Monday, April 27, 2015

Lessons from the Trenches: What I Learned from Reading 90 Submissions


Within a relatively short period of time, I was charged with reading the synopsis and first ten pages of almost 90 adult novel manuscripts. That's a whole lot of different plots, characters, perspectives, and narrative styles. It was a daunting task, but I emerged with a better understanding of what works, and what doesn't work in submissions to editors, agents, and writing contests. Before my observations slip into distant memory, I'd like to share some of the problems I identified.

Let's face it, writing is HARD! Writing a good synopsis is a pain. A headache. A necessity! It might just be the most important part of any submission. After reading almost 90 of these puppies, I have a new appreciation for the importance of clarity in synopses. (Yes, that is the plural of synopsis). Some of what I read was truly stellar, and I'm sure they'll land with the right editor soon. Unfortunately, in many other cases, I was left scratching my head, wondering "but what is the story?" or "who is the main character?" or "what does that have to do with...?" Unlike the one-line summary, or elevator pitch, or the teasing query to an editor or agent, your synopsis should give a complete, but condensed picture of the entire story. In one or two pages, your synopsis needs to reveal the main character(s) and their motivations and problem, the most important plot points, the climax, the emotional change in the character, and the resolution. This isn't the place for a tease, or wide-sweeping generalizations.



In no particular order, here are some problems identified in almost 90 synopses:
1) Using the synopsis to give the history of the setting, or the backstory of the characters, thereby ignoring the character and plot at hand.
2) Failing to clearly identify the main protagonist(s). The synopsis reader needs to know who the point-of-view character(s) is, so that we know whose story it is.
3) Not indicating the emotional trajectory of the character through the plot line. Remember, there is an active plot, and an emotional plot.
4) Including too many secondary characters in the synopsis. They clutter your summary. Stick with only the characters that drive the primary plot.
5) Presenting a childhood-to-death storyline. *Yes, it has been done in adult literature, but it can easily feel like a biography rather than a novel, if not crafted well. Always consider the narrative arc.
6) Related to #4: Beware the multi-generational storyline: beginning with one pov character until his/her death, then switching to his/her child's or grandchild's pov. I ran across several of these. It is especially challenging when a first person pov character dies.
7) Related to #5: When planning multiple pov characters, it should be clear in the synopsis. And the intersecting plot points need to be clear, too.
8) Stating that the character must reach his/her goal, but not stating how. We need those big plot points.
9) Leaving out the resolution. The agent, editor, or contest judge reading your entry needs to know upfront, how the story ends, and how your character changes. By the resolution, we need to identify the story's theme(s).
10) Writing a synopsis that does not match the manuscript pages submitted. If the characters introduced in the synopsis, do not appear in your first chapter, it might indicate that the story isn't focused enough, or that you begin the story too far from the main character and the inciting incident.
11) Confusing a synopsis with a query.

In no particular order, here are some problems identified in the first ten pages of almost 90 submissions:
1) Beginning the story too soon. In other words, too far from the day the main character's world changes. Your early pages need to hook the reader.
2) Beginning the story with an info dump, or back story, rather than with character.
3) Info dumps, in general, because they disrupt the flow of the story. It is better to reveal backstory as the reader needs it.
4) Beginning with secondary characters. *Especially problematic when these characters aren't important enough to be introduced in the synopsis.
5) Relying too much on foreshadowing to create tension. Sometimes, this can indicate too much narrative/psychic distance. Keep your reader in the moment. Build tension organically.
6) Using passive language, rather than active language. Zero in on to-be verbs, and adverbs.
7) Using language that is either too flat and dry, or too flowery and overdone.
8) Not allowing characters to have distinct voices in dialogue and/or internal monologue.
9) Not developing character. If you can't begin the story on the day something changes for your pov character, at least develop him/her enough to allow the reader a glimpse into his/her wants, desires, and fears that feed into the emotional journey to come. We should glimpse the theme early on.
10) Having a narrator that sneaks in with random opinions, or direct address to the character, the reader, or both, unless there is a logical reason for this. Narrators who are characters require some development. Above all, be consistent.
11) Inconsistent character names. Beware sudden switches to nicknames.
12) Changing tense, or pov.
13) Mis-spelled words, grammatical errors, punctuation errors. I never realized how distracting this can be.
14) First ten pages that don't reflect what is revealed in the synopsis.
15) Including a Chekhov's gun element. Beware focusing on an object/prop without giving relevance to it.
16) Plopping new characters into a scene, without identifying them beyond name. And, yes, sometimes we need to have stage direction to avoid the "where'd he come from?"
17) Missing dialogue tags, when multiple characters are speaking.
18) Too much psychic distance. If the lens is too far away, it's difficult for the reader to be emotional invested, unless the language is compelling enough.
19) Having a first person narrator that is not identified, not an active part of the story, and not developed as a character.


