Writing queries becomes easier using themes

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Theme is among the most mysterious and powerful elements of storytelling. In the classic pyramid of writing skills from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, theme stands at the pinnacle. Theme is represented by symbols in that pyramid, the icons such as candles in a story about being lost. Even though it’s at the top of that diagram, theme is the nuclear reactor, the molten magma of your story. It’s also got another superpower. Theme, and knowing yours, makes writing your queries easier.

If you’re just writing for the first time on a story, book, or script, theme will be lurking under the surface. Your motivations for your characters are your primary concerns in early drafts. The needs and conflicts of the characters drive your plot.  Remember that plot is about events, and story is about yours characters and how they change. When you consider what each character needs, you may find the needs can align around a bigger idea. Freedom. Justice. Redemption. That sort of thing. Some characters oppose the theme to provide conflict, too.

The Da Vinci Code is about the power of knowledge versus the power of the Church. The Great Gatsby is about the American dream and how it fails. Your theme can be downbeat as well as uplifting. Lonesome Dove is about the power of friendship and it can push a man across a new frontier of his life.

The gift that theme gives to query is better focus. In a good query letter you have to sum up your story relentlessly. What’s the book about? You begin the task of answering by writing a synopsis. Then it becomes a paragraph. Finally, it’s tight enough to state in a single sentence. It’s hard to do, but you’re the best person to find your theme. You’ve lived with the story longer than anyone. You knew what you meant to convey with your book. Not the telling part; that’s plot. You want to convey a feeling, because the feeling is central to unlocking the meaning of the story.

Theme usually emerges later in the creation process. It’s almost like you have to write a draft all the way through to understand what you were meaning to show with the story. Theme then becomes a good tool to polish and pare down and redirect a story.

Answer these questions to discover a theme under the surface of your storytelling.

  1. What stories are you drawn to the most? What issues do you struggle with in your own heart?
  2. Why do you feel compelled to tell this story?
  3. What is this story about if what happens is…

Your characters’ voices will sound clearest when you listen for theme. Let them report on the theme. Write what they’ll ask about their challenge.

 

3 things you need to earn notices, publish, and write

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sailing-boat-640There are three assets anyone needs for a career in books. See, you’ll craft a writing career out of your writing life. First you have a writing life, personal and intimate and regular. Then you move on to a writing career. Maybe not full-time, but you consider it your primary work.

The three assets are publicity, patience, and practice. Whether you choose to work with a publisher, a coach, or an editor—or strive to become one—those are three essentials. But no matter where you’re at in your career as a writer, using these three tools is crucial to finding the Joy of Writing. Sailing at the center of your journey of joy is help.

As you move into your career as a writer you’ll need publicity. At first that will be earning attention for your own work or the writing of your colleagues. Getting fluent with Twitter and Facebook and Instagram, mapping the landscape of book review websites, plumbing publicity portals like BookBub and Bookbuzz— it’s all essential to publishing yourself. However, in time, you might be inclined to form a publishing venture, at first limited to yourself and few fellow writers.

Publishing can become the province of writers when they collaborate on its business. The flavor of the business day is to corral experienced writers with popular backlists of books, and then get these authors the money they deserve. After all, traditional publishing’s payouts are changing. An author in this kind of boutique press will learn the publicity world to succeed at this venture. Such boutique publishers might even discover more great books, ones that couldn’t find a publisher, and build careers for the undiscovered authors. Very nice work indeed. Getting notice for good work is the heart of publishing.

That leads us to another kind of help: assisting creativity. This is the aid which demands patience. While an author is building skills and polishes their own books, there are opportunities to reach out and help other writers. You might be doing beta reads for your friends’ full drafts, or even catching typos in a late-stage revision of a book. Given enough of this patient work, you may hear a calling to coach writers—that’s where the asset of patience pays off. Coaches guide writers to develop books and edit the text. The level of accountability for a coach can feel greater than one for a classroom teacher. Students pass, they fail, they rate a teacher up or down in surveys: that’s what’s at stake while teaching. Sometimes a teacher only gets three or four hours in front of 30 writers and never sees their writing.

