Adventures in Outlining!

I’m a total plotter. In the end, I might stray from my bulleted plot outline. New characters pop up like gophers from their little hidey holes in the ground. But I like knowing where I’m going. And what I’ve been using most lately is Blake Snyder’s Beat Sheet. It’s a ton of fun, and great practice for plotting story. I like to fill one out for Shiny New Ideas that may or may not go anywhere, because, like writing the pitch ahead of time, it’s great practice.

For some writers, this Beat Sheet thing is old news – but a few months ago I’d never heard of it, so I’ll share it here in case there’s someone else who hasn’t heard of it. Basically, screenwriter Blake Snyder evaluated gazillions of films and came up with a “formula” or road map, or, uh, beat sheet that outlines the common scenes, or beats, of a screenplay. Movies and books both are fundamentally stories, so these beats can be adapted very easily to novels. And it is A BLAST not only applying these beats to my own brainstorming, but evaluating some of the crappy movies we find on Netflix streaming (we’ve watched all the good ones that appeal to us). I’m starting to (starting to?) annoy Homes with comments like, “It’s been fifteen minutes and we haven’t even left the Ordinary World!” or “Ah, yes, the false high midpoint. I know these.”

The beauty of the whole beat sheet is I can overlay it with Christopher Vogler’s The Hero’s Journey (an abbreviated, simpified Wikipedia version can be reached here), and it still works. Because story is, for the most part, universal.

You can download Blake Snyder’s Beat Sheet for free, here. Really, though, a look at the book is recommended. He shares many great ideas about story and market and even genre.

There’s your unsolicited advice for the day! It’s good for you. Like vitamins.

How to Give Good Critique

A friend and critique partner of mine (and she knows who she is, so this isn’t a series  of hints for other crit partners!) gave me some feedback on my story a few months ago. I was quiet for a bit, because while she had some great ideas for my story, some of them came off a bit harsh. We talked about it, and she asked me for some advice, because she’d had trouble with hurting crit partners’ feelings in the past. I went through her critique line by line, and came up with a list of suggestions. She told me they were helpful, and gave me permission to share them here.

Have a sandwich

Place negative/constructive criticism in between positive criticism. What I heard about “the sandwich method” is that it helps a critique-receiver feel relaxed at the beginning, instead of under attack. And then, after all the negative criticism, the writer’s ego is reassured with more positive. [NB: Be sincere and specific, otherwise the positive criticism will sound like token positive criticism, and we’re all smart enough to see that for what it is: BS. Being positive can sometimes take a little digging.]

Embrace brevity

State your point, and move on. When something’s repeated it can make the writer doubt the critic’s belief in her intelligence. Also when something’s repeated, it can sound angry.

Embrace neutrality

I try (but don’t always succeed) in making the critique more about characters and story and less about what the writer is or isn’t doing. Homes told me that in scientific manuscript critiques, they’re supposed to say, “This doesn’t work because…” When in doubt, I pretend I’m a scientist.

Be positive

Saying something like, “Your main character makes me want to shoot myself in the bleeping head” only makes a person feel crappy. It’s best to phrase things in the positive, or phrase them as questions, like, “If Amalia instead first learned how to defend herself, she’d be a lot more sympathetic to the reader,” or “What if Amalia were to learn self-defense? Do you think it would make her less passive, yet still feisty and a person we’d cheer for?”

Be positive II

I leave out the doom and gloom messages – and the long introduction. Every time the writer hears, “You’re going to hate me for saying this,” or “this might be hard to hear,” or other statements of that ilk, it makes her worry more. The longer the introduction and disclaimers go on, the more impatient and defensive she could get.

On taking the wheel

It’s okay for some critique partners to write out short bits of dialogue or sentences for each other. I actually enjoy it. It’s good to check, though, because not everyone will be okay with someone else putting words in their characters’ mouths.

On suggestions

I’ve heard different things about suggestions. Some people say that a good critique partner only points out where something is off, and allows the writer to come up with her own fixes. Personally, I enjoy suggestions, but you may want to make sure they don’t sound like orders.

On nitpicking

I generally don’t correct punctuation/grammar/typos unless the piece is, according to the author, ready for submission. On earlier drafts, if I catch something & it’s easy to fix, sometimes I do. If I see a recurring grammatical error, I will usually call the writer’s attention to it. But little nitpicks seem like a waste of time if the story might change dramatically – entire sentences, paragraphs, pages, and chapters can be replaced or deleted, and then I’ve spent time correcting punctuation on segments that are no longer even in the story! Some people, however, cannot resist editing for grammar etc. To each her own.

