Video Messages

I’m not a big video watcher. If given the choice, such as with news stories online, I prefer to read the article.

Maybe it’s so that I can skim, maybe so I can interpret the story for myself instead of having the newscaster do that, and maybe just because reading feels more private whereas turning on a video immediately attracts the attention of my children.

But I use video a lot when I teach. It’s such a powerful medium, hitting us with both sight and sound, able to add color and images and music to words.

With some scenes in my novel, I’ve been thinking how much easier they would be to show in a movie. If you want tension in a movie, you have lighting you can dim, sets you can creepify, music you can make ominous, glimpses you can give of movement in the shadows. In the novel, I have to do all that with nothing but words.

Last week my sister-in-law shared a video message from our church on her blog, which got me thinking about videos as rhetoric rather than just storytelling. And yesterday I stumbled across this one below that appeals so well to my personality.

I love her message of individuality within religion, of how she says she thought God wanted her to be a certain way and then she realized she “totally made that up.” And I love the way it’s paired with a green bird on her finger, a painting of a female matador, and all these other visual glimpses of the unique individual she is.

If I were to create a video expressing my perspective on being a Latter-day Saint (LDS), or Mormon, I’d want it to be a lot like this. (Except different, obviously, since the point here is uniqueness.) And I’d want to share it not just with those who aren’t Mormon but with other Mormon women too.

Sometimes we do get wrong ideas, interpreting words the wrong way. Sometimes we get stuck by those wrong ideas, like the LDS women I sometimes meet who feel like they “can’t” or “shouldn’t” have their own pursuits, etc. Sometimes the simple yet powerful medium of video is perfect for providing new perception.

But it’s also great for someone like me who teaches two evenings a week and writes novels at home during the day, trying to balance my own ambitions with raising young kids. The message I take from the video is reassurance that I’m okay.

What video messages have you seen that used the medium well? When do you think the audio and visual components of video are necessary to help words mean more?

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“I HAVE to Read That”: How Many Words Does It Take to Hook a Reader?

Have you ever heard just the tiniest premise about a book and thought, “I have to read that”?

Let me tell you, coming up with that golden tiny premise is not easy on the author’s part. I still dread the prompt, “So tell me what your book’s about,” because I don’t know which part they want to hear. My book’s about a lot of things. It’s so hard to sum up 330 pages in a few sentences!

Here’s my best attempt so far:

Life always ushers in the least likely. How else could the universe amuse itself?

Seventeen and staring down the last summer before graduation, Wendy Stark and the four guys she’s grown up with are making a break from gray-skied Portland — running away from looming adulthood by driving south on a whim and a blog (the ad revenue–generating kind). 

At least, that’s the story they’re telling site visitors. Really, Wendy is evading recently divorced parents, and each boy has his own reasons for tagging along. None of them knows about the fairy stalking them, trying to steal magic Wendy doesn’t know she has.

When the fairy’s pranks flop and her last desperate attempt goes awry, it leaves the guys wondering why “Dee” is suddenly so strange and leaves Wendy, now six inches tall, to learn to fly and dodge predators on her own — and to convince long-lost Peter she’s real.

That’s 150 words exactly, which was my goal. But something’s still not right. I guess my trouble is that I want to give a sense of my characters as well as my plot, but since there are just so many of them, fitting that into a short blurb feels hopeless.

Here’s a sample of some of the character stuff I’ve tried:

Topher has taken misery to a new level since his two-year girlfriend called it quits. Zander might get voted Most Likely to Be Stunned by Tasers thanks to the mob of girls he’s dated and dumped. Paint-splattered Phil keeps threatening to stab his hand if his artwork doesn’t get up to his own standards. And Drew the ever would-be hero would do anything for “Dee” . . . except admit he’s in love with her.

Seventy-five words. I could fit that in the full-page synopsis, but not in the query blurb. And at the super extreme end, here’s the one-sentence summary agents and editors sometimes want (20 words or less):

An ignorant fairy shadows five teens on a road trip, hoping to steal enough magic to survive.

Would that tempt you to read the book?

I’m guessing not yet. My blurbs are not quite there yet. They’re missing some umph.

Here’s the back cover of what I’m reading now (for the second time because I love it so much), I Am the Messenger by Markus Zusak:

protect the diamonds

survive the clubs

dig deep through the spades

feel the hearts

Ed Kennedy is an underage cabdriver without much of a future. He’s pathetic at playing cards, hopelessly in love with his best friend, Audrey, and utterly devoted to his coffee-drinking dog, the Doorman. His life is one of peaceful routine and incompetence until he inadvertently stops a bank robbery.

That’s when the first ace arrives in the mail.

That’s when Ed becomes the messenger.

