Wednesday, October 30, 2013

No Tricks, Just Treats

As I’ve mentioned before, Ray Bradbury is one of my favorite authors. I was fortunate to hear him speak in 1990 and have him sign one of his books, The Halloween Tree. I read it again this week and was awed at his ability to pull readers along with the action.  Fly, actually.  Hanging on for dear life, just as the characters were doing in the story.

The story is about eight trick-or-treaters who embark on a wild chase through time led by Carapace Clavicle Moundshroud to find one of their missing gang, Pipkin.  Pipkin is the bees knees and they can’t have Halloween without him. But something’s gone wrong with Pip on this night and they don’t have much time to save him.

Here are some reasons why I think the book works so well:

  • The pacing takes the reader on a breathless ride utilizing sentence structure and fine-tuned tension.  Pip is always just out of reach, in a mummy’s tomb, on the rooftop of Notre Dame, in a Mexican graveyard. The author’s avalanche of one, two and three word sentences gives the illusion of racing with eight little boys pulling you along by the hands and shirttail, crying, “We gotta find Pip!”  It also creates a lot of white space which encourages the eye to skim along the page faster. 
  •  His use of description solidifies the setting – cements our feet right down to it.  Wham.  Eight front doors banged shut” is much more powerful than ‘the boys came out of their houses.’ When they create a kite from old circus posters from the side of a barn, it becomes a mosaic of talons, claws, lion’s fangs and tiger eyes. They hear “roars of Africa down the wind.”   A review in the New York Times called his ‘frenetic imagery’ a ‘great treat.’
  • His characters are endearing.   On the day Pipkin was born “all the Orange Crush and Nehi soda bottles in the world fizzed over.” The seat of his pants is full of splinters from fences and he’s the kind of kid who would run back and help a friend finish a race.  The other boys are brave and noble, especially in the end when they each make a sacrifice for Pip's sake.
  •  Delicious active verbs make the action a feast for the tasting.  “...something dark frittered and danced and slithered away…”  Mr. Moundshroud’s house “leaned after them with soft groans.” As for the jack-o-lanterns hanging on the Halloween Tree “Sparks leaped out of their ripe-cut ears.”  He uses softer, sibilant sounds or harsher consonants to set different tones.  
  •  His clever use of simile and metaphor creates memorable visuals.  “Like a big spider with many legs, the boys tried to cram through the door” and  “the windows blinked wide their ghastly eyes” says it better than narrative ever could. 

Do any of these strike a chord with you?  Do you see a writing technique that could enrich your writing?  We’d love to hear!

Monday, October 28, 2013

The Carpe Annum Interviews: Lesley Livingston

We usually have a bio at the top of the interview when we host a writer on Novel Matters. We, of course, have all the info on Lesley and her works, but the really important stuff is in this video:

Lesley is a writer and actor living in Toronto, Canada. Captivated at a young age by stories of mythology and folk lore, past civilizations, and legendary heroes, she developed into a full-fledged
Celtic Mythology Geek, steeped in stories of the Otherworld, Faeries and King Arthur. Lesley went on to earn a Master’s Degree in English from the University of Toronto specializing in Shakespeare and Arthurian literature.

For almost three years, Lesley hosted weekly late-night movie marathons on the nationally broadcast television show, SPACEBAR, as the Waitron-9000, a sparkly holographic waitress with an encyclopedic knowledge of obscure B-movie trivia. She is also a founding member and principal performer with Tempest Theatre Group.

Lesley is an unrepentant egghead – a character-trait that somehow doesn’t interfere with a love of shoes and shiny things. She is the author of the Wonderous Strange Trilogy, Starling Trilogy, and Once Every Never Trilogy, as well as the newly released, How to Curse in Hieroglyphics

(Full disclosure: Lesley Livingston and Bonnie Grove went to high school together. They met in 10th grade, hated each other, then, one day when the drama teacher never showed up, they began quoting lines from the movie Airplane to each other and were inseparable after that.)

Novel Matters: Lesley, you write YA fantasy novels that are read by all age groups. What do you love about YA?

Lesley Livingston: I love writing YA. I love the readership (which is both young and young-at-heart) and I love the stories I get to tell. There is a freshness and a vibrancy to the YA perspective that I find energizing.

NM: How so?

