria Lynn Schmidt. The examples are mostly mine.

Feel like re-posting? Here’s a quote you can use:

As you finish up, on thing you can do is look at your story and ask ‘what does it mean?’”

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Nanowriom Tips #3--The Beat Sheet

NOW it’s week 3 (my math/date/time troubles are infamous. Sorry).

This is the week when you are supposedly already 50% done, and there is a light at the end of the tunnel.

The trouble is, you might not know how to get to that light. Or which light to go towards. Or how to make a light appear.

The problem you might be having can depend on what kind of writer you are. Me? I’m a “pantser.” This is short for “Seat of your pants,” as in, I don’t write from an outline. I write to find out what happens. This is an exciting way to discover a story, but sometimes, I find that I have written myself into a corner. Or I’ve written myself into a dark corner. A very dark corner. What’s a pantser to do?

The “other” kind of writer does copious pre-writing and planning and follows her outline to the letter. Still, this kind of writer isn’t immune to getting lost, disillusioned, or finding  herself in a dark corner of a broken storyline. Sometimes the story you planned isn’t as interesting as the story that is being written, or wants to be written.

Enter the Beat Sheet. This is a mini-outline developed by Blake Snyder who wrote one of my favorite books on long-form narrative: Save the Cat. I know. It says “Screenwriting book” on the cover, but I believe that long-form narrative is long-form narrative. They all have similar “beats.” If you don’t believe me, ask Joseph Campbell.

Anyway, there are lots of ways to use this tool. Here are some ways I use it:

1.     I use it to give myself a little road-map when I start. I’m a pantser, but I like to see where my options lie.
2.     I love using the beat sheet to try out different endings or brainstorm scenes that need to be written. 
3.     If I’m stuck, I can look a the beat sheet and say, “Okay. I’ve written the midpoint…what should come next?” That way I can battle the writer’s block with a scaffold. Sometimes creativity needs a little restriction or structure to give it focus.
4.     Finally, I use it AFTER Nanowrimo as an organizational tool. I shuffle scenes around until they seem to be in the “right” place.

Blake Snyder argues that screenplays all must follow the Beat Sheet exactly. He is probably right about screenplays, but novels can be more loosely organized. However, the major “beats” should all be present, and should occur in approximately this order.

If you are writing a non-linear novel, then I would argue that the actual timeline of events in the novel should follow the beats, even if they occur in some other order in the book.

This is a tool to help with generation and organization. I do not see it as the end-all and be-all. But it really helps me.

I’ve pasted the beats at the end with approximate page numbers the beats should occur on. are. For a full explanation, go buy Save the Cat. It is a great read.

Below, I’ve posted a cheat-sheet chart explaining what the beats are.

Act I—first 25% of your work (page numbers are based on a 100 page work)

  Opening image
The first impression of the “movie” or book
  Theme stated 5
Someone (usually not the main character) will state the theme of the book.
  Set-up first 10
The place to grab the reader. Introduce the characters, setting, etc. Establish the status quo.
  Catalyst 15
The catalyst upsets the status quo.
  Debate 12-25
Main character tries to decide what to do.
  Break into Two 25
Moment we leave the “old” world and go into the new, non-status quo world.
Act Two—next 50% of your work

  B Story 30
Usually the “love story.” Carries the same theme as the rest of the story
  Fun and games 30-55
Think “movie trailer.” Promise of the premise.
  Midpoint 55
Peak or valley in the main character’s story arc. The stakes are raised.
  Bad Guys Close in 55-75
All seems fine, but the bad guys are temporarily defeated at the midpoint, but they regroup and come again. The good guy’s “team” begins to fall apart
  All is Lost 75
Whiff of death. Things are so bad, the audience wonders how on earth the hero is going to survive.
  Dark Night of the Soul 75-85
“Oh, Lord. Why hast thou forsaken me?” moment. The hero thinks it is hopeless.
  Break into Three
Hazzah! The solution occurs to our hero!
Act Three—last 25% of your work

  Finale 85-100
Apply lessons learned. Fight the bad guy. Reinstate status quo.
  Final Image (end)
This image is the opposite of the opening image. Proof that change has occurred.

And here is the beat sheet, ready for you to fill out yourself!

  Act I—first 25% of your work (page numbers are based on a 100 page work)
  Opening image
  Theme stated 5
  Set-up first 10
  Catalyst 15
  Debate 12-25
  Break into Two 25

Act Two—next 50% of your work
  B Story 30
  Fun and games 30-55
  Midpoint 55
  Bad Guys Close in 55-75
  All is Lost 75
  Dark Night of the Soul 75-85
  Break into Three

Act Three—last 25% of your work
  Finale 85-100
  Final Image (end)

I hope this helps you tease out the important scenes in your story!

Until next week,