Monday, March 29, 2010

I Got Your Feelings Right Here, Part 2

In yesterday's post I wrote about some adventures in Revisionland, where I floundered for some time while trying to get my main character to express himself.

After revising based on some helpful feedback from other agents and then signing with Joanna, I still had more work to do.

For many of the revisions, I added some internal thought to help readers connect with the character more. Many scenes and chapters had ended too soon, without saying enough about what was going on in the character's head. Again, especially because it's told in the first person POV, the reader should be in the character's head with him, not wondering what he's thinking.

Today I'm posting some "before" and "after" examples from the manuscript, along with Jo's comments.

Before: I try my best to look brave.
But inside he feels...?
Um...not brave?
Revision: I try my best to look brave, but I worry I'll never feel safe again.

This is from a scene where Hastin surprises his mom with a visit after not seeing her for a couple of weeks, and he notices her smile seems forced:

Before: I run toward her, then stop. Doesn't she want to see me?
Jo: How does that make him feel? Tie it to his elation, then being deflated in some way.
Revision: I run toward her, then stop. Doesn't she want to see me? All this time, I thought she must be missing me as much as I've missed her, but not it feels like I've done something wrong.

Here, a character is giving instructions about trapping an elephant:

Before: "Come here each evening to see if we've caught anything," he told me as we stood at the trap's edge. "...After a day or two, we will have our elephant."
And the chapter ended there, so Jo asked me to elaborate on how he feels about this. In the revision I tied this back to Hastin's family, specifically his sister having to leave home for medical care after a bite from a disease-carrying mosquito.

Revised to add: And that elephant will not have its family anymore, because of us. My stomach sinks. I'm no better than the mosquito who bit my sister.

A later chapter circled back to that idea, when Hastin is making a promise to the elephant they've just trapped:

Before: "I won't leave here without you, I promise."
End the chapter with his final thoughts to keep us connected to how he's feeling.
"I won't leave here without you, I promise." And I mean it too, but I don't feel any better. I feel like a mosquito promising to take back its bite.

At times I used Hastin's actions to show how he was feeling. I hadn't shown enough about him feeling afraid when he was alone in the forest. He's an eleven-year-old from the desert, so of course he's not comfortable wandering around the forest by himself. He may not come right out and say "I'm afraid," but I try to show that fear by the way he freezes when he hears an unfamiliar noise, jumps away from a spider, or checks a tree branch for snakes and bugs before climbing it. (That also helped with another revision task, firming up the setting.)

In Part 1 of the post, we had some great comments about authors who have ninja-like skills at showing a character's feelings. When it's done well, you finish a book feeling like you've been on a roller coaster ride with the character. It's by no means an exhaustive list, but here are a few to start with if you need some good examples. Suggestions from yesterday's comments were Mary E. Pearson, Sarah Dessen, and Megan McCafferty; other authors I thought of were Sara Zarr and Jo Knowles. (I dare you to read Jumping Off Swings without crying!)

Sunday, March 28, 2010

I Got Your Feelings Right Here, Part 1

Recently I finished a round of revisions for SuperAgent Joanna to get my mid-grade novel ready for submissions to editors. In addition to sending an edit letter that addressed big-picture issues, Jo sent a hard copy of the manuscript with notes written throughout. After a while, many of the comments started sounding familiar: "And how does he feel about that?" "How does that make him feel?" "And he feels...?"

And it wasn't the first time I'd had feedback like that. Sometimes the comments on chapters I'd brought to critique meetings showed that readers wanted to see more about how the character was feeling or what they were thinking. A couple of agents who were nice enough to send feedback with the rejection letters indicated the same thing-- I wasn't showing enough about what was going on in the character's head.

Obviously I was being too sparse in my descriptions of my character's thoughts and feelings. Why was I holding back? I love the quote from this article: "...although the Irish have a marvellous ability to tell stories, when it comes to their emotions, they may have no words." So maybe that explains it. It's hardly my fault. Or maybe I was worried about the dreaded "telling" too much instead of "showing." Sure, if I filled the story with internal thoughts like, "I was sad," and "I was so angry," that would be really boring, but there are ways of showing those feelings that help readers connect with characters more, and thereby root for them and keep reading the story to see how things turn out.

