October 25, 2011

Once Upon A Time - Are You Hooked?

Okay, the good stuff first. Robert Carlyle makes a great Rumpelstiltskin/Mr. Gold. The production values are fairly high with decent special effects. The basic plot—storybook characters cursed with amnesia, doomed to a life with no happy endings unless the daughter of Snow White and Prince Charming frees them—is intriguing. And it's fun to catch the fairy tale allusions.

Yet the first episode wasn't as compelling as I'd hoped.

Perhaps it's because the back story that explained the curse was filled with hamming, overwrought acting, and weak characterizations. The way the Queen chewed the scenery, I'm surprised there was a shred of tapestry left in the castle. And, please, give me some chemistry between Snow White and her prince, not vapid arguments with dialogue like "I can't believe I'm having this conversation with you again." They're in a fairy tale, not the 21st century.

I liked the way characters were revamped when the story switched to modern times. Mr. Gold was particularly creepy as the man who "owns" Storybrooke, Maine, where the oblivious characters are trapped. Jiminy Cricket as a school counselor is a clever touch, almost too clever.

And the daughter who could be a savior? I get that she's hard-boiled (she escaped the Enchanted Forest before the Queen's curse took effect and her life in the real world was anything but charmed) and her transformation from skeptic to believer has potential. I just hope her character grows in a way that makes me want to care.

Right now, the boy she gave up for adoption has more appeal. He lives in Storybrooke, has grown up reading a book called Once Upon A Time, and believes his real mother is the town's only hope. A bit precocious, but his actions get the ball rolling.

I'm intrigued enough to want to see what happens next, but the acting definitely needs to get ramped up before I'll commit. How about you?

October 19, 2011

Love Your Body Day!

It's impossible to avoid them. All those images of airbrushed models, impossibly thin, along with ads for products promising youth and beauty. Well, today I'm inviting you to help me celebrate Love Your Body Day; a day dedicated to accepting what nature gave you and loving it!

Whatever shape you're in, embrace it. There's a reason women's figures are referred to as apples, pears, and bananas. It's 'cause we're juicy and ripe and bursting with natural goodness. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise.

Yes, it's hard to ignore marketing campaigns that urge us to bemoan what we've got and yearn for what we're not. Gone are the days when painters like Rubens celebrated the lushness of female flesh.

But think about what makes you special to family, friends, loved ones. Your looks? Thought not.

So get up and go to the mirror, give yourself a great big kiss, and then hug that wonderful blessing called YOU.

Repeat as needed. ;-)

For more information, go to: http://loveyourbody.nowfoundation.org/about.html

October 11, 2011

Let's Hear It for the Gals!

"Because man and woman are the complement of one another, we need woman's thought in national affairs to make a safe and stable government." Elizabeth Cady Stanton

Here in California, we're celebrating the 100th anniversary of women getting the right to vote and I want to give a huge shout out to those brave souls who risked arrest and public censure to give women a voice.

It's easy to forget that so much of what we take for granted today is the direct result of struggles in years past. Consider, in particular, the freedom women writers enjoy. Our words appear in forums big and small, not just specialized publications. We're free to share opinions (political or not), give advice, entertain, critique, teach, persuade, provoke. Quite a difference from the corseted era, yes?

So when you sit down to type your next blog post, take a moment to thank those who paved the way for you to speak out. I think the suffragists would be pleased to see the communities we've created online and off.

September 28, 2011

When Voice Trumps All - The Night Circus

Though it didn't sweep me away completely, THE NIGHT CIRCUS is a fabulous example of how an author's way with words can keep you intrigued even when you feel the pacing lags.

Morgenstern's writing is especially strong when it comes to imagery. At times, it's almost like reading a director's notes. Just one example: 

"After the performance has concluded, the man in the grey suit navigates the crush of patrons in the lobby with ease. He slips through a curtained door leading to the backstage dressing rooms unnoticed. Stagehands and dressers never so much as glance at him. He raps on the door at the end of the hall with the silver tip of his cane."