Putting together a submission packet is a nerve-racking challenge. It is easy to either overwrite or underwrite. My best advice is to have a trusted writing friend read through your synopsis and manuscript pages to identify any holes in logic, missing information, and extraneous details. And, give yourself time to put the submission in a drawer for a week or two before you go back to it with fresh eyes. Distance yourself enough so that you can read a bit more objectively. Ask yourself if your synopsis summarizes the entire book, and if your first ten pages adequately hook your reader into wanting to read more. Remember, you have one chance to make a positive first impression.

Happy writing!








Monday, February 2, 2015

Guest Blogger: Carmen Oliver on her First Book Contract

I am thrilled to welcome my friend Carmen Oliver as my guest blogger today. I feel a like a proud matchmaking sister as the official news of Carmen's first book sale has just been announced. Before I step off the stage, here's a little back story about why I have a double sense of pride about this news.

Some time ago, I stumbled upon an article about Favio Chavez, a remarkable man in Paraguay who creates musical instruments out of landfill garbage. With them, he provides a musical education and a lesson in hope to the disadvantaged children in his poor community. I was intrigued enough to dig into it a little. I just knew that his story needed to be a children's book! Yet, as much as I was smitten, the story had Carmen written all over it. She's particularly drawn to stories about people who make a difference in the world and this one just felt like it belonged with her. Carmen and I have been friends for a very long time, journeying the path to publication together. I had a fairly good sense of her style. Like any good matchmaker, arranging a blind date on a hunch, I sent her an email that read something like, "I think this story is meant for you." Thankfully, she agreed. In the end, I'm pleased to have shared the idea, but Carmen's research, her unique angle, and her word-magic spun the story in just the right way. It was the perfect match, after all.  I couldn't be more proud of her. And I know this is only the first in a long line of books to come from her.

Congatulations, Carmen! 




 “Stepping Over the Threshold – The First Children’s Book Contract”

Over the last six months, I’ve had plenty of time to reflect as I waited on my first nonfiction picture book contract to come together. During this time, I had moments of doubt wondering if it would materialize. And in these times, I would tell myself – keep the faith and keep climbing. In other words, I worked on other writing projects. I took care of my Booking Biz clients’ needs.  I pushed myself to be the best I could be because there’s so much more climb left in me.

I've been working at writing for children for over twelve years. If I'm honest with myself, longer, as I've been reading and digesting books since "the beginning of time." Even so, I know I'm just starting to crest that mountain and that there's a lot more mountain to climb. And though it can sound sappy to say "It's the journey," I can tell you it is the journey that I'm still on that means the most to me. The people I've met along the way -- the mentors, teachers, confidants, and heroes -- who have become my friends. The exceptional SCBWI conference experiences, the opportunities to apprentice, volunteer, learn. This long (and on-going) journey makes me the writer I am and it makes me a better writer, with each revision and critique. And whether every manuscript finds a home, I celebrate in each story's journey. And contracts are icing that can put bread on the table, so who doesn't love a good publishing contract.

I’ll admit. I used to think about how incredible it would feel to say I’m published. And I won’t lie; it feels great to get to this point where I’m stepping over the threshold! But not because of the reasons you might think. It’s because I’ve learned so much more about myself:

·      I can go the distance.
·      I’m tougher than I thought I was.
·      I can conquer my fears.
·      It’s okay to fail.
·      I know how to pick myself back up again and ride/write.
·      I know what I want to be when I grow up.

And my hope is that we all savor our individual journeys. Every frustrating, joyful, and tearful moment. The people you meet are the real prizes. And I wouldn’t be publishing my first nonfiction picture book The Favio Chavez Story with Eerdmans Books for Young Readers without my people. You know who you are. You have left your marks on me.  Changed me.  I am blessed.

