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December 25, 2010

The Belly of the Dragon

December 22, 2010

Rejection and Recovery

"Fall down 8 times, get up 9"
                                           -Traditional Buddhist saying

Learning to accept rejection is imperative for any writer. Most writers realize this quickly. Or they make the mistake of self-publishing (guilty as charged). But one important aspect of rejection that many do not consider is recovery, which I learned about through physical fitness.

In cardio fitness, such as running or biking, performance is not only measured in how well one's heart rate performs, but also how quickly the heart rate returns to normal. This rate of recovery after the sprint or interval is considered just as important as the heart's performance during the activity itself.

About a year ago, my manuscript was submitted to a top agency, and I was waiting to hear back. There were a lot of positive indicators pointing at an offer of representation, and I allowed myself to get my hopes up: the agent reviewing the material had asked me for more material, wanted to know more about me...

This was the farthest I had ever been towards obtaining representation, and I was naturally excited.

When I got the call, I pulled my car to the side of the road to give the agent my full attention. I was  rejected, and I took it hard, as one might expect, but for the first time in my life I witnessed my own process of recovery, and it was a crucial, vital lesson. As I got back on the road and drove off, I felt my dashed hopes of representation slowly transition back to the love of my material. I was startled by how quickly this transition took place in me, having expected to deal with it for days. But it was gone, and I was back on the road.

I realized that, much like the professional athlete training to push himself farther and farther, I had pushed my heart harder, by dealing with a bigger possibilitiy/dream than I had ever experienced before. My heart not only dealt with the bigger opportunity--and the hopes and dreams that came with it--it also recovered from it. This moment of recovery struck me as a key moment in my development as a professional writer.

If you can't recover from  rejection, you won't be able to handle the next opportunities or possibilities that come/are coming down the road, in the same way that athlete wouldn't be able to sprint if he doesn't recover. Recovery is just as crucial on the other, positive end of rejection: success and acceptance. If you don't recover from success--if you don't get back to a state of preparing for the next great sprint--there won't be chances for greater, higher success.

December 15, 2010

Writing Wisdom from Grad School

Treat research like procrastination
It's necessary, but so is laundry, errands, and all the other stuff we do to avoid writing. At the end of the day, anything that isn't writing is keeping you from getting those pages out.

After suggesting this on some of the forums, I got a lot of push-back. Research is a crucial part of storytelling, it has been said, and I can't disagree with it entirely. Maybe the middle road is to hit the research after your first draft, when research won't inhibit your creativity or keep you from knocking out that crucial  draft.

Great places to write are rarely great places to write
One of my professors once said that the best place to write is a small cramped room with no windows and nothing on the walls. Having a view of the ocean from your desk or writing at a hip cafe with great atmosphere seems wonderful, but at the end of the day it's just another distraction.

"Just don't bore your audience"
On the last day of class,  another professor  said, 'whatever you do, just don't bore your audience.' I write all about it here.

December 12, 2010

Manuscript Word Count Tool

Download it in the tools section of my website.

If you have an outline, you can use this to estimate how long your manuscript is tracking. You enter the word counts for your outline, your samples (sections of manuscript completed) and number of samples, and wind up with some estimates that some would call completely irellevent and not worth considering.

But it sure is a fun away to procrastinate and track your progress.

UPDATE (01/18/2011): If you're weary of downloading a file from someone's website, you can access the GoogleDoc here.

December 08, 2010

How to Backup Your Manuscript

1. One file, and only one file

The biggest mistake I ever made as a first time writer was creating separate files for every chapter. It is totally unnecessary and certain to cause confusion. Use section breaks to separate chapters. I also include my outline and research at the end of the doc.

2. Set Microsoft Word to autosave every minute

You can set Word Preferences to automatically save a file as .doc, so you don't have to select "save as .doc" every time. This is a good thing to know when using multiple computers to write your drafts

3. Email: the secret backup tool

Emailing your manuscript to yourself is the fastest and easiest way to backup your work. It is always 'in the cloud' so you'll still have your draft if your house burns down or your computer melts.

When sending the file, use a standardized code in the subject line for easy searching. I use the initials of my title, followed by a suffix that indicates which location I am backing up from. So if your title is Harry Potter, you would attach the manuscript to your email and write "HP Laptop" or "HP Desktop" or "HP Sally's Computer" in the subject line. This keeps you from mixing things up when you forget where you were last working on your manuscript.