Morgenstern also does a fabulous job of earning your empathy for characters, like Celia, the magician's daughter: 

"Her father brings her everywhere while she is small, parading her like a well-loved small dog in expensive gowns, for his colleagues and acquaintances to fawn over in pubs after performances. When he decides she is too tall to be an adorable accessory, he begins abandoning her in dressing rooms or hotels."

Really, you can turn to just about any page in this book and the voice comes through so strong it nearly takes your breath away. A richly imagined circus, fleshed-out characters, scenes that touch all your senses, everything is imbued with Morgenstern's unique perspective.

Look no further if you want to know what agents mean when they're looking for "voice".

Have you read it yet?

September 20, 2011

Lips Touch Three Times

This was my introduction to Laini Taylor and I'm hungering for more!

LIPS TOUCH is three stories loosely connected by the theme of once-in-a-lifetime kisses. Each section begins with a graphic overview of the tale (illustrations by Taylor's husband, Jim Di Bartolo) and then you get the text. Clever idea and it works well.

My favorite was "Goblin Fruit".  Right away we're drawn into the life of a sixteen-year-old Kizzy, who bemoans her oddball family:

"They had no TV but knew hundreds of songs—all of them in a language that Kizzy's teachers had never even heard of —and they sat on rickety chairs in the yard and sang them together, their voices as plaintive as wolves', howling at the moon." [Actually, this sound like fun to me!]

As for Kizzy herself: "She daydreamed about having slim ankles like Jenny Glass instead of peasant ankles like the fetlocks of a draft horse. About smooth hair instead of coarse hair, sleek hips instead of belly dancer's hips.  About a tinkling laugh, and a butterfly tattoo, and a boy who would tuck his hand into her back jeans pocket while they walked, and press her up against a fence to suck her lower lip like a globe of fruit."

Yeah, I'm hooked. She had me at hair and hips.

Kizzy's yearnings are like crack to goblins and next thing you know one of them shows up at her high school, transformed into a gorgeous boy intent on stealing her soul. Great setup, great tension, great climax.

"Spicy Little Curses Such as These" tells the story of Anamique, a girl in India who lives as a mute because her voice kills, literally, a curse placed on her by a malicious demon. A horrible dilemma made unbearable when a handsome soldier appears. I love the atmosphere Taylor creates, her sly take on the myth of Orpheus, and the wicked twist that leaves the demon a victim of his own curse.

The last story, "Hatchling", didn't enthrall me as much as the others, though Taylor's voice is so strong I had to keep reading to find out the truth about a girl whose left eye turns blue the morning she hears wolves in London.

If you haven't read this and you like your fantasy filled with wit and insight, give it a try!

September 13, 2011

Curse You, Roget!

Just returned from a fabulous weekend in San Francisco. Saw the Picasso exhibit at the DeYoung and gleefully cheered on my homeboys as they beat the L.A. Dodgers, 8-1, on Sunday. Go Giants!

Now I'm back to working on another set of revisions for my MG fantasy, based on feedback from a couple of agents who asked for pages, kindly noted some strengths, but ultimately passed for somewhat similar reasons. *sigh* Wondering if this story will end up stashed away in the file cabinet. A practice book, if you will.

I reach for my battered copy of Roget's Thesaurus, seeking an alternative to "sat". It's not listed, but I notice "Satan". Hmmm. My old Catholic nemesis. Intrigued, I find synonyms for the devil (978. a maleficent spirit). A new one attracts my attention: Asmodeus. Loki (Norse myth).

So Jim Carrey was actually possessed by the devil in the movie, “The Mask”? And all this time I thought it was just a mischievous spirit. Interesting how they reworked the mythology. I open up a new tab, go to my Netflix account, and add the film to my queue so I can watch it again. Maybe I missed something the first time around. 

