Sunday, February 1, 2015

5 Reasons to Ditch the Outline

While writing by the seat of your pants is generally accepted as a viable method for writers, few people can actually verbalize why outlining just doesn't work for some of us.  Sure, we discovery writers often complain that we lose our creative juices when forced to work with an outline, but that is a vague and unsatisfactory explanation at best.

Story Trumps Structure by Steven James offers a better, more precise explanation, and I highly recommend it to others who want to try discovery writing.

According to Steven James, I'm not the only that comes across these five problems while trying to follow an outline:

1.  Events seem forced because I am following some pre-determined plot points rather than taking my cues from the details of my character, settings, and situation.  What I thought would be logical in the pre-planning stage might not actually be so when I flesh out the world in my draft.

2. Transitions between scenes can turn out weak because instead of writing what follows logically from the previous scene, I'm writing what I dictated in the outline.

3. Narrative weight of subplots is hard to predict until I flesh out the scenes.  It's hard to tell whether a scene will take one page to write or ten pages.

4.  This leads to problems with fulfilling reader expectations.  The more weight or time you spend on an aspect of your novel, the more readers expect that it will payoff in a meaningful way later.  However, at the outlining stage, you're unable to predict what will become important as you write it and to outline the correct payoff.

5. The climax may either feel as if it came from nowhere (because it didn't follow logically from what we know about the character/setting/situation) or it might feel predictable (because it takes time to come up with a truly unexpected yet believable ending and our outlining stage is often much shorter than the writing stage).

Not that discovery writing doesn't have its own pitfalls, such as falling into a rabbit hole you can't navigate your way out of.

What do you think? 

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

On Resolutions and Evaporating Snowflakes

Another January arrives and after we've all finished exclaiming at how 2015 sounds like "the future," we do a little soul searching and try to come up with enthusiastic new year resolutions.  You know, those shiny things that look great in January and then in December half the time we can't remember what they were, and even if we do, we're not quite sure if we accomplished them.

Yes, for many of us, resolutions are made with good intentions but often end up falling by the wayside.  But each new year, we can't resist the sense of optimism that seeps into our skin as we strive to better ourselves.

Many writers will resolve to finally finish that manuscript they've been slaving away on.  Others will resolve to query or self publish or to move onto the next novel.  Still others might decide they need to step back from writing pressures and restore more balance in their lives.

Personally, I'm in multiple camps. I'm on the verge of getting some much needed daycare for my toddler.  It will only be two days a week, but imagine, if you will, the potential productivity of sixteen hours.  Are you grasping my excitement?  However, after some health problems I have also vowed not to put undue pressure on myself and to focus on maintaining myself as well as possible.  Wise people in this industry have said it before: write for yourself first.  That advice will be my mantra going forward...(says January me).

Whatever your aspirations are, there's no shame in taking a moment to take stock and make a resolution or two.  And if they end up evaporating during the year like last December's snowflakes, that doesn't mean they weren't fresh with hope and magic while they lasted.

Happy New Year!

Friday, October 10, 2014

Pantsing on a Leash

Wow! It has been a WHILE since I have blogged.  But this is a good thing; I made a resolution to write more in my WIP and write less on my blog/twitter.  I think my [limited baby's nap] time has been more productive as a result.

But I thought I'd share with you this new thing I'm trying.  I call it "Pantsing on a Leash."

What I've Done in the Past

I've always loved being a "discovery writer" and finding the story and character as I write.  I usually picture a character and situation I find interesting and go from there.  As I write, I figure out things like:

What brought my character to this point in time, this place, and this situation?

What is her underlying hope, the one seated deep beneath whatever is happening on the surface?

What life change is just waiting to happen to her?

As you can tell, I tend to focus on the character more than the plot.  I write and rewrite the first three chapters until I get something I like.  In the past, I've then tried to continue the same approach for the rest of the novel.

Problems with Pantsing the Entire Novel

1. I always, always reach a point at around 10-20K where I start to lose interest, and it is REALLY hard to keep going.

2. When I force myself to continue, most of it is fairly unusable and I end up rewriting completely in the second draft.

Presenting...Pantsing on a Leash

I don't know if it will turn out the way I think but this is what I'm trying.  *Horn intro sounds*

Stage 1: Pantsing/Prewriting stage.  I write my usual 15K, revise, have alpha readers take a look, revise again, to my heart's content.  But I limit this stage to 15K, until I feel confident I have a story and character I understand and am excited to write an entire novel about.

