Thursday, August 26, 2010

Dreaming of a Better Dream Scene

Last night I dreamt I was running, running through a forest of trees with number two pencils for their trunks. I was running toward the sea, except instead of waves there were the gentle, symmetrical humps of a book lying open on its spine, and where seagulls should have wheeled and swooped above the water, there drifted flocks of uncoiled paperclips…

No, I’m just kidding. But seriously: why are dream sequences in fiction so tricky and often so poorly executed? I ask because I’ve seen a lot of them, good and less good, come through the slush pile this summer and because, upon reflection, I couldn’t think of a single dream sequence I liked in any book, except, maybe, the opening pages of Rebecca (which just came to me, finally, as I was writing this sentence).

In movies and on television, it’s a different story, so to speak. I can think of lots of really haunting, effective, memorable dream sequences from the screen. (Tony Soprano’s ominous dreams about people he’s “whacked” are the first that come to mind.) But the advantages of the visual arts are easy enough to pinpoint. A producer and director and editing team can work together until a dream matches their collective vision exactly. Their toolbox of special effects and background music and quality acting seems somehow vaster than that of an author, her pen, and merely all the words she can think of.

Also, depending on how heavily laden with symbolism a dream sequence is, a character’s dream can seem too much like telling instead of showing. If the glamorous lead cheerleader in a YA novel keeps up a confident fa├žade with her peers but then dreams about a mortifying situation, the author is taking a shortcut to tell us the character has self-esteem issues instead of showing us, perhaps through interaction with other characters, that there’s a problem. Also, a dream like this would be hard for readers to swallow because, come on—whose dreams are that clear?

On the other hand, if a dream is too full of abstract symbols and metaphors and the author is showing without any interpretation at all, readers either won’t be able to visualize the scene “correctly,” or they won’t understand the significance of the dream, just like the character probably won’t.

So I’d like to know your thoughts, readers. Are there fabulous dream scenes out there from which we should all draw inspiration and formulate strategy? What are some advantages to fitting a dream sequence into your novel? What are some disadvantages? How have you struggled with, or why have you avoided, scenes from the REM cycle?


Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The What Ifs

Like many agents, the practice of using a rhetorical question to open a query letter rubs me the wrong way. I've never really been able to pinpoint why, but over the past month, I've heard ample pitches and read ample queries to allow me to figure this out a little better.

Many of the pitches I heard began with the rhetorical question that probably all authors ask themselves when they begin to write: "What if?" What if spaceships landed in the Himalayas and aliens infiltrated a Buddhist monk colony? What if a woman was charged with murder after the accidental death of her husband? What if Rachel Zoe was actually a zombie? What if The Breakfast Club took place on Antarctica? (In case you were wondering, these are not pitches that I heard.)

This question and the wonder that follows can be the root of inspiration for a story--the knot the author seeks to unravel; the beads the author worries into a plot. So the "What if?" can be a rhetorical question that the author asks herself. It doesn't bother me as part of a pitch. An in-person pitch has more room for conversation, after all, and rhetorical questions are often used in conversation. That being said...

The rhetorical question doesn't work as well in the query letter. I think it's because, in writing, it comes across as a lazy device. This book--an entire manuscript, thousands of words(!)--has been written by you, the author, and has been plumbed from the depths and heights of your imagination. One of the reasons I love reading query letters is because they offer glimpses into that imagination. But using a rhetorical question to start a query letter takes the onus of imagination off of the author and places it on the reader/agent's shoulders. This is a risky practice. It takes an agent out of the query letter and away from your story, when your query is your one chance to showcase the writing and imagination that you poured into your story. You'll be hard-pressed to keep a rapt audience with rhetorical questions, and you need a rapt audience to get the attention your query letter deserves.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Agency News

We're pleased to announce that Laurie Kingery has been nominated as a finalist in the American Christian Fiction Writers' annual contest, the Carol, in the short historical category for The Outlaw's Lady.