Wait, I'm supposed to be writing! How did I end up searching for a movie?

Anything like this ever happen to you?

September 6, 2011

Why I Love The Hunger Games

During my blogcation, I re-read the first book in Suzanne Collins' mega-selling trilogy and was impressed anew, especially since I approached it via the principles in WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL by Donald Maass. (If you do not have this book, buy it now!).

Collins covers all the basics Maass discusses and does it so well you can't help but applaud her virtuosity. Even a rough overview shows Collins has a stellar grasp of what makes a novel work. Let's look at how she does it.

North America has been replaced by the nation of Panem, which keeps its twelve districts in line by forcing them to send children to participate in a fight to the death on live TV. A big idea that's absolutely chilling—talk about gut emotional appeal!

When Katniss Everdeen volunteers to fight in her younger sister's place, she's putting family above personal safety. That's something any reader can relate to. And the personal stakes increase when the actual Games begin. But there are public stakes, as well. If Katniss wins, her district will be feted for an entire year, a huge honor where poverty is the norm.

Kat's decision to protect her sister immediately endears her to us. We want her to succeed, even as we know she can only do so by killing. Oh, the dilemma! The love triangle? Not as compelling (though I can see its appeal to younger readers), but Collins provides enough depth to Peeta and Gale to help us understand Kat's indecision. Minor characters are fleshed out with personality details that give each even the unlikeable ones substance and individuality.

Collins has four of the five basic elements:
1.  a sympathetic protagonist, one known in detail (see above);
2.  a complex conflict (physical, intellectual and emotional issues, all wonderfully intertwined);
3.  complications (internal and external twists deepen the story);
4.  a climax (Kat and Peeta defy expectations);
What's missing?
5.  a resolution (yes, Kat returns home in triumph, but the story doesn't really end).

Where to start? Loyalty to family, staying true to yourself while engaged in a seemingly hopeless battle, trusting your instincts, etc. Questions about humanity, ruthless governments, and moral integrity abound. This isn't a read-it-and-forget-it story.

Broken down, it looks pretty straightforward. But it takes a writer of Collins' caliber to put all the pieces together in a way that keeps us glued to the story.

So what are we to take away from all this? If your story is coming back with comments concerning a lack of connection, pacing issues, or flat conflict, take a look at how one author met those challenges.

And get Maass' book! Your novel deserves his insights.

July 26, 2011

Six Ways to Beat BIC Flab

You've heard the mantra. Hunker down and write the story. Great advice except while you're exercising those little grey cells the rest of you is going slack.

Think not?  Flick under your arm. Must be jelly 'cause jam don't shake.

I've learned a few tricks to fight the jiggles, top and bottom. See if any of them work for you.

1. Buy a balance ball and use it as a chair. Works the core while you sit. Open up those thighs. Tighten those buns. Squeeze and bounce.

2. When you're stuck or need a few minutes to reflect, pick up a latex resistance band and stretch: side-to-side, front to back, top-down.

3. Take water breaks. In the kitchen, do push ups against the counter and then shake out your arms and body. Indulge your inner wet dog.

4. Keep small weights nearby. Strengthen biceps and triceps while checking email.

5. Breathe, deeply. Muscles need oxygen.

6. Every page or so, get up and swivel your hips to a sultry song. Imagine Daniel Craig is watching.  ;-)

July 20, 2011

Timeless Tales: The Witch of Blackbird Pond

With basics taking up a larger portion of income, buying new books isn’t always feasible. You can request them at libraries, but their budgets are shrinking, too. What’s a reader to do? Easy. Enjoy the classics!

The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare (1959 Newbery Award Winner)

Don’t be fooled by the title. While Speare addresses 17th century witch hysteria, this book is basically the story of a free-spirited girl from Barbados struggling against the constraints of a Puritan community and finding love. 