In contrast, during coaching the author will look a coach in the eye (if they use FaceTime, or they meet in a coffee shop) and say things like “Explain why I can’t have three first-person points of view for this cozy mystery.” A coach takes a breath and does their best–and later evaluates the writer’s next set of pages to see if the advice helped the author. That counsel is powered by the talent of the author and that writer’s willingness to put in the hours. You must become the hard-working author who loves to put your early efforts well behind you. Plenty of teaching happens via email and Track Changes.

Of course practice, the third asset, helps everything improve. Practice makes doing the work easier, too. (Okay, at least you don’t need as much effort to finish a section or an assignment.) In the beginning of an editor’s career the books take longer to edit well. After a decade or two of reading the writing of others and then making it better, everyone’s time is better used. The editor returns drafts with development notes sooner. An editor who can coach will have seen more styles, as well as become more practiced at preserving a writer’s tone and voice.

fathers-day-buzzNear the end of the movie Genius, the legendary editor Max Perkins expresses the editor’s worry. “We might not be making these books better,” he says. “We might just be making them different.” Your editor is your collaborator in writing, an art that people believe is solitary work. Lately a few publishers have begun to give an editor a credit on the book. Buzz Bissinger’s memoir Father’s Day is called An Eamon Dolan Book, right out on the back cover. Eamon is Bissinger’s editor, collaborating with him on three books so far. Buzz gives him fulsome praise in the acknowlegements.

With Eamon as fastidious editor and wordsmith (some chapters had more of his comments than they did my own words), what began as an earnest and rudderless first draft became a book.

An Eamon Dolan Book sounds like “A Steven Spielberg Film.” It’s Buzz’s book, yes. The collaboration was powered by publicity, patience, and practice. The first feels like magic when it works. But it’s earned by applying the other two in order to create something worthy of public notice. Buzz admits his fine memoir was rudderless, but at least it was moving. Patience helped him steer the story. Practice, of course, was the wind in his sails.

Memoir and therapy and you

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Memoir is all about you. Writing one is, anyway. In the process of creating these stories about your history, you’ll uncover aspects of yourself. Not pretty, some of these will be—if you’re lucky, and fortunate enough to be brave about telling on yourself.

dog-therapyOne of the universal cautions about writing memoir is the role of therapy in creating it. Endless introspection isn’t attractive. There’s a saying in the movies when a stage play is brought to the screen. The tactic is to “open it up.” Parts of The Odd Couple got exterior settings in the film, for example. Opening up a memoir means letting other people into the story and being aware of their emotions. Not just your own.

That being said, memoir writing is the most personal storytelling you will do. You have the potential to examine what happened in your past and put things into the spotlight that were shadowy. Memoirs can also identify the habits and beliefs you didn’t understand, even as you practiced and followed them. One great resource to lead you is Writing Life Stories, by the novelist Bill Roorbach and therapist Kristen Keckler.

Are you narcissistic, or bipolar? I’m a bit of both, habits that can rob you of joy and love, and also get you published and elected. Own what you are and use it. If you put enough work into a memoir, you can understand your conditions and disorders with a bighearted love and compassion. Now go tell some secrets.

Writing Books and Movies: Three Critical Distinctions

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A writer asked me this week, “Can I start my novel contest submission from a place other than the beginning chapter of my book?” You can start anywhere. The challenge you meet with any beginning other than the beginning is knowing who is who and where your story stands.

a_jay_shermanUsing a mid-book entry, you must establish character and underscore the theme of a book at an incredible pace. The judges will determine your ability to create characters as part of their scoring. This can be a challenge while starting mid-book. Not necessarily, of course. An author can always color outside the lines of accepted practices.

Think for a little bit, however, about why it’s important to start the sample someplace other than the start. The samples of film stories, trailers, illustrate the distinction in showing your audience your story.

First, a movie trailer may be a cousin to the book sample, but the trailer is edited so you get the essence of the story. If you can do this for a book “writing sample” (the phrase for a passage of a book sent to agents, contests, and editors) then good for you. But movie editing and novel writing have great differences. The phrases that apply here are collages and medleys for movies, and guidebooks and maps for novels. In a book you have to know where you’re at when you begin. You have a legend for a map. It’s not easy to carry a judge’s or reader’s imagination across half the story without a legend up front.

Second, visual storytelling is not the same craft as creating fiction on a page. A movie lets your eyes see settings and your ears hear actors to establish your place in the story. On talk shows, the actors are asked to “set up the clip” we watch. This takes up words to do in a writing sample, words that might help more if they’re used in dramatic, descriptive, evocative writing.