So it's taken some work since for whatever reason the feelings thing hasn't come naturally for me, but here's some feedback I got from agents and the revisions I did in response to that.

Last year I got "the call" from an agent who was interested in representation, but she wanted to see a lot of revisions first. Here are some comments she had about the need to show my main character's feelings more, and I think it shows that line we try not to cross between saying too little and overdoing it:

"The story needs to pack a strong emotional punch."
"Currently, the connectedness between [the characters] is need to focus right in on these two and show us how crucial they are to each other...Let's SEE the connection between them, rather than just being told about it."
About the main character, Hastin: "I wonder if there could be more feeling from him. I don't mean a lot of breast-beating and over-writing, but we never really see him get angry or in strong emotional pain. I think we should see more of what's in his heart, though it's possible to convey this with a lightness of touch and understatement."

She was right--the character was going through a pretty miserable time, but he didn't express that. One suggestion she gave for improving the manuscript was to strengthen the character arc, and to do that I'd have to show not only the events that happened to him, but how he changed on the inside as he went about his journey.

I went through the manuscript and highlighted all the places where I could show the character's reaction to what was happening. And there were a lot. Then I tackled each highlighted scene by doing a little freewriting about how he felt at that time--not just the emotion, but what he felt physically too. Is there a sinking feeling in his stomach? Does he hit something out of anger? Does he feel like things are so bad, he'll never be happy again? I picked out my favorite words and phrases from the freewriting to add a concise description of the character's feelings to the scene. The Bookshelf Muse has an amazing Emotional Thesaurus that helped tremendously. (It's also great for setting descriptions, so bookmark it!)

I also added a rock--a gift to Hastin from his dad--that he'd hang on to when he was nervous or afraid, because it helped him feel safe and closer to his dad. Later in the story, when his hand reaches for the rock in his pocket, Hastin doesn't have to say anything for the reader to know how he feels. (When I mentioned this to my awesome manuscript critiquer Uma Krishnaswami, she told me I was using an example of T.S. Eliot's objective correlative. Hmm, yes, objective correlative...I meant to do that. Now write that down so I can Google it.)

I spent about three months on that round of revisions; here's a bit of the letter I got back after resubmitting:

"The story isn't quite 'singing' to me the way it needs to...We would need an editor who fights to acquire it because they have fallen in love with it--because they feel with Hastin in his loneliness and fear..."

Not what I wanted to hear, of course, but I knew the manuscript was a lot better than it was before, so the time I'd spent revising wasn't at all wasted. But I still hadn't quite accomplished what I needed to. After some more revising I submitted to agents again, and here's a paragraph from a response I got back from another fabulous agent that was so helpful:

"...I felt that there were first person point-of-view issues. I like it when characters play it close to the chest and show instead of tell how they feel, but first person POV requires the occasional outburst of feeling. ...The author gives external hints to the character's state of mind, and were it not in first person POV I would find those enough, but it's jarring to be in Hastin's head and not know explicitly how he feels."

Of course--since we're in that character's head, we should always know what he's thinking and feeling. If it were too stream-of-consciousness the story would get bogged down with too much description, but the reader should never be left wondering what's going on in the character's mind. That makes so much sense but it hadn't occurred to me before.

I have some examples of how I revised the manuscript again based on Jo's comments, but I'll save those for a new post. For now I'll leave you with a couple of unputdownable books I've read recently that showed the main character's feelings so well on every page: The Dead-Tossed Waves by Carrie Ryan and The Chosen One by Carol Lynch Williams (here's an interview with her on Cynsations.) Certainly there are many more great examples, so leave 'em in the comments and I'll include the suggestions in Part 2 of the post.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Holding Human Hearts

If I decided to switch genres and write horror instead of books for children, I’m sure I could do a creditable job. After all, not many writers, horror or otherwise, can claim to have put their hands inside a human chest to hold a living heart.

