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In the Beginning…

By on Oct 26, 2015

They call it “hooking the reader” and it’s the goal of the opening of any book, whether fiction or nonfiction: Start out with something that makes the reader want to read more, and do it quickly.   Grab the reader’s interest, and draw him into the story. It helps to be assertive, terse rather than burdened by lengthy explanations,  and omit flowery adjectives and adverbs.  You can start with a promise of what is to come, some sort of conflict, or – better yet – a question, something a bit mysterious.

Dialogue often works because it tends to be inconclusive – opening up a mystery (What are they talking about?) rather than solving it.  Colm Toibin’s Nora Webster begins this way:  “You must be fed up of them.  Will they never stop coming?”   Tom O’Connor, her neighbour, stood at his front door and looked at her, waiting for a response.

Sometimes starting with an extremely dramatic scene shocks the reader into paying attention.  “Just moments after the shots,” Simon Shebag Montefiore’s One Night in Winter begins, “as Serafina looks at the bodies of her school friends, a feathery whiteness is already frosting their blasted flesh.”

Understated drama works well too.  Take the opening of Kent Haruf’s Benediction, for example: When the  test came back and when the doctor entered the room he just looked at them and asked them to sit down.  They could tell by the look on his face where matters stood.

You can provoke.  You can hint.  You can introduce a character.  You can introduce conflict. You can start with a compelling scene. No matter how you start, something should happen. And, of course, adhere to the golden rule: Show, don’t tell.  Let the reader witness something, rather than read an explanation of who what when and where.

There are some things you might want to avoid. Go for sparse rather than a cluttering of descriptions (Her soft blond hair, dangled long and lush over blue eyes the color of a cold winter sky) .  Omit the back story; don’t explain what happened earlier in order to get to where we are.  Better to start where we are and have the reader wonder how we got there. Better to start with a moving plot than with a prologue.  Better to start with a happening than a dream sequence we read all the way through, only to discover it didn’t really happen.  Avoid cliche openings.  Readers of crime novels get a bit tired of discovering a detective awakening with a dreadful hangover in the opening pages.

Are you stressed out enough about how to concoct the perfect beginning yet?

Here’s the good news! You can have dessert before the main course.  You do not have to begin your manuscript by writing the perfect beginning:  you can end by doing so! There’s no law that says you have to hook the reader before you can move on to the rest of your story, and, in fact, seeking perfection can pose a huge stumbling block.  Instead of concentrating on making it brilliant when you’re starting out, just concentrate on getting it done, and moving on, e\specially if you are a first time writer.  Writing is one of those skills that you get better at  as you go along.  It’s fairly common for someone to finish a book and look back at the beginning, and say “What was I thinking?”… and rewrite it. And it’s also common for a writer to start out with a dreadful beginning but have thought of a much better one by the time he writes the last sentence.

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A Synopsis

By on Sep 29, 2015

A What?

If you’re looking for an agent and/or publisher and you’ve written a novel, especially a plot-driven one, you may be asked to submit a synopsis, a play-by-play account of what happens in your manuscript.

Play-by-play for over 300 pages of plot twists and turns?!!?

Yes.

Doesn’t that make for very tedious writing… not to mention very tedious reading?

Sadly, it often does… but it doesn’t have to!

A synopsis is important to agents and editors because of what it reveals: (ideally) interesting characters and surprising twists and turns in a tightly plotted page-turner.

Unfortunately, agents and editors also request synopses because of the negatives these documents may reveal – plot flaws, trite characters, poor structure, boring storylines – which enable them to turn down your manuscript without investing the time necessary to read it in its entirety.

In short, a good synopsis may get you in the door, and a bad one may get the door slammed in your face.  So let’s write a good one.

Start off with a grounding sentence or two, similar, perhaps, to the short overview you offered in your query letter, indicating what the story is about, its setting and its protagonist.

When you begin, omit the tedium of “and then what happens” and instead imbue the telling with a breathy energy by writing in the present tense and using an active voice rather than a passive one. (DONALD SILVER sees the letter and immediately…) Putting your main characters names in caps makes them easier to follow.