LL: It’s a literature of “firsts”. First kiss, first love, first heartbreak, first lie… and while it does require a bit more of a hectic writing pace (if you’re writing a teen trilogy, you can’t really take years between books), that’s part of the fun of it.

NM: It was the right choice for you as a writer?

LL: I get to plunge into these stories and stay in them for an extended period of time. I like hanging out with my characters. So, yes. I guess you could say I’m happy with my choice. (Occasional whining about crazy deadlines, notwithstanding. Heh.)

NM: I usually whine about my office smelling like gym socks. It’s a weird sort of treadmill of success, isn’t it? It’s a great life, the writer’s life. And you’ve been writing your butt off for a long time now. You have an impressive back list.  

LL: Here’s the link to my Goodreads page, which has all of my books/series listed and links to synopses and buy buttons, etc.

NM: What are you working on now, and when will it be in reader’s hot little hands?

LL: I just launched my very first co-written project, which is also my very first Middle Grade project. It’s called HOW TO CURSE IN HIEROGLYPHICS and I wrote it with Jonathan, with illustrations by Steven Burley. It was a ton of fun and it’s available now!

I’m also neck deep in revisions for the third book in my Never series, EVERY NEVER AFTER, which will be out in April, 2014, and I just finished writing the third book in my Starling series.

NM: How To Curse in Hieroglyphics may be a departure from YA, but it’s written in your distinctive style. Recently, I was rifling through a box of old stuff looking for who knows what, and I came across a handful of papers—notes you and I wrote each other in high school when we were supposed to be paying attention—I had a laugh, then was struck by how clear and honest your voice comes across, not just in the hilarious high school notes, but in your novels. Reading Wondrous Strange, there were times I could hear your voice in my head. Does it come naturally? Was it a product of letting go and trusting yourself?

LL: Ah, good times… good times… that was mostly math class, wasn’t it?

NM: Er, certainly we only wrote notes to each other on lunch break and after school. Not during math class, which we never, ever skipped. Ahem. Back to your remarkable writing voice.

LL: Voice, to me is everything. (And thanks for saying that!) I’m not even sure I can separate it out as a distinct function of how I write but I do think a lot of it is facilitated by the fact that I was an actor for so long and that developed my ear for things like dialogue and pacing and flow. Usually now I just know when the voice of the story (and every story has a different one) sounds right. And it doesn’t always. Not right away. But I can sense when it’s wonky and that usually comes from trying too hard. When I can hear myself over the characters, that’s when I go back into the prose with a garden rake. And sometimes a blow-torch.

NM: Speaking of blow-torches, let’s talk the public life of a writer. One day you’re an Amazon 5-star, the next you’re on your way to the bargain table. Always, every day, however, you’re an artist. The story must be written. How do you—do you?—separate yourself from opinions to give your creative self for another day of writing?

LL: I was an actor for years before I was a writer. I’m so very used to criticism (good and bad) and rejection (yay auditions! Bleh.) that it all pretty much just rolls off my back by now. It’s not always easy and sometimes I read a review and mutter unkind things but the truth is, if you’re going to believe the good reviews, you’ve got to believe the bad ones, too. It’s just what you said—opinions. Once the book is out there, it’s no longer just yours. And everyone who reads it has the absolute right to there opinion of it. (No matter how wrong they are!! Ha!)
NM: It's amazing how wrong they can be! So, if a writer decides to read reviews of her work, a thick skin is required. Let me ask you, if tomorrow were the first day of your career, what advice would you give yourself?

LL: Go to bed early for once, will ya?

NM: Still working on that one, eh? You've done well to stay awake through this so far. Fingers crossed. Let’s touch on the Great Writer’s Debate: Outline vs. No outline (planners vs. pansters). Which do you go with your gut? Or hammer out the novel before writing it?

LL: I used to gut it. Now that I’m at the point where I’m pitching projects that aren’t written yet, I’ve learned the value of the synopsis because I’ve had to. Which is not to say that there is no longer epiphany. I surprise myself constantly. In the outlining stages, the writing stages, the revising stages… 

NM: What's the one thing (be it a technology, a notebook, a wristwatch, or pen) that you can't be without as a writer?

LL: My Mac AIR. It goes with me everywhere.