Chosen to care, he makes his way through town helping and hurting (when necessary) until only one question remains: Who’s behind Ed’s mission?

One-hundred-and-one words that are perfect. I know the premise, I know the main character, I know what kind of story this is, and I want to read it. Yes, the large Printz award on the cover and the FIVE starred reviews inside the cover (one of them featured above the sticker) definitely helped sway me, but I think if I were an agent or editor seeing this in a query letter, the 101-word blurb would have persuaded me to read it, too.

So here’s the question of the day: What does a blurb have to do to make you want to read the book? What books or movies (any story, really) have grabbed you because of a well-worded premise? How many words does it take to hook a reader?

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Stretching My Genre Limits

See this cover? This is so not my kind of book. Even hubby said so when he saw me reading it.

I mean, you can say, “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” all you want, but I much prefer the argument that judging the book is sort of the point of the cover. A cover with detailed art of dragons and sword-wielding heroes is meant to appeal to those who like high fantasy; a cover with a sexy, cleavage-bearing woman swooning in the arms of a muscular hunk is meant to be recognized as Harlequin romance. (They still make them that way, right? I haven’t seen one in a long time, not since I discovered my grandmother’s stash.) Covers are meant to indicate what kind of book it is. 

And a cover with bright-pink-or-purple cutesy fonts is meant to say, “Read me if you love all the drama of scoping out and scheming ways to catch hot boys in high school.”

I rolled my eyes at that stuff even while I was in high school. I mean, I liked boys. I had my share of crushes. But I had little patience for the sagas that so many girls seemed to crave. In fact, I hung out with mostly guys because of the simple fact that they didn’t show up at dances with their mascara running because some other girl had stolen their heart-throb and they didn’t rush over and huddle around the mascara runner anxious to be involved in and know every detail of the drama.

But here’s the surprise of the week: I loved this book.

The premise hooked me before I ever saw the cover. It’s about a high school senior who drops her phone in a fountain and suddenly the only person she can call is her freshman self. And since her senior self (code name: Ivy) just got dumped by the guy she’d wasted three and a half years on, ditched friends for, neglected school for, etc, it feels like the perfect opportunity to convince her freshman self (code name: Frosh) not to make the same mistakes.

Even though I could see pretty early on what the resolution would have to be, it was so much fun to read through all the twists along the way. I loved all the characters and loved watching them experiment with new identities throughout the book (high school was definitely that way). I loved the immediacy of the consequences, how Ivy would tell Frosh to change something and instantly Ivy’s present became completely different, sometimes for the better but often for the worse.

And I loved the message that balance is the life lesson of the day. That’s sort of my motto, too.

Plus, this book didn’t have the things I expected from the genre. It wasn’t about clandestine make-out sessions or back-stabbing girlfriends or any of that drama. It was just about navigating the hairy-scary teenage years when so much (college, friends, even graduation) is riding on your decisions.

In conclusion, I’m glad that I stretched outside my genre comfort zone. I should do it more often, perhaps. I’m sure there are gems in every genre, and maybe there are even whole genres I’ve misjudged.

What about you? Read anything outside your usual genres lately? How did it go? Do you believe in judging a book (or at least its genre) by its cover? What are some books you’ve loved whose covers totally didn’t look like something you’d be into?

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Publication Phobia

Part of me is scared to death of publishing.

It’s okay to admit that, right? I’m pursuing it, despite my fears, but I still find myself spending a ridiculous amount of time problem-solving in my head, working out ways to avoid the things that terrify me the most.

Here are the top two:

#1 – A debut that’s not fantastic. It terrifies me to see so many first-time authors out in the market and never hear about them again. This tells me that your first book has to be fantastic if you want it to launch a career. Thankfully, this is the fear that I have the most control over. I will take my time and make my first book amazing. I will shelve all manuscripts that are not amazing.

#2 – The second book crunch. This terrifies me far more than number one. I hear of so many authors who spend 4–5 years on their first book, sell it to a publisher in a two-book contract, and then are expected to write the second book in 6–12 months.

I understand that YA publishers want the second book to come out a year after the first for a lot of reasons. For one, the young adult audience has a time limit that adult audiences don’t: young adults are only young adults for about six years (at the most). There isn’t much time for an author to win them over. While writers of adult fiction have the luxury of a patient fan base that will remember them and eagerly buy their next book three, four, five or more years after the last one, writers for young adults have to move quickly to retain their readers. They also have to be more interactive with readers on the internet in order to keep the fan base interested in them even in that short one-year interim. It’s understandably a tough market in that sense.

Some writers are prolific enough to handle this crunch just fine. Some of them even write MORE than a book a year, which completely astounds me. I am a slow, methodical writer. I need my simmering time. And while I hope to continue to become more efficient in my writing process, I just don’t believe I can write a quality book in 6–12 months.