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I’m looking at these tips as a list-in-progress, so please, chime in below if you have a tip I haven’t thought of, or if you think something in my list should be adjusted/clarified.

Also, while it’s super-important to “give good critique,” it’s equally important to be a good critique receiver. Maybe I’ll write about that later, so if you have an idea you want to share, let me know and I’ll give you credit in the post.

Recommended reading: The Writing & Critique Group Survival Guide by Becky Levine.

ETA 4/10/12: Author and former literary agent Nathan Bransford just published this post on the Ten Commandments for Editing Someone’s Work. Good suggestions, all.

Attack of the Radioactive Dog

Despite the fact that I feel bad about making fun of a radioactive dog disposal site and the poor beasts therein, the “comic” really isn’t all that funny. It’s disappointing, and that disappointment has to do with something I’ve learned about writing lately: you take a character you like, get her in lots of trouble, and then have her solve her own problems, usually in a creative or unexpected way.

In this comic, we’ve got a character we like a LOT (ahem, moi, in very big sunglasses), and she’s in lots of trouble. A radioactive dog has escaped the confines of death and its barrel and is skulking toward our heroine while emitting ominous GRRRR sounds. But the end is disappointing, because our heroine has not taken steps to solve her own problem. In fact, she just sits there like some moronic blonde in a horror movie. I’m surprised she doesn’t climb out of the car to investigate the noises, thus rendering herself easier radioactive dog chow.

However, I had limited time to make this comic, and I wanted it to stay on one page of the diary, so I had to end it fast.

No matter the outcome, it was fun. And that’s what writing should be.

How would you end the comic?

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I almost forgot! The winner of last week’s giveaway is Megan! She’ll be receiving an ARC of Heidi Ayarbe’s new book, Compulsion, very soon!

The Vinyl Princess by Yvonne Prinz

There are a few excellent books I’ve read recently, but I have to write about this one immediately. It was just that good.

Set-Up: Allie, the “Vinyl Princess” as she dubs herself for her blog, works at Bob & Bob Records, a place that her mom says smells “like an octogenarian’s attic” (p. 10), but to Allie is heaven on earth. She is obsessed with LPs. LP: an abbreviation for those ancient things called (long-playing) records that collect dust in your mother’s attic…or, to Allie, the truly righteous and best way of listening to music.

Main character’s goals: to lead a revolution against “corporate rock and downloading and digitizing and Clear Channel” (p. 12). She also wants some romance in her life.  She sets about accomplishing the first goal by starting up a blog and a zine, and she sets about finding romance by fantasizing about a Bob & Bob shopper she calls M (for “mystery guy”).

My reaction: Throughout the book I had a weird feeling. I kept struggling to recognize a name, any name, of a band or musician that I recognized. I often couldn’t, which made me feel sixteen shades of uncool. Then I realized: I wanted to impress Allie. That’s how cool she is – she made me want to impress a fictional character. Name-dropping usually doesn’t put a person on my good side, but it worked for Allie. When she listened to Dark Side of the Moon I might have cheered out loud because for once I knew what she was talking about.

Of interest to writers: the climactic action happens almost 100 pages before the end of the book. This premature climax (I’m sorry, I couldn’t help it) works, and I’m impressed. I’m impressed whenever a book goes slightly against the grain. It works for The Vinyl Princess, as there are still some unresolved issues (namely, the revolution and the romance) after the Big Action. Nobody could put it down at that point.

The goals are sort of mixed in with character introduction, background, all that stuff that everyone says shouldn’t happen in the beginning of a novel…well, Prinz makes it work because Allie’s voice is full of awesome attitude (not sarcastic, just cool).

Bottom Line: As soon as I can find a sucker to take care of my kid, I’m heading to the local INDEPENDENT record store to buy one of the albums Allie loves. I’m not sure which one yet. I can be sure of this: I’m not buying it as a record, as I have no turntable. But I’m not downloading it.

Also, I’m so so sorry, but I can’t resist: This book rocks. He he.

For more information on the book and the author, visit Prinz’s website by clicking here.

First Sentences in YA Lit, Answers

In lieu of a book review, here are the authors and books matched up to the first sentences I posted on Friday. (Oh, and the parenthetical P notations indicate, where I remember, that the first sentence comes from a prologue, since I’ve been obsessed with prologues lately.)

