Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Delacorte Concludes its 18th Annual Middle Grade Contest

Delacorte Press has just announced the results of their 18th Annual Yearling Contest for First Middle Grade Novels. And the winner is....

No one.

For the eleventh time, there is no winner.

Here is what their website says:

Delacorte Press thanks everyone who submitted a manuscript to our 2009 Delacorte Yearling Contest for a First Middle-Grade Novel. This year the editors did not find a winner among the submissions.

The Delacorte Yearling Contest for a First Middle-Grade Novel has discovered many talented first-time authors. However, we have decided to discontinue this contest.

Please note that we will continue to accept submissions for the Delacorte Press Contest for a First Young Adult Novel

Thank you.

The Editors

Ho
w unfortunate.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

WRT: Rules of the Road - Chapter Length and Chapter Length Consistency

[Rules of the Road is an occasional segment of the Writer's RoadTrip. I'll discuss a selected writing "rule" and talk about its underlying rationale. This knowledge in hand, writers can be more confident when breaking the rules.]

Faced with the idea that there is some set standard, what writer hasn't asked at some point, "How long is a chapter?" And while there are many opinions and no simple answer, there are a few things to consider when thinking about chapter length and, just as importantly, chapter length consistency.

But first, what should a chapter contain? In essence, a chapter really has to encompass an entire scene, in some cases more than one. Unfortunately, the term "scene" can be broadly defined, which makes the task more difficult. It can be as simple as something the MC does ("Tuesday morning I got up and went to Fluffy's funeral."), or be as complex and drawn out as the Battle of the Midway.

I like to think of a scene in terms of a package with three pieces:
1) it begins by describing some new problem,
2) raises the stakes for your MC, and
3) concludes at some critical decision or turning point.

The next scene will do the same. If your chapter doesn't accomplish these three things at least once, you've cut off your scene prematurely. If your chapter contains more than one scene, consider whether they are related and contribute in a way that they build upon each other. Readers have become trained to expect this.

OK, but how long should a chapter be? Well, obviously that first depends on your target audience. Shorter chapters for younger readers, longer for older readers with longer attention spans. Second, sophistication and treatment of material. Early readers/chapter books need to be straightforward; YA and adult novels... well, you get the picture.

Often ignored is the impact of reader tolerance. Your nine-year-old isn't going to have the patience to slog through a 5000-word chapter. And your adult novel isn't going to seem meaty enough if the chapters top out at 500 words.

I try to adhere to the following guidelines:
200-500 words for early chapter books
500-1500 for middle grade
1500-2500 for tween
1500-3500 for YA
2000-4500 for adult

These are just guidelines I set for myself for the types of stories I write. Your numbers may differ. Of course, other factors will impact these numbers for you, primarily your style. But not everyone is Cormac McCarthy. Not everyone can get away with not having chapters at all.

Now, on to chapter length consistency.

I've seen very strong opinions on this, most on the side of keeping chapter lengths within a particular work within a narrow range. "Avoid varying chapters by much more than +/-10%." In other words, in a 75K-word novel with an average chapter length of 3000 words, chapters should range from 2700-3300 words. I think this is a bit tight, though I do agree in priniciple with its rationale: Readers develop a sense of timing and rhythm after the first few chapters, and set their expectations for later chapters. If a chapter is much shorter than expected, the reader feels cheated. If much longer, he begins to get antsy, lose patience and attention. And you don't want your reader to feel any of those things.

But does that mean every chapter needs to conform to some narrow range? Does it mean I need to expand my 1200-word scene so it falls within my 3000-word average +/- 300 words? Of course not. The scene must work as best written. Just keep in mind what effect it might have if uncharacteristically long or short. If short, make it rewarding enough for the reader, which means accomplishing those three things I mentioned above. If much longer, make sure it captures and holds onto your reader's attention.

One last thought. Layered over all of this is the structure of the entire work. In general, longer chapters slow pace and are more appropriate in the early and middle sections of the book; shorter chapters pick up the pace and are more appropriate for building up to the climax.

So, now you know. Which means you won't have to be a rule robot. If your work demands an unconventional chapter structure, great. The Writing Police have no juristiction here. Just as long as you understand the impact and can deal with them effectively.

Happy RoadTripping.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

WRT: Importance of First Words – Context, China Rabbits and Cold Blood

Following on the heels of last week’s post about Prologues, I wanted to expand on the importance of first words and the things you, as an author, must do with them to make a reader (i.e., agent/editor and, eventually, the buyer) want to invest time in your book.

