Tuesday, September 16, 2014

How watching too much TV can be a good thing...

I'm the first to admit that I probably watch far too many TV shows than I should. This consumption of visual entertainment definitely eats into my writing time and often keeps me up way past my bedtime, consequently eating into my reading time, but I like to justify all those hours spent watching my favorite shows as research.

For the last three weeks, I have been addicted to White Collar. I stumbled upon this series looking up Matt Bomer in the wake of The Normal Heart. The premise of the story piqued my interest and also, Matt Bomer. (Oh look, an excuse to post a picture of this beautiful man...)

Matt Bomer as Neal Caffrey in White Collar

Within the first ten minutes, I was hooked, and needless to say I have spent many long nights over the past couple of weeks devouring all five seasons of the show. Yes, the plot is clever and the show balances episodic crime solving with over-arcing personal storylines very well, but that alone wouldn't have been enough to sustain my interest. The reason I'm watching and have become so invested in the show is because of the characters and their on-screen chemistry. It's rare that the starring relationship of a show should be one between two straight men. Sure there are romantic side stories, but the main relationship and the one viewers are invested in is between con-artist Neal Caffrey and FBI agent Peter Burke.

So, having never studied creative writing or attended any formal writing courses, I'm going to learn as much as I can wherever I can, which most definitely includes TV. There is a critical difference in writing a novel and writing for TV. The most obvious being that a TV show requires a script with scant description and tons of dialogue, whereas novels should be the perfect balance of exposition, description and dialogue. That said, good writing in TV can still be a major education particularly in how to write snappy, engaging dialogue in the voice of the individual character.

But that's not the main reason I watch TV. In fact, it's not even the premise or plot that often gets me hitting that 'next episode' button until 4AM but rather the characters. Like White Collar, all my favorite shows are the ones that allow me to fall hook, line and sinker for the characters, characters that amuse, frustrate, intrigue, delight and enthrall me. By watching these shows and dissecting the characters I fall in love with (or in hate with, thank you Joffrey), I'm discovering a lot about characterization, about how to create flawed, but lovable characters and place them in situations that challenge them. This might seem obvious, but it's easy to forget these things when you're writing an 85k word science fiction novel and getting tangled up in plot and world-building.

Never again will I sit idly staring at the moving pictures on the screen hoping to absorb the nuances of character development via osmosis. I've decided to take action, doing character studies of those characters - be they protagonist or antagonist - that really speak to me. Here are the things I try to look for while creating my character profiles:

  1. Basic personality descriptors in episode 1
  2. What does the character want?
  3. Greatest strength
  4. Greatest weakness
  5. Major incident that has influenced/caused their greatest strength & weakness
  6. Childhood influences of current emotional/psychological state
  7. Relationship with parents/siblings if any
  8. Relationship with friends/lovers 
  9. Defense mechanism
  10. Default emotional response to stress/not getting what they want
  11. Hobbies/interests that show stress response or emotions not otherwise displayed or reveal different aspect of personality
  12. Personality descriptors in last episode (or season finale)
  13. Chart the change in the character noting plot points or critical moments that caused this change

I've already learned a lot by becoming a more active watcher of TV shows and I'm sure I'll learn a lot more as I start studying and deconstructing the likes of Neal Caffrey, Dean Winchester, Kate Beckett, Vanessa Ives, and Damon Salvatore. And these are all things I can actively apply in my writing to create complex, nuanced characters that will hopefully enthrall readers as much as they enthrall me on the screen. That, or I've found a pretty good way of making myself feel better about all the TV I watch ;)

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Character Worksheets

Whether you're a pantser or a plotter, one thing I recommend either before you draft or when you revise, is working with a character worksheet.

It's not only important to know all the superficial basics (hair color, favorite song, house they live in, etc), it's absolutely VITAL that you know your character's heart and soul. You need to know what drives them, what inspires them, what haunts them. And this is where character worksheets can come in.

This is the basic one I start off with:

What misconception does your protagonist have about himself or the world?

What is he lacking mentally, emotionally, or spiritually, as a result? 

How is the interior Lie reflected in the character’s exterior world?Is the Lie making his life miserable when the story opens?

If not, will the Inciting Event and/or the First Plot Point begin to make him uncomfortable as a result of his Lie?

