Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Theme: Your Story's Hokey Pokey

Hokey Pokey - noun - also known as "What it's all about."

While wandering about the Twitterverse this morning I happened upon This Post by freelance editor Leanne Sype where she discusses what she looks for (as an editor) while working a manuscript.

One of the things she stressed was the Theme of the work.
"You need to believe in your story and its central themes so deeply you can't help but share them with the world."

This topic of themes excites me. Because as many re-writes and revisions that my story has undergone the Theme has remained constant:

Now as I began developing this series it took me a few drafts to realize that not only the entire story arc for the series, but each installment also required its own mini-theme to reinforce the overall idea.

If you've read more than two of my previous blogs you may have gathered that I have written/am querying a Middle Grade Fantasy.

"Middle Grade" has only recently made its way into my vocabulary. It's actually because of my theme(s), and certain very unfortunate things that happen to my characters down the road that I erroneously assumed that my work was Young Adult.

So my theme...I understood from the start that writing a fantasy for kids (of any age) was going to be a challenge. So many great authors have proven that writing for kids can turn you into an overnight sensation (or at least a well-known success) that it seems everyone wants to write for kids so the market is flooded. I knew that I couldn't write for anyone except children - it was that, or try my hand at horror - which is my hope way way WAY in the future.
My characters came to me first. It's in your characters that you find your theme.

Now prepare yourself: You're about to get a glimpse into the raw mind of Colten - it's a strange place.

From the ages of 9 - 12 I secretly wanted to be an Animorph. You remember Animorphs, right? Slug-like aliens subversively taking over planet earth, and our only defense was a group of preteens who could turn into any animal they touched.
I was a huge fan. Like, I would daydream about what animal I would choose for my "battle morph", what bird I would choose to become when we needed to fly on a reconnaissance was intense.
Then came Harry Potter. 'Nuff said.
My point is that fantasy stories for me have always been an immersive experience. If I fall in love with a story I consider myself in it.
Naturally in developing my own world I found myself not only studying it, but also inside of it. (Which, frankly, I couldn't write about a world I couldn't see myself in; that was part of the challenge I faced for four years prior to this idea - finding a world to write about that I loved.)
In children's books - particularly fantasy - it seems almost a prerequisite nowadays to do away with responsible caring adults.
When imagining myself lying to my mother to sneak out of the house and battle aliens as a Leopard - I always had a problem. My mom kept a very watchful eye on me. So for me the logistics of being an Animorph were always muddled.
When I imagined being 11 with a wizard coming to the door and telling my mom that I would be sent away to magic school to be immersed in a culture my mother was completely unfamiliar with - the pain of her imagined breakdown would kill the fantasy (just a bit) for me.
Ultimately I wanted Bianca and Scarlett to come from an environment similar to the one I came from. Should someone else read like I do and become Immersed in the worlds they explore I don't want them thinking (even subconsciously) that Mom/Dad/Grandma/Grandpa aren't an extent.

Second, I wanted to avoid common tropes of fantasy...prophesies, being the Last, the First, or the Only.
Not that I don't love books with those things...I mean, Hello, have we met?!
But I'm not the right person to write things like that. My mind will take the path of least resistance, and I'll find myself having written (and you'll be reading) something that reeks of unoriginality because I dipped my story in a bathtub of Fantasy Formula.
Also, being the Only, the First, the Last, or the subject of a world-changing prophecy wouldn't be in keeping with the "everyman" quality I wanted for my girls.
I want people to fall in love with my characters not because they should be pitied, feared, or praised. I want readers to love my characters because they see themselves, or their best friend, or their brother/sister/cousin...etc...
I want to reinforce that just because you aren't the Only, the First, the Last, or the Savior prophesied about in the long ago and far away doesn't mean you're not special.
My goal was to make you feel like when you were rooting for Bianca, Scarlett, and Oliver that you were cheering yourself or your best friend on toward the finish line.