What must you accomplish with your first words? In simple terms, hook your reader. Sounds easy, but the HOW of doing that ends up being a bit tricky. Why? Because no two readers are alike, and it’s impossible for you to satisfy all of them all of the time.

However, there are a few basic things you can do to increase your chances of helping the reader quickly connect in some meaningful way with your story. I like to think about CONNECTING with your reader in terms of four more C-words: CONTEXT, CHARACTER, CRAVING and CONFLICT.

Today, I’ll talk a bit about Context.

So, what is it and what do I mean by it? Context is essentially the basic information your reader needs to orient themselves in your story. Not providing it is, well, disrespectful. Why? You don’t want your reader feeling lost and adrift from the very start of your story, do you? There’s nothing more disorienting than picking up a book, begin reading it, and having to wait to find out where the heck the thing’s set. Stories that begin with a whole bunch of dialogue and very little else fail in this way.

Think of it this way: You’ve just thrown reader into a whole new world. Whether it really is a different universe, a different planet, country, town or mindset, without providing context, you’ve essentially blindfolded your reader. Not good. You reader is bringing a lot of baggage along with him, all his worldly belongings of preconceived notions and a moving van of expectations. And if there’s no place to put that gold and purple couch with the silk tassels in your story, your reader is going to get awful tired real quick and leave. So, whether it’s in a submarine, in the mind of a comatose eleven-year-old, or a distant planet, you must provide some immediate clues to the setting so your reader knows where he can stand and put his stuff. Or, more importantly, where he can put your character.

Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as saying: "This story takes place here at a time when…."

Boring. Here’s your best opportunity to put your reader in the proper frame of mind, without letting them know you’re doing it.

Let’s look at a couple very different examples. I’ve chosen Kate DiCamillo’s THE MIRACULOUS JOURNEY OF EDWARD TULANE and Truman Capote’s IN COLD BLOOD.

Here’s the first sentence in EDWARD TULANE: "Once, in a house on Egypt Street, there lived a rabbit who was made almost entirely of china."

We know immediately where we are and can pretty much guess a lot more than DiCamillo provides: this is a house in which a child probably lives or once lived. We can guess that the family that owns the house is fairly well to do, perhaps well traveled, given that the address is somewhat exotic and the rabbit is made of china rather than plastic or fabric. We also know that this will not be a story set squarely in the real world, but probably somewhere where the lines between reality and fantasy are blurred. Why? Because this is a world where a made china rabbit lives.

IN COLD BLOOD begins: "The village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call ‘out there.’"

Brr. Can’t you just feel that cold wind blowing? Capote provides such a sense of utter isolation and desolation so extreme that even those who live nearby have difficulty saying much about it. But this lack of detail has the complete opposite effect on the reader: it provides all the information you need to understand the story as it unfolds.

Let’s break it down a bit more: The use of ‘village,’ for example, is intentional. It evokes images of a cluster of buildings, loosely connected. An outpost. It is also an old word, connotative of pilgrims, of simple living under harsh conditions. And harsh they are. The village ‘stands,’ as if in defiance. This is not going to be a touchy-feely story. But unless you’ve been living under a rock and bought the book without a cover, you already knew that.

Which is actually beside the point. The point is, the writer invites the reader into a different world, provides clues as to the type of world it is and the kind of story they’re telling. That’s context.

Next time I’ll talk about introducing your Character(s) to your readers.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Blio E-Reader - Will it be a game changer?

Last week I asked whether e-readers will become obsolete as consumers demand devices with more functions. If you can read an e-book on your phone or laptop/netbook, why carry around a dedicated reader, such as Sony's Reader or the Amazon Kindle? Plus, there's the issue with cross-compatibility, or, bottom-line, incompatibility.

Well, looks like a company called Baker and Taylor will soon be introducing another way to read your e-books. And this one looks like it could really be a game changer. Of all the new stuff it's supposed to bring to the technology, I personally like the idea of "fanning" pages. One of my biggest gripes with e-readers is the fact that, unlike a paper book, you can't "skim" pages. How many times do you do that with a book? Probably a lot more than you realize.

You can read about the Blio here.

