Monthly Archives: December 2010

Journalistic Terms For Newbies

I’d asked my editor at Patch.com what the term dek meant.  It’s utilized on the computer server which I use to upload my twice daily blogs about Evanston.

I loved her response, which was something akin to total surprise.  I think she said, “That’s a great question.  I’ve never really been asked that one.”  I love feeling like I’m not completely ignorant.

I went searching today for the meaning of dek.  It loosely translates to mean sub-heading, but there’s some question about how the letters d-e-k were chosen to indicate this.  It’s thought the term came from the term “deck”.

I just found a great blog post about journalistic terms:  click here.

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Heading Into the Holidays

The holidays are coming!  The holidays are coming!
While writing a children’s novel these past two years, I know firsthand how difficult it can be to stay focused and on track during the madness of the season. As an unpublished author, it’s very easy to tell myself, “Well, my novel can sit for a few weeks while I…
…put up the Christmas tree
…purchase/wrap/deliver presents for my children’s teachers
…get the holiday shopping done for my family
…take a breather to sit by the fire and read the Books section of the NYT…and kick myself for not working more seriously on my OWN book.”
This January, I’ll be traveling back to the New York City conference of the SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators).  I’ll bring my manuscript for the 2nd year in a row, this time MUCH more polished, much more revised, and much more ready for agents and editors to look at.
I plan on meeting with agents and editors while I’m there. Will I land a contract?  Last year when I attended, I had fully hoped so.  I now know my novel needed more time and revision.  I’ve been patient.  I’ve been working as hard as I can, both on this novel and on my new and unexpected column for Patch.com. I’ve still got a bit more time to finalize my draft before I head to the Big Apple.  I plan to make the most these 45 days until I leave on Thursday, January 27, 2011.  I’m now keeping a calendar of how many days are left until I’m there.
One of the most inspirational kicks in the pants I’ve received this week was an email from one of my critique group partners, Meg Fleming Lentz.  She’s a writer you’ll definitely hear more about in the coming months and years.  She’s fantastic, both as a writer AND as a team player.  She’s got the enthusiasm of 10 people, and she encourages everyone to be their best.  She just sent this suggestion to the members of our critique group:
When I was in LA two years ago, the editor Dinah Stevenson from Clarion Books gave a talk on “The Four C’s.”  Here are a few notes:

1)  CREATIVITY-  “Be Brave enough to live creatively'” she says, “Write something ONLY YOU can write.”

2)  CRAFT-  “Being a skilled practitioner of your craft is being good at writing.  Don’t settle for almost right words.  Craft is a process.”

3)  COMMUNITY- “Through helping others, we help ourselves.  Man ceased to be an ape… vanquished the ape… when the first book was written.”

4)  CHOCOLATE-  “Treat yourself.  Writing is hard.  Getting the work published is the easy part.  Decide what your “4th C” is and decide when to reward yourself!  Mine happens to be chocolate.”

I think we should share our 4th C with each other… just a small something.  If your not-so-guilty-pleasure after meeting a goal is chocolate, then bring 4 chocolate bars… if you treat yourself w/ a guiltless-game of Suduko, tear a few pages out of your favorite Suduko book and let us have at it, or if you treat yourself w/ “FREE READING TIME”… find 4 favorite previously read books that are lying around and recycle them w/ AWESOME writers such as ourselves.  Let’s keep it easy,simple… and stress free.

I’m looking forward to our meeting…and figuring out what I should bring for the members of my critique group who SO inspire me to keep going, ESPECIALLY at this time of year.

So You Want to Write A Children’s Book…or…Finding a Passion

Actually, maybe you don’t want to write a children’s book.  Maybe that’s the absolutely last thing on earth you’d ever wish on your worst enemy.

I respect that.

Maybe you’re reading this because there’s an occasional oddball story including one of my kids’ humorous antics…or a confession about the tears I frequently shed while banging my head against the wall, trying not to lose my focus on my novel.

Still, I’m so glad you’re here.

No matter why you’re reading this blog, I promise you’ll always hear the truth.

My maternal grandmother, Edna Jane, always used to say Jesus Christine, you’re just so earthy. She certainly didn’t mean that as a way of describing me as a crunchy, granola licking, makeup-free hippie chick from Evanston, Illinois (although I’ve been known to crunch the granola and forgo makeup on many occasions).  She meant it as a way of saying I was brutally honest.  Sort of in a shocking, Joan Rivers, Chelsea Handler kind of way…calling it like I see it, saying what someone else might think — yet hesitate to say.

There was a huge chunk of my life — early 20s through my 30s — when I was trying desperately to find my voice.  My honest voice.  My meaningful self that could connect deeply with people.  At that time, I bounced from business job to business job, trying to fit where I thought I ought to be.  That time was beyond bleak, working in positions I honestly hated.  If you’ve had that experience, you know it’s almost too painful to put into words, but I’ll try.  You dread waking up.  Dread the decisions that led you there.  Dread the future.  Dread putting one foot in front of another.