We meet sixteen-year-old Katherine (Kit) Tyler on a boat near the Eastern seaboard, a “plain girl with a beautiful smile” talking with Nat, the shipmaster’s son—wiry and good-looking, of course. Newly orphaned Kit is the daughter of a Caribbean plantation owner who’s grown up with personal slaves and arrives unprepared for the hardscrabble life of her aunt’s household. Exhausted and furious at being forced to work, Kit thinks she’s found a way out when a rich merchant’s son comes courting and starts building a mansion for her.

But Kit isn’t destined to be a docile companion. She scandalizes adults with her opinions—young ladies do not talk about politics in 1687—and wreaks havoc at her cousin’s school with unscripted lessons.  Despondent and desperate, Kit finds unexpected relief in the meadows near Blackbird Pond, where she meets and befriends an old woman:

“All at once, with an instinctive quickening of her senses, Kit knew that she was not alone, that someone was very close. She started up. Only a few feet away a woman was sitting watching her, a very old woman with short-cropped white hair and faded, almost colorless eyes set deep in an incredibly wrinkled face. As Kit stared at her she spoke in a rusty murmuring voice:

“Thee did well, child, to come to the Meadow. There is always a cure here when the heart is troubled.”

When her relationship with the widow Hannah Tupper leads to accusations of witchcraft and a trial, Kit learns she isn’t as alone as she thought.

I like Kit’s feistiness, though her superior attitude put me off at times. Kneeling beside her cousin Judith to pick onions, Kit scorns the “work that a high-class slave in Barbados would rebel at”. By book’s end, however, she's grown to appreciate her new world, especially since it includes a budding romance with Nat.

Recommended for readers 12 and above.

Have you read it?

July 12, 2011

Looking for Inspiration

There's an interesting post about writers who use different types of imagery to inspire their work over at The Enchanted Inkpot.

I've blogged before about totems scattered around my desk and home. I also rely on visuals. While researching Slavic mythology for my current WIP, I looked for pictures of the thunder god, Perun, a main character in my story. Here's one:

Now imagine you're Nadya, a sixteen-year-old descendant of the mermaid goddess Jurata, living a cloistered life by the Baltic Sea. You unwittingly summon Perun. He insists you're Jurata reborn—killed at his hands after she spurned him to love a human—and claims you for his queen.

When you marry, he'll make you immortal. You'll fly above storms in his chariot and accept the adulation of worshipers at his temple. When his temper erupts, your siren's voice will calm his rages.

The catch: leave and he'll wipe out your family. Hmm, eternity with a hotheaded killer. Not exactly the kind of relationship your average girl dreams of in this or any other world.

But Nadya isn't your average girl. ;-)

Where do you find inspiration?

July 5, 2011

Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret

I'm updating my home library with some classics and, of course, had to add at least one Judy Blume favorite.

Published more than 40 years ago, Blume's exploration of tween angst still rings true. Yes, parts of it are dated — can't imagine anyone relating to a square dance these days — but Blume captures the desperation of every girl who feels she's not normal. Stuffing bras, anyone? :)

It brought back memories of the day my mother made me tell my father that I was now a woman. Talk about humiliating!

And that film we all had to see? Who can forget learning that your reproductive system looks like a ram's head?

Have to admire Blume for writing a book that addresses tween angst and choosing a religion, though I feel that particular aspect was less well developed. For someone working on a school project about faith, Margaret's investigations felt shallow, just attending Mass and temple a few times and deciding she didn't feel God's presence.

Even so, it's a brave concept and Blume has taken a lot of heat for it, earning a spot on the ALA's top 100 challenged books. Understandable, given that religion is one of the most heated topics in any decade, but banning a book because it talks about breasts and menstruation? Ridiculous.

Have you read it?

June 28, 2011

Are Violent Videos Free Speech?

I’m appalled at the Supreme Court’s ruling* that extremely violent videos are entitled to First Amendment protection. Oy! Can you hear our Founding Fathers writhing in their graves?