Friday, December 4, 2009

WRT: Rules of the Road - Writing Police, Rule Robots, and Prologues

Never before has the unpublished writer had such a rich trove of resources to help her learn her craft and better understand the publication process. From blog to bulletin board, from agent to editor, from fellow writers, both beginning and seasoned, advice abounds. But how to parse it? What to believe? Should a piece of writing advice be taken...(gasp) literally? Should a rule always be followed? When should it be broken? Sometimes the sheer volume of opinions can be overwhelming.

Beware the Writing Police who wish to dictate. Beware becoming a Rule Robot.

In a regular segment of The Writer's RoadTrip called Rules of the Road, I'll highlight various "rules" as they pertain to writing for publication. Topics will cover such subjects as query and cover letters (including use of rhetorical questions, synopsis length, biographical material, etc), grammar, voice, plotting, POV (that's Point Of View, not Privately Owned Vehicle), dialogue tags, prologues, titles, tropes, show don't tell... etc, etc, etc.

What I want to discuss today is the use of the Prologue in a fiction work.

A discussion on the Blue Boards (Children's Writers & Illustrators Message Board) recently underscored how controversial the subject is, and how much people disagree over its value in telling a story (read it here). Some feel strongly that anything titled Prologue simply invites the reader to skip the material and go straight to Chapter One. Some writers freely admitted to frequently, if not universally, doing this when they encountered the things, avoiding them like the plague or college textbooks. Others disagreed. They opined that if a writer valued the material important enough to include, then it deserved to be read.

Unfortunately, not all readers are so magnanimous. Since the discussion in this case centered on YA fiction, it was helpful to get the opinion of several members of this target audience. Not surprisingly, the majority of the young adult readers indicated they would be inclined to skip a Prologue. Why? Impatience, mostly. There's an overwhelming sense of urgency in teen readership. "Just get me to the action." But it wasn't a universal opinion.

Unfortunately, the answer isn't clarified any better over at the Absolute Write Water Cooler. (For example, see here and here and here.)

Whether you chose to use one or not, it's always helpful to get these insights as you write your stories, structure your books. Wouldn't you want to be aware that your lovely Prologue might not be read?

Does that mean we should never use the dreaded device? Of course not. Many superstar books include one (TWILIGHT comes immediately to mind, and its target is YA). Where they work, they perform an essential function: they separate the main story from necessary material the reader needs. It might also help separate different voices or styles or points of view or time frames.

I too often see beginning writers employ the Prologue to slip in unnecessary backstory. In the past, you'd frequently see this stuff cluttering up first pages, but since everyone knows this is a no-no (right?), it suddenly seems like writers have figured out a way to get around this by moving backstory into the Prologue. I'm not saying all Prologues do this; nor am I saying there is never a need for a Prologue.

In my opinion, it actually matters less that the first pages of your story are marked Prologue or Chapter One or Captain's Log Stardate... What matters is that the material accomplish what all beginning material needs to do: hook your reader. If it doesn't, then it doesn't belong there. Maybe the material can be inserted later, either wholly or in pieces. If it can't, then you need to work on making it capture and hold your reader's attention.

What do you think? Do you have strong feelings about Prologues?

Even worse, has anyone ever "ticketed" you for using a Prologue? Don’t worry. If it performs an essential role (see above), then just rip up that ticket. The Writing Police have no authority here.

Happy RoadTripping.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

E-book Readers: Going the way of the 8-track?

Geoffrey A. Fowler via the Wall Street Journal has an interesting take on e-book readers and their limitations. Will they become obsolete?

Do you own an e-reader? Which brand? More than one? Are they compatible?

Do you read e-books on your laptop?

Or do you prefer paper?

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

WRT: NaNoWriMo – Writing By The Seat Of Your Pants

Raise your hand if you participated in NaNoWriMo this year. Really? Did you win? If you did— or even came close— props to you! For everyone else, keep at it. Why? Because there’s an important lesson in participating in such an endeavor.

If you’re not familiar with NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writers Month), pay attention. Basically, it’s a community of writers who voluntarily subject themselves to a horrendous regimen of ultra-high-speed writing. Quantity, not quality is the catch phrase. 50,000 words in 30 days is brutal. It’s punishing. It’s discipline-building, excellent conditioning. And it's rewarding. In practical terms, 50K words translates to about 1700 words per day, which is made even more challenging by the usual November distractions (Thanksgiving, the annual all-out family brawl over who gets the last drumstick, Black Friday shopping sprees…).

This year’s annual event, the eleventh, finished yesterday. Over 2 billion words were written by its participants. That’s a two followed by nine zeros!