While in nursing school, I worked as the weekend assistant in a cardio ICU. The facility was large enough to offer state-of-the-art heart interventions, but small enough that it needed its staff to float among various departments. So one weekend, when the OR staff had an emergency surgery and needed an extra hand, they taught me to scrub in. I became the weekend “heart holder.”

Holding a heart in surgery is about as dramatic as plucking eyebrows on a Saturday night. My job was to hold the heart in place to give the surgeon access to the part of the organ that needed work. The minutes would tick by with nothing to listen to but the steady hum of the bypass machine, and nothing to look at but something that resembled a piece of cold chicken, a marvel of human anatomy that makes us all live and breathe. When that part of the surgery was complete, I would return to the ICU to run errands and walk recovering patients up and down the corridors.

But the next morning always smacked of the miraculous. The heart that I’d held would be repaired and tucked safely back inside a person who was awake, and usually complaining. I’d help them up to a chair, open their Jello and juice containers, and position their pillows. All the while, I would listen. Heart surgery has a way of bringing out people’s most private thoughts -- about God and mortality, regrets and dreams. I found that holding hearts can be a serious business.

A writer’s words can touch and hold young hearts. They can surgically bypass barriers and reach inside where we ourselves could never go. Because of this, children deserve the very best -- stories that let them laugh and cry, stories that that help them find their way.

Kids get the fact that the world can be a difficult, sometimes scary place. A good book is a safe place to process hopes, fears, and ways of navigating the world. While they don’t need to be coddled, they do need respect for their place on the path to emotional maturity. The craft of writing needs good doses of caring and humility, because holding hearts is a serious business.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Fasten Your Seatbelts. It's Going to be a Bumpy Ride...

What are you working on this weekend?

If you live in Houston, you know that this glorious sunshiny-spring weather is saying bye-bye tomorrow morning …

So, forget about clearing out your flower beds or dining al fresco. Crank up the gas on the fireplace and make yourself a warm cup of … tea, coffee ... pick your poison.

OH, and don’t forget your Snuggie. We Cakers are fond of them & recommend them highly for writing and/or reading during inclement weather.

Which brings me back to my original question … what are you working on this weekend?

Are you continuing your journey through a first draft? Are you thrilled with it, excited to work on it, can’t wait to return to the world you’ve created? Is it Newbery or Printz worthy? Is it destined for the bestseller lists?

Or … and stop me if I’m wrong … do you dread returning to it, because you’re so sure what you’ve written so far sucks worse than anything ever written? Ever? Well?

Or … are you in the middle, and find yourself, after a good start, sagging. Sagging middles. They’re horrible.

Or … are you near the end, reveling in what you’ve accomplished so far but absolutely terrified by the fact that YOU HAVE NO IDEA HOW IT ENDS?

And then of course, maybe you’re at the end. You’ve done a wonderful job writing a decent first draft. And then you realize … it’s time to start the second draft.

Yes it’s true, the journey of a writer can never be described as smooth. There are hurdles, there are potholes, there are roads that end abruptly in a free-fall tumble off a cliff.

But whether I’m working hard on that first draft, or the 10th draft, I try to remind myself that every published author has been down this very same road. Except for those dweebs who do everything perfect the first time.

But let's not discuss them. Let's instead sit back and enjoy the wind in our hair as we watch the sheer rock face go whizzing by. Because we know that at the bottom of that ravine, after we climb out of our smashed up jalopy … we'll find a better story.

Right? Right. Now go get that Snuggie. It's time to write!

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Conference Reflections: Alexandra Cooper of Simon & Schuster

Another of our awesome speakers at the Houston SCBWI conference was Alexandra Cooper, senior editor at Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, who discussed how and why a book is acquired.

