Friday, August 17, 2012

A Tip About Description

Question: How do I know if I’m over- or under-describing a scene?

The trick I use is this: write as if describing a memory. Think about an event that took place in your recent past. Certain details stand out, like the temperature of the air, or the reflective light of the moon off the water, or how a certain object or person felt against your hand.

To go even deeper, maybe the aroma of the barbecue permeated so strongly that you could taste it and the walls of your mouth prickled with saliva. You might not remember what you were wearing, the exact temperature, the wind direction, what the barbecue looked like, or even who was grilling.

Maybe, the moment your tires lost traction on the asphalt, you remember the spike of adrenaline like electricity through each of your veins. You might not remember how the moment of impact jarred your body, or when the glass shattered, or what direction your car skidded in.

I never remember every single detail of a memory, but my brain fills out the rest with unimportant ambiguous shapes. Your reader will as well. It’s important to guide your reader and not control them. If you look at a professional or classical painting, certain things will catch your attention first, as intended by the artist’s composition. The rest of the painting bleeds out from the focal point, leading the eye of the viewer in a dance across the canvas.

The little details, crisp and unchallenged by overt competing description, are the focal points in the pictures that you paint with words. Guide the eyes of your reader in a dance across your world.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The word count of your manuscript

--matters a lot. But at the same time, it doesn't mean anything.

I've planned many books and written many outlines, and I've come to write my outlines in such a way that I orient the whole thing around predicting a word count. For me, this is normal. I tend to ram my shoulder up against the wall of recommended word counts for young adult, which is usually 70,000-100,000 words for a single manuscript (and of course there are those who break those rules and get away with it, but debut 130,000 words like City of Bones are few).

The word count, of course, can be thrown out the window if your PACING is phenomenal. If you've trimmed all the fat and you've written a true commercial page-turner, then 130,000 words means nothing.

Well, that's what I've been told, but let's be honest: a word count in a query to a literary agent is like judging a face before you meet the person. Querying a 100,000 young adult manuscript written by an unpublished author is a daunting task -- and I've done it a few times, so I know. It comes with a stigma.

"Does this author know how to pace or is there a lot of unnecessary narrative in here?"

"Am I going to take the risk and look into it, or should I look at the next query with a similar premise and a more modest word count?"

"How difficult will this be to sell to a publisher?"

Because a larger word count is more expensive, which naturally means they're more difficult to sell.

Orienting my outline so I can predict a word count is absolutely necessary for me. This helps me avoid a more arduous task when I've finished the last word on the final page: finding out my word count is way too big and having to find scenes and parts to chop off. It hurts. I cry and sweat and lay face-down, flat on the floor in a dark corner until I grow mushrooms.

I don't even like mushrooms.

If you haven't learned the language of word counts and you plan to one day seek publication, then you should familiarize yourself with it early on. This means if you say, "I finished a chapter!" and I ask you, "How many words?" you can't say, "Oh, I don't know, but it's seven pages."

Pages mean nothing. I don't know how you're formatting your pages, if you write with thin slivers for indents or extra paragraph spaces or comic sans (and I don't want to know if you're writing in comic sans).

Managing your word count may make your phalanges twitch in displeasure, but as someone who took a 166,000 word manuscript and shrunk it to 106,000, only to make it worse, I believe the minor pain is worth it. To me, it's like guiding a bonsai tree as it grows, caring for and nurturing it day-by-day, instead of letting it expand chaotically and then chopping off unnecessary limbs after.

The key, of course, is finding out what works best for you.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

An Intriguing New Project Dripping in Spaghetti

A new and interesting project has fallen into my lap, and I'm so excited I'm going to tell you guys about it! Maybe it'll inspire your own juices. Or maybe you'll think it's silly. Let's see, huh?

First, some background info. My big Italian family decided to have a big Italian family reunion of sorts. It wasn't a legit family reunion where we sought out all of the DeRubi known to man or anything like that. Just an excuse to get everyone in the same place together. Mostly it was a bunch of grumpy, smoking old men eating their sausage and peppers and laughing at one another.

We even had an Italian flag frozen in an ice sculpture.

We really like being Italian, in case you didn't notice.

