Monday, September 29, 2008

Packing A Punch

What’s the point of writing a story? Just to write it? Or do we want to create a lasting impression on our readers? Yeah, that sounds right. Then how do we do that? Well, you could create a complicated, eventful plot with breakneck pacing. Or, characters that don’t stop moving from cover to cover.

Even with all that, you could still bore your reader to tears if your story is filled with passive prose.

Active prose pack a bigger punch than passive. By “active,” I mean verbs. By “passive,” I mean the way the verb is used. When prose is passive, the subject gets the action that’s expressed in the verb. In other words, the sentence is structured backwards. I.E., “The sign was hit by the car” should be “The car hit the sign.”

Which brings up the question of “was.” Many writers assume the word “was” is always passive. But it's not. Not always, anyway. It’s simply a way to express verb tense, and sometimes is written passively. Ink Fever has a good post on this, so rather than reinvent the wheel I will just send you there. :)

So, how does a sentence make an impact on the reader? It’s where the focus is. If a sentence focuses on its strength, it has great impact. If it doesn’t, it fizzles. For example, I’ve seen many manuscripts contain “gave a...” phrases. As in, “She gave him a shy smile” or “I gave him a push.” Is the focus on the strongest part of these sentences? Let’s reword them and see what happens:

1) She gave him a shy smile.
She smiled at him, staring at the ground as she tried to cover her scarlet cheeks.

2) I gave him a push.
I pushed him, giggling, and almost fell over.

Which variation draws you in and creates a more vivid picture? The one without “gave,” right? “Gave” isn’t a very strong verb. It doesn’t paint a clear picture, and doesn’t have a big impact on the reader. In fact, it’s restructuring the sentence such that the stronger verbs, smile and push, are turned into nouns. This weakens the sentence, thus reducing the impact it has on the reader.

It’s also classic telling – we discussed how showing is action-oriented in a previous post. There is much cross-over with active prose and showing. It’s all about the characters doing something, where the focus of the sentence is on the verb, or the action that the character is taking. The action in “gave a push” is still pushing, even though the verb is “gave.”

Let’s examine a few more examples:
She gave a strong kick. -> She kicked hard.
There were three dogs running in the park. -> Three dogs ran through the park.
Amy could feel an ant crawling up her arm. -> A tickle crept up Amy’s arm. An ant?
She quickly walked down the hall. -> She strode down the hall.
He hit Mike’s arm hard. -> He punched Mike’s arm.
It made a loud, cracking sound. -> It cracked, the sound echoing off the walls.

As long as your sentences are structured such that the action expressed in the sentence is coming through the verb, you’ve got active prose. And, you’ve got happy readers. :)

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Spreading the Love!

The lovely Marcia Hoehne passed this on to me, and I would pass it right back if I could. But she's already got it, so that would be silly. :)
Passing this on is going to be difficult, because there are so many blogs I love!! So here goes:
Jacqui's Room, the Thursday News of the Absurd Will Someone Please Write This Book Inspirational Moment is just one of the amazing things on her blog.
Gottawrite Girl, for all her amazing author interviews. Plus, this girl's got dedication!
The highly snarfatastic Carrie Harris. If you want to know what "snarfatastic" means, go visit her blog.
Susan Sandmore, for the greatest collection of YouTubes, ever.
Writer Jenn, Beth Revis, and PJ Hoover for all the great writing and book talk, plus so much more. :)

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Skin Hunger by Kathleen Duey

Plot Summary: Sadima lives in a world where magic has been banned, leaving poor villagers prey to fakes and charlatans. But vestiges of magic are hidden in old rhymes and hearth tales and in people like Sadima, who conceals her silent communication with animals for fear of rejection and ridicule. When rumors of her gift reach Somiss, a young nobleman obsessed with restoring magic, he sends Franklin, his lifelong servant, to find her.
Centuries later, magic has been restored, but it is available only to the wealthy and is strictly controlled by wizards within a sequestered academy of magic. Hahp, the expendable second son of a rich merchant, is forced into the academy and finds himself paired with Gerrard, a peasant boy inexplicably admitted with nine sons of privilege and wealth. Only one of the ten students will graduate -- and the first academic requirement is survival.