If you have multiple email accounts, send the file to all of them--the more places it lives online, the safer you are.

Email yourself the file every time you leave your computer

December 06, 2010

Boredom and Confusion in Magic

Boredom and the confusion are two of the magician's greatest enemies, but they are a distant second to the magician's most obvious danger: revelation of his secret. Nevertheless, I've seen magicians lose their audience because they grew bored and confused. It happens to me all the time. Confusion is a close sibling of the revelation of a secret, because it is almost as bad: both fail to provide the illusion of magic. Boredom is a close cousin, since there might be some magic, but it isn't compelling enough to engage an audience.

One time, while performing a card routine at a party, I looked up at the girl I'd been performing for and she said. "I have no idea what you just did." Usually this is a complement, as in, "that was so amazing I have no idea what you did to accomplish what I saw," but this time it was clear that she simply didn't know what I was even trying to make it look like I was doing. After practicing the routine so many times, I had forgotten what the audience was supposed to be seeing. Real magic happens when the magician is not only aware of what the audience is supposed to see, but sees it himself, leaving the technique to subconscious, instinctual reaction that does not have to distract either himself or the audience from the presentation of the impossible.

A confused audience will quickly become a bored one.

Being an engaging, entertaining performer with great patter will always help avoid boredom, and there are a lot of magicians who use very simple effects as a means of showing this off. On the other hand, there are other magicians who never bore anyone because their magic speaks for itself. Boredom is often the result of an effect that simply isn't amazing enough. There are a lot of magicians who still use material from the past that today's modern audiences have either seen already or no longer find impressive. 

December 01, 2010

How to Incorporate Feedback

Specifically from a writer's group

You've spent hours/days/weeks/months coming up with a sample. A chapter, a few pages, whatever. Your writer's group is on the calendar. Here's what to do before, during, and after.

1. Send it.

Put your name and the date in the file name.
Remember to follow standard manuscript formatting guidelines.
Put your name on every page.

2. Go to your group.

Surprisingly, I never bring a copy of my sample.  It's better to have a blank notebook in front of you. Your group mates will bring their own and will write on your draft for you. You should focus on writing down NEW ideas that come up in group.

Collect all copies of your sample at the end of your critique. Stack them up and stick them in your notebook with those notes you took.

After group, go home and throw the stack/notes on your desk and try not to think about it.

2. The following day

Look at the stack of copies/notes. Ask yourself if you're ready to deal with it. If you aren't, allow yourself a day to recover. You deserve it after all that ego bashing.

3. When you're ready

Put the stack of copies in front of your keyboard. Beside it, your notes.
Open up your master file
Go through each and every page of each and every copy of your draft, inserting a comment in your master doc for every note you see on the sample. Every note receives a comment, even if it's the same note from different readers. This is very important: the quantity of identical comments will affect your decision process in the next phase.
Once that's done, stack up the copies and put them near the trash. You're finished with them, but keep them around in case you missed something or need to refer to them.
Look at your written notes from group. Add them to the comments wherever they belong. If the comments cover a specific note, cross it off. Once they are all crossed off, you don't need your notes any more.

4. Congratulations, everything is in the master doc. Now comes the second hardest part (the hardest part is receiving criticism)

Go through each comment, and decide what to use and what not to use. You do this by applying democratic principles. Each comment gets a vote, and you get a vote as well. If there is only one comment for a specific item, it means only one person in your group is pointing out a possible issue. In this case, you get to decide to address it or not. If you don't think it's necessary to address, erase the comment. Once you do this, you are left with identical comments addressing the same issue. If there is more than one comment addressing the same issue, you must address it, because it means more than one person independently noticed an issue. Condense each of these comments into one comment for each issue, combining all notes, comments, and ideas.

5. For each comment, determine which category the note/issues falls into:

Overarching note: these are the hardest, and must be dealt with first--something like "the character doesn't feel real" or "I don't see where the story is going." In these situations, you need to step back and decide if you need to reapproach the whole sample. This is difficult, and if you decide to address the note with a reapproach, you might want to start with a blank page or go back to your outline and see what isn't working.