1. We went to the moon to have fun, but the moon turned out to completely suck. -M. T. Anderson, Feed

2. It was a dark and stormy night. -Madeleine L’Engle, A Wrinkle in Time

3. I remember lying in the snow, a small red spot of warm going cold, surrounded by wolves. -Maggie Stiefvater, Shiver (P)

4. When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. -Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games

5. I don’t believe in ghosts. -Gillian Shields, Immortal (P)

6. The tree woman choked on poison, the slow sap of her blood burning. -Holly Black, Valiant (P)

7. Chauncey was with a farmer’s daughter on the grassy banks of the Loire River when the storm rolled in, and having let his gelding wander in the meadow, was left to his own two feet to carry him back to the chateau. -Becca Fitzpatrick, Hush, Hush (P)

8. Blood fills my mouth. -Bree Despain, The Dark Divine (P)

9. In these dungeons the darkness was complete, but Katsa had a map in her mind. -Kristin Cashore, Graceling

10. Her parents were going to kill her for this. -Carrie Vaughn, Voices of Dragons

11. Just when I thought my day couldn’t get any worse I saw the dead guy standing next to my locker. -P. C. Cast & Kristin Cast, Marked

12. On the day Claire became a member of the Glass House, somebody stole her laundry. -Rachel Caine, Glass Houses

13. Mommy forgot to warn the new babysitter about the basement. -Kelley Armstrong, The Summoning (P)

14. Janie Hannagan’s math book slips from her fingers. -Lisa McMann, Wake

15. Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. -J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

16. “Please tell me that’s not going to be part of my birthday dinner this evening.” -Libba Bray, A Great and Terrible Beauty

17. There were only two kinds of people in our town. -Kami Garcia & Margaret Stohl, Beautiful Creatures

18. Around midnight, her eyes at last took shape. -Lauren Kate, Fallen (P)

19. Torrential rain was pouring the afternoon Rebecca Brown arrived in New Orleans. -Paula Morris, Ruined

20. Dad had Uncle Eddie round, so naturally they had to come and see what I was up to. -Louise Rennison, Angus, Thongs, and Full-Frontal Snogging

21. It didn’t take long for Phoebe to figure out Jeremy wasn’t coming back for her. -MINE!

22. “Guess who?” -Alyson Noel, Evermore

23. Someone was looking at me, a disturbing sensation if you’re dead. -Laura Whitcomb, A Certain Slant of Light

24. Some things start before other things. -Terry Pratchett, The Wee Free Men

25. Flames shot high, turning the night lurid with carnival light. -Annette Curtis Klause, Blood and Chocolate (P)

26. Everyone’s seen my mother naked. -Elizabeth Scott, Something, Maybe

27. Jason was going to Brain Camp. -Sarah Dessen, The Truth About Forever

28. I’d never given much thought to how I would die – though I’d had reason enough in the last few months – but even if I had, I would not have imagined it like this. -Stephenie Meyer, Twilight (P)

29. My mother used to tell me about the ocean. -Carrie Ryan, The Forest of Hands and Teeth

30. There are these bizarre people who actually like physical education class. -Carrie Jones, Captivate

So there they are. Happy Monday! It’s going to be a beautiful week!

Prologue Problems

A Friday Free-for-All [in which our heroine obsesses about writerly things]

I’ve been reading literary agent Mary Kole’s blog, kidlit.com. Right now she’s doing a series of critiques on story beginnings and her first critique post caught me by surprise. The author wrote one word: Preface, and Kole stopped immediately to comment “Ah, our first problem! Just kidding. Sort of. I think, in a lot of instances, a preface or a prologue is a crutch. It’s the author’s way of showing the reader something gripping in the hopes that the reader will then read through some less exciting backstory…” To me, this is very bad news. I love prologues, and I especially love writing them.

A brief history of my prologues:

House Red: The prologue is a total crutch, but c’mon, it’s my first novel. In this case, Mary Kole is right.

Savage Autumn: The prologue is not so much a crutch per se…but I’ll admit Chapter One starts off more slowly than what is currently popular in contemporary fantasy YA fiction. The prologue’s there because someone had to die before the story begins, so the reader can believe the antagonist is capable of killing.

The Black City: Brand new prologue, I fell in love with it immediately (which is a sure sign that something is very wrong). Buoyed by my success with the prologue, I started the first chapter. And it’s terrible. It’s really, absolutely terrible. It starts off slowly, with too much explanation and even more backstory, as well as very dull description of the world. So in this case, my prologue didn’t start off as a crutch, but I used that beginning as an excuse to let everything fall to poo-ness.

Granted, this is my very first draft for The Black City, and there will be plenty of time to fix those issues later on. Thank heavens.

Prologues aren’t always terrible, right? I mean, I’ve read plenty of  novels where they work beautifully. I find them all the time in my favorite mysteries and contemporary fantasies. A couple of fantasy examples I can come up with off the top of my head are: Fallen by Lauren Kate, Frostbitten, and Stolen, both by Kelley Armstrong. Hmm, looking at this short list, I realize that in order for a prologue to be successful, the novel’s title must end in “en.”

