The Trouble with Having No Agent

       There’s the most obvious two troubles of not having an agent: 1) someone to offer revision suggestions to make your story stronger; and 2) someone to negotiate contracts for traditional publication, etc. But the biggest one to me (as least I think it would be, not quite knowing for sure since I don’t have an agent), is the time and focus bit.

       An agent often gives revision suggestions, then expect you to have it cleaned up and back to her in a timely fashion. The getting it back to her is the time factor. The focus part is not wandering off, thinking about or actually working on writing other stories. Once I was given a week to complete editorial revisions, this deadline was emailed to me the night before we left for a week’s vacation. And, yes, I did revised it.

       A couple days ago I spent several hours looking over some of my NaNoWriMo blabber file. I deleted many words, but got tired of the mess on my screen. I finally stopped and sat down with pen and paper to organize the plot, in three acts, with rising and falling tensions nicely placed.

       I hate this part of “writing.” I’d much rather just blabber away in raw writing on a rough draft. Blah, blah, blah. But after seeing the clutter I’ve write as rough drafts, I find myself wanting to start from the first word and rewrite the entire story. Perhaps I shall.

       But with no agent pressing me onward to complete revisions by a certain time, I’ve decided to stop, take a Christmas and family break until January, and then dive back in – with a plan! That is, as long as I don’t have the story of the next book waving flags through my brain cells demanding attention. BTW, I already have a pile of notes on that story, too.

Oh, agent! Where are you, I need someone to give me time constraints and focus.

Whole Book Revisions

I have a book which is half done-ish at 50K. That is, I’ve completed the rough draft of one of the character’s POV, with lots of hours of revisions and rewrites already done to it, which also means the word count fluctuates as I add or delete. I was going to start in on the other character’s POV. I mean, I already have done that with 18K down, but decided to hold off until NaNoWriMo in November to completely rewrite it and add a bunch of twists and complications. It is so hard to wait when all I want to do is write. In the meantime, until November 1st, I am doing a whole book revision on the first guy’s story.

Some of my writer friends love revisions as the best part of the writing process. Perhaps that’s because the story line is done, the characters already developed, etc. Revision means delving into both the big picture and the micro (even down to a single word use) picture. To me, that’s like wading knee-deep in mud. That said, I really, really like my completed revised drafts. I just whine pitifully all the way there. And these are just my own personal revisions, not an agent’s or editor’s input.

I’ve got Darcy Pattison’s shrunken manuscript workbook next to my tiny-print manuscript and go back and forth and back and forth between them. I’ve done the “simple” tasks of marking strong chapters, boxing off scenes, etc., and can’t help but also do some micro editing. Sorry, Darcy. I know. I know. Big picture first. And so much think-time! They never teach you that in writing classes/books. There’s so-so much think-time to writing a book.

After I do this particular whole book revision, I’ll then print it off again and mark any major, medium, or detailed changes still needing attention. And then print it off again for another look-though.

You would think I would be content doing whole book revisions. I mean, it is writing, after all, isn’t it? Well, in fact, no, it isn’t. Revisions are a part of the writing process, the part to make your story stronger, to plug up those plot holes, to make your characters more loveable…or more hateable. Whether I particularly like this bit of writing or not, it sure will fill my time for the next five weeks. And then–hurray!–I can start in on a new story which has been teasing me ceaselessly to pay attention to it, which is actually the other side-of-the-coin story.

(All right, Sandy, quit writing all these fresh words and thoughts and get back to work already! Revisions-ho!)

A Taste of Outsider Plots (with thoughts from Cheryl Klein)

I know. I know. Two weeks in a row with a book review (of sorts). My excuse: I’m on vacation, so tend to read non-fiction I can pick up and put down at any time, either to think about what I’ve read or because vacation interrupts my reading. With fiction, I’m more of a cover-to-cover in a breath or two sort of reader, hence the NF.

So this week I’ve been reading SECOND SIGHT, AN EDITOR’S TALKS ON WRITING, REVISING & PUBLISHING BOOKS FOR CHILDREN AND YOUNG ADULTS (December 2013) by Cheryl B. Klein.

First off, I love Scholastic editor Cheryl Klein, and would love to work with her and her stunning insights…That said even though she has very politely rejected everything I’ve sent her. My association: I was once her Personal Assistant for a SCBWI-Michigan conference years ago, and eat up her words of editorial wisdom.