Editors look for balance in their own lists, and among the lists within their imprint and publishing house. If you submit your work directly to an editor instead of through an agent, your chances of getting accepted are better if you find an editor who publishes books like yours. Go to conferences and do your research to find the right editor. (And of course, make sure they take unsolicited submissions-- most of the big houses don't, but editors who attend conferences generally invite attendees to submit to them.)

Alexendra mentioned that one reason the picture book market is tough right now is because they are expensive to produce; they're generally printed abroad using four colors on heavy paper. And unless you're the author/illustrator, remember that royalties will be split between the author and the illustrator, so the book must earn out the advance for both people.

Writers of picture books were happy to hear from her (like we heard from other speakers too) that although novels are hot right now, the market is cyclical and picture books will come back.

Not all mansuscripts are rejected because the writing is bad or the story isn't there. Sometimes editors have to turn down submissions they love. Why might Alexandra turn down a perfectly good manuscript? Like so many editors, she gets a buttload of submissions (my phrase, not hers), so she has to be really selective. Or she may have too many books in the same category, so the manuscript she's looking at wouldn't give her that balance she mentioned. And sometimes a story just isn't distinctive enough. Editors are responsible for contributing to the company's bottom line, so they can't always publish everything they're passionate about. They need a balance between backlist authors and new authors, literary and commercial fiction.

So what is she looking for? A great voice-- one that's original but comfortable, and a story that captures and holds readers' attention. In order to acquire your story, editors must love it; they have to be willing to defend it in an acquisition meeting and answer any questions that come up about the work. She also looks for authors she thinks she'll be able to work with again.

Alexandra usually does two rounds of revision with an author. The first editorial letter presents overall issues, like character dynamics and themes. The second letter helps to fine tune the manuscript by addressing details like line edits and tightening of scenes. From the time a book is acquired to the time it's published usually takes 18 months to 2 years.

Alexandra works with picture books, midgrade and young adult novels, not easy readers or non-fiction. There are a few exceptions, like some picture books about Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton that came from ideas she assigned to authors and illustrators.

When it's time for you to submit your own work, keep in mind that you deserve an editor who is as passionate about your book as you are!

Spring Beckons

Spring is here in Houstonland. It would be shocking if another freeze came our way. It's also time to throw off winter doldrums, frozen thoughts, and cold ideas. Heat is headed our way. Get your ideas baking, your sentences stirring and your chapters cooking.

Tonight the clock springs forward. Put a spring in your step and your writing. Spring clean your shelves and read about writing your favorite genre again, just like when you first started writing.

Celebrate spring with a walk. Open your senses to all that surrounds and to sweet spring sounds. There's a mockingbird near my house that sings around 2:00 am. No doubt this little bird knows spring is the singing season.

Let go and whistle a happy tune, hum a favorite song and bellow a broadway melody. Chirp and create! Your fingers will spring onto the keyboard with new vitality and purpose.

Seasons give us reasons to begin again and look forward to the future. Who knows what awaits? Spring beckons with new writing possiblities, budding nature and blue skies. Hop to it!

Monday, March 8, 2010

Blogger Late than Never

After a terrific day of presentations at the Houston SCBWI Conference, we had a Q & A for the speakers.

One question was, “What are your favorite future projects?” This delighted me. I’m ready to read these wonderful soon-to-be-available books. It’s like waiting for dessert. We know it’s coming. Bring it on. And hurry up!

Ruta Rimas told us about Henry in Love, a picture book written and illustrated by Peter McCarty. Henry, the cat, is in love with Chloe, the bunny. How will he win her love? Ruta also mentioned The Doubting, a novel by Heidi Ayarbe. It deals with a soccer player and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Patrick Collins is looking forward to the picture book, Moon Bears. Who doesn’t want to see out-of-this-world text and art in a pb?

Sara Crowe answered with Saving Maddie, a novel by Austin’s Varian Johnson. It involves past friendship and loyalty to one’s own beliefs. Sara also mentioned the novel, Sea by Heidi Kling, which deals with tsunami victims.