That’s easily remedied. Savage Autumnen. The Black Cityen.

All better!

Seriously, though, I will go back to my Chapter Ones and pretend the prologues don’t exist. Tighten up the chapters, bring in tension and whatever else is needed. Fireworks. Amorous alligators. Really angry toddlers with kicky feet.

My Friday Five

A Friday Free-for-All

1. I really do love Sarah Dessen’s blog. There usually isn’t anything particularly helpful in it, which I like in a blog (as you can probably see if you’re reading mine). Hers is entertaining. Sometimes funny, sometimes poignant, and sometimes way too true, as she is also the mother of a toddler. Because imitation is the finest form of flattery, I’m stealing her Friday Five idea and using it today, because there are too many bits floating around in my head. [Sidenote: if you want to explore her books, my two favorites are The Truth About Forever and This Lullaby.]

2. My friend and Birthday Buddy, Cora, is not yet a year old and she is already facing her fourth surgery. At least, I think it is her fourth; I have to admit I have lost count because there have been extra trips to the hospital not involving surgery. I bet her parents could tell you without any thought at all how many surgeries Cora has had. Right now, Baby Cora needs to get her nourishment through an IV, and hopefully in a few weeks she’ll have gained enough weight to be strong enough for the next surgery. I don’t want to share details here because a) I’m terrible at medical details, being so swayed by the emotional aspect, and b) Cora is not my baby so I’m really not at liberty to share her information. At any rate, please pray for Cora, or send positive thoughts to the Universe, or virtual hugs to her and her parents, or whatever it is that you can do right now for her. She is a special little girl who does not deserve to have to go through this again. No baby does.

3. Um, it’s really hard to move on from Point #2. But let’s try. Z woke up around 2:30 and could not go back to sleep. She tried. I know, because she was in our bed and I was watching her. Z has always slept with us, from Day 1, and this was a conscious decision we made before she came home with us. I think, however, that even if we hadn’t made that decision, co-sleeping is where we would’ve ended up, anyway, since she screamed if she wasn’t with me. But back to my story. Finally, after watching her flip and flop and almost ruin her chances of a sibling with some of her kicks towards Husband, I asked her if it was her diaper. She actually said yes. So I picked her up, changed her diaper, then rocked her and sang through our current lullabies twice (“All the Pretty Horses” and “Ring Around the Moon”). Then I waited a half hour for her to fall asleep in her crib, sneaked back to my room (hmm, “snuck” comes underlined red with spell check). The creaking floors must have given me away, because she woke up and I had to do the wait-by-the-crib routine all over again. I’m a freaking hero, okay?

4. I hit the Big One with the library hold list this week. Usually I get one or two books at a time–totally manageable. Right now I’ve got eight of them, all taking up space on an already-crowded bookshelf. Then yesterday: a message that five more are just waiting on  me. Here’s my list:

  • The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, audio recording (I LOVE this book!)
  • A Certain Slant of Light by Laura Whitcomb (finished on Thursday; I had the feeling I’d already read it though)
  • The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde (D-Chan’s been trying to get me to read this for years)
  • The Underneath by Kathi Appelt (MG book, random interest)
  • Accents: a Manual for Actors by Robert Blumenfeld (I’m terrible at accents, but so curious)
  • The Plot Thickens: 8 Ways to Bring Fiction to Life by Noah Lukeman (author is a literary agent who has published numerous books and articles on writing and querying)
  • Gone by Lisa McMann (may as well finish the trilogy)
  • My Soul to Take by Rachel Vincent (reading now. Love her Werecats series. Unimpressed with this one)
  • The Happiest Toddler on the Block by Harvey Karp (hated the baby one, but friend said this one is better)
  • Urban Shaman by C. E. Murphy (might be terrible–who knows?)
  • The Dark Divine by Bree Despain (ditto the above parenthetical comment. We’ve got to take a chance occasionally)
  • Lament: The Faerie Queen’s Deception by Maggie Stiefvater (I’ve been on hold for months waiting for Shiver–buy more copies, library!)

5. Although it isn’t official yet, since the “official” first day isn’t until tomorrow, spring is here. From the seeds I planted last week, the lettuce has already sprouted. The weather is warm enough I can go without socks around the house, and Z and I have resumed our morning walks. Everyone seems to be happy about this, and I’m wondering: is anyone sad to see the end of winter?

I’m barely proofing this thing in my rush to get it out. Hope it’s okay…. And happy Friday!