I picked up this book because it was a National Book Award Finalist, and because of all the fabulous author blurbs on the cover. I usually love what the National Book Awards select, so I opened the cover with excitement. Then, after chapter three, I set it down and almost didn’t pick it back up.

This is rare for me. Once I start a story, I’m obsessive about finishing it even if I don’t like it. I do this because I believe that I can learn something from all stories, even if they’re poorly constructed or just not my taste. It’s really saying something if I set a book aside. That said, let’s continue.

As with all my book discussions, there are SPOILERS below.

In chapter three, we see the birth of Sadima. Her brother, Micah, has gotten a magician to help their mother with the birthing process, but the magician is a greedy, cruel, heartless old woman. First, she charges an outrageous fee for her services (the family’s entire savings plus the mother’s inheritance). Then, once Sadima is delivered, she drops the baby on the floor, lets the mother bleed to death, stuffs her bag with all the valuables she can find, then tells Micah and his father that Sadima and their mother should be left alone to rest – all so she can make a clean getaway with her stolen goods. Hours later, Micah’s father finally peek in to the bedroom to check on the new addition to their family, only to find his dead wife covered in dried blood, and his new daughter near death on the floor. I cannot imagine walking into anything worse.

I’m a mom, so I’m highly sensitive to children being put in harm’s way. More so when that harm comes from selfishness and a blatant disregard for responsibility. So this scene hit me really, really hard. I set the book down, then had nightmares about my own children being chased by a cackling old woman. Not pleasant. Moving on...

Anyone who knows me should know that I don’t shy away from showing harsh reality in my stories. Harsh things DO happen in life, and sometimes it necessary to see them. Key word here: necessary. So, with the assumption that I would learn why I needed to see such a heart-rending, horrifying scene, I picked the book back up.

The story is told from two different characters, Hahp and Sadima, in two different time periods, present and past. The chapters alternate, Sadima telling her story and Hahp telling his. Each story is separate – Sadima’s doesn’t further Hahp’s, and vice versa. Which is fine, except for two things.

1) The old woman who delivered Sadima never reappears in the story. It seems that her only purpose was to show how she’d turned Sadima’s father into a reclusive, spiteful person. Which would be fine, except that this happens at the beginning of the story. We didn’t get the chance to really know Dad’s character beforehand, therefore we don’t see the change. Which makes showing the effect of losing his wife unnecessary.

Another purpose might be to show us the horrifying state of the current magicians. Which would work fine if there were more magicians swindling innocent folk. But the only person we see doing this is the old woman, and one person doesn’t reflect the state of an entire group of people.
Because of this, I’m not seeing the necessity of seeing Sadima’s birth. I think the story started too early, and that the real beginning is in Sadima’s teen years when she first encounters Franklin.

2) Sadima’s and Hahp’s stories are completely separate. If you pulled them apart and read each separately, they wouldn’t feel incomplete. Their stories develop the same as if they were in a book of their own: we’re introduced to the characters, we get to know them, they start on a journey toward the big conflict, etc. Which is fine, except we never get to the big conflict. Both Sadima and Hahp build up a hatred for their current situations, dreaming of leading different lives. Once they both decide it’s time to act, the story ends.

Ms. Duey is a talented writer. She wrenched emotions from me that only vivid, sympathetic characters could manage. Her words pulled me in to her world and made me care about it. Then she took me on this emotional roller coaster, cranked me up to the top of the tallest drop, and left me there. That drove me absolutely crazy, and I wanted to hurl the book across the room screaming “That’s IT?”