What are the symptoms of your character’s Lie?

I then go on to explore the character's WOUND and their WANT.  This is to establish what has wounded them in the past that motivates them to fight for what they want in the future.

Character worksheets can go on to cover a whole host of others, and it's up to you how much you want to do, but the more you work at it, the stronger your character becomes.  So, get at it and get to know your characters - mind, body and soul!

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Introducing New YAtopia Citizens!

In a sudden redirection of circumstances, I became the host of this introduction blog post. And yes I might be introducing myself later on, but that's not important. What's important is welcoming the newest citizens of YAtopia, those valuable people that have committed a few snippets of their time and knowledge for blog posts to send out into the literary world.

Without further adieu.....

Jessie Mullins

Jessie Mullins is author of Period Fairy (periodfairy.blogspot.com), a blog about, um, periods. She also writes for Whole Magazine, and is delighted to now write beside the talented contributors of this fine blog! Jessie is so obsessed with YA novels, she wrote one (and is seeking representation). When Jessie isn’t writing, you might find her snuggled somewhere in Michigan next to her husband, hanging out with teens at youth group, or getting such good deals at thrifts stores it hurts. You can find her on Twitter @Je55ieMullin5.

Kate Foster  

Kate is a picture book and middle grade writer, a beta reader, and an editor and proofreader in training. Originally from Kent in England, she emigrated with her husband and three sons to the Gold Coast in Australia in 2014. She's a member of SCBWI, the Society of Authors, Women Writers, Women's Books writing group and the Gold Coast Writers Association. She'd like to go on and say she's a supermodel, supermum, superwife, incredible cook and all-round perfect human, but that would involve some lying. Her links are Twitter @winellroad and website www.katejfoster.weebly.com.

 Louise Gornall

Louise is a graduate of Garstang Community Academy, currently studying for a BA (Hons) in English language and literature with special emphasis on creative writing. She writes books that often involve characters fleeing for their lives/fighting/falling in love. She's a YA aficionado, Brit bird, film nerd, identical twin, and junk food enthusiast. Rumour has it she's also the pink Power Ranger. She's represented by Mandy Hubbard of D4EO. 

Aren't these gals fabulous? I can't wait to read their posts and connect with them!

Oh, yeah, and there's also a new blog assistant.

E.G. Moore

E. G. Moore is a poet, freelance writer, and storyteller. She is a long distance member of For Pete’s Sake Writers Group in Washington and is a Rocky Mountain Chapter SCBWI member. She loves writing stories that send her young readers on adventures they can't experience in real life. She’s excited to be the new blog assistant for YAtopia. When she’s not telling “Mommy Made stories” to her two daughters or nagging her husband to edit her latest manuscript, she can be found off-roading in her suped-up ATV, swimming, or in a long, plot-refreshing bubble bath. She tweets @egmoorewriter, posts on facebook.com/emilygmoorewriter, and blogs at www.emilygmoorewriter.blogspot.com.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Agentopia: Sarah Negovetich

Welcome to the September edition of Agentopia! For more information and to see other Agentopia posts, click here.

This month Sarah Negovetich from the Corvisiero Literary Agency is in the spotlight.

Sarah Negovetich knows you don't know how to pronounce her name and she's okay with that.

Her first love is YA, because at seventeen the world is your oyster. Only oysters are slimy and more than a little salty; it's accurate if not exactly motivational. We should come up with a better cliche.

Sarah divides her time between her own writing and working with amazing authors as a Jr. Agent and PR Team Leader at Corvisiero Literary Agency. Her background is in marketing, which is not as glamorous as it sounds. FYI, your high school algebra teacher was right when they told you every job uses math. Sarah uses her experience to help authors craft amazing stories, build platforms, and promote their work.

You can find her hanging around the web at:
Tumblr    Twitter    Facebook    Blog    G+

Wish list & Guidelines:

I am only accepting MG and YA fiction manuscripts. I am not considering chapter books, NA, or adult.

I'm open to any genre within those age groups, but prefer speculative fiction. Please note that speculative fiction is not a genre. You need to specify your manuscript's genre in your query.