HOWEVER, this is what you do if you decide to address an overarching note in your draft:

Go through the draft/manuscript and find every example of the problem. Hilite it and copy the comment. Now you have comments that can be dealt with like the remaining specific comments. Decide to cut it, change it, or add to it.

CUT IT: Don't erase it yet, but rather strike through the text. Make sure the writing flows naturally without the writing you're going to cut.

CHANGE IT: Cut and paste the writing to be changed into the comment. In the draft, put something like: INSERT CHANGED TEXT THAT SOLVES THE PROBLEM BY MAKING IT MORE WHATEVER.

ADD TO IT: Write notes where you need to add something in caps and/or hilighted, like: INSERT MORE DESCRIPTION HERE

Okay, save your doc, back it up, and leave it for a while.

6. You are now ready to  address your feedback in manageable, bite-size portions. 

Sometimes I print out pages with comments and work on the changes/additions with pen and paper, because it's fun and we seldom get to use pen and paper any more. Also, a lot of these bite-size notes can be addressed with less than a page of writing, so you can work on them when you're in the waiting room, on the bus...whatever.

Delete each comment once you are finished with it. Move the cut strike-through text into a comment in case you want to go back to it or if there's  a gem of writing that you had to give up for now. The first time I saw a writer do this, a team of comedy writers put unused jokes into comments and said, "Ahh, comments. Where jokes go to die."

It's kind of true.

November 26, 2010

Boredom and Confusion

The writer's greatest enemies are boredom and confusion. It's easy to tell when either of these are happening, but only if someone else is reading your drafts. 

Of all my writing memories, one of the worst is watching a professor of mine squint at my pages in total confusion, as if he was looking at a complex math equation. You know you're up against confusion when people ask you questions about the world, the character, or continuity that are obvious to you (or maybe not) that clearly haven't come across in the writing. Questions like "I don't get it," come up or, "so wait the character did this BEFORE that?" Last writer's group, someone told me my work was "surreal" and my confusion alarms went off.

Boredom is an easier problem, and it's easy to diagnose in group because people just usually stop reading. If you're lucky, the people in your group will be straightforward with you and tell you when they get bored. Sometimes in school, classmates don't want to admit that they weren't reading your work, so this kind of honesty usually happens outside the class when you're out in the world and going to writers groups for the love of writing and not for the love of credit. When you're writing an initial draft, you wind up writing a lot of stuff that is totally unnecessary to the final story but required in order for you to get the good stuff out. this is a lot like the wooden molds that help support concrete before it has dried. Yes, it's necessary, but it's also necessary to take away to reveal the finished product.

The good news is that a lot of the time, both of these problems can be addressed by cutting a lot. Sure, boredom is easier (you just cut a lot) while confusion usually has to be addressed by streamlining your story and removing unnecessary elements. But regardless of which you're dealing with (and you'll deal with both for sure) the result of addressing these issues is a tighter story. The even better news is that you've written something. The worse problem you could have is not to have pages with either problem.

October 18, 2010

Outlining A Childrens Novel

There are a lot of ways to outline a story, but I thought I'd share mine with you because so many of the writers I meet at conferences and writers groups are writing without one. 

I can't tell you how vital I think it is to write off an outline. If you don't, your plot goes out the window.

In screenwriting, a feature length script is often broken down into 8 sequences, two for the first and second act, and four for the 2nd. In a well structured story, specific things happen in each sequence. Of course there's tons of variation, but it's a great guide.

I mapped out a little guide sheet while getting my MFA in screenwriting from USC. You can download it in the tools section of my website. When I begin to outline a story, I print it out and write notes, scenes, and major events in the various columns, eventually typing them up in an outline doc with individual sequence headings. Later, these sequence descriptions are broken down into scenes and such.

October 16, 2010

Flourishes and Mechanics in Writing and Magic

In Magic, a flourish is essentially a visible and impressive demonstration of skill:

On the other hand, you have mechanics. Mechanics involve a skill that achieves something needed for a particular effect. I don't know if I'm the first to use this term or make this differentiation.

A flourish can often work as a mechanic, but it doesn't have to. Most mechanics are not flourishes because they are meant to go unnoticed.