Be mindful as you write of your overall goals. You want to present a clear picture of your main characters (heroes and villains and in between), what is at stake – the novel’s core conflict – and how it gets resolved. Think ahead about key plot turns and be sure to include them. Even though a synopsis is an outline of sorts, it should include color (like your main characters’ feelings) where important.

What you leave out of a synopsis can be as important as what you put in, however. Skip the little stuff (Jane gets to the office wearing the very outfit James had admired at the party the night before, grabs a cup of very strong coffee and a doughnut, goes over the agenda with her assistant, and enters the conference room with her mind made up..) and get right to the details that matter (At the office the next day Jane enters the conference room with her mind made up..)

Avoid character clutter by mentioning by name only the ones that matter. And above all, adhere to the “show, don’t tell” golden rule: No editorializing.  No announcing that your story is exciting.  Demonstrate that it is by the way you portray it in your synopsis.

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The Chicken or the Egg?

By on Sep 11, 2015

chickenegg

Life builds on itself.  We are today the result – the end product – of all the things we have done and all that has happened to us along the way.  If chronology has played such a big part in who we are, should it play an equally major role in our writing?

Well, that depends on what it is we’re writing.

“What is past is prologue”.  This phrase, taken from William Shakespeare’s Tempest, is engraved on the National Archives building in Washington as a statement that what happened before sets the context for what follows. And for most books on historical events, chronology is important, because the exact order in which events occurred helps us understand the cause and the effect of those events.  Chronology enables us to step back and view the “big picture” – how modern day occurrences have evolved, sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly, from what went on long before.

Many business stories, too, are inherently sequential. One thing happens, then another, then another. Economists, analysts, scholars tend to study what came before to better understand what may come next. In a book we just edited on the history of the stock market, for example, the writer points out how the Federal Reserve kept the “Great Recession of 2008” from turning into a depression by drawing lessons from the what happened in 1929.

Because they involve the comprehensive telling of life stories, biographies and autobiographies usually adhere closely to timelines in recounting the events in their subjects’ lives.

Memoirs, however, are permitted greater creative freedom because they are thematic – emotionally chronological. Rather than tell a complete history of a life, memoirists choose what the story is they want to tell and then choose the moments in their lives that will enhance the telling.  They thus have much the same freedom novelists have in the way they use chronology.  They can recount events as they happen, making us wonder how this is all going to turn out, or start with something dramatic that happens in the present and make us wonder how this came about… or begin with a series of contemporary events and flash back to the past at intervals, filling in the background that way.

And for novelists, the use of chronology is free choice – they can do as they please. Three recent best sellers show just how freely novelists take advantage of that choice. In A Spool of Blue Thread, Anne Tyler sets almost two thirds of her family chronicle in the present before shifting back half a century, then back several more decades and finally returning to the present. Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See builds suspense even as he offers glimpses of what’s to come, moving between the early years of World War Two and its final days. Then there’s Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, which begins with the outbreak of an influenza pandemic that kills nearly everyone on earth. The rest of the story alternates between future and past, moving ahead 15 years to the aftermath of the outbreak while also flashing back to the world as it was before civilization was almost completely destroyed.

For these and other contemporary novelists, defying the conventions of chronology is not only permitted; it’s part of how they put an original stamp on their stories, deepening the meaning and heightening the drama.

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Not Homophobic, We are Homophonic

By on May 1, 2015

homophoneThere seems to be a collective mentality – at least among our clients – when it comes to certain homophones. Homophones are words that sound alike but are spelled differently. Common ones that are often cited in blogs about homophones include there and their, its and it’s, hear and here, weather and whether, etc. We see all these used erroneously from time to time but mostly our clients ace these.

However, there are three pairs of homophones that are almost universally mixed up. They are not on most of the lists, yet they are confused so often we wonder what’s going on with these words. They are rein and reign, principle and principal, and peek and peak.

You wouldn’t think reign, the period during which a sovereign rules, and rein, a long, narrow strap used to guide a horse, would come up that frequently in books. But they do and they are almost invariably confused.