Writing for the majority, Justice Antonin Scalia claims a state's right to protect minors, “does not include a free-floating power to restrict the ideas to which children may be exposed.” We’re not talking about exposure, ladies and gentlemen; we’re talking about active participation. 

Case in point: Postal 2, in which players can hit a woman in the face with the shovel, then decapitate and bludgeon her as she’s bleeding. Games like this one invite children to kill, maim, dismember, and sexually assault.  Just how does this fall under the guise of free speech?

I don’t buy the Court’s insistence that America “has no tradition of specially restricting children’s access to depictions of violence.” No tradition? What do you call movie ratings? Even the video industry has its own rating system.

The Court conveniently rejects research showing that minors are influenced by what they see. Obviously none of the jurors has every worked in a public school. A half-dozen of my primary students were once caught dry humping each other in the boys’ bathroom. Where did they get the idea? From watching Brian (the dog) in Family Guy. Not influenced? Get real.

Don’t misunderstand me. I’m a journalist and fervent supporter of the First Amendment. Its guarantees allow me to express this dissenting opinion. In fact, as Scalia himself acknowledges, "The Free Speech Clause exists principally to protect discourse on public matters  . . ." 

So how do violent video games merit protection under that clause? We're not talking about speech or the press. We're talking about a medium that didn't even exist in the 1700s. Even Justice Alito, who concurred with the majority, warns about jumping to "the conclusion that new technology is fundamentally the same as some older thing with which we are familiar".

This ruling went far beyond what the writers of the Constitution ever intended. Kudos to Justices Thomas and Breyer for disagreeing, particularly since Breyer acknowledged the relevance of studies concluding that psychological harm results from playing such games. 

Your thoughts?

*You can read the ruling at http://www.supremecourt.gov; go to the far right for "Recent Decisions" and click on 6/27/11 - Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Assn. 

June 21, 2011

How Writing is Like Bananagrams

The more I write, the more I filter experiences through a writer’s lens. It’s a blessing and a curse.

Take Bananagrams, my new favorite game. You start with 21 tiles and build connecting words, like Scrabble. Everyone plays at the same time so it’s quick, like Boggle. Serious fun.

The best part—or worst, depending on how far behind you are—is that you can demolish your creation and start from scratch. So what goes through my mind as I do exactly this? 

Hey, this is like writing. If something isn’t working, I can toss it and try a new approach. 

Meanwhile, my opponent triumphs. Like I said, a blessing and a curse. ;-)

Ever find yourself in similar situations?

June 14, 2011

Trust Your Gut

So a while back I share the beginning chapters of a story with a couple other writers. Their feedback: add a romantic interest. It isn't enough that the main character agrees to wed a tempestuous god to save her family. She needs to leave a boy behind.  Amps up the conflict.

Being a novice writer full of insecurities, I ignore my instincts and insert a third major character into my WIP.  But new readers ask why he's barely mentioned.

Then it hits me. This guy isn't fleshed out because he doesn't fit the story I want to write. 

It's funny how it all comes down to trusting your gut.

I wonder how many other writers have ever changed a story based on feedback and then returned to their original version. Have you?

May 17, 2011

Where Have All the Strong Girls Gone?

A study of children's literature from 1900-2000 reveals what savvy readers have known for some time: there aren't many positive female characters in kid lit (we're talking about stories for young readers, 4-8 years old). The result, according to the study's authors: "The disproportionate numbers of males in central roles may encourage children to accept the invisibility of women and girls and to believe they are less important than men and boys". 

Do you agree? Can you prove them wrong?

Classic stories with brave and clever girls do exist—Jane Yolen has a great collection—but they tend to revolve around older characters (Island of the Blue Dolphins, The Witch of Blackbird Pond, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, The Enchanted Forest Chronicles, etc.). 

So where are all the strong girls for beginning readers? With rare exceptions, you won't find them in traditional fairy and folk tales, what with wicked witches and damsels in distress waiting for knights in shining armor. You can search online and come up with a few lists, but the pickings are slim in classic picture books.