The Outlaw's Lady was released in August of 2009 by Steeple Hill Love Inspired Historicals and is the story of a lady photographer in the Rio Grande valley in the 1880's who i's kidnapped by a handsome stranger who may or may not be allied with Mexican bandits.

Congratulations, Laurie!

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Texting 101: It's Here 2 Stay

We live in a world of convenience, and the technology in contemporary books obviously reflects that. Now characters have laptops instead of typewriters, and Prada suits instead of hoop skirts. We fly on planes instead of taking the stage, and we write about cell phones instead of rotary phones or telegrams.

Which leads me to today’s blog topic: how to use text speak/text messages in your manuscript.

With the emergence of texting over the last few years, it’s finally begun to weave its way into contemporary literature. And when done right, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that! Even if you don’t text, you undoubtedly know what it is, and know your readers will, too. It’s almost expected, these days, that you include modern conveniences in your story. As a writer, what you have to be careful of is how you include those things in your work.

Though text messaging is far more prevalent in YA novels than it is in the varying adult genres, it’s still become a trend that I feel needs to be addressed. I’d say around 60-70% of our YA submissions include text messages in one form or another, be it an actual text message, or just a reference. That’s not to say you should take them out; I’ve seen a fair amount of text messages in recent published fiction. They’re woven in seamlessly, and there is, more or less, a purpose for it. They’re also done in such a way that the reader isn’t left guessing as to the text’s meaning.

However, in the submissions we receive, this is where I think things tend to get a little messy. There have been numerous times where I’ve spent a good 20 to 30 minutes trying to decipher all of the text messages an author has included in their manuscript. Words have been made up, or shortened to such an extent that they’re unrecognizable. In one instance, I thought the text messages were actually a code the reader was supposed to crack in order for things to be explained. I was disappointed to find out this wasn’t the case at all – it was just a failed attempt at including text speak in their manuscript.

That being said, I think there are plenty of books that pull off texting very well. Just keep the following in mind when adding texts to your own manuscript.

1. Things like “How r u?” and “I’ll c u 2morrow” are things easily understood by a reader. “W@ up d00d adsouyasdh” is not.
2. Is there a purpose behind using text messages? Could the information be incorprated in another (better) way? If so, it’s probably best to go that route.
3. If your characters are in the same room and could freely speak to one another, don’t resort to a conversation through text messages.
4. One of the main rules of writing is to show, not tell, how things are done. Texting is strictly telling, so you want to keep it to a minimum.
5. Keep it consistent. If you’re going to use text messaging throughout your novel, spell everything the same way.

I firmly believe text messaging in contemporary fiction is something that’s here to stay. So just be sure to include it in a way that makes sense, and doesn’t pull the reader further and further from your piece. After all, writing is about gaining a new audience, and once you have them, it’s up to you to keep them around.

Best of luck!


Wednesday, August 11, 2010

A Little Goes a Long Way: Writing Laughs in Chick Lit

Invariably—yep, I’ll stick to my guns on this one: invariably—chick lit features a funny heroine. There are as many versions of this heroine as there are types of humor, but Ms. Protagonist is funny, in her own way, no matter what curveballs life is chucking at her head. Definitions of chick lit readily acknowledge this basic element of the genre, but many how-to writing guides ignore it as a process to be broken down, unlike plot or character development.

I don’t know the magic humor ratio of a chick lit novel, but I know what seems to work (i.e. what makes me and reviewers laugh out loud) and, perhaps more important, what doesn’t. Take, for example, a passage from an upcoming project here at EPE. The narrator’s name is such that her old flame nicknamed her “Ju-ju,” and when they reunite after twenty-five years, he recoins the term of endearment immediately:
He gave a low laugh. “Sorry, Ju-ju. I didn’t mean to startle you. I was aiming for pleasant surprise.”