The great Dai Vernon preached that flourishes shouldn't be a part of magic at all. You don't want the audience to know how good you can handle a prop--the magic should just happen in your apparently regular hands. Using flourishes to show off dexterity and skill  reduces the impact you have on an audience because. They think "I'm not surprised he can do that, he just did that flourish thing!"

My favorite card magician, Jon Armstrong, embodies the concept beautifully. He just seems like a regular, funny, disarming guy, he almost seems as stunned as the audience when  the magic happens. Jon's mechanics are perfect because they are totally invisible. I never see a single one in his work.

The relationship between flourishes and mechanics play an important role in writing too. When writers use long, windy sentences, elaborate vocabulary and complicated metaphors, they're showing off their skill while seldom achieving as much as prose that puts story and character first. I'm not sure if minimalists like Ernest Hemingway are good examples for mechanics-only writing, but he does come to mind when you look at everything he cut away.

In my last writers group meeting, I submitted a chapter with an action scene that failed to bring my readers in, and they related a technique writers sometimes employ for scenes of action and suspense. Three short sentences are followed by one long sentence. It was a great guideline, and I think it's a perfect example of a literary mechanic. Readers don't notice it, but it's working to convey the suspenseful atmosphere.

I use flourishes in magic, but I think Dai Vernon was right. I'm coming to see my flourishes as a crutch--in magic and writing.

Opening Paragraphs of Haroun and the Sea of Stories

A while ago I was talking about childrens literature with a friend of mine. Salman Rushdie's "Haroun And The Sea of Stories" came up in conversation-- I've been studying how children's stories begin and these first two opening paragraphs struck me as particularly beautiful:

"There was once, in the country of Alifbay, a sad city, the saddest of cities, a city so ruinously sad that it had forgotten its name. It stood by a mournful sea full of glumfish, which were so miserable to eat that they made people belch with melancholy even though the skies were blue.

"In the north of the sad city stood mighty factories in which (so I'm told) sadness was actually manufactured, packaged and sent all over the world, which never seemed to get enough of it. Black smoke poured out of the chimneys of the sadness factories and hung over the city like bad news."

How could a fairy tale that starts in such miserable Sadness go anywhere but Beautiful?

October 15, 2010

Wordle, the ultimate bad habit killer for writers

The power of Wordle has been discussed  all over the place, but I just don't think it can be mentioned enough, because every time a writer discovers it, they gain a new and powerful tool.

Copy all the text from your manuscript and paste it into wordle. Out comes a picture like this:

Of course this isn't what you would see exactly unless you were Edgar Allen Poe and you pasted The Raven in there, but anywhoo, you're looking at a graphical representation of word frequency in your doc.

The importance of this can't be understated. By analyzing the results of your Wordle image, you can see what words you are using too much--most likely because theyre 'go-to' words. Some of my bad habit words are:

  • turned
  • thought
  • even
  • around
  • know
  • just
  • something
  • see
  • like
  • seemed

....and my worst habit word of all: LOOK/LOOKED

When I went back and highlighted each of these words, one by one, I was horrified to see that some of them came up on almost every page.

My advice? Print out your wordle and paste it over your monitor. You'll think twice about using them from now on, and hopefully break a bad habit.

Agent Search Spreadsheet

How do I find an agent?
How do I submit to agents and agencies?

This is a tool I created to streamline the process of submitting to agents and keep track of the details.

I created an excel doc (available in the tools part of my links section on my website) to keep track of contacts. I pooled possible contacts during the two years I took writing my book. By the time I was ready, I had a giant list and no idea how to keep track of everything. Without this spreadsheet, it would have quickly gotten out of hand.

Sorry about those fish getting in the way. Working on that.

I listed important info, such as date contacted, status, submission guidelines, and also used highlighting to weed out contacts that rejected my work or were no longer viable for some other reason.

The doc was mostly red by the time I finished, but the patches of blue kept me going.

Hope it helps

Update (1/18/2011): The GogleDocs version is available here if you don't want to download a file from another website

Getting Charlie Into The Factory

A surprising revelation about Dahl's masterpiece

While researching my first MG Adventure, I took a really close look at the structure of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which Dahl was apparently  inspired to right by his childhood experiences as a chocolate tester at school. I can't tell you how surprised I was to find that, out of my 155 page version of the book, Charlie doesn't enter the factory until page 57.