Third, you get more time to establish the magic when you’re writing a movie. Music, colors and lighting, the spoken word: they all splash over your screen in a trailer in a matter of seconds. The theme of the movie, its main questions, often roll toward you in phrases that float across the screen. “What would you do,” it might ask, “when salvation costs you everything?” In books you get this with your jacket-flap or back cover writing. A writing contest gives you a shot at this with a synopsis, if they accept one as part of your entry.

When you’re tempted to start a writing sample in mid-book for a contest, look over the categories on the scoresheet and ask yourself if you can demonstrate competence in each section. If you can see the way, go for it. You’ll probably not be the only person to so this. A judge must understand who is who and where the desires and motives lay in this new land, however.

Although you get about 300 words of synopsis to set up your clip, in the Writers League of Texas Manuscript contest, you’ll work with 2,450 words at most to show your drama. It’s not an impossible constraint to overcome. But choosing first steps in a writing sample is like crossing a stream using steps upon rocks. You find your path starting from the bank where it’s dry. Beginnings give book samples better traction.

What You Need To Win With A Coach

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coachwhistleMaking a choice to employ a writing coach is an important step for an author. How do you choose? Ask a prospective writing coach how long they’ve been paid to write and edit. Ask about salaried writing and editing, editorial projects, articles, and books. Your coach should be able to answer the questions in years. Just like being an incumbent politician, that’s a record of work a seasoned coach gets to reference, and you get to check. That number of years is not any more important than those hard-earned Masters degrees. But it’s no less important, either.

I had the pleasure of working with Steve Adams to help coach me and develop my memoir Stealing Home: The Road to the Perfect Game. There’s the whole element of counseling and listening that turns out to be much more important than any Magic Famous Acronyms from a school. Steve had his MFA, yes, but he also had practical experience in working with writers. A Masters can be helpful, but being able to relate to an artist who’s finding the voice of their story — that is crucial. Some people want repairs to their work. Others like to have the way suggested. Your coach will know what you want because they will ask you, then do a test evaluation or a sample edit.

Like choosing a therapist, surgeon, or minister, it comes down to what kind of person your coach is at heart: you hope it’s someone with integrity and a following who’ll vouch for that integrity and the value of the coaching. There’s no certificate that says Writing Coach, not even an MFA. I like to say that doing your diligence about experience is the best way to find a winning match with a coach.

Great heroes transform a story from the inside

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While there’s plenty of formulas and types of story breakdowns to follow, there’s nothing like an inside job. Things happen in stories because what’s inside the main character, as well as what’s buried in the villains, too.

luke_skywalkerPeople, and how they fare amid trouble, are what keep us reading once we begin. You can start with a fine premise (a college essay falls into the wrong hands and student is called out for an old misdemeanor revealed on its pages). But going deeper keeps me engaged. Showing me why our student was carrying that small amount of dope (her crime) is more important than the circumstances of her arrest or punishment. Knowing what was in her heart when she revealed this secret is a good driver, too.

External events like arrest, breaking the rules, sentencing and being shamed — these are vehicles you employ to show a transformation in your main character. That hero is opposed by antagonists who want something the hero does not want. But even the antagonists must desire something they do not have. It can as simple as denying a hero their desires, or exploiting the hero’s innocence.

“I’m Luke Skywalker and I’m here to rescue you” are words the young Luke has been dying to say all of his life. Why he wants to say those words, beyond the sound of it being exciting, is a key to knowing why to care about this character across five movies (so far).

Everyone who’s a significant character in a story follows a path of transformation. The why that leads them to change the world of the story is the most important engine to push them down the path. Doing character work is rarely wasted time when you apply it to serving the transformation in a story. I always want to know what a hero desires, what a hero fears, what a hero must hide than is forced to reveal. Desire, fear, secrecy: They all can be agents of change in a character and in a story, too.

In an old Murder She Wrote, mystery writer Jessica Fletcher said that “character is the soul of plot.” Something interesting taking place is a good start. Learning why it’s interesting—that’s a story.

Discount training: worth all you won’t pay for it

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plasticflowersI have an old friend who’s embarking on a new book. His first, in fact, although he’s been writing for his business for many years. A book demands more of a writer than an article, of course. I brought more than 20 years of journalism editing and writing to my first day of creating fiction. Making a 4,000-word article is not enough experience to create an 80,000-word book. You can’t just create 20 stories and stitch them together. You need to practice skills you might not have polished yet.