Thank you.



Carmen Oliveris a children’s author, and booking agent/founder of the Booking Biz, a boutique style agency that brings award-winning children’s authors and illustrators to schools, libraries, and special events. She’s also the former assistant regional advisor for the Austin SCBWI chapter and a regular contributor for ReaderKidZ. She lives just outside of Austin, Texas.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

MFA-Bound. Because I am Good at Doing Things Backwards

Hello dear blog readers. Remember me? Once upon a time, I blogged very regularly. Then I got Very busy with writing projects in 2014. My year wrapped up something like this:

I celebrated the January 2014 sale of En Garde! The Dueling Words of Abraham Lincoln (Peachtree, 2016.);
I wrapped up two Capstone books for their horse series. And they are lovely!
I got a solid start on two books for Capstone's Native American series;
I fully researched two original projects that are awaiting my full attention;
I wrote two picture book manuscripts that still need some work;
I judged two writing contests-one for young writers and one for adult writers;
I completed a bazillion revisions;
I volunteered at the Austin SCBWI conference;
I volunteered and moderated a panel at a Research workshop;
I volunteered at a Writing Barn workshop about picture book writing (Thank you, Bethany!);
I mapped out my grandiose (and probably unrealistic) ideas for launching my Beautiful Jim Key book this fall, 2015;
Speaking of Beautiful Jim Key, 2014 was the time to celebrate news of the upcoming movie about BJK, starring Morgan Freeman.
I celebrated the good news of a bunch of writer friends;
And...drum roll, please...I was admitted to the MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Because, you know, I had all this free time. *cough*

Many people have asked why I made this decision to go back to school, having already broken through the publishing gates. I'm prone to doing things out of order and against the flow. Let's just say I'm allergic to the road most travelled. This MFA journey is a very personal mission for me. The fact is, I don't need an MFA to write publishable books, but I look forward to deepening my craft, elevating my analytical skills, opening the door to potential teaching opportunities, and being part of this amazing community. I couldn't be happier. But, beginning a program like this requires that I switch mental gears on a regular basis. Normally, I am publishing-focused. As a student, I must be learning-focused. For me to be successful, both roles must co-habitate and complement each other. 

My unique challenges began the moment I returned home from the ten-day January residency. Awaiting me were edit notes for multiple books, from two editors; an offer of two more books for an educational publisher; the impending arrival of a whole heap of manuscripts to be judged; And a heads-up from an editor about forthcoming edit notes on several more books. What a wonderful "problem" to have. Yet, some time, between now and February 16, I also need to have critical essays and creative work ready for my VCFA advisor. Am I stressing about it? You betcha! When I begin to feel overwhelmed, I remember that this is what I always dreamed of-this life of a working writer. As for school, well, I wanted that, too. My piled-up deadlines are temporary. I'll get through this with a lot less television, social media, and blogging time. And a lot more time-management.

Wish me luck!



Donna at VCFA January 2015

Monday, December 1, 2014

Happy Birthday to Birthdayographies! Interview with Anne Bustard

December 1- Happy Birthday to Birthdayographies!



Psst...please ignore the wacky formatting of this post. Try as I may, I can't seem to fix it.) 

Wow, how time flies! Today, December 1st, marks the anniversary, er, birthday, of my blog, Birthdayographies. It's been quite a year! In the past twelve months, I have added almost two hundred birthdays with respective picture book titles, bringing the posted or scheduled number to 540. Whew! Search functionality continues to evolve and improve, and the site is growing into a substantial tool for teachers, librarians, students, and writers. Birthdayographies is a work-in-progress squeezed into small patches of available time-pretty much like any writing project. I am immensely proud of the growth and the response from followers. There have been flubs and missteps, of course, and, very soon, the blog will transfer to a new blog platform to accommodate the volume and growing need for flexibility.

Now, with a year under my belt, I can't think of a better way to celebrate this first milestone than by inviting Anne Bustard to the Birthdayographies party. You may recall that Anne was the originator of the biography/birthday blog idea. How lucky for me that, in 2013, she offered me the treasures of her blog, Anneographies. It was great for her, as her novel-writing blossomed. And great for me because I already had a spiral jam-packed with a list of p.b. biographies I read and studied. You can read my first Birthdayographies welcome post from December 1, 2013.