NM: Who, besides the obvious agent and editor, do you turn to for advice when things are rocky on your writing journey?

LL: That would be my guy, Jonathan Llyr. He’s been my creative partner for years—ever since he was directing me in plays—and he has an ability to look at large-picture issues with story and helps me figure out how to untangle all the plot knots I write myself into. He’s encouraging and helpful and, at the same time, never lets me feel sorry for myself when things get tough or my brain gets scrambley.

NM: For the record, Jon also does The. Best. William Shatner impression on earth. Just saying. Okay, you’ve traveled a ways down the writer’s road. What advice do you give to writers who are looking to seize the year and take control of their writing career?

LL: Do it. That’s the whole thing with carpe-ing. The act of seizing is a willful act. You pretty much just have to do it. Write. You can’t edit a blank page. You can’t revise an empty screen. The lion’s share of writing is re-writing. Get the words down. Then put them in the right order. For me, it comes down to writing every day. As much or as little as I can, but every day. If I’m away from the story for a day, it takes me twice as long to get my head back into the game.
NM: Love that. “You can’t edit a blank page” is my new mantra. The theme this year on Novel Matters is Carpe Annum: Seize the Year! Tell us about a turning-point time in your journey as a writer when you took hold of your career. What did that look like? How did that moment change you as a writer?

LL: It was the moment when I was maundering on about not getting an agent for the book I had written and had spent the better part of a year querying. Jonathan, having heard this same refrain from me for, er, awhile at that point turned to me and said, “Write another book.” I, taken aback, sputtered something about “What?! I am!” He said “No you’re not. You’re whining about not getting an agent for this book. Didn’t you tell me that writers write? You’re not doing that.” I sputtered some more. Then I thought about it. And he was right. I had gotten so caught up in the business of trying to get published that I’d forgotten that core truth of the writer’s life. Writers write. So I did. I wrote another book. It got me an agent. The book after that got me a publisher. Writers write.

Lesley, thank you for hanging out with us today. It was fun, and inspiring. We’re grateful for your insight and we’re cheering you on!

Friday, October 25, 2013

A History of Backstory

This week, we've been looking at where a story begins. It isn't long into the discussion that the question of backstory rears its head.

Often, where the story begins is lost in the netting of all the important bits that happened before the story began.

Writers are often accused of backstory dumping, particularly at the beginning of the novel. I say it isn't a problem that the writer wrote pages and pages of backstory. It's only a problem if the writer leaves those pages in the manuscript.

Why is backstory dumb and boring?

1) Because it's TMI about a character we don't love yet. Readers need to get to know the character before they want to know more and more and more about them. I'm reading Davita's Harp by Chaim Potok. There's a character called Mr. Dinn who appears throughout the novel, but it's only in the last 1/3 of the book that his character steps forward and takes a more central role. And it's in that last 1/3 of the book that Potok tells us what Mr. Dinn looks like. Before then, it didn't matter what he looked like. It only mattered what he did.

2) Because it's too easy to include all the stuff about a character's past that isn't relevant to the current story. If you'll allow me to quote myself: "Writers too often include story-irrelevant details in their
manuscript. Readers go cross-eyed soaking up all the details only to discover that, in the end, very few mattered to the story.

3) Because readers want to be haunted, not bombarded. If you think there is something in the backstory of your character that needs to be explored and understood, you're right. John Truby refers to it as ghost. The ethereal, gossamer ache of a single broken bone. The skilled writer touches that break once, twice, three times in the story. Each time the meaning of the bone deepens, shifts, haunts a little differently. When the story is done, it's that one ghost that stays with the reader.

The writer's task is to shift through time and pluck out the details that directly effect the story and forget the rest.

How can you tell if you've overwritten backstory?
How do you find the good bits?
Have you read a book recently that was bottom heavy with backstory?

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Where do I begin??

Patti began our Roundtable discussion on Monday talking about what to cut from your novel, particularly at the beginning of a piece. In the Comments section it was asked, how do you know where a story truly begins? And is there a rule about when backstory comes in?

Well, let's see what the pros have to say in reply.