Contemporary is not my favorite, but I will look at it. I am not interested in seeing poetry, novels in verse, short stories/novellas or anything focused on saving the environment (I'm all for recycling, but don't want to represent it).

To query me, send your query letter, 1-2 page synopsis and the first 5 pages pasted into the body of an email to Query@CorvisieroAgency.com. Please use "Query for Sarah" as your subject line.

I will respond to all queries. If I have not responded and you queried me prior to the dates listed on my blog, feel free to send a follow-up email. Otherwise, please wait to follow-up unless you receive an offer of representation from another agent.

For additional information, please see the submission guidelines at Corvisiero Literary Agency.

Sarah also kindly answered a few questions for our readers...

1. What are you looking for in YA submissions right now?
Right now I am really enjoying Science Fiction novels, especially ones that aren't space related (though those are great as well). I love all the creative ways writers are exploring how technology is growing and changing the world we live in. That said, I really just love YA, all of it. Right now, I'm getting a lot of feedback from editors that they are filled up on PNR and Dystopian, but that doesn't mean one of those would be an automatic rejection. Just keep in mind that the story has to be really unique if it falls in one of those genres.

2. What's an immediate turn-off in a query, something guaranteed to get the author rejected?
I'm not sure I have any auto-rejection buttons. That said, a big turn-off for me is the query that tells me about your themes and lessons instead of what your story is really about. I think this is a big issue in YA because some authors feel the need to include some sort of moral to the story when they are writing for teens. While it's always nice if your story shares a good message, that isn't what YA fiction is about. It's about a great story with characters we can relate to. So make sure your query tells me what your story is about, the plot, not the themes.

3. What's the story got to have to make you want to represent it?
A big deal for me is stakes. This is an issue in a lot of manuscripts I see. There can be a big conflict, but I need to know why your character has to be involved. Ask yourself: if your main character simply walked away from the conflict what is the worst that could happen? Ideally, these stakes should impact your character personally and impact the world (not necessarily the whole world, but your character's world). Hand in hand with that is a character I care about. You can have high stakes, but if I don't care that this bad thing will happen to your character then I'm not going to enjoy the book. It's a tall order, but you need to show me that I should care about your character and want to protect them from something really horrible.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

The Hard Truth About Writing Contests

This past week has been all about writing contests for me*, so naturally when I sat down to write today’s post, it was the topic at the forefront of my mind.

But so much has been written about the value of entering contests, about the disappointment of not winning contests but the need to soldier on, about the difficulties of being on the other side of contests as a judge or mentor, I wasn’t sure what I could say that would be different or useful.

And so the only thing I can do is share my experience. I hope somewhere in here there’s a nugget or two you haven’t heard before, something that explains the value of entering contests, helps you deal with the disappointment of not winning, and gives you a glimpse of what it’s like on the other side.

It’s Not Whether You Win or Lose, It’s How You Play the Game . . . and other “Mom-isms” that Turn Out to Be True

In late 2012, I finally admitted to something I’d been doing in private for three years: writing. Other than my husband and one or two close friends, no one knew I’d been working on a manuscript for give-or-take two years. The thing I was slowly discovering I loved was far too fragile to put out there. What if I told people I was writing and nothing ever happened? That was my greatest fear (in many ways, it still is…but that’s another post for another day).

But in keeping my writing to myself, I was hampering my ability to do what I loved—what I couldn’t even dare to hope in the far reaches of my mind might possibly, one day, maybe become a career. Because without showing our writing to other people, without getting feedback and critiques, we are working in a vacuum, with no ability to learn, grow, or improve our craft.

If it weren’t for one login and password, I’m not sure I would have ever left my safe, but unproductive writing cave. That login and password were to Twitter. The writing world on Twitter opened its arms to me (special shout-out to Dee Romito (@writeforapples), Jen Malone (@jenmalonewrites), Summer Heacock (@Fizzyfrrl), and Brenda Drake (@brendadrake) for being some of the first writers to make me feel comfortable doing this thing called “tweeting”).

Somehow, in this semi-anonymous, semi-public world of people I had never met and would only recognize on the street if their heads were surrounded by tiny square boxes, I found the courage to say I was writing (I was still not ready to call myself “a writer”). This was the fall of 2012 and as this season tends to be, it was CONTEST TIME on Twitter.