Alexandra Cooper said Amy and Roger’s Epic Detour was her favorite future project. This novel, written by Morgan Matson, takes readers across the country on a road trip adventure.

Nancy Ferensten told us Spies of Mississippi, a nonfiction novel by Rick Bowers, involves the journalists who tried to destroy the civil rights movement. How tragic!

Shadow, a novel by Houston’s Jenny Moss, was mentioned by Lisa Sandell. Who can Shadow trust in this mystery? Lisa also told us to watch for The Clockwork Three by M. Kirby that is a turn-of-the-century mystery for kids.

Cynthia Leitich Smith proudly announced her picture book, Holler Loudly, will be published. She first wrote it in 2002. This is such an inspiration as we hurry, write and wait. And then rewrite, and rewrite and keep submitting.

I hope these titles encourage you as much as they do me. Different genres, fiction and nonfiction, all soon published and coming our way. Hip Hip Hooray!

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Just Go Ahead & Wire Those Royalties to my Swiss Bank Account...

Yesterday I was sitting in on fellow Caker Doris Fisher's school visit to my youngest daughter’s elementary school.

Doris is a pro at these sort of things, an expert at involving the kids & getting them excited about writing & reading (& even about math, since the 3 of her 4 picture books are math-related).

When the presentation was over, it was question-and-answer time and Doris was pelted with the usual inquiries:

Where do you get your ideas?
How long did it take for your book to come out?
What are you working on now?

But one particular IRS agent in training raised his hand and asked the one question that everyone wishes they could ask but can't (unless they are a precocious 10 year olds) :

How much money do you make?

Doris glanced to where I was sitting in the back of the room. I rolled my eyes & smiled.
Her answer "Not a lot."
Of course– as many of us know, a published author is lucky if they earn enough money to constitute “making a living”. They depend on school visits, speaking engagements & usually another part- or full-time job to make said living.

But don't get totally depressed yet -- because, of course, there are exceptions. I LOVE to hear about those. The every-so-often book deal that literally takes your breath away. Read this story about YA author Josephine Angelini from yesterday's Publisher's Weekly...
That's right -- a SEVEN FIGURE ADVANCE! (And does this series NOT sound fantastic?)

So yeah, it can happen. It does happen.

Now will it happen to one of us? Will it happen to you?

The odds are slim, certainly, and we probably shouldn’t waste too much time planning our big move to that de-luxe apartment in the sky– but we can dream, can’t we?

I mean, seven figures?!
Just think of all the cake that would buy.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

In the Beginning there was CAKE...

Rolling in from today's critique group meeting. When I say rolling I'm being totally serious. Because of course, there was cake. Yesterday was Lynne's birthday, so we had to (of course) celebrate.

There's a new bakery in the area called Cakewalk -- that's where we picked up Lynne's awesome chocolate/chocolate mousse elephant cake for the last meeting. That cake was so good that this morning I stopped by and picked out some goodies from their case.

Only 5 of us could make it this morning, so I tried to exercise self-control. Here was the damage: one (slightly huge) lemon bar, one (OMG to die for) fudge brownie, two each chocolate & vanilla cupcakes.
And possibly my new favorite thing on the planet: chai cupcakes. Spicy, vanilla-y and covered with the best buttercream frosting you've ever had in your life. Seriously. Amazing.

We also read some great new writing (because really we don't JUST eat cake) -- one first chapter in particular by member Miriam that, were I an editor, I would have put an offer on after reading the first paragraph!

Sadly, I'm not an editor. Sorry, Miriam. But it was utterly riveting & expertly written.

I think that's one of the best things about being in a critique group: you get to witness the birth of a story. Of course, those stories will change over time. Point of view, tense, genre, names, genders of characters -- these may all be completely different by the time it is a polished manuscript. In fact, the first draft may be completely unrecognizable from the final.

But still, to be there at the beginning is really something special. And if there's a chai cupcake sitting next to you at the time -- oh yeah, that's even better.