Principle, a fundamental truth or proposition, and principal, first in order of importance, seem open to confusion. But in this case, one is being used as a noun (principle) and one is an adjective (principal) so maybe that can help keep them straight. Ask yourself what the word is doing. Is it a thing or describing a thing?

Peek, to look quickly and often furtively, and peak, to reach a high point, are our number one homophones in their verb forms. Characters are universally peaking when they should be peeking.

Another – not homophone – that is generally confusing is lie and lay. When applied to stretching out prone on a bed or a couch, I, you, he, she, it should lie on a bed, not lay. Mary Norris, the Comma Queen, mentioned in our last blog, is doing video grammar segments for the New Yorker Magazine now. Here is a link to her spiel on lie/lay: The lie of the lie/lay land

We are not necessarily advocating that you worry too much about homophones when you are struggling with narrative and character. It could get in the way of actual writing. We are just interested that so many of you are making the same mistakes. What’s up with peek?

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Being Creative: Using Commas

By on Apr 2, 2015

Oxford-CommaAs writers, we struggle with getting our thoughts into words and arranging our words into syntax – which is already enormously difficult. Most of us expect the punctuation to take care of itself. After all, there are rules governing all that, right?

Well, yes there are rules, but they are not always definitive. They are full of if this’s, then that’s, but not in this case or that case. This muddying leaves room for discretionary use of punctuation. And in any case, rules are made to be broken.

Some writers – think William Faulkner – simply eliminate punctuation. Others ignore the rules and do their own thing, employing or omitting commas, quotation marks, dashes and ellipses in places that add emphasis or meaning to their prose. Inserting a comma can be a creative act.

An article last month in the New Yorker contains an example of an author employing a comma to make a point. In “Confessions of a Comma Queen,” New Yorker copy editor Mary Norris writes about author James Salter’s use of commas in his 1995 novel, LIGHT YEARS, which she happened to be reading for pleasure, rather than work.

“I was surprised to come to a sentence with what I considered a superfluous comma: ‘Eve was across the room in a thin, burgundy dress that showed the faint outline of her stomach.’ It stopped me. Usage guides say that if you can substitute ‘and’ for the comma it belongs there. I gave James Salter the ‘and’ test, and ‘thin and burgundy’ did not pass. If this had crossed my desk, I would have taken the comma out and made it ‘a thin burgundy dress.’

“The logic behind this rule is that the two adjectives are not coördinate: they do not belong to the same order. One adjective (‘burgundy’) clings more tenaciously to the noun (‘dress’) than the other (‘thin’). Bryan Garner, the expert in American usage, offers another test: reverse the order of the adjectives. Would you ever say ‘a burgundy, thin dress’? I wouldn’t.”

Norris, who makes a living riding herd on commas, said the thin/burgundy problem was “enough to make me doubt my comma sense.” Rather than go mad over it, she decided to write Salter and ask.

“He wrote back: ‘I sometimes ignore the rules about commas… Punctuation is for clarity and also emphasis, but I also feel that, if the writing warrants it, punctuation can contribute to the music and rhythm of the sentences. You don’t get permission for this, of course; you take the liberty.”

 Salter went on to explain that in “Eve was across the room in a thin, burgundy dress that showed the faint outline of her stomach,” he was trying to emphasize the contours of the stomach under the dress. “’It wasn’t a thin burgundy dress,’ he wrote. ‘It was a thin dress, burgundy in color. I wanted the reader to be aware of the thinness.’”

This may seem like it is down in the weeds. But think about it, when you read over something you have written. Would the addition or subtraction of a comma sharpen what you have written?

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Sneaking in Background Information without Derailing the Story

By on Feb 1, 2015

backstory-pictureOne of the most challenging aspects of writing a novel or memoir is fitting in background information the reader needs to know without slowing down the story. If the story is a 3,000-meter race, than anytime you have to digress to explain some back story, you are taking a detour. It slows the action down. If it isn’t done right, it can get the story off-track and lose the reader’s attention.