Sol Stein in Stein on Writing (pg. 15), says:

Elia Kazan, brilliant director of stage and screen as well as a late-blooming novelist, told me that audiences give a film seven minutes. If the viewer is not intrigued by character or incident within that time, the film and its viewer are at odds. The viewer came for an experience. The film is disappointing him.
Today's impatient readers give a novelist fewer than seven minutes. Some years ago I was involved in an informal study of the behavior of lunch-hour browsers in mid-Manhattan bookstores. In the fiction section, the most common pattern was for the browser to read the front flap of the book's jacket and then go to page one. No browser went beyond page three before either taking the book to the cashier or putting the book down and picking up another to sample ... first sentences and first paragraphs ... are increasingly important for arousing the restless reader.

I can attest to the truth of the study. If page one of a novel doesn't engage me, I move on. My reading time is precious to me. I don't have time to waste or wade through a slow beginning.

Elizabeth George in Write Away (pg. 65), which is one of my personal favorites, wrote in her journal:

...I'm beginning to have more clarity on the novel. What I haven't seen yet is precisely how or where in the story to begin.

Then, regarding the decision of where to open, she goes on to say:

The way I see it, you have three alternatives. You can begin the story just before the beginning; you can begin it right at the beginning; or you can begin it after the beginning.


Well, she actually makes sense as she continues:

Starting just before the beginning, you ... have to come up with a scene that illustrates the status quo of the main characters before the primary event occurs.
If you choose to start your novel right at the beginning, you are making the choice to introduce simultaneously both the characters and the primary event that gets the ball rolling ...
Beginning your novel after the beginning of the story means that you are choosing to start after the primary event has occurred. The ball, in other words, is already in motion and the reader is plunked down in the middle of the action.

James Scott Bell in Plot & Structure (pg. 56), cuts right to the chase and gives us a nice check list:

  • Get the reader hooked.
  • Establish a bond between the reader and the Lead character.
  • Present the story world---tell us something about the setting, the time, and the immediate context.
  • Establish the general tone of the novel.
  • Compel the reader to move on to the middle. Just why should the reader care to continue?
  • Introduce the opposition.
This is all great advice, and by examining our beginnings we can see if we're hitting any of these targets, but it can still be difficult to know if we've hit on the right place to start. Elmore Leonard, who wrote among other things Get Shorty and 3:10 to Yuma, once said, "I try to leave out the parts that people skip." Yeah, me too. That's especially important when it comes to those opening paragraphs and pages, because, like Sol Stein discovered, if a reader isn't engaged by then, he's not going to be.

As an exercise, turn to the beginnings of half a dozen of your favorite novels and study the openings. What was it about those first few paragraphs that kept you reading? Conversely, was there something that nearly derailed you---even if you're glad you kept reading? Judging by the advice of our pros, did those beginnings line up with the advice they gave?

I'll give an example from one of my favorite novels, Blue Hole Back Home, by Joy Jordan Lake. First of all, it was the cover that got me to pick up the book, which was a title I'd never heard of, by an author I'd never heard of. But the cover intrigued me, so I opened to the first page and read:

Likely it was only two dreams crisscrossing paths, one snagging on the other in passing, but somehow the face that walked by me this morning, not four feet away, got tangled up with one from my past ... And I swear time backstitched on itself ...

I loved that last line, loved how it sounded, loved the picture it drew in my mind. But this is what took me straight to the cashier:

In that moment, the smell of espresso got overpowered by the scents of my past: pine needles and boy-sweat, salted peanuts and Coke. I heard bluegrass guitar and banjo all mixed up with rhythm and blues and a rope swing ticking forward and back, keeping time. I was barefoot in the back of a pickup, believing that it was love that makes people brave and gorgeous and clever and kind. Believing, and being wrong.

Man, oh man, that was the line that hooked me. I've read the book several times and recommend it to anyone who will listen, and I grow fonder of it each time.

Besides Blue Hole Back Home, I highly recommend the three books I cited today. I've read each of them more than once, and I learn something new every single time. Write Away has so many notes and sticky tabs it's getting difficult to wade through. It may be time for another copy.

I'd like to hear your observations on the passages I cited. We'll talk about backstory when I post in a couple of weeks.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Round-Table: Beginnings Written and Chopped

I fell in love with sumptuous writing when reading Annie Dillard's essays, An American Childhood. I find it oddly comforting that she understands what it is to fall in love with those first words we splatter on the page. Here's a quote from her book, The Writing Life.