Has it changed in the twenty-first century? Doesn't look like it. You'll still find the majority of feisty females in MG and YA lit. At the younger end of the reading spectrum, there's Ladybug Girl, who makes her own fun; Fancy Nancy, who likes to dress up; Olivia, an energetic piglet; and Dora the Explorer, a cartoon character.

There must be more. What have I missed? What would you recommend?

To read the article, go to: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/may/06/gender-imbalance-children-s-literature To read the full study by Janice McCabe, et al, go to: http://gas.sagepub.com/content/25/2

Books cited: Joan Aiken, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase; Avi, The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle; Beverly Cleary, Ramona Quinby; Jacky David, Ladybug Girl; Ian Falconer, Olivia; Jane O'Connor, Fancy Nancy; Scott O'Dell, Island of the Blue Dolphins; Elizabeth George Speare, The Witch of Blackbird Pond; Patricia Wrede, The Enchanted Forest Chronicles (love these!); Jane Yolen, Not One Damsel in Distress.

May 3, 2011

Aliens Sighted in Mexico!

The Olmec exhibit at San Francisco's De Young Museum was lauded for the enormous heads transported from Mexico, but I found the smaller figurines much more interesting (details on this group below). 

Given that the giant carvings are relatively realistic, the wild heads on these guys intrigued me. Are they aliens or the mad imaginings of some ancient shaman on peyote?

In any event, it's a great photo for a story prompt!

Offering 4 (group of standing figures and celts), Mexico, Tabasco, La Venta, 900–400 BC, Jadeite, serpentine, and an atypical stone (possibly granite). Sixteen figurines, height: 6–7 7/8 in.; six celts, height: 9 3/8–10 in. Museo Nacional de Antropologia, Mexico City. Photo: Consejo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes–Instituto Nacional de Antropologia e Historia–Mexico–Javier Hinojosa

April 26, 2011

What Would You Do to Sell A Book?

"60 Minutes" recently ran a piece on Greg Mortenson, best-selling author of Three Cups of Tea, the story of his failed attempt to climb K2 and subsequent encounters with a tribe that nursed him back to health when he got lost during the descent. Mortenson later created the Central Asia Institute (CAI), which claims to have built 140 schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Now it appears that the original tale may be false and people who have donated money to the CAI are questioning whether it's being used for Mortenson's personal benefit.

You can read the full story and decide for yourself (link below). In the meantime, let's talk about an author's obligation to readers.

With fiction, you can build as wild and improbable a story as you want.  Non-fiction readers expect the truth. Sure, some artistic license is expected; no one wants a dull recitation of facts. Just don't lie to us.

Maybe you're shrugging. So what if he fudged the facts? His intent was good. Why should we care that he may have embellished the most dramatic parts of his books? The CAI has helped hundreds of children, particularly girls, get an education in a war-ravaged area. Surely that counts for something.

Except for the allegations that he spends more CAI money on book tours than schools.

Other writers have fabricated stories. Other charitable founders have used contributions for personal gain. Why get upset?

Because we deserve better. Because the minute we lower our standards and absolve non-fiction authors of any moral or ethical obligation to tell the truth, we invite abuse. If we don't insist on credibility, who will?

You can get the full CBS story here: http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2011/04/15/60minutes/main20054397.shtml

April 15, 2011

More Musings on Success

A J Hartley over at the Magical Words has a great post on goals, success, and lessons learned during his writing career. Definitely worth a read.

More Musings on Success

April 12, 2011


Pop Quiz:

You place your protagonist in a frightening situation. Does s/he:
a.  scream/shriek/squeal
b.  faint
c.  stutter
d.  forge ahead, heart quaking,  knees shaking, etc.
e.  turn tail and run

If you answered (c), ask yourself why.

Think about it. Ever stutter when you're afraid? Know anyone who does?