I’m wondering why both Sadima’s story and Hahp’s story needed to be told simultaneously. By the end of the book, I felt like I had just gotten to know them, and then the story ended. Why couldn’t we first read Sadima’s whole story, then read Hahp’s whole story? I don’t see the need for them to be heard at the same time. Granted, I don’t have all the information – I don’t know where the story is going or how it will end. Maybe there’s a reason that we needed to see Sadima’s birth. Maybe there’s a reason we needed to feel so much sympathy for Sadima’s brother and father, even though they dropped out of the story. Maybe there’s a reason we needed to see Hahp and the other boys repeatedly mistreated, but not see any other parts of the academy. If so, I think these reasons need to come sooner.

I know it sounds like I hated this book, but I didn’t. The story’s premise is very unique and intriguing, and I really do want to know what happens. I know this is the first in a planned trilogy, but I’m just not a fan of being left hanging for a few years. I think that a different structure would have made this story more powerful and effective, leaving me perfectly happy to wait for more.

Then again, this book was nominated for the National Book Award, so maybe I just don’t get it. If anyone else does, please enlighten. :)

Monday, September 22, 2008

Pacing the Floors, er...Story

Story Pacing. That thing that keeps the reader from getting bored. The most common definition is to keep the plot from meandering. The main character must stay on task, the story shouldn’t introduce unnecessary characters or places, and the scenes and conversations should be relevant and succinct.

That’s great and all, but what does it mean? I’m going to answer that with another question. Is each person or place in your story necessary? If so, how is it necessary? What will fall apart if you remove one of these items? If the answer is nothing, then it may not be necessary. It’s the unnecessary things that bog things down, take the story to irrelevant places, and make it feel too drawn out, even boring. This sounds a lot like creating a strong plot, but plot and pacing go hand in hand. If you have a good, solid plot, chances are you’re going to have good pacing as well. For the big picture, anyway...

But what about the details? Those can have just as much of an effect on pacing as plot can. I’m talking about specific scenes and conversations between characters. Pick a scene and examine the direction it takes. If it took a different direction, what would happen to your story? If nothing, then perhaps it’s not necessary. If you’re not sure you can honestly answer this question, then do this with a published work that you feel has good pacing. Choose a scene, give it a different direction, then see how it would affect the rest of the story. A tightly woven story will always feel the effects of this exercise.

Conversations are a little trickier. The information in a conversation may be necessary to the story. But what about its delivery? Does the conversation feel too long? If so, the answer may not be to simply shorten it. Rather, take a look at what your characters are doing. Aside from talking, that is. Is there emotion? Body language? Gestures? Reactions? Action is what keeps things interesting. It’s also what moves a story forward.

This is partly why backflashes are so troublesome – they stop the story to “tell” the reader an important piece of information, then come back to the story later. It’s really easy to fall into this trap, and you don’t even need a backflash to do it. Telling the reader any important piece of information stops the story. Let’s look at an example:

Mark pointed to the tiny town of Statz on the road map. “See? It’s right here. There aren’t many roads on this map, but I’m sure I’ll find it.”
Jerry laughed. Mark was notorious for getting his directions mixed up. Once, he’d been trying to get to St. Louis and ended up in Chicago. His friends had learned the hard way never to let him navigate on road trips.
“Don’t call me when you run out of gas,” said Jerry.

In this example, the story stops when we’re told about Mark’s lack of navigational skills, then starts again when Jerry speaks. Rather than telling the reader that Mark is terrible at directions, show us.

Mark pointed to the tiny town of Statz on the road map. “See? It’s right here. There aren’t many roads on this map, but I’m sure I’ll find it.”
Jerry laughed. “You couldn’t find your way out of a paper bag, even if you had a flashlight and a pocket knife.”
Mark glared at him. “I have a sixth sense with directions, you know.”
“Oh. Is that how you in Chicago instead of St. Louis?” Jerry cleared his throat, hiding his grin.
“Well – that’s just–” His mouth opened and closed, like a fish. “That could have happened to anyone!”
“Sure,” said Jerry. “Don’t call me when you run out of gas.”