Naturally, I would recommend reading her entire book, but for this post, I’d like to share an example of two “Outsider Plot Structures” she mentions. One is the “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer” outsider — someone different who is scorned by the community, but saves them, anyway. The other is the “Ugly Duckling” outsider — someone scorned by the community, who ends up leaving to find his own like-minded kind.

Isn’t that just brilliantly simple? And that’s just from half a page of her 305-page book! Did I mention that I love Cheryl Klein? So if you’re stuck on plot and need a writing or rewriting challenge, when you’re on vacation (or now), pick up Cheryl’s book to keep you on your writing toes.

Serendipity in Your Plot Writing

This past week the fields and neighborhood lawns have been blossoming with white clover. I ended up making a garland of it along with a daisy “gem” and posted it on FaceBook. I wanted to make lots and lots more flowered jewelry, but adult stuff prevented me. However, that evening, as I picked up a book I read now and then, Working IX to V by Vicky Leon, what was the very next Roman occupation I read about? The Garland Maker. Seriously. I turned the page from the last job entry I’d read several days ago and there it was: Garland Maker. How serendipitous is that?

The earliest garlands-wreaths-diadems-chaplets-or-crowns were made for winners of races. Then for the dead during funeral. Then for weddings. Then for people who believed it kept them from getting “too” drunk. Then for kids-turned adults who still like to play at making jewelry.

Last night my husband and I were watching a new-to-us mystery on Netflix (“Longmire”) where the guest actor, Peter Weller, was the producer of the show. DH commented that it was Peter Weller who played “Robocop.” When the show was over and we turned off the Netfix connection, and there on the TV channel the system was tuned to, was “Robocop,” with Peter Weller in full silvery gear.

These two examples to point out that in real life there are serendipitous moments. But as authors, we have the tougher job to come up with ways which might give our characters moments which don’t seem so corny or planned, even though we do plan them. How do we pull off a smooth serendipitous moment for our characters without our readers rolling their eyes and saying, “Oh, sure”?

It can come in a dream (but mind your clichés), or a “chance” encounter with human, animal or nature. It might come in a comment another character says which pulls the main character’s thoughts back to a related incident or his book’s goal.

Try writing a scene where your main character has a serendipitous moment.

Lesson Plan for Organizing Your Plot Arch with a Plot Board

While working on a whole-novel revision this past week, I found I had a lot more organizing to do than when I started. I’d thought I was much farther along in the process. Even glancing over the whole, I realized my panster-vomited scenes and chapters, although with an okay beginning and an excellent ending and lots of good stuff in the middle, didn’t really have a flow or sensible plot arch. The story seemed nearly episodic, although I knew each scene was written for a reason. I’d previous cut out other chapters and scenes which were irrelevant to the overall plot, and knew there were places I needed to deeply revise, like changing the okay beginning to a can’t-wait-to-find-out-what-happens-next beginning. But for this part of revising, I needed to feel the overall flow worked.

In the back of my brain, I remembered something Friend Rose did with rearranging scenes. (Thanks, Rose.) If I remember right, she had post-it notes by chapters and scenes over her wall, and rearranged them as she thought of their logical placement. This she did with five children and all their friends running through the house. (Bless you, Rose.) So I adapted her idea into a lesson plan for organizing my middle grade plot arch on one sheet of paper. The former teacher in me continues to reign.

Materials Needed:

A first draft of a “completed” novel (digital or paper); List of main and minor plot threads; Table of Contents for your story; blank sheet of paper; pen; a second pen in case the first one runs out of ink; and thirty to fifty 1/2″ by 2″ post-it notes of yellow, green and blue. (The number of post-it notes needed will vary with each story.)

procedure:

1) Set aside your draft and list of plot threads to only use as references.

2) Lay your blank sheet of paper landscape way (or as they’d say in elementary schools, the hot dog way).

3) Write your title on the very top of your paper.

4) About 4/5 of the way down draw a line across the page. Beneath this line and writing from the left to the right, put your chronological times (e.g., if your story covers five months, write the five months across the page; if your story covers a few weeks, write the number of weeks). This is your Plot-working Board.

5) Turn small post-it’s sideways (hot-dog way) with sticky bottom on the left side down).