A true stutterer will stumble over many words, not just the first one in a sentence. There's debate over how much is psychological and how much is physiological, but everyone agrees it's a verbal handicap.

I'm not saying characters can't have weaknesses, but if you're going to deprive a character of a clear and strong voice, make sure there's a reason. Give us a bit of backstory, some context that explains why this person stammers (a traumatic event, a parent who insisted on perfect diction at all times, etc.). Be creative, don't settle for a tiresome cliche.

Better yet, show us your protagonist's unique reaction to a fearful situation. Find the words to make us feel their anxiety. Your writing will shine and your readers will thank you for delicious thrills.

April 5, 2011

How to Critique

A potential crit partner returned my chapters with comments about the story itself, which I appreciated, and lots of line edits, which I didn't. IMO, when another author rewrites your words, they've gone too far.

So how do you approach a critique? A few guidelines come to mind:

RESPECT the author. The purpose of a critique is general feedback, not editing.  Note what you like and what gave you pause as far as plot, characters, and setting.  If you see grammar and punctuation errors, point them out and move on.

Some responders claim they don't know how to tell the author what's wrong with a given section, so they just write it out for them. Seriously? If you don't know how to phrase your concerns, it's time to Google "constructive criticism" and learn the basics.

RESTRAIN yourself (see above). It's not your story; don't presume to fix it. Yes, you need to address areas that concern you ("I'm confused here" or "Not sure if this is the best way to transition" or  "I didn't connect with this character", etc.). Leave it at that. Let the author consider your comments and choose whether to act on them or not. 

REMEMBER, unless a specific request has been made for editorial feedback, all anyone wants is your opinion.  Share what worked, what didn't, and let it go.

What's your take on this?

March 1, 2011

How to Write a Synopsis

Part of the SCBWI grant process involves submitting a synopsis. *heart begins to flutter* Although I'm allowed up to 750 words, according to 
SCBWI the professional norm is one page, 250 words, double-spaced.

Wait. 250 words? Double-spaced? The synopsis I wrote for the San Francisco Writers’ Conference was 584 words, single-spaced! *palms begin to sweat*

So how do you cut a synopsis in half and still maintain the essence of the story? Start with the basics—beginning, middle, end—and go from there. Sounds easy, doesn’t it? The hard part is avoiding the temptation to include too many details.

My SFWC synopsis clearly tries to squeeze in as much of the action as possible. But you don’t need a blow-by-blow account of the narrative. You need to pull back and look at the big picture.

Begin by identifying the core issue. You can do that by using the Somebody-Wanted-But-So approach:
           1.  Somebody (a character)
           2.  Wants (has a goal)
           3.  But  (something stands in the way/conflict)
           4.  So (s/he tries to overcome it)
           Since a synopsis must include the ending, add:
           5.  How the conflict is resolved.

Bare bones, absolutely, but it covers all the necessary story elements. From here, it’s a matter of fleshing out the plot without drowning in minutiae.

Following these rough guidelines, I’ve reduced my synopsis to 321 words. *rewards self with chocolate* However, I’ve got less than two weeks to whittle it down to 250. *red wine goes well with chocolate, doesn't it?*  
Must. Be. Merciless.

What's the shortest synopsis you've ever written?

Links related to this post:
SCBWI Grants: http://kjankowski.blogspot.com/2011/01/scbwi-awards-and-grants.html
SWBS approach: http://kjankowski.blogspot.com/2010/09/somebody-wants-but-so.html

February 22, 2011

How to Save Your Writing

I'd love to be brave, like Cynthia Leitich Smith, write a first draft, get to know my characters and story, then delete it. But I'm a pack rat when it comes to my work. Nothing goes away for good.

For each story, I create a file named EXCISIONS, and fill it as I revise successive drafts. Maybe it's backstory waiting for the appropriate placement. A scene that doesn’t quite advance the plot. Stilted dialogue. Tangents—oh, yes, lots of those!