Here, we’re shown how Mark made an enormous navigational error, and Jerry clearly doesn’t believe him capable of anything better. This exchange gives us more insight into the story, the characters, and their personalities than the other version.

The same principles can usually be applied to backflashes. Bring the information out through the characters rather than setting them aside so the reader can find out something important.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

I’d Tell You I Love You, But Then I’d Have To Kill You by Ally Carter

Plot Summary: The Gallagher Academy for Exceptional Young Women has a reputation...but it’s the wrong kind of reputation. According to the locals, the school houses spoiled “daddy’s girls” who can’t do anything for themselves. In reality, the school takes in girls with genius IQs and abilities that can translate into espionage. So when sparks fly between Gallagher-Girl-Cammie and Local-Josh, she does what she’s been trained to do: lie about everything.

This has been on my TBR pile forever. Countless people have recommended it to me, and I FINALLY got around to reading it. Very lighthearted and fun. And there were a few scenes that had me laughing out loud.

As with all my book discussions, there are SPOILERS below.

It was so refreshing to read a YA novel for girls that didn’t involve petty maliciousness. There was potential for it in this story, and I give the author lots of credit for not going there. Instead, she focused on the fun, and on trying to understand the nuances of “normal boy” without making a complete moron of the main character. I wish there were more YA novels out there that did this.

I do think that there could have been some more development between the characters, specifically with Macey. There was much potential for conflict there, but she and Cammie seemed to form an alliance a little too well. I would have liked to see more of Macey through Cammie’s eyes, and to see her develop from the ridiculous rich-man’s-daughter to a real and true Gallagher Girl. She does make the transformation, but we don’t really see it happen.

I also would have liked a little more oompf at the end. The story felt unfinished, and the climax happened a little too quickly. I think more could have happened from a determined Josh getting in the way of Cammie’s finals, messing things up for her instead of for her teacher. Then maybe it wouldn’t have been so obvious that a sequel was coming.

Still, a very enjoyable read, and I will be picking up the sequel.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Tell Me How To Show

How many times have you heard the phrase “show, don’t tell?” Personally, I’ve lost count. Now, how many times have you heard it explained? I can count on one hand how often I’ve heard that. And the explanations I got never really clicked for me, so I went in search of my own answer. After much reading, researching, and deliberating, I discovered that it’s actually quite simple:

Showing is action-based. Telling is not.

Okay then, what is action? A easy way to answer that is to ask another question: what’s a verb? A verb is a word that expresses action. Therefore, showing is expressed when the verb is the focus. Let’s look at some examples.

A: James was a nerdy teacher's pet.
B: James was always the first to arrive for math. He settled into his front-row seat, arranging everything he'd need for class - math book in the upper right hand corner, notebook opened to a clean sheet and labeled with today's date, mechanical pencil in hand, and a spare pencil in the desk's pencil tray. Next, he pulled a two-pence coin from his pocket, then polished the surface with a corner of his t-shirt until it glinted in the afternoon sunlight. James grinned. Mrs. Sparks would be thrilled to add it to her collection.

The first is obviously telling. But what about the second? That first sentence is telling, yes, but what about the rest? James is doing something – settling in to his seat, arranging his materials, and polishing a coin meant as a gift for his teacher. These actions show us his personality, how he pays attention to detail, and how conscious he is of his teacher’s interests. To show James always arriving first for math could get tedious, even boring, so mixing this tiny bit of telling with showing can illustrate the goal of showing the reader how he’s a nerdy teacher’s pet.

Which brings me to my next point: how do you convert telling to showing? The key word here is “how.” How is James a nerdy teacher’s pet? What does he do that makes us think of him this way? He’s meticulous, he’s prepared, and he has a backup pencil. What kind of kid has a backup pencil? The kind that actually cares about taking notes. Let’s look at some more examples of telling.