Stage 2: Outlining/Brainstorming.  To keep in the pantsing tradition, the outline is very brief, only 1-2 pages.  The important thing here is to figure out the key plot points.  There are a lot of different ways to enumerate the plot points, but I like Dan Wells' approach to this.

If you're like me, you think an outline will bleed your creativity dry.  But you also have trouble writing focused plots.  I think by pantsing the beginning to your heart's content, you probably know enough about your character to take a stab at figuring out the plot points that will work best for her (and you can always change them).

My goal is to be able to write a first draft that is more focused, but to keep my creativity going by not outlining too deeply.

Stage 3: Draft the Good Parts:  Next, I'll skip to the part I am most interested to write in the outline, and go from there.  This is important because I think the section from 15K to the midpoint tends to be a lot of set up and I get very bored writing it.  Since I have both the outline and a beginning, I have a good idea of what has happened thus far.

Stage 4: Complete the Draft:  Finally, I'll revise the beginning as needed and then write up to the part in Stage 3.  I think the reason we often slump at 15-20K is not because we don't know what will happen in the end, but just because it seems like a huge hill to get there.  By writing the end first, we've given ourselves motivation.  The beauty of this is that we'll often find that we didn't need as much setup as we thought.  I can avoid a saggy middle by hitting plot points faster, and thus improve my pacing.  Yay!

Does it work?

Nobody ever said writing a novel is easy.

The hope here is to find the sweet spot that hits the creative side of discovering the story while still writing a usable draft.  If I end up with a draft that I can revise rather than have to rewrite, I'll consider this a success.

I'll let you all know how it goes.  In the meantime, any other pantsers are given free license to try out my non-patented method.

Happy writing!

Thursday, July 31, 2014

10 Difficult Lessons From Harry Potter

Happy birthday to the Boy Who Lived!

A recent study indicates that kids who read Harry Potter have a better sense of empathy for the disenfranchised.  Why am I not surprised at all?

What we read makes us who we are.  Stepping into another person's shoes gives us empathy and understanding. 

For Harry's birthday, I thought I'd enumerate some of the important messages kids can learn from Harry Potter.  Some of these are very grown up concepts, eschewing idealism for realism, echoing difficult history and difficult truths.  The world is a gray place, and Rowling was determined to show it.

1. Innocent Until Proven Guilty

Sirius Black was locked away in Azkaban for years because by all appearances he had callously murdered innocents.

2. Your Lineage Doesn't Define You

Hermione proved again and again that you don't have to be "pure-blooded" to be a fan-freaking-tastic magician.

3.  Divisiveness is a Distraction Method Used by Dangerous People

The Death-Eaters obsession with "pure-blooded" wizards echoes Hitler's obsession with the perfect race.

4. The Media is Slanted Toward Sensationalism

Rita Skeeter was always more interested in creating scandal than she was in reporting the truth.

5. Even The Highest Elected Officials Can Be Wrong

The Minister of Magic chose to ignore Harry's story about the return of Voldemort because it was easier to do so. 

6. The Finality of Death

I kept hoping that some of the dead characters weren't really dead, but Rowling forced us to deal with loss in a realistic way.  There is no Gandalf the White here.

7. Your Best Friend Can Turn His Back on You

It wasn't a pretty moment, but when Ron succumbed to the jealousy he's always struggled with, and walked out on Harry and Hermione in The Deathly Hallows, Harry had to try to do without him.

8. The Disenfranchised Have Value

Dobby and the other house-elves proved that they had abilities and magic the Death Eaters underestimated.

9. Bullies in the Schoolyard Might Never Grow Up

Lucius Malfoy and the other Death Eaters are a disturbing example of what bullies can become if unchecked.

10. People Can Make Amazing Sacrifices

Severus Snape never loved Harry, but he saved his life again and again, at his own peril. 

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

How To Write A Compelling Query in 4 Steps

Last year, I started a query tutorial using Harry Potter as an example.  Looking back on it, the end result wasn't as polished as it could be.  So I'm here to add a fourth step: POLISH—with a goal toward readability.

Let's review.

Step 1: Introduce Your Character With Subtext

Step 2: Be a Tease Without Being Vague

Step 3: End With the Heart of the Conflict

Step 4: Polish with a goal toward readability.