Then comes the overall theme. For me my entire series is about my journey as a writer - and yours. Frankly, anyone's journey to achieve whatever dream they have. That, in short, is what my story (stories) are about.
You, Me, the common man/woman - in a world where we can't just turn off work, ignore our family or loved ones, but we still have goals and dreams that we pursue. Finding the balance between the destiny you've chosen for yourself and the things that life throws your way.
Bianca, Scarlett, and Oliver have found their place in Faerie at the expense of our world and - more importantly - their families. The sacrifices they make on their journey to become great mirror the sacrifices we all make when we find our true calling in life. It's bittersweet, the way life is.

If the basic plot of the pages is the heart of your story then the theme is the soul. That invisible, intangible quality that gives life to the story outside of the pages.

Does your story have a soul? What moves your writing? What is your theme?

Until we meet again!

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Thursday's Children June 13, 2013: Inspired by Theatre

In my previous blog post I mentioned that I have started a new project.

This "new project" has been crawling around the back of my mind for almost 8 years. I didn't know it, I didn't always recognize it, but as I'm putting story elements together, finding out about these characters, and discovering the world they live in I realize I've been waiting to write this story.

See, eight years ago (this fall it will be eight years) was my first semester in college. In my free time between classes, rehearsals, and work I always kept my eye on the prize: my writing.

But my first semester in college I only had the vaguest shadows of an idea. It ended up being an idea that I scrapped and sold for parts to the better part of my brain, but as I was searching for the idea I would create little writing exercises for myself. In part I did it hoping to "happen upon" a good story, but basically to keep my creativity finely tuned.

My favorite of these exercises was to take showtunes from my vast musical library, put them all on a playlist, hit shuffle, and make a story out of the first 21 random songs that played.

I'm a theatre-kid, and musicals (good musicals) use song to progess a story. So I would string together a unique story from disparate pieces of other stories, using characters of my own creation. It really was great fun.

The other night I was at work, and I realized I had forgotten...actually FORGOT the words to what was one of my favorite songs from a musical ever. I couldn't even think of the name of the song! (I turn 26 tomorrow; I'll clearly be senile by the time I'm 30)

I broke down and found my answer on the internet (there was a literal facepalm after I saw the song title, I can assure you). After a while I was thinking about how that show isn't particularly well known, and how it's such a brilliant show...and it's not a book.......but instead of historical I could have it as dystopian! And instead of _____it could be _____....

And thus, my new project was born from a musical. The most fun part of this is discovering a "new" dystopian world: one where the government isn't the evil Big Brother...

So that's what currently preoccupies me... What has inspired you in the past? Where does your Muse find her/his voice?

Until we meet again!

A weekly blog hop where writers share their inspirations. Please join us!
A weekly blog hop where writers share their inspirations. Please join us!
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Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The Book in the Drawer

Last night, I got the idea for a new story. More like, I was inspired to tell a story that I desperately love. Immediately upon coming home from work I set to work ironing out scenes, finding the names to the main characters, and roughly began building the world that they inhabit.

My excitement was indescribable.

But see, I think it's somewhat silly also. Not the idea. No, no, I'm quite in love with the idea. The silly factor for me comes because I am agentless. Ultimately, at this very moment, I am no closer to being on your bookshelf than a person who has never written a book. An ugly truth, but true nonetheless.

Further along the silliness train: this story has nothing to do with my MG Fantasy work that I am querying at this point.

See, if you remember from one of my previous posts. An agent advised me that there's no guarantee for a book series. Not in the querying phase. You can have the idea, the story, and the desire, but there are no book 1 sales to merit a book 2. There is no editor certain of your story's marketability to contract a book 2. So don't try hanging your hat in a closet that doesn't yet exist.

My MG series is near and dear to me. Since November 15, 2011 that has been the focus of every stray thought, and where every ounce of my storytelling talent (if any - I don't believe one can be described as talented without legitimate validation) has been directed. It is the world that I created, and the world that I live in when my eyes are closed.

So this story feels kindof like I'm being unfaithful to Bianca, Scarlett, and Oliver (My MG main characters). I haven't put their story aside; not by any means. My MG Fantasy is still being queried, but book one is complete. There is no tweaking, fixing, changing that I will make outside of editorial changes that come from a source higher up than me. It has seen 7 drafts, been edited from 113,000 words to 52,000 words, and the beginning has been completely re-imagined/re-written countless times (I'm terrible with beginnings - I always see how my stories end first). At this point, I can only query until I find an agent who loves the story as much as I do.

