Monday, September 24, 2012

Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

Writers live in a curious world, where everyone has an idea for a story (see last week's blog) -- or it feels like every story that could be told has been told. Nonetheless, we keep writing.
Web sites like Writers Write and Grammar Girl abound with writing tips, and ideas. I use a couple of writing prompt sites. The Writer's Digest site is great -- and for quick inspiration I like -- rollover the numbers on the site with your mouse and a prompt pops up. #192: Why would a pastry chef refuse to move to another town? (Sweeney Todd immediately popped into my mind!)

There is no shortage of great ideas -- the writer's CRAFT is the difference. Often the craft is finding a new way to tell a familiar story; or a familiar way to tell a familiar story -- as a friend who writes romance novels says, "I give my readers the stories they expect."

But there is also the unexpected.

How do you give Shakespeare -- specifically "Hamlet" -- a twist? Tom Stoppard does it with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. A line near the end of "Hamlet" triggers the entire play, first produced in 1966 (and made into a film in 1990). This play is interwoven with scenes from Hamlet; often with the two protagonists looking on in amazement at the action on the stage. I often taught the two plays together and one of my students said, "That Stoppard guy, he's just samplin' Shakespeare, right?"

Right! Exactly. 
Judy Garland et al in "The Wizard of Oz" (1939) was the only Wizard of Oz for a very long time. Then the movie was remade as The Wiz -- an “urbanized retelling” with an all-Black cast, first as a play (1975) and a movie (1978, Motown Productions with Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Nipsy Russell, Lena Horne, and Richard Pryor). The movie was a flop, though it offered up one hit tune ("Ease On Down the Road"). 
There were no more Oz stories until Gregory McGuire published  Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West (1995). In 1998, Steven Schwartz acquired the stage rights and worked with Winnie Holzman to develop the mega award-winning musical Wicked: the Untold Story of the Witches of Oz (debut 2003). "Wicked" the musical does reference the 1939 film – it almost has to because “The Wizard of Oz is deeply embedded into our popular culture.
Occasionally, we get two interpretations of the same story, almost at the same time -- for instance, Dangerous Liaisons (1988) and Valmont (1989) are two movies based on the same book: Chloderos Laclos' 1782 (yes, 1782) novel "Les Liaisons Dangereuses". Though “Dangerous Liasons” is the better-known of the two, “Valmont” is preferred by film buffs.  For a comparison of the two see The Clever Pup.
And... vampires. Audiences never seem to tire of vampire stories. How many ways can the story be told? The original Nosterafu (1922) still stands; and in recent memory, Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992), Interview with the Vampire: The Vampire Chronicles, (1994) Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003)  and the Twilight Series, books and movies (2005-present) have all covered familiar ground in very different ways. And the vampire stories just keep coming -- Florence Wilson write Teenage Vampire when she was fourteen years old...

Monday, September 17, 2012

Be Mean to Your Characters

I subscribe to a freelancer listserv and every week there's a request for a writer to ghost or "polish" a memoir or a novel about pioneer ancestors or dad's World War II experiences. I reviewed dozens of these manuscripts at my first editing job and by the tenth or maybe the twentieth it was apparent that the stories were all interesting, but much more interesting to the family than to a potential audience of readers.

We had a stack in the slush pile that were carefully typewritten and bound with a nice title page -- "The Johnson-Inglemoor Family History". Maybe it is fascinating to the family to know how great-grandpa and grandma got to Canada or the USA; met, married, had trials and tribulations, and ultimately prospered. Cue the three-generations family reunion photo, newest baby in great-grandma's lap.

But it’s BORING to the rest of us: we've got our own family stories. How is yours different?

The "Als" (see blog post from May 28, 2012) used to call these manuscripts R2R (rags-to-riches), or 40AM (forty-acres-and-a-mule), or IMG (immigrant makes good).

There was only one manuscript among the dozens of R2R, 40AM and IMG manscripts that intrigued the "Als". In Chapter Two the author wrote, "There was a rumor that great-grandpa had a whole 'nother family back in Kentucky..."

The "other family" could have made for an interesting story, but when we asked the author if she could elaborate, she balked. "Oh no, we don't talk about that," she said. "The real story is how great-grandpa came out here and built the mill with his own hands."

That scenario would repeat itself over and over, especially in family memoirs, even when novelized -- a causal mention of a crazy cousin who "caused a lot of trouble" or a grandmother rumored to have been a nun -- whenever the story got interesting, the author would pull back and offer the happy-days story.

The truth is – you have to be awful to your characters; dig for the dirt.

Kurt Vonnegut talks about writing short stories: a-minute-and-a-half eight steps. Step 6: be a sadist -- make awful things happen to your characters in order that the reader see what they are made of.