Backstory should be written in seamlessly so the reader is not even aware of being sidetracked. Here are some observations we have made about what makes it work:

Only put in information that is necessary to the story: This may mean leaving out favorite bits about your or your character’s background. The cute story about Uncle Bill, who came to visit and short sheeted every bed in the house, may be a personal favorite but if your memoir is about your experience in the Vietnam War, it may not fit. You have to be as ruthlessly true as possible to your main story. If the information doesn’t fit, don’t use it.

Put in the back story stuff when it is needed or when it naturally comes up: For instance, if a character limps across the bar room floor on his way to wait on a creepy looking character in the corner, it is an opportune time to explain that he grew up during the London Blitz and his leg was crushed when a bomb fell on the house next door, collapsing it on his house and him. The character’s limping has created a question in the reader’s mind so rather than feeling derailed, the reader is grateful for the explanation. Sometimes, there is room for expansion: The bar tender’s mother had been killed in the bombing and he had been scarred for life growing up in a cruel foster home. And then, bring this digression back to the action: The skull-like head of the man in the corner reminded him of his drug-addicted foster father.

On the other hand, if your lead character is in the middle of a gun battle, it is not the time for him to think how his mother gave birth to him in a cattle shed and he grew up poor on the prairie.

Avoid phony set ups: Remembering is a funny thing in books. So often when characters or memoirists “remember” events or people or places, we find ourselves saying, “No way. What’s the connection?” Authors often use memory as a device to get across back story stuff. Sometimes, it is completely random: Gazing out at the rose garden, Serena remembered the time she met the tall, dark stranger. Or, the English Tudor house made me think of the house I grew up in, a one-story rambler.

Sometimes set ups aren’t even necessary. The rhythm of a book will often allow for digression, and you can just include the information straight up: I was born thirty-six years earlier in a yurt on the Mongolian plain… You will often see back story at the beginning of the second chapter. A good first chapter will hook the reader, get him or her involved in the story, and raise questions that the reader wants answered. Then, in the second chapter, there is leeway for some back tracking.

Look for natural pauses in the action: When FBI agent Jim Snyder is on a stakeout, it is a good time to take a look at him as he sits there in his Chevrolet. He is wearing a cheap, rumbled suit and tie, but his tie clip is silver. It was a present from his mother. When he graduated from the academy, she had slid it on his tie. She had still been relatively youthful then… And so on into his past. Nothing is happening during the stakeout anyway and it has to go on for awhile before the plot unfolds again.

 

 

 

 

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Happy New Year, Dear Authors!

By on Jan 3, 2015

Book of FireworksWelcome to our world. It is a place of great creativity, filled with wonderful stories. There is lots of heart and lots of imagination here. Like Santa’s elves we bend and shape and snip to make manuscripts more finished and complete. But we are only as good as the material presented to us, and in 2014, we were overwhelmed with superior stuff.

This has been a year of strong novels – and we have edited them in every genre:

 Paranormal and fantasy:

  • Past lives intersect with current ones over a major flood and lost love
  • When a young man is sentenced by a cadaverous judge to 100 days in a certain academy, the gates of hell are unleashed

Chick Lit:

  • A troubled young woman with a wealthy LA background finds reasons to live
  • A feisty young woman fakes a case of amnesia to get attention from her family
  • A romantic comedy of mistaken identities all around

Children’s:

  • Learn about the environment with Professor Onestone Bear
  • More adventures with Anna and Andy Hummingbird

 Mystery/Suspense:

  • House of Homicide – the title says it all

Science fiction:

  • A daredevil CIA agent faces off against a super human raised by a mysterious global committee bent on world domination
  • Public fear caused by wars, terrorists and a spread of disease has been used by a tyrannical, industry-based corporation in 2023 to take over the world, transforming all governments into a one-world power and creating bloodshed and violence in the process.
  • In 2028, the globally renowned golf tour progresses in suspenseful match after match, played by a colorful and suspicious cast of international characters, heading to ground zero in Tehran, little realizing that a psychopath al-Qaeda leader has intricate plans to unleash a weapon of mass destruction at the final event.