But I can't just sit and twiddle my thumbs. I want writing to be my career, not my hobby.

I always get story ideas, sometimes from dreams, mostly from things I see going to and fro day to day, but last night's was different - it's a story that I already love.

Did you know that Stephen King's Under the Dome originated in the early 80's? He started working on it, realized it was too big and messy for him to tell at that time and put it in a drawer. It was titled The Cannibals. Years later he came back to it, updated it (fixing this and that, I'm sure) and now all the non-readers will get to enjoy it as a mini-series on CBS this summer.

Stephen King is known for writing books and sticking them in drawers. Many authors probably do it. Publishing is a slow process, but stories come on the fly at all times of the day or night, and as quickly as a bolt of lightning. During those months or years when the gears aren't turning, and when the Muse is getting her beauty sleep Mr. King recommends having a "book in the drawer" to please the publishing gods.

So this project will be my "book in the drawer".

My Fantasy (series?) has been plotted....and re-plotted...and plotted again. In fact, my world-building grew even more from the changes I had to make in shortening the first story. Now I could write books about Faerie until I die...but I won't...because as much as I hope you enjoy them someday, I know you really wouldn't want me to - the overall story arc will satisfy you, I hope.

For now I'm working on the Non-Fantasy Story. The Tragedy. And someday (hopefully soon) when I'm chatting with my agent, I can say "Well I have That, but also I have This...and this other story that I want to get to work on too..."

Do you have a book in the drawer? I hope so, because I'm just discovering how much fun it can be.    :-)

Until we meet again!

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Thursday's Children June 6, 2013: Inspired by Commentary

Recently I've been plagued with an overwhelming desire to watch a good scary movie.
Usually I don't allow myself to watch horror films outside the month of October (in preparation for Halloween), but this was an itch that I just had to scratch.
The other night I went to my local Book/Video store and bought a scary film that I saw in theaters last year and thoroughly enjoyed. I also picked up a new one that I wanted to see in theaters but missed the opportunity.
I'm a big "save the best for last" kind of person. So I decided to watch the one I had already seen first, before I watched the film that I was waiting to see.
Sinister was the movie I watched first.

If you haven't seen it, you should because it really is a fantastic piece of storytelling.
Upon my second viewing I still got all the heebie-jeebies that I did the first time I saw it.
Then I watched Dark Skies which was also quite scary (for me) and terribly enjoyable.

The same production team was involved with both films so naturally there are similarities to the way the stories were told.
The following day, my hunger for something scary still wasn't entirely sated. I own many horror films, but I wanted something new and fresh that I hadn't seen before. I was so pleased with my viewing of Dark Skies that I wanted more of those same feelings.
Alas, by the time I got off work the shop where I buy most of my movies and books was already closed. So I came home and turned on Sinister, not to watch the film again, but because I had noticed that there were two different commentaries for the film. One by the Director, and one by the Writers.
Sinister is such a unique film in so many ways that I was quite curious as to how they found the inspiration for the film, and what led them to make some of the storytelling choices that they did.
Not only did I get the answer to those questions, but I also got an impromptu writing class by listening to the commentary.

One quote stood out to me in particular:
"When you're writing speculative, or genre fiction ... come up with your story first then introduce the genre elements later. At it's heart, Sinister is a movie about a guy's fear of failure, and how his family is slowly being torn apart by his quest to reclaim his fame..."

I actually paused the film, and went back to memorize that quote again for you.
My eyes were probably the size of tennis balls.
You see, I write Middle Grade Fantasy - speculative fiction. No doubt many of you also write speculative (genre) fiction.
I sat up and thought about some of the greatest stories.
They all revolved around an emotional idea. The Heart of the story.
The setting, the world-building, the twist ending, the intricate plotting all were secondary to the most important thing: The Heart.
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is about a girl and her three friends on a quest to find what makes them whole.
Harry Potter is about an abused orphan on a mission to confront the man who murdered his parents.
The Gone series is a modern day Lord of the Flies that shows the depths of darkness in a young person's soul, and questions the Nature versus Nurture aspect of Good and Evil.
The Dark Tower series is about one man's quest to find the meaning of life while being surrounded by (and propagating) death.