Agents often tell us they spend less than sixty seconds on each query. Therefore, your sentences should read easily and the meaning should be clear without backtracking.

Below, I've taken another stab at the Harry Potter example. I've broken down long sentences, added paragraph breaks, rearranged the order of clauses.  All with one goal in mind: readability.

Harry Potter arrived on his relatives' doorstep as a baby with a lightning-shaped scar on his tiny forehead.  He's been sleeping in a cupboard ever since.  Although his aunt and uncle spoil their own son Dudley, they've never offered Harry the same treatment. 

Yet on his eleventh birthday, Harry receives something special: a letter from a school called Hogwarts, claiming that he is a wizard.

The Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry introduces Harry to a world of potions, magic wands, and quidditcha sport played on flying broomsticks. But in an area forbidden to students, Harry also discovers a three-headed dog guarding a trapdoor. Apparently, his teachers aren't telling him everything. 

Harry and his friends are determined to find out what might be valuable enough for such drastic security measures—and what it might have to do with a break-in at the wizard bank, a professor's mangled leg, and a troll set loose in the school.

When his old scar begins to burn, Harry wonders if he should heed the warning to keep his friends out of danger. But perhaps true friendship means they must risk everything together—including their lives—to keep their newfound home at Hogwarts safe.

What do you think? Hopefully this is easier to digest.  Word count: 200.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Diversity Solutions with Brandy Colbert

photo by Jessie Weinberg
Welcome to the latest installment of Diversity Solutions! The #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign is going strong, prompting BookCon to create a diversity panel and First Book to expand its 2013 pledge to purchase diverse books

The momentum for diversity is building, but the fight to raise awareness isn't over.  Today we have Brandy Colbert here to discuss the need for diversity in YA and how we can achieve it.

Brandy Colbert's debut is the YA contemporary Pointe, the story of a girl who knows more than she's telling about her best friend's kidnapping case.  Brandy has also worked as an editor for several national magazines and as a copy editor.

Hi Brandy! Thanks so much for taking the time to discuss the hot topic of diversity in kid lit!

Please tell us a little bit about POINTE. What inspired your character, Theo?

POINTE is about a gifted ballet dancer whose best friend is returned home after being kidnapped four years earlier; her life begins to unravel once she realizes she played a role in the abduction. 

Typically the story comes to me first and then the characters, and in this instance, I was inspired by all of the long-term kidnapping cases I've kept up with over the years, especially the one portrayed in the TV movie I Know My First Name Is Steven. 

As for the ballet part, I grew up dancing and I've always loved reading ballet books, but I couldn't think of any recent ones that featured a black character. So I decided to write the one I'd always wanted to read.

According to this post by Lee & Low Books, there is a large gap between the percentage of children's books with diverse characters and the actual percentage of minorities living in the United States. It seems to me that if 37% of Americans are non-white, there must be an untapped market of readers waiting for books about minority characters. Why do you think publishers haven't invested further in books about diverse characters?

The top reason I've heard cited is that publishers are afraid the books won't sell. This is discouraging for many reasons, and can quickly become a self-fulfilling prophecy if no one is willing to fight for books written by and about people of color. And yes, publishing is a business, but these books were hard to find when I was a child and teen; it's baffling we still have the same problem in 2014, and hard to believe the demand isn't there.

Did you think it is easier or more difficult to get a book with diverse characters published? What was your experience like in the submission process?

I worried so much about fitting into a box when I was querying agents. The first three books I wrote were about black girls, but the plots all had a significant racial element because I didn't see books about black teens just living their lives, and assumed I'd never get one published that didn't focus on race. 

With POINTE, the main character is black and race is openly talked about in a couple of scenes, but the book is primarily a story about a girl who happens to be black. I never mentioned her race in the query, and I was terrified it would be the death of my story once agents got to the part where the main character mentions her race. But my agent and editor both found the diversity in the book refreshing, and I'm very lucky to have ended up with two people who really got it and understood why the story was important to tell on a number of levels.

Do you feel that writing about diverse characters has helped or hindered your career?

I think that in the past few months, people have been more open and honest about the need for diverse books, so it's encouraging to know that readers seeking out those stories might come across my book. We heard it loud and clear from the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign that all types of readers want to see themselves and/or the world reflected in the books they read. 