The same kind of calculation is part of choosing a coach or a class for your writing. People go to the gym and pay $30 for a hour with a trainer. Ask them to pay more than $50 for a writing coaching session, and some will point to Udemy on the Web. “It’s just $40 for 35 modules of writing. I can do that.” Ah, the Web, the great discounter of all learning.

There’s been a revolution in buying and selling services. As writers, we now can choose the world over for our writing lessons. Coaching, too, if your coach provides you 1:1 time. Some of the lessons come from far away, places where English is not the common language. But it’s not just the native language that matters. Mistaking coaching for such instruction is commonplace. Instruction is only as good as the practice it triggers. If a $40 Udemy course doesn’t require you to write and turn in for an evaluation, you’re not going to pay for all of that expertise which reveals what you know—and what you still need to master.

“Why should I care about getting graded?” you might say. “I never liked that part of school anyway.” To avoid all that grading, we then audited courses instead of taking the tests. College systems didn’t discount tuition for audited courses, though. Remember, right alongside you were students working to prove they learned the lessons. Submitting work. Hearing evaluations. Seeing where you misunderstood, so you can master the skills.

I’m making a series of Write Skills videos this year. Just about one a week is my goal, and you invest about 4 minutes watching each one. When you finish each, you’ll have one more tool in your writing belt. Write Skills are free, but you won’t get your practicing afterward evaluated. (If you don’t have a plan for practice, you’re not growing your skills. Short lessons, yes. Longer practice.) That’s what coaching does, or sitting in a real class in-person, or online. You measure your training through evaluated practice. You won’t have to pay for that training when you buy a $40 writing course. You might be paying later on, though, when your writing hasn’t seemed to improve as much as you desired.

Desire drives genuine growth. It’s worth the investment to build a book that people will finish reading and remember. Other kinds of books are everywhere, of course. They’re set aside unfinished, or leave an impression that no writer wants. Whether you’re creating your first work, or just the latest, all of us need to keep growing our craft. I like to think of discount training like plastic flowers. They look great. But if you want the aroma of a genuine bouquet, then an arranger working with the fresh stuff gives you what you really desire.

3 Things That Good Story Description Demands

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We always want specifics in description. We try to choose the ones that help us know the why about the story’s characters.

Lisa Cron, the teacher of storycraft on Lynda.com and elsewhere, says “Scenery without a subtext is travelogue. (read: boring) Ensure your specifics are story-related, rather than floundering in the dreaded realm of “just because.” All the rules about “setting” and “place” are irrelevant without this: if a description doesn’t give us specificnecessary insight into the characters in the story you’re telling, that description will stop the story cold.”

So there you have it. The three things are

  1. Specifics
  2. Insights
  3. Relationship to a character

FlatsWithout them, the writing will be as flat as any backdrop on a theatrical stage. And so the beautiful prose is just travelogue. Pretty, yes. Story-stopping, too. Here’s an example of travelogue, from YouTube. It’s one of the old TravelTalks shorts from the 1930s that gave moviegoers a look at many places, but no characters. (You see lots of people in these little films, but no characters.) Plenty of visuals. So if you include something like this in a story, it will stop — no tension, no insight.

Also, here’s a nice definition page for milieu  It’s a nice word to trigger a description that includes culture. (Characters = culture.) Your settings should be doing work to help us experience your characters.

When to Get Your Developmental Edit Done

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Professional editors advise writers to have their books edited. In fact, just about everybody in the industry will tell you an outside edit is essential, no matter how experienced you are. It’s not news that editing is needed to make a good book, one which sells instead of languishes on Amazon or in the publisher’s warehouse. Or in your hallway, if you’ve ordered your own pre-printed books.

What might come as news is when editing is needed, and what kind of editing comes first. Copy editing (sometimes called line editing) is not the first step to a better book. Developmental editing leads the parade to publication. Sometimes it’s called structural editing because the focus of developmental editing is the order of story in the book, as well as what it contains.

Characters are often developed as a book is written, but thinking about who’s in the story and why is a serious advantage to an author. It might seem like time better spent creating a draft. But character selection and development is crucial to keeping your creation time to a draft as short as is needed. Nobody wants to labor over and over to polish up and flesh out characters who will drop out, or end up being bit players in your story.