Okay, so what’s the lesson?

My writer friend was first to propose the driving analogy. To me, at least. He said NaNoWriMo is like racing in the Indy 500. Well, okay, I see his point, but I would hope your writing doesn’t cover the same ground over and over and over again. His doesn’t, but then again, he doesn’t participate, so I can forgive him his poor choice of simile.

Writing a NaNoWriMo novel is, in fact, very much akin to driving, but it’s more like being on the autobahn in a 1977 WV Beetle going 225 kph (125mph, for us Yanks). Which I’ve done. Once. Never again. Thankfully, NaNoWriMo is a much safer exercise. Point is, at 1700-wpd, there’s no time to second-guess yourself. You write by the seat of your pants. You have to have laser-vision-eyes-on-the-horizon nerves of steel. The mile markers fly by practically unheeded, and before you know what has happened, you’ve written the equivalent of driving around the world in thirty days.

Why would anyone want to do that? Well, in this case, it’s not so much the destination that counts as the distance covered and the skills you pick up along the way.

What skills? Primarily being able to ignore that nagging voice inside your head that tells you there’s a better way to say that last thing you wrote. (For example, I just edited that last sentence six times over twenty minutes; that’s about a word per minute, which is no way to write a novel in your spare time.). We are our own worse critics. The type of free writing that NaNoWriMo promotes enables us to shut off that internal critic so that we can get on with the business of setting story to paper. Too often we worry that each sentence needs to be perfect before we can move on. As I’ve mentioned before, a lot of this has to do with seeing only finished product (ie., published book) and having little or no sense of the process the author went through to polish her work.

If you can manage this, the energy that pours out of you will be evident on the page. If you sweat the small stuff too soon, your work will come out positively bland. Sort of like the 1981 Ferrari Mondial 8. Bleh. So, in the spirit of NaNoWriMo, just get out there and drive like the dickens - er, write. Imagine you have no reverse gear, no backspace key or delete. Revising will come. Before you know it, that 1000 word limit you set for yourself will seem like a trip to the grocery store.

The other thing participating in such an exercise does is it demonstrates to the first-time novel writer that she can, indeed, finish a novel-length work. And believe me, that’s a major mental hurdle to get over.

Happy roadtripping.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

WRT: Your Publishing Horizon - Hey, isn't that it right there?

I see so many beginning writers making the same mistake: holding totally unrealistic expectations regarding their journey to publication. The problem is not one of misinformation -- that would imply the writer has bothered to imform herself beforehand. No, it seems more an issue of mass disillusionment, and it's shared by anyone who hasn't traveled some fair distance down that road. For example, friends and family who ask me how long I've been writing fiction for publication (7 years off and on; 2.5 years nearly full time; all stemming from a lifelong fascination with the art) always seem so surprised to hear it's taken so long. I realize it's the same naivete I once held, thinking my first children's picture book text would be available for the Christmas rush the year I finished it.

That was six years ago. Who knew there wasn't a market for flatulent frogs?

A published friend of mine once remarked to me that oftentimes a rookie writer can't see the horizon they're working toward because of all the dips and hills they must traverse to get to it. They mistake the first crest for the finish line.

I disagree. While I see his point, I don't think most beginning writers even know about the hills and valleys. That's because we often forget to map out the trip in any meaningful way. Or, if we do, we're in denial about those obstacles. We fool ourselves into thinking we'll somehow be lucky enough to find a way around them. But you might as well wish upon a star. There are no shortcuts or secret backroads to hasten the journey for beginner writers.

Let me repeat that: There are no shortcuts or secret backroads to hasten the journey for beginner writers.

What is the source of this disillusionment?

It's complicated:

First, it doesn't help that writer's mags and other sources recount the exceptional stories of successful first-time authors whose journeys were short, sweet, and swift. It doesn't help to be reminded of Chris Paolini's story. Or others like him. But part of the blame is our own, stemming from our own self-deception. We've all heard about how J. K. Rowling struggled, but we choose to forget that. We only remember her success. At times like these, it helps to remember one definition for "exceptional" is rare.

It's also easy to forget the difficulty of the journey whenever we're taken in by the siren song of a well-written book. Invisible to us are the years of toil, the revisions and re-revisions, the queries and rejections. And rejections. And rejections. Back to revisions. And how many times does this cycle have to repeat itself, dammit?