Sarah came to a family get together of ours. She didn't know so many types of noodles could exist in one house at the same time.

I guess in that way we're sort of stereotypical. We're always loud and everyone's in everyone else's business. We're pretty close knit. I mean, I saw my cousins as much as I saw my own sister, so in a way, they're like my little brothers. And that's how this idea came about.

My cousin says he wants to compile all of our old stories and pictures together and create a book from it. He's found a small publishing company, and it's not really publishing it so much as it is just printing the book, 15 copies or so, and just handing them out for the family to have. He handed out a letter to all of the family members, asking for submissions. Any stories they are particularly fond of, any pictures they want to share, that's what we want. We, because I've become the co-pilot in his operation.

I guess I'm so excited for this is because it comes in the wake of our grandmother's death, and when she died, a lot of stories and pictures we were never exposed to came out. We want more of that. We want it all before it's lost, as so many have already gone with my grandmother, things we'll never get to hear now. And preserving that is so important to us.

I'm having breakfast with my cousin tomorrow, and we'll talk more about the details. I don't know exactly how we'll accomplish this or in what manner it will be written or put together just yet. I'll keep you guys updated as it comes, how would you like that?

Would you undertake such a project? What sort of things would you put into your family's own story book? Do you have any ideas how to execute such a project?

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Backhanding Procrastination

Us creative folk are the masters of procrastination (perhaps second only to our government figureheads). We’ve got it down to a form of art, which is cool and all, but not really.

So how do we conquer this irritating part of ourselves? You might have seen advice of “stop thinking about it and just do it” or “write everyday”, but maybe it feels like sea legs when you’re trying to apply those suggestions – as in, it’s really hard to find proper balance.

This is okay. You’re not alone in this struggle, and the last thing you should think is “I’ll never be able to—” because you can. The tips below are things that have worked for me and others, so give them a shot for yourself:

Set goals
Before you begin, decide exactly how many words you’re going to write or panels you’re going to sketch. Make your goal realistic, obtainable, but also challenging. If you think you have enough wherewithal to write 1000 words for the day, then set the goal at 1,500. Don’t think of your word count as numbers on a scale to agonize over – think of it as how many miles you ran.

Prepare ahead
Organize all your thoughts beforehand. Outlines are perfect for this, whether you’re a super-detailed outliner or not an outliner at all. Jot down simple notes, even if they’re as vague as, “Protag goes for a run. Protag finds out about a special power. Protag leaps skyscrapers. Protag hits head off a commercial jetliner.” This will help you visualize, and most importantly, it won’t let you get to the point of, “Golly gee, I don’t know what comes next, I guess I’ll go on tumblr and think about it.”

Because you might go onto tumblr and never come out again.

Get yourself in the mood
This works in all contexts. But really, before I write, I listen to the right music I need (and it’s usually super epic music, too). Before I draw, I browse artist websites like Deviantart. It helps get my momentum going even before I begin.

Be your own peer pressure
This can actually be where social media websites come in handy: tell a writing or drawing buddy, or the whole twitterverse or tumblrverse or facebook community, that you’re going to be working on your creative project(s). If you’ve got no-BS friends, then as soon as you sneak on, they’ll slap some sense back into you and command you go back to work.

Or, even if you don’t, you at least have that marker there to remind you that you need to be working, like putting up a fence around a playground. You can still get in, but you have to climb over.

Orchestrate sprints
My lovely friend Anna will set ten-to-fifteen minute sprints, where she focuses everything into writing and doesn’t stop until that last minute is up. Then, it’s a good idea to stop for a breather before doing another sprint. Breather, then sprint. Over and over. She might do this until she gets to her word count goal, or explodes.

Create in your comfort zone
Us creative individuals pull from a deep part of the soul, which leaves us incredibly vulnerable. If we’re not in a place where we feel comfortable and protected, it might be difficult to allow ourselves to open up. I, personally, have to write in a “cave”, which is usually a smaller room with an arched ceiling, and I have to be near the window. It’s got to be brightly lit and properly ventilated.

But not everyone has a place like this. If you’re one of those, find a coffee shop or an internet cafĂ© where you can tuck yourself into a quiet corner, stick your earphones in, and turn off the rest of the world. I’ve had to do this too, and it took a while to get used to, but it was either that or something along the lines of exploding like Anna.