Developmental editing is as essential as developing photo film for pictures. Yes, taking pictures now requires no film. But photography has changed. Storytelling has not, and your development work builds your story. First you develop, and it’s almost impossible to do this on your own. If you have a professional beta reader, you can rely upon them. By pro I mean someone who’s seen a book to publication, and received editing along the way.) A friend who loves your writing may not provide enough help — even if you can get them to read every word.

An author came to me with a draft that brimmed with more than 80,000 words, a book in progress that already had been through a copy edit. While that work made the draft better, the book needed more work on structure and character. That copy editing was performed on thousands of words that were going to be cut, changed, or moved. Copy editing: essential, yes. But later. One high-flying story guru advises that the beginning of writing a book is the best time to develop it.

Lisa Cron’s written Wired for Story and other story structure books. She shared a tale about a writer who arrived in Cron’s inbox with 60,000 words completed. “I wish I could have been of help,” she told the author. It seemed too late in the game, especially if a writer thinks clean prose = finished book.

Filling Out that Early Draft of Your Book

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hungry_babyNovels arrive, like babies, at expected weights. A writer who’s poked around websites or attended conferences knows the numbers. It’s tough to consider anything under 60,000 words a novel. The spot that most agents like to see for a debut novel is about 80,000 words. Science fiction and fantasy writers can go as high as 120,000 and get a commercial deal.

But what if you’re 20,000 words short of even the 60K? How do you look for what that early draft of your book needs in order to grow to term, like babies do? It’s tough for a preemie to make it in the world, in the same way that a small book will scuffle to make an impact. Where do you look to fatten up that early draft?

Character is usually the broad-brush answer. Early versions of novels exist in the most complete fashion inside the writer’s head. You can see your hero, the story’s villain, all the trusty sidekicks and baffled authority figures, the mentor and the confidants. The question becomes, do your readers know them like you do? I like to tell writers that if it’s not on the page, then it’s probably not in the story.

Motives: I need to know what your main character wants desperately. I want to see the achievement or the object or the relationship that leaves a hole in their heart, because it’s missing. You can show me this in the part of the story where the story starts. Pixar calls this the “Every day…” part of the writing. I call it Life as Your Character Knows It. If at all possible, try to show that “Every day” instead of telling it to me.

Settings: It can be tempting to paint each loving detail of a house, a shop, a town, or a beloved car. In the same way, your early draft writing can linger on the physical details of significant characters. These details are only important to the story if they keep showing readers that missing element your hero wants. How does the hero feel about the peeling paint on the windowsills? Can you show me that feeling in a scene? There’s a great exercise called the Character of Setting, where details for descriptions are chosen based on what the feeling of the character is at that moment of the story.

Early drafts of novels often need to be unpacked, like the old sea monkey kits that would arrive from the cereal box companies. (That’s a Boomer reference if ever there was one. You used an eyedropper of water.) You drop emotions onto the little moments in your story. You slow down the narrative progress and linger over the sensory moments. Your early draft, if it’s short, doesn’t have to rush toward one event after the next. Plot is the events that happen in a book. Story is what makes the events matter. You can only create the meaning for a book if I understand the characters’ hearts.

If your characters start talking to each other in an early draft, that’s a fine spot to expand the sea monkeys. Conflict drives all lively dialogue. Let me see a bit of battle, confusion, or misunderstanding of one another while the characters sort things out in talk. In the best of scenes, there’s action to provide counterpoint to the talking.

History: Resist this if you can. Flashbacks are tolerable to a point, but what’s happening in the now of the story is the most important thing to a reader. Extended explanations to recount events about why something is significant are often shortcuts. Telling has a valuable place in story creation. Showing is more riveting, and it provides a hard-wired magnet for attention of the reader. Telling compresses time and scoots us through the story’s slow spots. Showing lets us walk through the garden with eyes on every flower.

Keeping your main character’s yearning in every part of the story will give your early draft the food it needs to grow to term. Some writers have to cut back when they get to later drafts. Some need to make more events take place, to cut back on the interior voice of the book and get out of the heads of characters. But for many an early draft, showing the character’s desires and fears, their hidden shame and forbidden joy, is the best nourishment to make it grow.

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