Ju-ju. Holy God, I hadn’t heard that name in twenty-five years. Charlie had coined it at the height of our heat. I was his Ju-ju, he’d murmured in bed, his fetish, his lucky charm. I hadn’t the heart to tell him Ju-ju meant “breast milk” in Korean.
Here, humor is introduced at the very end of the paragraph, which otherwise might have been fairly generic. The first three sentences of the second paragraph point toward the narrator feeling sentimental and nostalgic. But the fourth line, because of its placement and unexpectedness, comes off like a punch line, and readers smile in appreciation. The narrator isn’t feeling totally sappy after all. When the author can go on at length about the nickname’s history, she cuts herself short with a quick, clever joke, and when she can take the joke even further—e.g. “I didn’t think Charlie would have been too enthusiastic about calling me his ‘breast milk’ over and over, although my mother would have found it hilarious…”—she reins things in and moves along in the scene. The next line is the narrator’s reply to Charlie.

Herein lies something approaching a how-to for chick lit humor. It seems there are (at least) two major factors to keep track of when writing a funny chick: placement and unexpectedness. Placement deals with questions like whether a joke will ruin the tone of the scene, whether it will slow down a paragraph’s pace, or even whether it will distract a reader from the lines that come before and after it. If a narrator’s silly musings get so off track that they’re no longer related to the scene at hand, chances are the humor has gone too far.

Likewise with unexpectedness, if readers can see a joke coming from a mile away, its effect is diminished. Just as people will notice when someone is trying too hard to make a good impression at a party, so too will we sense when an author is focused on cracking jokes at the expense of plot progression or realistic character development.

These considerations are especially important in chick lit because of the aforementioned funny-chick narrator requirement, but as a diversely experienced slush reader, I know writers of all genres struggle with humor. Notable bedfellows are genres like YA (too-sassy teen narrators often make readers want to ground them) and thriller novels (you’re being shot at from a plane and you have the presence of mind to voice hilarious one-liners to your partner in crime—really?).

This post is certainly not a how-to for writing funny narrators. (If only I knew it so well!) It’s a call for caution, or at least for awareness. An author’s fabulous sense of humor will not necessarily transfer, intact, to her heroine, but it’s important that if a narrator is aiming to be funny, she does so pretty successfully. A narrator who is trying for laughs but failing is often not engaging enough to spend the length of a novel with. My time so far at EPE has taught me that, indeed, the reverse—a narrator who isn’t trying for laughs but gets them anyway—is the trickier but preferred route.


Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Lost and confused: Point of view changes

Last time I wrote about captivating the wide, tricky YA audience. This time I have another tricky topic to cover: multiple narrating characters. There is nothing more confusing when reading a partial manuscript (a.k.a. the first three chapters or the first 50 pages) where the narrative point of view changes without any indication. I have been befuddled and completely lost within the first ten pages of several partials and left to decipher which character is narrating. Nothing is worse than having a confused reader because it leaves them feeling either unintelligent for not being able to follow the reading, or uninterested in the novel completely. Neither of these options are good for you as the author.

Don’t get me wrong, I understand the writing mastermind behind narrative POV changes and I have read numerous published books and a few partials that nail this and allow the plot to completely open up through multiple characters. There are two main differences between those partials that nail this literary concept and those that flop: the lack of signaling and consistency.

Signaling is not difficult, but necessary. This can be done through each chapter being titled with the characters name (i.e. William Faulker’s As I Lay Dying), diary entries/time stamps, noticeable spacing, etc. It is important to have a clear indication that the reader can easily identify.

Also important is that you are consistent with how you indicate to the reader the change in POV. In addition, be consistent to the POV you allocate to each character. If Jane is introduced using third person narration, while Bob is introduced using first person, then Jane’s narration should consistently be in third person and Bob’s narration should always be in first.

Point of view changes are manageable, so don’t be discouraged. If you believe your novel should be told through multiple viewpoints, my greatest suggestion would be to proofread your manuscript yourself or have a proofreading buddy. If you become lost, or your buddy becomes lost because of the switches, then don’t send the partial in. The last thing you want is to send your partial to an agent and have the agent and interns lost before your partial submission is complete.