Like any muscle, if you don’t use it, it atrophies. The more you pull on your creative strings, the easier it gets. If you let yourself fall out of the habit of writing or drawing every day, then you’re going to find it much more difficult to jump right back into a regular pattern. If you’re at this point, take baby steps. Start at a reasonable point and build yourself up to where you want to be.

Know your limits
As I’ve mentioned in this post, pushing yourself too hard can backfire. If this happens, take a break, do something else, come back later. The last thing you want to do is associate negative feelings with writing or drawing or whatever your art is. It’s supposed to be what you love to do, so do it because you can’t not do it.

Reward yourself
Did you make your goals? Complete your sprints? Got a good daily routine going? Then treat yourself to ice-cream or a Game of Thrones marathon or, heck, aimless tumblr surfing. Positive reinforcement keeps your morale high and your creative juices constantly churning. It’s also good for your heart health, or something, and that’s very important too.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Do You Have Trouble With Your Titles?

A title is one of the first chances you have to intrigue a reader – as well as a potential agent or publisher. An alluring title could make the difference between reaching the hands of a literary agent or sitting in the slush pile for another few months.

For me, a book cover is what catches my eye first (I won’t lie, especially if it’s a shiny book cover), but an evocative title is what makes me actually pick a book up. Here are some of my personal favorites off the top of my head:

The Forest of Hands and Teeth
City of Bones
The Looking Glass Wars
Hush, Hush
13 Reasons Why
The Girl of Fire and Thorns
The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer
Under the Never Sky
Jessica's Guide to Dating on the Dark Side
Some Girls Are
Possession (paired with the cover was incredibly brilliant)

Each of the aforementioned either convinced me to pick the book up instantly, or remained imprinted in my brain so that I remembered the title and sought it out later.

So how the heck do you create a title like that?

I start thinking of a title as soon as I’ve solidified the premise of my manuscript, and I begin smashing words together after I’ve jotted a rough outline. I do this because, as I write, the title evolves with my writing (often dramatically, since I rarely find a winner within the first few tries). If I have some sort of rough idea to start, then I have something to work with as I go along, and then I don’t reach the end of a manuscript and think, “…..How do title?”

Start with anything but “untitled”. Don’t cheat yourself out of the chance to get your first words or ideas down, just like with anything you write. Slap words onto paper or a document, even if you cringe and writhe in agony. Getting over this initial hump will help you tremendously, and as you oh-so contentedly go on about writing (if only it were that easy), give yourself opportunities at certain points to rethink your title with these questions:

Does it give hint to what the story is about?

Does it sound like how my story is written?

Does it give a sense of atmosphere?

Does it create a question in which a potential reader will need to answer?

For example, one of my most favorite titles is “The Forest of Hands and Teeth”. This was a book I did not pick up right away, but I couldn’t shake the title out of my brain and ended up reading it a couple years later (yes, a couple YEARS later). This title is amazing in that it inspires imagery, atmosphere, and mood all in six words. It makes us readers ask, “What IS the forest of hands and teeth and why don’t I know about it? What goes on in there and how do the people survive it?”

If horror or dystopian isn’t your cup of soy, then how about “The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer”? I wanted to know who Mara was, and I wanted to know what had happened to her, and what was happening to her. I had the sense of a character unraveling, and I needed to know why. I picked this one up almost right away.

When I think up a title, I don’t stop reimagining it until I’m satisfied long after I settled on it. Epiphanies hit me and I’ll think “I’ve got it this time!” – but then the next day my palm hits my forehead and I’m like, “What was I high on?”

Also, do your title thinking in your best thinking times. For me, it’s while driving and, er…in the shower. Don’t judge me. It’s at these moments that my brain is distracted just enough that I’m not trying too hard to think, and ideas have the most freedom to wriggle into my brain.

If you’re frustrated, or if nothing’s happening as you try to structure your title, you’re thinking much too hard. Loosen up, go for a walk, listen to music, vacuum the house, brush all your cats. Distract yourself. Keep yourself from thinking too hard. Magic often happens when you least expect it.