Sometimes the writer leaves his early chapters in place from gratitude; he cannot contemplate them or read them without feeling again the blessed relief that exalted him when the words first appeared--relief that he was writing anything at all. That beginning served to get him where he was going, after all; surely the reader needs it, too, as groundwork. But no.
Ha! My first read-in-front-of-anybody piece was a short story for a creative writing class. It was a short story, right? My professor told me to lose most of the beginning and shave at least 4,000 words off. Ouch! I cut about 10,000 words off the front of Goodness & Mercy. But I kept those words in a file I titled, "Wonderful Words to Save." It's a lot easier to cut unnecessary words, if you tuck them away. I've actually used some of those wonderful words in other places. I'm wondering how the other Novel Matters ladies decide what to keep and what to cut, especially at the beginning of a piece.

I heard a speaker say at a writers' conference that we need to open our novels exactly where the story begins. That may seem like an obvious concept, but sometimes we do forget. I know I do. We want to set the stage, so to speak, introducing the reader to the setting--macro and micro; and to the characters, giving plenty of background so they'll understand them better when the scene actually begins; and giving plenty of backstory so the reader will have a grasp of the conditions that led to the story that's about to unfold. Go ahead, write all that. Consider it a warm-up to the real writing. Because once you get past all that, once the stage is set, once the director is ready to call, "Action!", THAT'S where you want to begin, and not a moment before. I love nothing better than to pick up a novel I know nothing about, open to the first page, read a paragraph or two, and say, "Wait a minute. What?" Then go back and read it again because I'm completely lost. Well, that's how it should be. My daughter Mindy when she was growing up, would walk into the middle of a conversation, listen for a moment, and say, "Wait, start over," because she wanted to hear everything she missed. But getting into a novel is not like walking into a conversation. It's stepping into a completely unknown situation and MOVING FORWARD to find out what it's all about. The reader should have a plethora of questions about all kinds of things when she begins reading. And turning pages, one after another, is how she'll get answers. At least she will if the author knows what he or she is doing. Because it's the author's job to anticipate and answer those questions, to supply a satisfying experience for all involved.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Aloha from Michigan

Dear NovelMatters friends--

Where are you? Patti and I are in Grand Rapids, Michigan for the Breathe Writers' Conference, where we will be speaking this weekend.

Here we have the great joy of meeting people in person who've followed our blog for years!

So-- here's a selfie of Patti, Michigander Susie Finkbeiner, and me -- and wish you were here!

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

You Don't Know Nothing

Most Honorable Sir,
We perused your MS.
with boundless delight.  And
we hurry to swear by our ancestors
we have never read any other
that equals its mastery.
Were we to publish your work,
we could never presume again on
our public and name
to print books of a standard
not up to yours.
For we cannot imagine
that the next ten thousand years
will offer its ectype.
We must therefore refuse
your work that shines as it were in the sky
and beg you a thousand times
to pardon our fault
which impairs but our own offices.
-- Publishers

Rejection letter from a Chinese publisher; from
Louis Zukofsky's "A"

On Monday, Debbie listed a relative few out of a long list of writers who were refused by publisher after publisher, agent after agent. Here's another:

Laura Van Warner wrote her first novel while working as an assistant to Doubleday senior editors Loretta Barrett and Betty Prashker. Both editors suggested she stick to her day job and forget the writing, as she clearly had no talent.

If you haven't read Laura Van Warner, look her up on Amazon. She's doing okay.

There's a special brand of discouragement that comes along with being a writer. Literary agent Harriet Wasserman once said of her longtime client, Nobel Prize winning novelist Saul Bellow:
“For Saul, every book is his first book, and he is always the first-time writer welcoming reinforcement.” 
Few people really know themselves. We crane our necks to look inside and to our despair, we see a void. Why kid ourselves? We know nothing about writing.

But you don't know nothing.