The book is 30,644 words, typical for a MG story. If you only had 30,000 words to tell a story, would you spend the first 10,000 dealing with the main character outside of the real setting of the story?

The traditional 3 act structure of a story typically tells us that a character is locked into the world of his story by the end of the first act, which typically takes up the first quarter of a story (the second act is typically twice as long as the first and third). In other words, getting the character to the story is usually a priority. So how does Dahl's story work like this? How can he spend so long outside of the factory when the book is all about the factory? The title says it all!

The answer is that Charlie's character is vital to the story (he does come first in the title after all), and in order to put the reader in Charlie's miserable shoes, we have to feel like we might never get out of his miserable life to the same extent that he does.

The first 57 pages are all about Charlie and how miserable his life is. The misery is taken to the Nth degree, with leaky roofs, shared beds, terrible food and widespread discomfort. We also learn that he's the nicest boy you ever met.

By the time Charlie gets his chances to receive a golden ticket, boy do we want to get him out of that miserable life. The extra time Dahl takes to build the suspense is worth every word, because by the time it finally happens and Mr. Wonka shows up, we want to get in there just as much as Charlie does. And Dahl doesn't let us down once we do.

At the end of the day, the answer is in the title. Charlie is just as much a part of the story as the chocolate factory, because his life is as sad as the factory is wonderful. Spending just a little too long in such a bad place makes the factory that much greater.

October 14, 2010

I Want To Eat You Up

Love as Consumption in "Where The Wild Things Are"

In "Where The Wild Things Are," a young boy named Max goes on a fantastic adventure to an island of monsters. During the brief evolution of Max's relationship with the monsters--the book is only several pages long--Max threatens to 'eat' the monsters, and the monsters threaten to 'eat' him as well. What does it all mean?

Is it not hard for children to understand love? Not in an instinctive sense, but as a concept. One might say that children understand it better than adults. Regardless of the answer, we can be sure that describing and communicating love is no small task for a child. Adults fall into many cliches, and listen to many love songs, and hear many sad or wonderful stories about Love--yet a child has never experienced these expressions.

Max's story begins after an argument with his mother. We know that Max loves his mother, and that she loves him. She sends him to bed without his dinner, yet brings him food out of sympathy. I do not believe it is too far a stretch to say that food--and therefore the act of Eating itself--is an important symbol of the love between Max and his mother, because the very act of eating seems to be Max's primary means of expressing his love in the story as a whole.

Surely the monsters that Max threatens to eat, and vice versa, represent some aspect of Max's mother. Max and his mother love each other, yet they are forced to be at odds because as a parent, Max's mother is an authority figure. It seems logical then, that Max would express his love with a symbolic act that is indeed scary and threatening.

To threaten to consume another is a threat, but also a deep expression of love. As a child, Max is looking for the most simplistic way of expressing his love because he is too young to express it in any other way. To love someone so much is to want to become them, and thus if the saying is true that 'we are what we Eat,' eating the loved one would be the simplest way to go about doing it. I want to Eat You Up. I want to consume you. I want to take you apart and digest you so that everything you are becomes a part of me.

Joseph Campbell mentions two important items related to the process of eating, the first being dismemberment--the act of bodily deconstructing the hero before undergoing his spiritual metamorphosis--and the belly of the whale: the unconscious, non-physical world the hero goes to in order to experience his transformation. In both cases, the act of being eaten symbolizes the same kind of spiritual adventure in the non-physical, subconscious realm that Max himself experiences.

March 26, 2010



January 19, 2010

Love of Writing

Whenever I hear people telling me how much they love to write, I cringe. "I can't wait to spend all day writing," they say. "Just me and the page and a cup of coffee."

For a long time, I felt conflicted about how painful the process of writing is, because I have chosen it as a profession. The process is so dreadful and unpleasant that I don't like to talk about it. Then one day I was sitting with a friend of mine in development at Disney. "When someone tells me they love to write," he said, "I don't take them seriously. Writing is not an enjoyable process."

Writers stare at pages of text all day, arranging and rearranging combinations of 26 different symbols. 99.9 percent of our efforts fail at accurately communicating our story. One should not write unless they have no choice and are compelled to do it, because writing is a solitary act filled with rejection and failure.

"I hate writing. I love having written."

--Dorothy Parker