I'm not sure I'd be able to directly tell if it has hindered my career, but publishing can be a pretty tough business, so the best thing I can do is remain positive and hopeful about putting my work out there.

There is a belief in the publishing industry that books with ethnic characters on the cover don't sell as well. If this is the case, what can we do to change it? What types of covers would you like to have for your books?

I personally prefer books that don't feature characters' faces as I like to imagine how they look based on the text, rather than being shown. That said, it is extremely important that covers accurately reflect the characters inside the book. It's also important to ensure that covers with people of color are designed with the same care as other books, rather than finding the first stock image available of a black or Asian or Latino character and calling it a day. 

I've been in love with the cover of POINTE since the first day I saw it. It's compelling and gorgeous and perfectly fits the story, and I'd consider myself very lucky if my future work was presented in such a beautiful, thoughtfully designed package.

In your opinion, what are the top three things publishers can do to help sales of books with diverse characters?

1. Market books featuring people of color in the same way they market books primarily featuring white characters; don't let these books slip through the cracks.

2. Hire more diverse people within publishing at every level: editors, marketing, publicity, sales, etc. (This applies to literary agencies, as well!)

3. Seek out good work by diverse authors, and don't lean on the excuse that these writers aren't out there. They're out there and they're working hard, because they want their voices to be heard, too.

What are the top three things writers can do?

1. Think about the characters you're writing and the world you're creating. Do they accurately reflect the people in your life? Your friends and family and colleagues and the strangers you encounter each day? Are you taking the easy way out by writing characters who all look, act, and were raised the same way?

2. Support diverse books and authors. Buy these books. Check them out from your library and request them if they're not there. And if you like them, talk about them. Recommend them. Start a discussion about what makes them great and different and important.

3. If you've been writing diverse characters for a while but are having trouble placing your work, don't give up. Keep writing the stories you believe in, and don't assume you can tell what an agent or editor is looking for by their physical appearance or current list. Change is constant and you never know who will end up connecting with your work.

Thanks so much for an inspiring and thoughtful interview, Brandy!

Thanks for having me, Maya!

To learn more about Brandy Colbert, check out her blog or follow her on twitter.

Also, don't miss the other Diversity Solutions interviews with Nathan Bransford, Sherri L. Smith, Stephanie Guerra, Lamar Giles, Aisha Saeed, and Jessica Martinez!

Monday, May 5, 2014

Diversity Solutions with Jessica Martinez

Hi all, and welcome to the latest installment of Diversity Solutions! The cry for more diversity in kid lit has been growing with the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign kicked off last week.  Today we have author Jessica Martinez with us to discuss how we can achieve the change we need.

Jessica Martinez is the author of The Vow, a YA contemporary about two friends who decide to get married so that the boy won't have to return to his home country.  She has also written The Space Between Us and Virtuosity.  Her upcoming YA thriller, Kiss Kill Vanish, will be released in October 2014 by Katherine Tegan Books.

Hi Jessica! Thanks so much for joining to discuss the state of diversity in publishing today!

First, tell us a little bit about your upcoming novel, KISS KILL VANISH. What inspired your character, Valentina Cruz?

KISS KILL VANISH is about a girl who witnesses a murder—carried out by her boyfriend, ordered by her father. Horrified, she realizes that nothing in her life is as it seems, so she flees, leaving her privileged Miami life and taking on a new identity. Her past, however, has a way of finding her.

Valentina was inspired by a friend of mine. After we’d known each other for years, she confided that her father and uncle were in jail in her home country and that the family business was a criminal one. I was fascinated by the idea of growing up in a crime family. I wondered exactly when and how somebody would find this out about themselves, and at what point they would go from becoming an innocent victim to an accomplice. All that wondering gave birth to Valentina’s story.

You've written multiple novels with diverse characters. Do you feel a burden to represent their ethnicity when you're writing them, or do you focus more on their individual traits? How do you navigate that dichotomy?

It’s such a tightrope walk! I never want my characters’ ethnicity to be THE thing about them, but pretending it’s not an integral part of their identity would be a huge mistake. For me, the answer is in knowing my characters as entire people.

In THE VOW one of my main characters is Mo, a Muslim Arab American. He’s not your typical anything—totally unique, a little quirky, a little neurotic. As soon as I knew Mo as a real person, I didn’t feel a burden of making him Muslim enough or Arab enough. I understood how he feels about his faith and his ethnicity, but I also understood that he’s just Mo. One individual.