I must admit, I panicked for a moment.
Sure, I just re-wrote my manuscript. I went down from 95,000 to 71,000 then to 52,000 words. But what was my story about? What was the Heart of this new draft?

Three seconds after I asked this question I had my answer...

What is the heart of your story? Can it be summed up in a sentence? Is it the thing around which your entire manuscript revolves?

A weekly blog hop where writers share their inspirations. Please join us!
A weekly blog hop where writers share their inspirations. Please join us!
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Tuesday, June 4, 2013

The Agent Wand

In the world of traditional publishing we know that an agent is one of the keys to your success. (I'm taking for granted you are a writer, or at least attempting to be involved in the publishing/writing world)
To be traditionally published you face several tremendous challenges.
First and foremost - you have to write a brilliant, unique, well-crafted story.
Second, in the world of Traditional publishing you need an advocate. A stranger who will read over your work, make editorial suggestions, assist you in honing your talent, sell your work, and protect you during negotiations with your publisher. You need an Agent.

I've posted a few things about my Agent Quest before, but one thing I haven't mentioned is my process for finding an agent.

You might think it's pretty straightforward, and it is (more or less), but agents are just as diverse as authors.
For you fellow Harry Potter nerds I'm going to liken it to finding a wand.
"The wand chooses the wizard" as they say; I'll add: "The agent chooses the author."

I've heard it looks something like this.
You see, in J.K. Rowling's universe a wizard can do magic with any wand, BUT when a wizard has their wand - one that they've bonded with - they reach their full potential. They are capable of greater magic, and the relationship between wizard and wand affects the power and success of the wizard.
The agent chooses the author.
When the right author and agent are paired that's when the greatest magic happens.

This is what an NYT #1 Bestseller looks like.

Take to the internet and begin your search. You'll likely find my same starting point: "Literary Rambles", it has an alphabetized list of agents who represent Young Adult and Middle Grade work.
I remember freaking out the first time I found it. You'd have thought I found Atlantis.

But remember...just because it's a wand doesn't mean it's the one that will help you do your best magic...just because they are an agent doesn't mean they're the right agent for your work.

Also be aware that this person relies on you, and you rely on this person to have a career. You need one another. This is a business partnership. Would you open a clothing store with someone who doesn't have your same taste in style? Would you open a restaurant with someone who only wants to make seafood and you're allergic to shellfish?

Pictured: Hasty Agent-Author partnership
Harder question: would you open a restaurant with an eclectic menu? Maybe you enjoy pasta dishes, and this person says "sure! I love pasta, we'll also sell burgers, steaks, barbeque, and maybe a few other Italian entrees."
This restaurant may sell what you make, but how often have you found a Burger-Pasta-Steak restaurant selling the Best pasta? the Best steak? the Best burgers?
In that situation it comes down to what will satisfy you, and you need to ask yourself that question as you're agent hunting.

My query process has been very selective. There have been a few outright misses (I have a tendency to be drawn to wonderful/amazing agents who don't rep my genre), but I haven't really blanketed the universe with my query letter and sample pages.
I've only queried agents who I feel I would like as people. If I can answer "If they weren't an agent, and I weren't an author could we be friends?" with a "Yes." then I put them on my query list.  I follow them on Twitter, if they have a blog I read it. I read, re-read, and RE-READ the submission guidelines (my brain has a tendency to miss details when I'm too excited/anxious).
Be aware that when you and the right agent finally connect it's potentially a career-long partnership. As long as you're making magic they're the wand that makes it possible.

You can find "how I got my agent blogs" all over the internet. I just wrote this because I wish someone had told me certain things sooner, and made certain things clearer before I started making "rookie mistakes"...I would have liked to have known someone else's Agent Hunting Protocol before I started forming my own...

Until we meet again!

***Please Note: the likening of an agent to a wand is in no way meant to de-humanize, or infer that an agent is nothing more than a tool. Agents are people with hopes, thoughts, and dreams of their own. If you think, have thought, or have treated an agent otherwise then you are an ass.
The Agent/Wand Author/Wizard simile was meant only to be an enjoyable illustration.