Of course, there are some young adult authors who aren’t expected to churn out manuscripts that fast. M. T. Anderson doesn’t publish a book every year, and his novels are incredible. Megan Whalen Turner’s fourth book in her compelling series is coming out in March, and her first, The Thief, came out in 1997. Her original young adult readers have grown up by now, but I believe that it’s because she spends years on each book, perfecting the details, that she appeals to a crossover audience of adults. Her books are amazing, and if I could pick an author to write like, I’d choose her.

So my concern is . . . how do I, as a brand-new author with zero clout, convince the agent and editor I someday sign with that I want to be an M. T. Anderson or a Megan Whalen Turner? How do I convince them not to bind me into a second-book crunch that will devastate the quality of my second novel? How do I convince them to take the risk of time with me? Can I work it into my contract?

Anybody else have phobias like these?

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Getting It

I remember reading a blog post by Emily Wing Smith, author of The Way He Lived, where she said how grateful she was for a particular reviewer who really “got” her book: he understood and appreciated what the book was about, what it was trying to accomplish, what it meant.

As of yesterday I “get” why Emily was so grateful for that! I’ve felt giddy and glowing and happy and hopeful and all those other dancing-around-and-smiling-too-big kind of adjectives.

Our critique group was awesome. It worked out perfectly having four writers, reading each other’s entire novels, and starting our critique discussions with the biggest things first, strengths and weaknesses jumbled together. I’ve got as many revision notes from them as I might get from an editor, and I feel so excited to implement their suggestions and make the manuscript AMAZING before I start querying agents soon.

But my giddiness yesterday and today is specifically because one member of the group — the writer I knew the least, actually — “got” what I was trying to do and loved it.

I know that I’m not writing a book that’s going to appeal to everyone. I didn’t expect all three of my group members to be ecstatic about it. But just having one person — 1/3 of the group — means everything! It means that there is an audience for my book. It means there are people who will love everything about it. It means that all these years I’ve spent learning how to be an author haven’t been wasted. It means I can write something that means something (even if I can’t articulate the feeling itself).

The other two group members were also a huge help, and I don’t mean to discount their contribution. Joel and Holly, thank you so much for all the things you pointed out! It’s so important to get feedback from both your ideal audience and those outside of the audience (who might see it more objectively).golden ticket

But having one person defend my point-of-view choices, my character choices, my thematic choices, and explain to the group exactly what I was doing in exactly the way I would have explained it?

It feels like a golden ticket.

It feels like the book world saying, “Congratulations. You won over another writer. You’ve got a book worth publishing. Please proceed to the next door.”

The next door is still a few months off. Even the group member who loved it pointed out issues I need to address. I’ve got all those revision notes to work through before I can approach agents.

But I understand why Emily was so excited about that review of hers.

Having someone “get” it is huge.

First Comes Twitter, Then Comes Blog

It’s time.  I started tweeting once I discovered the networking possibilities with other writers, and now I need a hub from which to reach out, whether to other writers trying to publish or to my students learning to write.  Today is not the greatest timing, since I’m very stressed about getting everything ready for the start of fall semester tomorrow (sure, you don’t HAVE to have the syllabus ready the first day, but I do), but part of what I’m contemplating for the syllabus in my 2010 class (Intermediate Writing) is having the students put all their work this semester onto a website like wordpress, and as well as being the sort of teacher who has to have a syllabus ready the first day, I’m also the sort of teacher who has to read everything and try everything that I want to have my students read and do.  Thus the creation of this site.

Ironically, the novel that I’m writing now includes a blog, so my characters have been blogging much longer than I have.  That’s another reason that it’s time to do this.  If I’m going to write about blogging, it helps if I’ve had experience with it.  Plus I intend to add an “about” page for the manuscript that will give me practice answering that hellish question: “So what’s your book about?”  You know.  Stuff.  Teens.  Growing up.  All that.

Yep.  Definitely need practice.  Especially since I intend to start shopping the MS to agents within the next few months.  Maybe six months.  We’ll see how much longer it takes to get the whole thing in decent shape.  I’m meeting with a writing group at the end of September, so their opinion of it might determine how much more work it needs.

In the mean time, back to prepping for the semester.  My Intro to Writing class is pretty much ready to go, but I’ve got a lot of tweaking left to do with the Intermediate course.  And then MAYBE (fingers crossed) there will be time for working on the novel.

p.s. while deciding on supplementary readings for 2010 (textbooks are never as good as you want them to be) I came across this satire about punctuation and spelling in today’s blogging, texting, and twittering world; funny stuff (at least to a writer and writing teacher)!