I definitely worried that because Mo isn’t devout, practicing Muslims would be annoyed at being represented this way, especially because it’s already such an under-represented group in YA. But at a certain point I had to put my “what will other people think” fears behind me and write my character’s story, because Mo isn’t a poster boy for anything.

According to this post by Lee & Low Books, there is a large gap between the percentage of children's books with diverse characters and the actual percentage of minorities living in the United States. It seems to me that if 37% of Americans are non-white, there must be an untapped market of readers waiting for books about minority characters. Why do you think publishers haven't invested further in books about diverse characters?

Money. What a dirty word, right? But publishing is a business, and if publishers aren’t financially solvent, they can’t continue paying authors and editors and producing the books we love. Now, whether it’s true or not, many publishers believe that books featuring diverse characters don’t make as much money. There are undoubtedly stats backing that up. At least, I assume there are, but I don’t pay much attention to them, partly because I’m a lousy business woman and partly because if those stats do exist, I’d like them not to affect my writing. I write what I want to write. If it sells, great. If not, oh well.

Have you ever felt any pushback on your books because of their characters, either from publishers or readers?

Never. I’ve had nothing but enthusiasm from my editor for both of my diverse books (I’m talkin’ about you, Anica Rissi!), and great support from both Simon & Schuster and Harper Collins.

Readers have been kind to me too. I’m pretty much the opposite of diverse (white, heterosexual, Christian, woman) so I research like crazy, and then I live in fear of being called out for inaccuracies. Thus far I’ve been spared. Actually, last week a Muslim America teenage boy wrote me some fan mail telling me I got it right, which just might be the best compliment I could receive.

You know what’s funny, though? I get way more “she didn’t get it right” complaints from readers of my books without diverse characters. Some VIRTUOSITY readers said, “this isn’t how classical violin is,” (I actually am a professional violinist) and some THE SPACE BETWEEN US readers said, “she gets the Canadian thing totally wrong,” (I actually am Canadian).

So…. I guess that’s why I can’t write in fear of offending someone. People will respond unpredictably. I’d rather gnaw my hand off than be called a racist, but the truth is, if I’m going to be writing diverse characters, I just might be called that. So, I do my research and I write the stories that need to be written. That’s all.

In your opinion, what are the top three things publishers can do to help sales of books with diverse characters?

Hmm. I don’t know if I have three in me (I really am a lousy businesswoman), but I think the biggest thing they can do is put real money behind the marketing for diverse character books. From what I can see, diverse books are being published, but they aren’t the books with the huge marketing and publicity campaigns. They aren’t the books with special placement at B&N or the ones being pushed at every trade show. If they aren’t making money, it has more to do with a “throw it out there and see if someone buys it” approach than consumer fear of diversity or quality of the books. In publishing, you have to sink money into something to get money back.

Beyond that, I don’t know. I do the creative side, and I hope that publishers buy my stuff.

What are the top three things writers can do?

1. Research. Don’t do it half-heartedly. Just don’t.

2. Be brave. No matter how much research you do, people might say mean things, because diversity is always an emotionally charged issue.

3. Know when to listen and when to ignore.

My friend Jenny Sanchez has a Turkish character in her debut novel THE DOWNSIDE OF BEING CHARLIE (great book!) and a professional review made some snide comment about him being Turkish for no real reason. Perfect example of when to ignore a comment!!! The boy is Turkish. He doesn’t have to have a reason, just like we don’t have to have reasons for being white or African American or Hispanic or ANYTHING! It’s hard to believe that kind of ignorance would come out of a professional review, but it did.

Another time to ignore: when well-meaning people suggest easier storylines so you don’t offend anyone. I had people doing that with THE VOW because it deals with a subject that gets people riled up (immigration, racism, perceptions of terrorism, etc.). I’m so glad I ignored them. Better safe than sorry is terrible advice when it comes to writing diverse characters. How about this instead: Better sorry than silent. 

Fantastic advice, Jessica! Thanks so much for joining us to speak to this issue!

To learn more about Jessica Martinez, check out her website, twitter, and facebook page. 

Also, don't miss the other Diversity Solutions interviews with Nathan Bransford, Sherri L. Smith, Stephanie Guerra, Lamar Giles, Aisha Saeed, and Brandy Colbert!