#1: Tammy didn’t like Joey. He always did things like pull her hair or trip her on the school bus.
This is pretty straight forward. The reader is told about how Tammy feels about Joey, because of things that he’s done to her. The red flag here is “things that he’s done to her.” Show us these things, then we will see Tammy react. In both cases, Tammy and Joey will be doing something: Joey tormenting Tammy, and Tammy reacting with emotion. Bonus: these actions will also show us more about the character’s personalities. This rounds them out, elicits sympathy, and ends up making the whole story more interesting.

#2: The castle was dark and creepy.
This is a little harder, because it’s an inanimate object. The most common response writers have is to create an eerie and vivid description of the castle. That’s all fine and dandy, except...description is another form of telling. I’m not saying that description is a bad thing, but it’s not showing. I think many people get showing confused with vivid description.

To really turn this sentence into showing, you must find a way to weave in some action. And here’s an easy way to do this: use your characters. After all, who is perceiving this castle as dark and creepy? They are! Show us the castle through them, and you’ll find an easier way to introduce action. Especially since people can actually do things, while castles pretty much just sit there.

#3: Dinah baked a cake.
This is very tricky, because it’s telling in disguise. Why? Well, look at the sentence. Dinah is performing an action (baked). By my earlier definition, that should mean this is showing, right? Not exactly. The steps involved in baking a cake are too many to cram into one sentence. Plus, this is a golden opportunity to show us Dinah’s character. How does she bake the cake? Does she hum and dance around the kitchen? Does she slam the pans around and snap at anyone who gets to close? Does she bake elaborate cakes? Or are her culinary skills summed up by a burned stack of toast? There are so many opportunities for details here that will both make the scene more interesting, as well as round out her character.

“Showing” is an aspect of writing that infiltrates everything. It affects pacing, description, characterization, active vs. passive word choice, dialog...everything. But if you keep in mind that showing is simply action, then you can keep your characters doing something. It’ll keep your story moving forward, your reader involved, and it’ll be more fun to write. Harder, but more fun.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

My First MEME

Jenn Hubbard tagged me with this meme, with the caveat that I don't have to do it if I don't want to. But, seeing as it's my very first tag, I thought I'd go ahead. She did hers in character, which is really cool, and far more interesting than anything I could write, but read on if you wish!

A) People who have been tagged must write their answers on their blogs & replace any question that they dislike with a new question formulated by themselves. (Like Jenn, I think "must" is strong. Only do this if you want!)
B) Tag 8 people to do this quiz. These people must state who they were tagged by & cannot tag the person whom they were tagged by. Continue this game by sending it to other people.

I therefore tag Jacqui Robbins, Marcia Hoehne, PJ Hoover, Beth Revis, Carrie Harris, Angie Frazer, C. Lee Mckenzie, and Susan Gray. That is, if you want to be tagged. :) Moving on...