I may never use any of it, but I feel better knowing it’s there. Just in case.

Since it's so easy to save things digitally, why not, if for no other reason than to show how much you’ve grown as a writer? Those reminders are priceless when you’re feeling low. And they'll come in handy when you've been invited to speak at schools and conferences (dream big!) about your writing process.

What about you? Do you have a special place for your deathless prose?

January 18, 2011

What A Book is Worth

Just returned from San Francisco, where I saw Van Gogh's Starry Night Over the Rhone, part of a show of post-Impressionist masterpieces from the Musee D'Orsay in Paris. I've never seen a painting so alive. Even though you could get fairly close and study the brushwork—particularly how color was applied to show light reflected on the water—when you stepped away the river actually shimmered. Gorgeous.

Of course, the discussion at dinner included a lively debate about what gives art its value. Critics derided the Impressionist movement itself until the work began to sell and then—wonder of wonders—suddenly the artists were welcomed at the Paris Salon with open arms. We were blind but now we see! What mastery! What genius!

Writers face the same issues, I think, especially women.  To cite just one example, in high school I took an elective class on Black Literature. Not a lady in sight. I didn't discover Zora Neale Hurston until years later and was stunned to learn she was a co-founder of the Harlem Renaissance that I supposedly studied as a junior.  Her masterpiece, THEIR EYES WERE WATCHING GOD, is a stunning read, yet it wasn't until Oprah brought that book to her audience that Neale Hurston began to receive the acclaim she richly deserves (although the less said about the messy made-for-TV version, the better).

What do you think? Is commercial success the defining factor that makes any art valuable? Or do you need the blessings of the critical elite?

January 11, 2011

Can Witches Be Good?

Angela Ackerman ran another of her terrific thesauruses, this one covering symbols considered evil (link below). Witches, of course, made the list. Because when you think of them, they're always nasty, right?

We all know the classic witches. The snaggle-toothed crone offering Snow White deadly fruit. The green-skinned hag coveting Dorothy’s ruby slippers. The withered beldam fattening up the children who nibbled at her house. Nothing nice about ‘em.

I don't have a problem with the label. It's a stereotype, sure, but therein lies the challenge. A well-crafted villainess is a delight to read; the trick is to give readers a flesh-and-blood character, one neither wholly bad nor absolutely pure. Something in-between Glinda’s saccharine sweetness and Elphaba’s deviltry. A few authors who have already done so:

Donna Jo Napoli tweaks one witch’s image in THE MAGIC CIRCLE. In this compassionate retelling of Hansel and Gretel’s tale, we meet the “Ugly One”, a devoted mother who loses her healing powers and battles demons that demand she eat flesh. Her resolve holds until two lovely, delicious children arrive at her candy-strewn cottage. It isn't Gretel’s ingenuity that saves the day, but the old woman's decision to sacrifice herself rather than give in to fiendish urges. A nice twist.

I know of only a couple other books that strive to show witches in a sympathetic light, including Gregory Maguire’s WICKED, which I’ve put off reading. Why? Because I saw a bit of the play on a TV show and thought it was ridiculous, some song about the Elphaba (the future Wicked Witch of the West) wanting to be popular. No, no, no. This is magical land of Oz we’re talking about, not high school.

It appears the newest remake is FAIREST OF ALL by Serena Valentino. Love the cover. Can’t wait to read it. I was terrified of the warty-nosed witch from Disney’s movie, and literally thought my 9-year-old heart would burst when I was on the Snow White ride at Disneyland and it broke down just as the black-cloaked cackler thrust a poisoned apple in my direction.

Of course, there’s a cultural bias against women who exert their prowess, particularly those who attune themselves to nature. Condemning them as consorts of the devil is an easy way to mask fear and ignorance. So, while a few books may attempt to mitigate the damage, I doubt there will ever be a time when we don’t associate witches with evil. The connection is too ingrained in our collective unconscious.

What do you think?