And Vonnegut talks amusingly about the Shape of Stories. The text of this talk appears in his book Palm Sunday.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Hooray -- You're (Almost) Published!

YAY! A publisher has accepted your manuscript, you've been assigned an editor. Are you ready for the hard work? Do you really, really love that manuscript? I hope you do because it is time to launch your book: you will be its biggest cheerleader, its biggest promoter, and you will be talking about it non-stop. A friend said doing her doctoral dissertation was easier than selling her first book: "At least I had the PhD after years of research and writing: I have been selling this book for THREE YEARS and everyone asks me when I'm going to write another one!"

I had a long list of suggestions prepared for authors preparing to launch books, but I discovered that I couldn't say it better than Michael Hyatt, who describes in detail not only how to launch a book, but How to Launch a Bestselling Book

The entire post (summarized below) is an excellent primer on working every angle to get your book not just noticed, but SELLING.


Hyatt writes, " I can’t promise this will work for you. While I characterize this as a “formula,” I refer to it as my formula. This is what worked for me. Hopefully, you can personalize what I have done and build on it. This assumes you have a wow product. As I say in my Platform keynote speech (quoting from David Ogilvy), “Great marketing only makes a bad product fail faster.” Your book must meet a felt need, be well-written, and have the potential to reach a large enough segment of the population.

This (list) doesn’t include what the publisher did... I assumed personal responsibility. I wasn’t expecting the publishing company to make me famous or make my book successful. I’ve been in this business a long time, and that’s not how it works. If you expect this, you will be disappointed."

Hyatt's bullet points are:

  • I set a specific goal.
  • I engaged my tribe early. (Hyatt blogged parts of his book before publication)
  • I secured endorsements.
  • I formed a launch team.
  • I focused the promotion.
  • I created a can’t-say-no offer.

Monday, September 3, 2012

The Slush Pile & Acknowledging Your Genius

You've got a completed manuscript! Congratulations! But is it really done?

Every publisher has a "slush pile" -- manuscripts that have promise, but...

Following are the top five varieties of manuscripts I've read in countless slush piles: (1) a "completed" manuscript that reads like a first or second draft--particularly common after the 3-Day Novel Contest and NaNoWriMo; (2) a writer who should know better; (3) endless description about the wonderful place I'm about to enter; (4) a great story that doesn't start in Chapter One; (5) a story that's all exposition and dialogue that's more exposition.

1. This reads like a second draft. There's a story in here, but I can hardly find it. Reject.

2. Author says he has a MFA in Creative Writing -- then he should know about arc of action -- there isn't one, even if I allow for the new-age-ish plotline and POV; horrible spelling, grammar and punctuation. Reject.

3. Great story premise but author spends first several chapters telling me all about the land of Oshtofoguwitz, I know where every hovel and castle is, but author doesn't get to the point of the travelogue until Chapter Eight. Recommend author edit and resubmit for reconsideration in six months.

4. Excellent story and intriguing characters; but too much exposition at beginning -- story doesn't start until chapter five. Start story with Chapter Five, fold in exposition and this is a winner. If author is willing to make these edits, accept manuscript.

5. Endless exposition and when there's dialogue it's something like, "Remember when we killed that girl, well, we'd better be careful the cops don't catch us." Reject.

You're a Genius

I'm willing to admit that we editors and publishers may know nothing of your genius. The publishing world has many stories about rejected manuscripts that eventually became best sellers. However, how many times have you heard the SAME stories about The Thorn Birds or J.K. Rowling? (I'm tired of hearing them too.)

If your manuscript is the fabulous work you think it is, then publishers will take notice. And if you keep getting rejection letter after rejection letter and you are positive that your work is exactly what you want it to be, explore the pros and cons of every publishing avenue open to you.

As Nayia Moysidis says in her blog -- Unpublished? You Don’t Actually Suck: "Each year, a publishing house can expect to receive about 10,000 unsolicited manuscripts. Out of every 10,000 manuscripts submitted, about 3 are published. The odds are horrifying, which is perhaps why so many undiscovered writers turn to self-publication... There's no one to blame. It's not the publishing houses. It's not the literary agencies. It's not even you. With so much talent in the publishing world, it's opportunity that's the problem."

Moysidis goes on to promote her project -- the Writer's Bloq, currently seeking funding on Kickstarter: "If your work doesn't have a home on the streets you recognize, it's time to start a new path. If your writing simply doesn't belong to the neighborhoods you've visited, it's time to join our Bloq." An interesting premise and worth a look.


Next week: You got a manuscript accepted! Now comes the hard work: launching your book.