People work in jobs they hate all the time…often because there isn’t an alternative or an option to get out.

I slowly opened my heart and my mind to new experiences.  Earning my teaching certificate was my first baby-step toward finding my true voice. It afforded me the gift of working with children.  There’s magic in their wonder and enthusiasm; honesty and pure emotion unlike anything else in life.  Whether a child is typical or developmentally delayed, you are guaranteed to see who they are at all times — no airs, no pretense, no posturing.  Kids are earthy, alright.   They can’t help it.  They say it like they feel it.

And so, it only makes sense that my earthy personality connects easily with children, through teaching or writing or just plain connecting.  For God’s sake, I don’t fancy myself a “natural” with kids, and I’ve had hundreds of moments I’d rather not recount when my patience ran thin with a classroom or a child — particularly my own.  But I feel at ease with kids, probably because I’m so very much like them.  Very few things motivate me as much as helping  people — especially children — who are struggling inside.

Funky segue, but hang with me here…My journey toward becoming a published children’s author brings me to many peaks and valleys.  The valleys sometimes appear as feelings of defeat or exhaustion, but the peaks include stumbling across a site like www.calla.com.  It provides concrete basics for writers wrapping their heads around the “requirements” of children’s publishing.

And so, to have lived through seemingly dreadful times and come out on the “other side”, doing what I love to do — writing — I can only share my words of encouragement to others stumbling into this world like I did.

Open your heart, and your mind will listen for the things you need.

Open your mind, and your heart will lead you toward the right decisions.

It’s scary, but find your voice by asking for help when you need it.

A Format For Writers to Consider

Alexandra Sokoloff is a screenwriter and author recommended by one of my critique group partners, Veronica Scrol.  Veronica has employed Sokoloff’s three-act, eight sequence structure with her manuscript — and I’m inspired to try it myself.

Click here for Sokoloff’s blog, outlining how to incorporate the process into your own writing.

For visual folks like me, it seems like a logical, organized, and effective way to see what’s accomplished and what’s missing from my work.

Some GREAT advice taken directly from Sokoloff’s blog that I want to remember:

Here is a photo of the grid on a white board – with sticky Post Its as index cards:

And my friend, the wonderful author Diane Chamberlain, has some great illustrative pictures of the grid on her blog. (Far neater than any grid I’ve ever done for myself!)

So you have your structure grid in front of you.

What you will start to do now is brainstorm scenes, and that you do with the index cards.

A movie has about 40 to 60 scenes (a drama more like 40, an action movie more like 60), so every scene goes on one card. This is the fun part, like putting together a jigsaw puzzle. All you do at first is write down all the scenes you know about your movie, one scene per card. You don’t have to put them in order yet, but if you know where they go, or approximately where they go, you can just pin them on your corkboard in approximately the right place. You can always move them around. And just like with a puzzle, once you have some scenes in place, you will naturally start to build other scenes around them.

I love the cards because they are such an overview. You can stick a bunch of vaguely related scenes together in a clump, rearrange one or two, and suddenly see a perfect progression of an entire sequence. You can throw away cards that aren’t working, or make several cards with the same scene and try them in different parts of your story board.

You will find it is often shockingly fast and simple to structure a whole story this way.

And this eight-sequence structure translates easily to novels. Now, if you’re structuring a novel this way, you may be doubling or tripling the scene count, but for me, the chapter count remains exactly the same: forty to sixty chapters to a book. And you might have an extra sequence or two per act, but I think that in most cases you’ll find that the number of sequences is not out of proportion to this formula. With a book you can have anything from 250 pages to 1000 (well, you can go that long only if you’re a mega-bestseller!), so the length of a sequence and the number of sequences is more variable. But an average book these days is between 300 and 400 pages, and since the recession, publishers are actually asking their authors to keep their books on the short side, to save production costs, so why not shoot for that to begin with?

I write books of about 300 – 350 pages (print pages), and I find my sequences are about 50 pages, getting shorter as I near the end. But I might also have three sequences of around 30 pages in an act that is 100 pages long. You have more leeway in a novel, but the structure remains pretty much the same.

In the next few posts we’ll talk about how to plug various obligatory scenes into this formula to make the structuring go even more quickly – scenes that you’ll find in nearly all stories, like opening image, closing image, introduction of hero, inner and outer desire, stating the theme (as early in the story as possible), call to adventure/inciting incident, introduction of allies, love interest, mentor, opponent, hero’s and opponent’s plans, plants and reveals, setpieces, training sequence, dark night of the soul, sex at sixty, hero’s arc, moral decision, etc.