 Thriller:

  • The south rises again – with nuclear weapons
  • Strange things happening to the environment are tracked by a group of friends who discover
  • Uncovering the murderer of a young woman takes us from the beach to the snow-covered mountains of California

 

Young Adult:

  • Around an annual campfire, kids compete with stories that creepily come to life.
  • Struggling to get an education in rural Togo, where school costs a prohibitive dollar a year
  • A coming-of-age, relationship novel in an exotic island setting that raises questions about independence and its consequences.

 

Mainstream:

  • The heartbreak, and redemption of two Appalachian women whose lives connect through a moonshiner
  • A sprawling sharecropper family migrates north to Baltimore and establishes a community of saints
  • Irish folklore collides with an amusingly satirical description of Hollywood in a novel that is part mystery part comedy.
  • Local civil rights struggles seen through the eyes of a bright young black girl in 1950s North Carolina
  • A suspenseful look at the personal ramifications on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict
  • A tale of growing up in Iran before and after the 1979 revolution.
  • A multi-generational family saga from pre World War Two to the present.
  • 9-11 up close and personal through the eyes of a worker who missed the World Trade Center elevator that fateful morning, and thus was spared.

Memoirs made a small comeback in 2014 after a year when we did not have so many. We have reviewed books that took us to exotic locations in Haiti and Nigeria and stories that centered on:

  • Escaping a church cult
  • The nightmare that can result from your spouse’s former spouse
  • Living with heart disease
  • Being the only woman on an oil rig
  • A prison romance between a black prisoner and his white art teacher, described by both participants
  • The tragic effect multiple suicides have on a family and the inner redemptive powers that enable us to go on in the face of adversity
  • The ramifications of a black woman marrying a white man in 1960s Mississippi

From your how-to books this year we have learned about martial arts and ways…

  • To teach with love, nurturing students to their full potential
  • To take off pounds with quick and easy weight loss recipe
  • To take psychological steps to improve your marriage on your own
  • To have a revolutionary retirement, exploring the next chapter of life with enthusiasm, thanks to longer life spans, better health, and myriad opportunities
  • To escape an abusive relationship
  • To learn to cope and go on after the death of a child
  • To get a kinesthetic edge in golfing
  • To discover the code to understanding all of life

You have had a great publishing year as all the postings on Twitter and our Facebook page attest. Some of you have found traditional publishers and numerous others have self-published. Others are working with agents or are in the process of publishing. It has been exciting to see your books in print and to post your accomplishments as our trophies. 🙂

To all our authors and would-be authors: skip the resolutions and just continue to follow your muses. We can’t wait to see what you produce in 2015.

 For last year’s words belong to last year’s language
And next year’s words await another voice.
And to make an end is to make a beginning.

~T.S. Eliot, “Little Gidding”

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Casting Light in the Heart of Writerly Darkness

By on Dec 3, 2014

highWhen you are rocking and rolling writing your story and the words are flowing and you are way out on that word flow high, it is definitely time for a dose of reality. Whether you break for lunch or revisit what you have written the next day, you should take a long, skeptical look at what is on the page, because when you most get carried away by your writing – in other words when the process feels at its absolute best – you are quite likely to be way off base from what you meant to say. The words can take on a life of their own and go off in directions that have no bearing on actual sense.

Here is the antidote to those renegade words. It is not a poison pill; it is a question:

What am I trying to say?

Before you take a second look at what you wrote, answer this paramount question in actual words, either out loud or in your head. Then compare your intent with what you wrote. And if the written words do not clearly express what you meant for them to, revision is in order.

This question is one of four that George Orwell spells out for writers in his essay, “Politics and the English Language.” It is number one on the list because it goes to the heart of writerly darkness: what am I really trying to say? The other three questions that Orwell says writers should ask themselves have to do with process, how to make the sense clear:

What words will express it?

What image or idiom will make it clearer?

Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?