6) On the green post-its, write the settings or weather patterns found throughout in the story. Scatter beneath the chronological line in appropriate order in your story.

7) On the blue post-its, write each chapter title. Place titles in appropriate locations above each chronological indication.

8) On the yellow post-its, describe each scene in three or so words (e.g., Dylan tricks Kilee abt ride;  Shader confronts Mi Lin; Mom dies, etc.), and place beneath each chapter.

9) Cross your arms, sit back, stare at your pieced-together story. Are the plot threads sprinkled throughout? Should some scenes be switched? Do you see blanks in your plot? Are there Goals, Conflicts, and Disaster in each scene; and Reaction, dilemma, and Decision in each sequel?

10) During the next week, play with and rearrange your Plot Board. You may find you add new scenes to write, or crumble and throw away others. Keep rearranging until your plot makes the most sense possible.

11) Go back to your whole novel and update your Table of Contents, and reorder your scenes in your manuscript, and write any new ones.

12) Print out and do a quick read of the entire story, playing attention to plot arch and flow. If you’re satisfied, get others’ opinions (critique groups), revise again. Repeat  as often as necessary.

The Value of Values in Writing

In light of the horrific tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut, last Friday, I can’t help but think deep thoughts, and long to comfort others. Is there more to life than just a few shorts years? I believe yes. It is one of the main reasons I write.

I am a fool in society’s eyes when I believe we should aim for the goals of honor and truth and compassion? As I read comments about the news articles concerning the shooting, one reader  ranted how it was just a person making a bad choice, that those who called it evil are “blaming the boogie man” for the tragedy. I sat up at that, since I had earlier named it as evil. It does make me wonder whether this person believes in love and compassion, equally abstract but real. I can hear him saying, “quit giving credit to anything higher for any good things; we made our eyes to see and minds to think and choose and our muscles to walk and put the sun in the sky…” Ah, the stark differences between atheists and Christians.

We cannot control natural disasters. We cannot control what others do. But we can control what we do — how we act, how we react. We writers are taught to get our main characters into the deepest trouble we can imagine, and then have them struggle to break out of it (happy ending) or fail (tragedy). Life is made up of people making choices — honorable, neutral, or evil. In the face of unthinkable disasters, can we (or our characters) choose the value of doing what is right? Will our characters be true heroes or merely people who make good or bad choices? Think of an event, natural or human, to whip at your characters, and then sit back at your keyboard and see how they react.

Beware the Goats — Twists, and Tossing in the Unusual When You Write

In a recent article, there were aggressive mountain goats approaching hikers in the Olympic National Forest in Washington state.

I happen to like goats. I’ve milked them, and had them lovingly nibble at my jeans and jackets. In fact, my husband and I were married by a goat farmer. He was a full-time goat farmer and part-time minister. His wife made the best tasting goat milk fudge. Yes, goats make me smile. But the goats of my fond memories are of domesticated goats, not wild ones roaming National Forests. I find a HUGE difference between domesticated animals and wild. The fact that in 2010 a 63-year-old hiker was killed on an Olympic National Trail by a 370-pound mountain goat proves that. (Read the goat article here.)

When we lived in NY, on a family day trip to “The Grand Canyon of the East,” the four of us were eating our lunch on a picnic table when we were distracted by exclamations from a couple of women and several children a few tables away from us.  We two groups were the only ones in the picnic area. Their shrieks of delight with seeing the cute raccoons meander out of the woods turned to shrieks of worry as the animals they were feeding got closer and closer. We four Carlsons swallowed our lunches whole and got back into the car after witnessing three very disturbing things. One, these ignorant city-folk were feeding wild animals people food from their table. And two, it was noon! Raccoons are nocturnal! Also, raccoons are known to carry rabies. We were so out of there.

When we lived in SD, we were just an hour from Custer State Park which is home to a herd of about a thousand bison. The fact that every year someone is gored by bison gives me a healthy respect of, and distance from, these magnificent animals. One time when my husband and I traveled the four hours north to ND’s Theodore Roosevelt National Park, we starting chatting with a park ranger in his vehicle as we watched part of a bison herd mozy through the Visitor Center parking lot. As we were talking, an older man approached us and asked if he could put his granddaughter on the back of one of the buffalo for a photo. I didn’t answer because my jaw cracked from falling onto the asphalt. It wasn’t my place to respond, anyway. When the ranger told the man, no, they were dangerous, the visitor stormed angrily away, saying they should be behind fences if that’s the case. Well, they were, miles and miles of sturdy fence surrounding the park, along with dozens of signs warning not to approach the animals.