To prove it, let me list a few things you do know, once you think about them:

  1. You don't have to be a natural. Any lousy writer can get good at writing if they keep on writing long enough. Gustave Flaubert once said, "I have never been so conscious of how little talent is vouchsafed me for expressing ideas in words." Graham Greene said it more plainly: "I have no talent."
  2. You do have to have a heart on fire. You have to care enough to keep going long enough to get good. 
  3. You may never see a novel of yours on the New York Times Best Seller List. Then again, you might. The fact is (assuming you keep writing) you don't know, either way. 
  4. It doesn't matter if you never see a novel of yours on the New York Times Best Seller List. You've had your head turned inside out and right-site round by authors few others have ever heard of. And those authors probably have a lot to do with why you dream of being an author. Like them. Obscurity's not so bad. 
  5. You'll never get rich on obscurity. Like many obscure authors, you'll have to work out some mix of struggling, living simply, and finding work. If you find work, try to find something that feeds the muse. Or that leaves your mind free to plot your novel during the day and your evenings free so you can write your novel. If you can't do the above, you must find work that sets your heart on fire. 
  6. You have to have a heart on fire. 
  7. And above all, you must find a way to write. You know too much not to. 

Monday, October 14, 2013

Creating Our Own Luck

This week, I was cruising Pandora and came across this oft-misquoted comment on the RKO screen test of Fred Astaire, one of my favorite actors:  “Can’t act, slightly bald, also dances.” Six little words that could end an acting career before it begins.  Luckily for Fred, David O. Selznick felt his screen test came off horribly, but Fred’s charm came through all the same and he was willing to take a chance on him. Fred was a tireless perfectionist whose grace and poise made his dancing appear effortless.  He was considered by many to be the greatest popular music dancer of all time, winning multiple Emmys, an Oscar nomination and an honorary academy award.  

When you’ve been writing for a long time without seeing your work in print, success can seem capricious and wholly dependent on sheer luck.  Sure, some people are at the right place at the right time, like Lana Turner who skipped typing class at age sixteen and was discovered by a talent agent at a malt shop on Sunset Boulevard.  But that’s akin to buying the winning lottery ticket, and we all know the odds of that happening.  No, success is a mixture of many variables, as we can see in these highly successful books that almost didn’t see publication. 

  • · A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle was rejected by 26 publishers.  They felt it was too different for the 1960s as a science fiction novel featuring a female protagonist.  She happened to meet a guest at her mother’s tea party who knew a publisher and the connection led to a contract. Lucky? You could say so, but she was fully prepared with a polished manuscript when the opportunity presented itself and the right publisher came along. 

  • ·Carrie by Stephen King was his fourth completed manuscript and rejected by 30 publishers.  He tossed the manuscript in the garbage, but his wife dug it out and encouraged him to keep trying.  It helps to have someone who knows your writing and really believes in it.  Listen to the people you trust about your writing, and it’s not always family or friends.

  •  Chicken Soup for the Soul by Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen was rejected 33 times, primarily because anthologies were not selling and the book was a little too positive.  Their persistence paid off, however.  Sometimes genres are cyclical and though the timing may not be right now, they cycle back around.  The creators also tapped into a new market with a fresh idea.

  • ·The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter began as self-published.  She began in her 20s but when the book wasn’t published, she printed it herself and gave copies to family and friends.  A publisher saw a copy of the book and was willing to take a chance on it, which led to a whole series of illustrated children’s books. Again, perseverance paid off, but being proactive and taking the steps available to her finally got it into the right hands.

  • ·The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank had a tenuous route to publication.  Anne’s father, Otto, was the only family member to survive the war, and he was given Anne’s diary by a family friend who rescued it when they were captured.  Her father hesitated to seek publication for the diary, going so far as to censor some passages that he felt weren’t flattering to family members.  But in the end, he believed that it should be read in its entirety by as many people as possible.  At so many points, this book could have faltered.  But when we have a book of substance about things that move us, we work to get it into the hands of readers.  When we have something authentic to say, people know and we gain credibility which creates impetus.

We need to remind ourselves that if we think some authors make success look easy, it’s not.  We’re not seeing the whole story.  Perseverance, preparedness and professionalism are necessary for every writer with a great idea and a love of story. 

We should continue to educate ourselves and remain teachable.  Learn to accept and consider criticism.  Make and maintain connections with other writers and attend writers’ conferences which may put us in contact with agents, editors and publishers.   In this way, we can create some of our own ‘luck.’ 

Are you sitting at the malt shop like Lana Turner, hoping to be discovered, or are you the tireless hoofer who puts himself out there for a screen test?  How do you create your own 'luck?'