In the coming weeks, I'll be talking in more detail about the publishing jouney, about mapping it out fully in the beginning writer's mind, about having realistic expectations for where your horizon is. Why? Because there's nothing worse than seeing a writer lose hope. I've been there. It's not a nice place to be. But it can be much more easily avoided with a little realistic mental preparation.

Writing is a solitary endeavor, but the writer's journey doesn't have to be.

In the meantime, happy roadtripping.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Starbucks versus Duncan Donuts: Are you a grammatical snob?

I have something to confess: I’ve been a grammatical snob all my life. I liken it to being a coffee snob. What? Not Starbucks? Don’t try to sell me that DD crap.

I know, hard to believe. It’s true. I don’t want to be a snob; I just can’t help it. I’m a hopeless self-critic, an endless reviser. I can’t be satisfied with a piece until every last bit of voice has been extracted out of it, every linguistic twitch beaten into submission. It’s an excruciating process, if only because what you get after all that is something excruciatingly boring to read.

But isn’t the writing supposed to hum soundlessly, invisibly in the background?

I’ve had more than one literati tell me my writing’s as bland as, to paraphrase, decaffeinated Folgiers.

I blame my third grade teacher, Mrs. Hansen, and all the rules she hammered into my head.

I blame Strunk and White.

I blame S. I. Hayakawa.

Most of all, I blame myself for taking these geniuses so… so literally.

The solution? Have you read Arthur Plotnik’s Spunk and Bite? It's a good start.

You can’t imagine the pain I felt the first time I finished a manuscript that actually contained (No!) sentence fragments, (My God!) run-ons, and (Egads!) a slew of other grammatical no-no’s. It was all I could do not to go back and fix things in the dark of the night.

Guess what? It was good!

Okay, maybe not Colombian blend good. Not just yet. But definitely getting there.

It’s hard. If there were a 12-step program for recovering revisionists I’d be stuck somewhere between steps three and four. Yeah, that’s a lot of steps left to go.

Repent. Repent.

Once, on a business trip in Seattle (you see where this is going, right?), my colleague insisted he wouldn’t drink another cup of Starbucks if his life depended on it. (Does everyone take their coffee this seriously?) We ended up driving seventeen blocks before we tracked down a Duncan Donuts that was open. This guy was like the anti-snob of coffee connoisseurs. But, you know what? DD coffee isn’t half bad.

On the writer’s journey, aren’t there more important things to worry about than getting sentence structure and spellings exactly right? Sure, they're important, because you want to know when you're breaking the conventions. So you can break them consistently.

But, dammit, go out on a limb. Forget your past notions. Hey, try the java from Mickey D’s. Or 7-Eleven. Or even (horror of horrors) Der Wienerschnitzel. You never know, hot dog flavored mocha might be the next big craze. At least it’ll taste like something.

Oh, and happy roadtripping.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

WRT Inaugural Post: How do you roadtrip?

Writing is a journey. Always.
Of patience, usually.
Of endurance, absolutely.
Of self-discovery, unquestionably.

In my carefree days after leaving home and before starting college (several years later), roadtrips were a frequent distraction from my army enlistment and the routine of low-wage jobs that followed. I trawled the East Coast from North Carolina to Maine this way, on a half tank of gas, ten bucks in my wallet and a sleeping bag sharing the back seat with Pringles, Pop Tarts and a case of Mountain Dew. Just jumped in after work and headed off in one compass direction with a vague notion of how far I wanted to go. Heck, I explored half of Europe this way too, now that I think about it. Now, while I wouldn't trade in those roadtrips for anything, I can see now how they could have been so much more meaningful.

Anyone who has ever taken an impromptu roadtrip will tell you, almost without exception, that they never got where they thought they were going when they set out. If, indeed, there was a destination to begin with, as was often the case for me. Too many distractions along the way. Poor planning. Not enough Pringles. Whatever the reason, chance defines such endeavors.

To write with this mentality is fine, as long as you have the right expectations. That is, none other than personal satisfaction. Exploratory exposition can be very healthy for the mind and the soul. Yes, you may be lucky enough to find, when you get to end of the road, that the trip yielded something of value. And not just to yourself but to the world. But it's unlikely.

As writers for publication, there has to be a destination. Otherwise, we're simply, well, wandering.

How we, as writers, set off on that journey will mark how the quickly we get to our destination.

Do you plan your writing roadtrips? Or do you just jump right in and hope the high of junkfood gets you someplace worthwhile?