George Orwell said every scrupulous writer must ask her/himself these questions about every sentence she/he writes. Meticulous, huh? That’s the kind of discipline it takes to be a great writer. So fight the writer’s high; writing is work.

 

 

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Good Writing = Judicious Cutting

By on Oct 31, 2014

scissors-clip-art-5165We once attended a discussion group with writer Alice McDermott, author most recently of SOMEONE and initially famous for her 1988 novel CHARMING BILLY. She talked about how scrupulous she is in going over and over and over her manuscripts to cut extraneous words. She is a good example to follow.

 You should always take the time to comb through what you have written and pull out anything that isn’t necessary to its beauty and meaning. Those extra words clog things up; they cost you readers. You may not notice all the extra verbiage, but readers do. “If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out” is one of George Orwell’s six rules for effective writing.

A place to start is meaningless phrases. As editors, we routinely slash these; we don’t even think about it. Here are some examples:

 As fate would have it

Fate always has it. There seems little point in telling the reader about it. The single exception to this is when things turn differently from hopes or expectations as:

I prayed for sunshine that day, but as fate would have it, it poured.

 Really

The use of this word is usually redundant. How is I really thought he did a good job different from I thought he did a good job?

As a matter of fact or In fact

Unless, you, the writer are in the habit of lying to your reader, isn’t everything you write a matter of fact, at least as far as you know it? Even if you write fiction, you usually are making an honest attempt to convey something to the reader.

 Let’s start at the beginning

Where else would you start?

 That said

If it was just said, you don’t need to point to it. The reader has read it.

 In order to

This is just pompous, three words when the simple preposition “to” will do:

I put on my boots in order to go out.

I put on my boots to go out.

On the other hand

Lots of words to cut here.

On the other hand I could have taken the bus.

I could have taken the bus.

Among other things

So often this is used incorrectly to refer to non-things.

Among other things, I could have gone to the movies. (Going to the movies is not a thing.)

In his rules, published in a 1946 essay, “Politics and the English Language,” Orwell had some other ideas about cutting. Here they are:

  • Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  • Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  • Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  • Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

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Strategies for Writing about Painful Experiences

By on Oct 1, 2014

PainThe internet is full of testimonials to the cathartic effect of writing about painful experiences. For a great number of people, it is probably a very effective way to confront and expel trauma. But we find that some of our authors – and we ourselves, if we are being honest – sometimes find the painful impossible to confront in writing. So what then? Pain is at the center of most of what we write, in memoirs certainly, but also in fiction. If it were all good news, it would not be news at all.

An inability to write about what is painful can lead to a big hole in the middle of a book. We don’t have any answers that might lead to putting painful stuff into words, but we do have some ideas to experiment with if this is your problem:

Write around it: Often painful experiences can be written about metaphorically or symbolically, and the result can be more powerful than if you spell them out. Readers’ imaginations will fill in the blanks and go where you as a writer do not want to.

Set yourself small goals and reward yourself when you meet them: Tackle your painful experience in small increments. Tell yourself you are going to write about the evening of the day before the painful event happened. When you have done that, take a break and do something you really, really like to do. Reward your effort. Next, write about the morning of the day of the painful event and again, reward yourself afterwards. By the time you come to the painful episode, maybe you will have somewhat conditioned yourself to anticipate the treat you have awarded yourself.

Get it all out in a mad rush: Hold your nose and write everything fast with as little thought as possible. You will have to go back and revise which may not be a lot of fun, but if you can make your rewrite about proper wording and other mechanics, maybe you can fool yourself that what you are working on is just another piece of writing.

Use prompts: Go back to the scene of the painful event or look at old pictures that recall it in some way. Do something to bring it back.

If you are writing fiction, project it: Simply give this painful happening to one of your characters and convince yourself that it happened to them and not you.

Here is one Don’t about writing what is painful and hard. Resist the urge to be dramatic about it, even if what happened to you was fraught with drama. Use simple language or go back and rewrite for plain language. Dramatic and painful events are powerful in and of themselves. They don’t need to be punched up with dramatic writing and in fact ironically, they are less powerful and less believable if they are.

 

 

 

 

 

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