When I worked in Yellowstone National Park in WY, we heard of many stupid tourist stories, like of the man who poured honey over his daughter’s hand so he could get a picture of a bear licking her.

People. Wild animals. Back to goats.

It is suspected that the reason the mountain goats in Olympic National Forest are not afraid of humans because humans have fed them, or allowed the goats lick their hands for their yummy salty sweat. Humans taught the goats to come to them, and now goats come to humans with expectations.

I still say domesticated goats are cute, but I strongly suggest staying respectfully away from wild animals who may look docile chewing on grass or lumbering through the woods. And about those big cute living teddy bears? I say, any wild animal with teeth or claws or horns, either vegetarians or carnivorous, stay respectfully away.

However, when you write fiction, stick it to your characters. Let them be the stupid tourists who must dash behind a tree when the docile bison suddenly charges when s/he got too near. Let them feed wild animals who then break into their car or home to get more of that human food. It’s all about cause-effect-consequences. Go ahead, have your character make a decision which gets him/her into so much trouble. What fun. Remember, it’s all about the story twists.

Disasters, Conflicts, & Characterization

Having spent a wonderful weekend away, this morning I went out to water and check on my veggies. earlier in the season I warded off moles and voles and raccoons and deer and rabbits and all those leaf-loving insects. And most of this season, because of the drought, I’ve had to  water the plants daily. More than once — probably more than one hundredth — I’ve wondered if investing in Farmer’s Markets would be more worthwhile. So I come home from my weekend to see how my planties have done in my two-day absence. Disaster. I’d forgotten to put the netting over the beans. Drat those hungry deer! Three months of work — essentially a whole gardening season — gone in the excitement of a two-day get-away. One itsy-bitsy moment of forgetfulness, and no beans. As a hobby gardener, I can now simply go out and buy fresh beans. They may taste as good as mine would have (you’d have to ask the deer to be sure), but it’s still not as satisfying emotionally to eat beans grown elsewhere by someone else. It also might not be too late for a fall crop to go in for the deer to get later. It could have been worse. We could have depended on those beans for our income, or to see us through the long, cold winter. Now that would have been a true disaster. Life or death survival. So I’ve quit my whining and before making a visit to the corn lady, I thought I’d post about the importance of conflict and disaster for your characters.

Having your MC be a hobby gardener whose moment of forgetfulness merely means a sad, embarrassing trip to buy some elsewhere-grown veggies would not make for an interesting story, barely for an interesting post. But having your MC be in charge of the family beans for survival — now that would make for an interesting plot twist. So make a list of your daily oops moments, or monthly if you’re better than I, and raise the stakes to beat up and strengthen your main character. Get tugging at those reader hearts.

Writing the Bunny — on Characterization and Plot

Literature Blogs

The other day I looked out our picture window to see a small bunny lopping down our garden stepping stones. THERE IS NOTHING CUTER THAN A BABY BUNNY! A feeling of “aww” swept through me, followed with peace, joy, love. I then wondered why it was alone, and thought perhaps our neighborhood hawk had claimed its family. Oh, no! An orphan! My heart melted even more for this adorable, helpless creature… and then (enter another side of conflict), I remembered that the day before, I planted eight lettuce transplants in my backyard.

Attitude change!

I rushed outside to secure the netting around my tender transplants. I saw the furry creature by our picture window. It froze. I froze. It turned its head. I spoke: “You are welcomed in my yard, Little One. Eat all that yard clover you wish. Just don’t touch my lettuce!”

After our talk, it went back to eating the clover.

Okay. Writing the Bunny.

Characterization: an adorable, starving orphan, minding its own little business in this big, bad world.

Plot Conflict: Hungry hawk who can spot an easy appetizer from several houses away, and one 100 x larger gardener, not named McGreggor because that name’s been taken. You could add larger conflicts like a tornado, or smaller conflicts like mites.

Writing Challenge: Describe your MC, and list possible and impossible plot conflicts (a.k.a. what ifs).

Happy writing.