1. What are your nicknames? I have NO nicknames. If you shorten my name in any form, I will either ignore you or stuff a sock in your mouth. Depending on what kind of day I've had. :)
2. What do you do before bedtime? I read until my eyes close by themselves.
3. What was the first movie you bought in VHS or DVD form? I think it was a disney movie, but I'm not sure which one.
4. What is your favorite scent? Something sweet baking in the oven, like banana bread or chocolate chip cookies. Yum!
5. If you had a million dollars that you could only spend on yourself, what would you do with it? A million dollars??? Only on me? Uhh, I have no idea...wait, I got it. I'd pretend to be some people who I know could use some extra cash, buy whatever "I" need, and then keep pretending to be someone else until the money was gone.
6. What one place have you visited that you can't forget and want to go back to? Rome. Such a beautiful city! Granted, it was my first trip out of the country, but I've been to places all over the world, and Rome still holds a special place in my heart.
7. Do you trust easily? Yes and no. It depends on the person and the situation.
8. Do you generally think before you act, or act before you think? I definitely think before I act. I've actually been told that I think too much, and need to stop. Except I don't quite get how that's possible, so I guess I'll just keep on with what I'm doing.
9. Is there anything that has made you unhappy these days? Of course. I think all normal people have this. And if you don't, then don't tell me.
10. Do you have a good body-image? That depends. Is it considered good that I don't think about my body image?
11. What is your favorite fruit? Hmm, that depends on my mood. But the two I crave most often are fresh pineapple and strawberries.
12. What websites do you visit daily? Too many to list, but the one I visit most often is Verla Kay. Hands down.
13. What have you been seriously addicted to lately? Reading. I can't seem to stop. I carry my current book around, and open it up every time I have a spare minute.
14. What kind of person do you think the person who tagged you is? Jenn seems like a great writer, and I'm looking forward to reading her book! Plus, I love her blog. :)
15. What’s the last song that got stuck in your head? Route 66 (my kids have nearly worn out the soundtrack to the movie Cars).
16. What’s your favorite item of clothing? My ice cream pajamas. They're so soft and cozy, and they've got ice cream on them!
17. Do you think Rice Krispies are yummy? At first, but they get soggy pretty quick.
18. What would you do if you see saw $100 lying on the ground? Look around to see if I could find the person who dropped it, which is probably pretty stupid. If someone had realized they'd dropped a $100, they'd probably be frantically searching for it.
19. What items could you not go without during the day? My cell phone, probably. If my kids' school calls, I want them to be able to reach me no matter what.
20. What should you be doing right now? Sleeping. I don't get much of that anymore.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Stardust by Neil Gaiman

Plot Summary: Tristran Thorn will do anything to win the heart of beautiful Victoria—even fetch her the star they saw fall from the sky. So he enters the land of Faerie on the other side of the ancient wall that gives their tiny village its name. Beyond that old stone wall, nothing, not even a fallen star, is what he imagined.

I saw the movie version on a plane, and found it entertaining. So, going by the books-are-better-than-the-movies rule, I picked up the book from my local library. From the time I opened it, I couldn’t put it down. This book is hilarious, romantic, intriguing, and an excellent example of distinct and strong Voice. The POV is kind of distant, but the Voice is so strong that it pulled me right in. I want to be able to write with a Voice as interesting and strong as this! Neil Gaiman, you need to teach some workshops!

While this book isn’t classified as YA, I think it could still be appropriate (except, perhaps for a sex scene near the beginning, which isn’t overly graphic). The pacing is quick without feeling rushed, the characters are lively and often hilarious, and the story is well balanced between humor and tension. It held me captive, even though I already knew the basic story line from the movie.

This story is fun, light-hearted, and draws on the traditional fairy tale baseline of a hero, a damsel in distress, and evil ones hunting them down. But the execution of this story is so fresh and new, and wildly funny! Highly recommended.

Monday, September 08, 2008

Realistic Goals, or Why You Shouldn’t Swallow Things Whole

This past July, Laurie Halse Anderson challenged her blog readers to write for fifteen minutes every day. I thought this was genius. Fifteen minutes is nothing. A drop in the bucket. You can squeeze that in at lunch time. Or your kid’s nap time. Or right before bed. Or first thing in the morning.

But that’s not why I think her fifteen minute challenge is genius. It’s genius because it gets us sitting down, ready to work. And once we’re sitting, we often do MORE than fifteen minutes. Because, you know, we’re already sitting so we may as well keep going.

That got me thinking about goals in general. When I was growing up, goals were always defined as some big think you work toward. But there was never any detail between START and FINISH. No rules. No guidelines. Just, here’s the goal, now find a way to get there. As a result, I did a lot of flailing early on in my life. There were things I really wanted, like a college degree and still make writing a big part of my life, but no one was there to help me figure out how to get them. I took a lot of wrong roads, learned a lot of things the hard way, but managed to get my degree and then collapse in a heap.

