Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Audience Again - Fast writing gold

I was chatting with my niece this weekend. She is an award-winning backyard pond designer and builder. This time of year is a tour of past accomplishments for her. Many people "improve" or neglect their ponds, and she has to bring them back to life.

She wants to write a book of dos and don'ts for them. The basic maintenance and the big mistakes to avoid. Just 30-40 pages she can put together to leave behind with clients and make available online for others who live outside her region.

Her audience is very clear in her mind -- people with the love of nature that makes them invest in ponds, but limited knowledge of how to keep these pocket ecosystems healthy.

A short book makes sense for her, and, with independent publishing and access to online book markets, creating one has become feasible. But how do you write a book if you haven't written one before? She already has the answer: audience.

She knows what they don't know and want to know. She knows the bad ideas they fall for that ruin their ponds. She hears their questions and comments every day. For a practical book, all she needs is to write down the questions and comments she hears, and then put down her answers and responses. And, since she naturally adds in specific examples of disasters, she can illustrate her information in a way that will make it come alive.

So here's the four-step formula for this kind of nonfiction book:
1 - Think of a specific client.
2 - Write down his or her questions and comments about the subject.
3 - Respond directly to these with helpful answers and suggestions using language they would understand, as if you were speaking face-to-face.
4 - If you haven't already done this, add examples that bring the points home.

That's it. The work, for someone who regularly has conversations with clients, is basically recording memories of past discussions. There's no need for prose pyrotechnics -- in fact, they are likely to get in the way.

Of course, it helps that this is a simple example with straightforward information to convey. The more demanding storytelling process is limited to the examples. But having an audience in mind provides a powerful focus for writing and discourages the kind of self-hypnosis that can bubble up as the music of the words and memories of college literature teachers takes over. You don't bring overwrought prose to people who ask you a question. You keep it simple.

Storytellers can take a lesson here. Write to one person first and keep it simple. It's harder to do this than it seems. Many writers do have an audience--themselves. For some, that's fine, but I've seen too many who forget it's about communication, who turn storytelling into exercises in impressing themselves. That never works.

Or they worry that if they pick out one person to write a story to, especially if it's a long story like a novel, they'll have to do a lot of rewriting and may even find it impossible to bring it out to a larger audience. Essentially, this is an attempt to avoid rewriting entirely. Too many writers think they can dodge all those drafts by getting it right the first time. I suspect there are rare exceptions who can do this (what an artist friend calls "freaks of nature"), but I think these writers already know they have that capability. Trying to write the salable draft in the first composition phase is a false economy.

Finally, there are those who can't find or stick to the audience. I saw this recently in a course where students were supposed to write about the experience of the story from an audience's point of view. It was a real struggle, filled with essays on the writer's intent or the main character's experiences and reactions. And even reworked attempts at doing the lesson fell away from the audience's point of view from time to time.

Putting yourself in someone else's shoes is essential to good writing. For some people, it is difficult, but, whether you write fiction or nonfiction, it is a skill worth mastering.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Irreversible Choices

As discussed last time, lots of interesting characters can be passive victims, but the hero/heroine cannot be. Your main character needs to take an active role within the story (at least in commercial fiction - with, occasionally, comedy being the exception).

The typical structure of a novel or a screenplay includes turning points. These moments need to be created by your characters through irreversible decisions.

Let's take this in two parts. First, the decision. All sorts of big and wild things can happen to your character. She can win a big lottery. Or be kidnapped. Or be elected President. Or have Mr. Right walk into her shop.

Any of these may be important to the story, but they are not, strictly, turning points. They may be catalyzing events, but none are choices by an active character. They all happen to the character.

Now, they may be the result of active choices, an accumulation of choices, and a lot of work. On the lottery, "you gotta play to win." So our heroine needs to choose buy a ticket (or accept one as a gift). Being kidnapped may be random, or it may reflect risks taken or poor security choices. If random, your character is just a victim. If lack of attention to security or active risk taking (a shortcut through a dark alley), that's a decision, with action. Being elected President involved filing the proper papers, campaigning (with numerous choices on funding, advisors, positions, etc.), and accepting a nomination.

I think a writer would need to be very creative to come up with a decision that drew Mr. Right into the shop. A Mr. Right Wanted sign in the window?

For all of these, however, the circumstances demand decision and action. Win the lottery, and you need to do something with the money and the choices (often tied to family relations) can be life-changing. Once you're kidnapped, there may be a series of life or death decisions involving cooperating, getting information out, trying to escape, and more. Even deciding to eat could be a critical decision once you're a captive.

The Presidency is all about tough decisions. The character is active and her actions have consequence. And Mr. Right? Learning about him, responding to his overtures, working through differences, choosing what to share, and answering the big question -- these are all active.

Now we come to the tougher part. The decisions at the turning points need to be irreversible. There can be no going back. If the main character can cancel the engagement or resign the Presidency and return to her old life (and these were turning point decisions), there really isn't a story.

Reversible choices with major consequences show up all the time in manuscripts I read. Someone takes a job that is horrible and doesn't move to an equivalent job, without the terrible aspects, that is available. Why? The person who entered the haunted house doesn't leave when there is nothing stopping him. The guy keeps loaning money to a friend who never pays him back so he loses his house.

In the parable of the Prodigal Son, he leaves home, spends all his money, ends up in miserable circumstances, and has the smarts to go back home. Spending his fortune is an irreversible decision. His leaving home is not. The redemption is not around returning, it's around his recognizing his foolishness. I really have high hopes for the kid. He may even reconcile with his brother.