Though I kept it hush hush with my friends and family, online, I entered contest after contest with my first manuscript and also with my second, the one I worked furiously hard to finish in time for Pitch Wars 2012.

The end result? I won some and I lost some.

How did this make me feel? It gave me the courage—and the desire—to call myself a writer. Let me explain:

For me—someone afraid to admit I was writing—the first time I advanced a level in a contest, I felt ecstatic but also a tremendous amount of relief. Not just to have advanced but to have gotten the tiniest of nods that “yes, maybe I can do this.” Did I lose contests after that? Including Pitch Wars. Yes and yes.

But I’d gotten the contest bug. I was determined to keep trying, to see what worked for others, to absorb every tidbit of feedback I was given, to do anything and everything to get more feedback. Because feedback was making me better. It was making me annoyed, frustrated, and the teensiest bit competitive, sure, but better too. Feedback was helping to teach me what I was doing great and what I could do better.

I sought feedback in every way, but three things ultimately made the most difference in my writing.

The first was getting critiques from published authors and from agents. How does one do this? It’s not easy. But Twitter helps. At times authors and agents (especially as auctions in support of great charities) give away critiques. These do cost money (but the money is going to help those in need, don’t forget). But in my case, I can honestly say that I would have never sold Becoming Jinn without these critiques I bid on and won. Feedback from those critiques run a straight line to elements I changed that led to my agent and book deal. Cost? Priceless.

The second was diving into an intense three-week First Five Pages Workshop online (that still runs; check it out: http://firstfivepagesworkshop.blogspot.com). This workshop gave me something I couldn’t get elsewhere: feedback on what I’d changed. Because it’s one thing for someone to point out what isn’t working but how am I to know if my changes are on the right track? By having fellow writers, published and not, look at each revision and give constructive criticism, I started to learn to trust myself. Even more priceless.

The third was, again, contests. But now I’m not talking about the feedback from contests. I’m talking about the people. Okay, so you’ve heard this before. But it is so true that I can’t not repeat it. Making connections with other writers is the most important part of this industry: for feedback in terms of critique partners, for gaining confidence to put your work “out there,” results be damned, for having people who understand what you are going through, who know how high your highs are and how low your lows are, and who will hold your hand through it all. It is through contests and Twitter that I found my writing friends who are now simply friends. (Shout-out to N.K. Traver (@nktraver), Chelsea Bobluski (@chelseabobluski), Nikki Kelly (@styclar), and the entire Freshman Fifteen clan (@freshman15s).

Contests are hard to enter. They are hard to judge (there’s so much talent, I find myself wanting to work with every single entrant and wishing I had the time to do so; picking one hurts me, maybe not as much as you, but it does, believe me).
There’s much to be learned on both sides. And that’s the other part of this: if you don’t take the feedback, if you don’t work hard to improve your writing, then you can enter all the contests you want, but your writing may not get you where you want to go.

Are all judges “right”? Absolutely not! But more often than not you will find a little something to take away: even if it’s reading the entries of the winning writers and comparing their work to your own.

So that’s it. Contests aren’t for everyone, but if they appeal to you, enter and grab onto all the feedback you can get!

* The contests I was a part of this week include the Freshman Fifteens-Wattpad Teen Short Story Mentoring Contest, which I organized. The pitches were amazing and the talent in this group of young writers runs deep. I’d love to invite you to read their pitches and return in January 2015 to read their finished short stories. Give them the feedback they deserve for putting themselves out there at such young ages. (http://www.wattpad.com/list/126467760-winning-common-room-pitches; http://freshmanfifteens.com/huge-announcement-winners-of-our-wattpad-teen-mentoring-contest/)

The second was, you guessed it, Pitch Wars. And if you would have told me in 2012 that the contest I just lost would have me as a mentor two years in a row, I’d have chuckled in your little square-headed Twitter box face. We never know what the future holds. Be open to everything and enjoy the ride.

Lori Goldstein is the author of Becoming Jinn (now available for preorder; Feiwel and Friends/Macmillan, May 12, 2015, sequel, Spring 2016). With a degree in journalism and more than 10 years of experience, Lori is a freelance copyeditor and manuscript consultant for all genres. She focuses on the nitty-gritty, letting writers focus on the writing.