At that point in my life, I was attacking goals with a full-on vengeance. Kind of like shoving an entire steak into your mouth. If I had known what I was doing, I’d have thought to actually cut the steak into chewable pieces, then slowly work my way through it. And, if I got full, I could set it aside until I was ready to come back to it. But I didn’t know I could do that back then.

I think that if I’d known more about goals, and effective ways of reaching them, I wouldn’t have been so exhausted once I’d attained this particular goal. Laurie’s method of fifteen minutes per day illustrates a more effective use of attaining goals.

A good friend of mine, Lori Howard, is also a genius goal-setter. She can take any goal and break it down into manageable chunks. She has written a five-day set of steps which will get you on the road toward obtaining any goal you want. It’s brilliant, and I highly recommend reading it.

Since I’m a planner and goal-setter by nature, all of this rang true for me. But I’m curious, what about those who aren’t natural planners or goal-setters? Do you create a path based on what pops into your head each morning? Do you just wander along the path and see what comes up? Or do you have a destination in mind? Inquiring minds want to know!

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Top Ten Blogs for Writers

The Bookshelf Muse posted this wonderful link yesterday. It's a contest where you can nominate your favorite blog about writing. I spent a good portion of yesterday afternoon going through some of the nominated sites, and they're amazing!! I've been slogging through the blogosphere, connecting with writers here and there and also finding other great blogs, but this is a veritable gold mine!

This link may be detrimental to things like housework, laundry, mealtimes, and possibly personal hygene. Read at your own risk. But enjoy it if you do!

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Shift by Jennifer Bradbury

Plot Summary: Chris and Win (short for Winston) have graduated high school and gone off on a trek cross country. On their bicycles. It’s a dream trip for any teenage boy desiring freedom and fun...except that only one of them comes back.

I heard about this book on Jenn Hubbard’s blog. It sounded interesting, so I picked it up from my local library...then couldn’t put it down until I’d finished it.

As with all my book discussions, there are SPOILERS below.

This story is told in alternating time periods. The first chapter starts in the present: the bike trip is over, and Chris has returned without Win. Then the second chapter starts with Chris and Win first getting the idea, and permission, for this bicycle trip across the country. The chapters alternate, past-present-past-present, until they ultimately merge by laying out the whole chain of events.

I’ve read stories with alternating time periods before, and, most of the time, felt it wasn’t necessary. These stories were interesting, but didn’t NEED to be told in this alternating fashion. SHIFT, however, isn’t one of those stories. Not only is it amazingly effective, it’s the only way this story should be told. A linear story line would have made it average, even boring.

But Bradbury skillfully gives us information that furthers the story in each chapter. I mean, of course, the story as a whole. Not just that particular time period (past or present). If she had a question hanging from something in the past, she answered it in the present. And vice versa. This is NOT an easy thing to do, and I thoroughly enjoyed the thought and precision that went behind each chapter. Nicely done.

There was only one place in this book that gave me pause. That was the post card that Win sends Chris in the present. He sends it posing as a girl they’d met on their trip, dropping subtle clues to let Chris know it’s really him. To the reader, it is painfully obvious. But Chris doesn’t get it. Granted, he catches on a couple chapters later, but the way the post card was presented made me want to scream at him to turn on his brain – the brain that he says he’s been sharing with Win for the past ten years.

I realize that these things do happen, even to friends who are as close as Chris and Win are. And my guess is that the author wanted Chris to discover the post card sender’s identity at a particular moment. If that’s the case, then I think the post card should have been as downplayed as all the other ones he’d received. Since it wasn’t, the reader knows right away that there’s something special about this one. And we start looking at it closely, analyzing the details, until we’ve figured it out. Personally, I find it frustrating when I figure something out way before the main character does...but this was the only place where I had trouble.

The ending was really, really good. Unconventional, interesting, happy, and sad all at the same time. I don’t want to spoil it for you, but all loose ends were well taken care of. Much care, thought, planning, and work has been poured into this book. And it shows. Highly recommended.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Query Letters and the Extrovert

This past April, Folio Literary Management launched a blog with this post on query letters. It’s really interesting, and something I’ve been thinking about on and off ever since.