If you step in quicksand, you may be stuck and need to do something drastic to get out. If you step in a mud puddle, you step out and clean off your shoes. Make your characters choose to step into the quicksand (to escape the lion).

And keep this in mind. Readers always know if a decision is reversible. And, as a writer, you'll lose their trust if a turning point decision leads to stress and anxiety (as it should), but is easily dodged by stepping back to the earlier situation.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

50 Shades of Passive - Give your protagonist a FATAL flaw

A simple victim makes a lousy hero/heroine for a commercial work of fiction. It is okay for horrible things to happen to your protagonist. In fact, they should. But the character must have the ability to fight back and must do so.

I'm teaching a course right now, and we are hitting this as a real limit for the stories. being naive, biddable, or gullible can certainly be flaws in a character, but they don't work well as the fatal flaw. Ignorance can kill you, but, if that is all the protagonist needs to overcome to success, you don't have much of a story. The story problem can be solved with a clear conversation (something that actually wrecks the logic of some romance stories that could be better) or the person doesn't have the intellectual capabilities to absorb and understand the critical knowledge. In real life, the latter can be a cause for compassion and care. In a novel, this make for a protagonist who is Too Stupid To Live (TSTL).

Unless... a deeper flaw is blinding the main character to the evidence that is right in front of his or her face. Pride makes it impossible for the protagonist to believe he or she needs help in slaying the monster. Or Lust causes the main character to behave badly with the person who is potentially the true love of his/her life. Or Sloth makes the whole process of putting together the facts and formulating an effective plan too hard. It's easier to do what the leader demands.

Obsessions and blindness can make a simple victim into a complex one, with the real potential for success. Working on the sin (try one of the Seven Deadly Sins) is a good active stand-in for working directly on a problem that could be solved easily with insight. ("Now those magic slippers will take you home in two seconds.")

So, look for a fatal flaw in your hero or heroine, and dare to make it a big one. Like one of the Deadly Sins. That will lead to all sorts of wonderful troubles without making your protagonist into a doormat.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Fast Selling: Online opportunities

As a writer, I date back to the age of ink, paper, and stamps. That time isn't quite done. I've had a request from an agent for a query sitting around, unattended to for weeks, because her's is an agency that requires hard copy.

But the primary way to submit queries and partial or full manuscripts to agents (and those publishers providing access without agents) is through email. They do have their own guidelines as far as what they expect. Some want samples in the body of the note. Others will accept attached files. A growing number use online applications for submissions. But everything can be done from your laptop. No trips to the Post Office.

And when can you expect a response? Maybe never. One thing that hasn't changed is these people are so overwhelmed. So, today, many reject writers en passant. Typically, this means you, as the writer, are expected to mark your calendar for a date six of eight weeks after submission. My calendar is crowded with little boxes that say things like, "Angela B., Last Chance Agency, The Olive Orangutan, NO." When that date comes up, my submissions spreadsheet collects another negative (-). Well and good. I can handle it. I'm a big boy.

Some add insult to injury by insisting -- with waits that can extend far beyond a couple of months to most of a year -- that they, and only they, see your manuscript. This seems pretty one-way to me. A successful author said recently, "My advice is, ignore it."

Face-to-face is another option for the stout of heart. At conferences, you can make an appointment to sit down (for five minutes) with one of these gatekeepers and breathlessly make your case. Most ask for partials or full manuscripts, plus queries. In fact, it's rather rare that a writer is told, straight out, "No thanks." (In one case, an agent had "I am eager to reject you" written all over her face before I even sat down. And she followed through.) I've heard more than one agent admit that these were "pity" requests. Safer for them, but, perhaps, crueler in the long run to the writers.

A new option for connecting with agents and editors has emerged, and, to a "fast" guy like me, it's wonderful. At the end of last year, I stumbled upon online pitching. These occur mostly in blogs and tweets.

For blogs, you usually need a few hundred words of your "finished and polished" manuscript, but the key is a very brief pitch. Somehow, you need to provide a sense of your premise, your character, and your voice in 35 words. Your copy must be impeccable, sensitive to the audience you intend to reach, and fresh. It's a bit like writing poetry.

Oh, one more requirement: above your pitch and query, you need to list your audience (YA, Adult, MG, NA), your genre (SF, Rom, UF, etc.), and your word count. The last can kill you. Too few or too many words for the audience/genre you select can get you rejected out of hand.

If you think that sounds difficult, try tweeting your pitch. You have 140 characters to garner a gatekeeper's interest. And these editors and agents flash in and out of the "pitch party" and may miss you in the feed, so be prepared to pitch (slightly different) tweets twice an hour for 12 to 24 hours. It is marketing haiku or a full-contact sport, depending on your point of view.

Actually, you don't have 140 characters. You need to use some up identifying the party - something like #PitchBlack - and the audience/genre -- e.g.,  #YA #SF.  Oops, now we're down to 120, including the blank spaces.

Here's an actual pitch I've had success with: It's Bud or the cats as he fights chaos to bring peace to a wounded household coping w/their dying aunt 

Not as good as it might be, but it worked. As have my 35 word pitches. I've had over twenty requests for queries, partials, and fulls working this way. I've found five contracts from publishers in my in-box in the past 60 days. None of these came to me because of pity. They came to me because these folks are interested in my work. Cloaked by online anonymity the editors and agents self-selected with no social pressure to be nice.

I'll add that I've gotten access to "closed" agencies and publishers through these online opportunities. And everything is happening very quickly.