And for those of you who are reeling in horror at the idea of a formula… it’s just a way of analyzing dramatic structure. No matter how you create a story yourself, chances are it will organically follow this flow. Think of the human body: human beings (with very few exceptions) have the exact same skeleton underneath all the complicated flesh and muscles and nerves and coloring and neurons and emotions and essences that make up a human being. No two alike… and yet a skeleton is a skeleton; it’s the foundation of a human being.

And structure is the foundation of a story.

ASSIGNMENTS:

Make two blank structure grids, one for the movie you have chosen from your master list to analyze, and one for your WIP (Work In Progress). You can just do a structure grid on a piece of paper for the movie you’ve chosen to analyze, but also do a large corkboard or cardboard structure grid for your WIP. You can fill out one structure grid while you watch the movie you’ve chosen.

Get a pack of index cards or Post Its and write down all the scenes you know about your story, and where possible, pin them onto your WIP structure grid in approximately the place they will occur.

If you are already well into your first draft, then by all means, keep writing forward, too – I don’t want you to stop your momentum. Use whatever is useful about what I’m talking about here, but also keep moving.

And if you have a completed draft and are starting a revision, a structure grid is a perfect tool to help you identify weak spots and build on what you have for a rewrite. Put your story on cards and watch how quickly you start to rearrange things that aren’t working!

Now, let me be clear. When you’re brainstorming with your index cards and you suddenly have a full-blown idea for a scene, or your characters start talking to you, then of course you should drop everything and write out the scene, see where it goes. Always write when you have a hot flash. I mean – you know what I mean. Write when you’re hot.

Ideally I will always be working on four piles of material, or tracks, at once:

1. The index cards I’m brainstorming and arranging on my structure grid.

2. A notebook of random scenes, dialogue, character descriptions that are coming to me as I’m outlining, and that I can start to put in chronological order as this notebook gets bigger.

3. An expanded on-paper (or in Word) story outline that I’m compiling as I order my index cards on the structure grid.

4. A collage book of visual images that I’m pulling from magazines that give me the characters, the locations, the colors and moods of my story (we will talk about Visual Storytelling soon.)

In the beginning of a project you will probably be going back and forth between all of those tracks as you build your story. Really this is my favorite part of the writing process – building the world – which is probably part of why I stay so long on it myself. But by the time I start my first draft I have so much of the story already that it’s not anywhere near the intimidating experience it would be if I hadn’t done all that prep work.

At some point (and a deadline has a lot to do with exactly when this point comes!) I feel I know the shape of the story well enough to start that first draft. Because I come from theater, I think of my first draft as a blocking draft. When you direct a play, the first rehearsals are for blocking – which means simply getting the actors up on their feet and moving them through the play on the stage so everyone can see and feel and understand the whole shape of it. That’s what a first draft is to me, and when I start to write a first draft I just bash through it from beginning to end. It’s the most grueling part of writing, and takes the longest, but writing the whole thing out, even in the most sketchy way, from start to finish, is the best way I know to actually guarantee that you will finish a book or a script.

Everything after that initial draft is frosting – it’s seven million times easier to rewrite than to get something onto a blank page.

Then I do layer after layer after layer – different drafts for suspense, for character, sensory drafts, emotional drafts – each concentrating on a different aspect that I want to hone in the story – until the clock runs out and I have to turn the whole thing in.

But that’s my process. You have to find your own. If outlining is cramping your style, then you’re probably a “panster” – not my favorite word, but common book jargon for a person who writes best by the seat of her pants. And if you’re a pantser, the methods I’ve been talking about have probably already made you so uncomfortable that I can’t believe you’re still here!

Still, I don’t think it hurts to read about these things. I maintain that pantsers have an intuitive knowledge of story structure – we all do, really, from having read so many books and having seen so many movies. I feel more comfortable with this rather left-brained and concrete process because I write intricate plots with twists and subplots I have to work out in advance, and also because I simply wouldn’t ever work as a screenwriter if I wasn’t able to walk into a conference room and tell the executives and producers and director the entire story, beginning to end. It’s part of the job.

But I can’t say this enough: WHATEVER WORKS. Literally. Whatever. If it’s getting the job done, you’re golden.

– Alex

Lady and the Tramp

My 13-year-old son announced this morning that he’s having lunch with a girl.

It’s a half day of school, so they’ll be walking to the local Noodles & Company for a bite to eat.

He’s never had an official “date” before — at least, not that I’ve known about.  He politely asked for some money, and I handed him $25, knowing that was plenty.

“Hmmm,” he said nervously.  “Do you think this is enough?”

Do I think it’s enough?  What else are you thinking about getting? Suddenly I had a vision of them finishing lunch, walking to 7-11 and getting Slurpees.  The guy at the 7-11 counter has an open copy of some trashy magazine, and the back wall is filled with rows and rows of cigarettes and …STOP!  Do NOT go there…lalalalalalalalalalalalalala.

I’ll just keep this Disney-ish vision in my head of their lunch and hope I get lots and lots of change back.