Writing a novel takes a certain set of skills, and writing a query letter takes a completely different set. Every writer who has written a query knows this. And it’s hard. Really hard. So hard that we can go through a zillion drafts and still not be happy with the end result.

Folio’s blog post basically states that a good query letter is the natural evolution of the writing process, unless the author is too daunted by this process. He goes on to say that his favorite queries are the ones with the writer’s individuality and flair, with unique voice. I stared at this sentence for a long, long time, saying “hmm” to myself.

And then it hit me: Good queries are written with extroverted tendencies. It’s not all professionalism and business-like politeness. There needs to be something extra, a spark, a tiny piece of you, the writer. This is something that extroverts can do easier than introverts, simply because of the nature of their interactions with people.

Except there’s a problem (you probably see where I’m going with this). In order to be a writer, you need to be able to handle long hours by yourself. Introverts handle that better than extroverts, and most of the writers I’ve met are introverts – an occupational hazard, I guess. And, that probably means that most of the query letters floating around are more to-the-point-business-like and less personal-touch-business-like.

I’m an introvert. I’m also shy. To be clear, introvert does not equal shy. It’s simply the method you use to recharge your batteries. If you need time alone to do it, you’re an introvert. If you need time around people to do it, you’re an extrovert. Anyway, I’m an introvert and I’m also shy. This makes me difficult to get to know right away. Really difficult. People have commented on how much of myself I hold back. And, even when I decide to let go, I inch myself out there. It takes forever. Can you guess what my queries looked like? Yep, all dry and boring-ness.

That said, and even after reading Folio’s blog post, I still couldn’t sit down and put Me on the page. So, I chose an alternative: I put my main character on the page. Yeah, okay. Technically, you could say that I’m still putting myself on the page because all my characters come from different aspects of me. But, in my brain, it wasn’t me. So I could do it. That may freakish and stupid, but it worked.

So, the next time you sit down to write a query letter, make sure you add that little extra something to spark an agent’s or editor’s interest. If you can’t do it yourself, then make your characters do it for you. :)

EDIT: As Beth requested, here's a copy of my altered query. I took out anything that might identify where I sent this (including whether it went to an editor or agent), because I don't like advertising my submissions info. I focused on putting in that "spark" in the story summary, though I tried to put a little in the first paragraph as well.

Dear Agent/Editor,

Many of my favorite books have crossed your desk. Title#1, Title#2, Title#3, and Title#4 to name a few. In all of these books, the main characters are determined and strong, yet have a softer – sometimes na├»ve – side to their personalities. The main character in my YA novel, ROYAL ROSE, has the same qualities. Her story deals with something most teen girls struggle with: weight and image. She must deal with this on a greater level, however, since her family has been famous for their beauty for the past one hundred years.

Fifteen year old Rose Connolly has been groomed since birth to become the spokes-model for the most successful cosmetics company in America. She will be the fifth girl in her family to inherit this position, and is ready. Well, almost ready. Somehow, she has gained fifty pounds in the past three months – but it’s temporary! All she has to do is work hard, exercising and eating right, and she will get her weight back to normal. Why can’t her parents, the press, and her classmates accept this by leaving her alone? ROYAL ROSE is a story about making the best of the cards that life has dealt. Even if it means drawing a few from the deck.

I believe this book will appeal to fans of Sara Zarr, Simone Elkeles, and Dana Reinhardt, as well as those with thyroid conditions.

In 2002, I received an Honorable Mention in the Children’s Fiction area of the Writer’s Digest Annual Writing Competition. I have graduated from two writing courses at the Institute of Children’s Literature. I am also a member of SCBWI, and write the “News Roundup” column for the SCBWI-IL newsletter, The Prairie Wind.

I would be happy to send the entire manuscript, which contains approximately 49,000 words. Thank you for your time, and I look forward to hearing from you.