Anne Bustard is the author of the award-winning picture book biography Buddy: The Story of Buddy Holly (Paula Wiseman Books/Simon & Schuster BFYR). Her debut middle grade historical novel Anywhere But Paradise (Egmont USA), set in 1960 Hawaii, will be released in 2015. Born in Honolulu, Anne moved to Austin, Texas, to attend college, and stayed. And, Anne happens to be one of the nicest people on the planet.

Donna:  Hiya, Anne! Welcome to the Birthdayographies party! Without you, there wouldn't be a Birthdayographies.

Anne:   Happy First Birthday, Birthdayographies! Thanks for inviting me to visit today! And thank you, for championing this genre!

Donna:   Anne, in 2005, you launched your blog, Anneographies, featuring picture book biographies by subject’s birthday. What inspired this very original idea? 

Anne:   The idea for Anneographies sprang from my love of picture book biographies. I wanted to find a way to celebrate and share them every day, or at least, as many days of the year as possible.
As a former children’s only bookseller and then educator of pre-service teachers, highlighting new and backlist titles was important. But how? What format might resonate with potential visitors and me?

     
Well, I’m a calendar person. Word-a-day calendars, this-day-in-history calendars, websites that offer this-day facts—I’m in! So, it won’t surprise you to know that I keep a calendar dedicated to birthdays. Birthdays! That was it—the common denominator. And so the blog was born.

Donna:   Anneographies featured approximately 350 picture book biographies. How did you come up with so many titles to include? Who was your intended audience?

Anne:   Over the past fifteen-plus years, picture book biographies as well as collective biographies have flourished. I did my best to include as many as I could. I delighted in regular visits to libraries and bookstores. For me, it was a wonderful treasure hunt—with finds at every turn.

As to the audience, I imagined educators, librarians and parents using the blog as a resource.

Donna:  Why do you think picture book biographies are an important genre?

Anne:   Quite simply, these thirty-two to forty-eight page wonders of text and illustrations inspire and illuminate. Each one shines a spotlight on a life that has changed the world—a life that required some combination of sacrifice, struggle, determination, discouragement, hope, insight and achievement. Picture book biographies show readers what’s possible—which is just about anything.

     
Most often, they honor a person from the past, and in doing so, enrich young readers understanding of history. They invite readers to see the world from someone else’s perspective. And as natural springboards for further inquiry, they can lead readers to other books and resources.  Like all good literature, picture book biographies touch readers’ hearts and minds.

Donna:  What do you find are the biggest challenges to writing picture book biographies?


Anne:  I’ve only written one, so I’m certainly not an expert here. But I will say that commitment is critical. I have researched other possible subjects, but eventually I stopped. I wasn’t invested enough to see their stories through. I wasn’t passionate enough. I wasn’t in love.

     
Tracking down primary resources and verifying facts to the nth degree is a formidable challenge. On the other hand, uncovering a particularly elusive piece of information or making a surprising discovery is incredibly sweet.

     
Did I mention the writing? Drafting and revising umpteen times until each word sings is daunting. But possible!

Donna:  When your own focus turned to fiction, you very kindly offered the Anneographies content to your most picture-book-biography-obsessed writer friend. Me! I am still very honored. It has now been twelve months since the Anneographies content was transferred to Birthdayographies. The list of featured titles has grown to 540, with no end in sight. As the grande dame of the birthday/biography idea, how does it feel to watch your brainchild evolve on Birthdayographies?

Anne:   Wow! 540 titles! That’s fantastic! You’ve definitely taken the blog to another level. Congratulations on your amazingly strong year. You deserve all the birthday cake you can eat. I particularly love your inclusion of books from educational publishers. They are a brilliant addition.

Donna:   Okay, time to fill us in on what you’ve been up to since the Anneographies-Birthdayography switch on December 1, 2013. What have you been working on? Is there any news you’d like to share? How can readers find you?

Anne:   A few days after the switch, I learned a book contract for my debut middle grade historical novel was in the works! I was, and still am, beyond thrilled! I’ve spent the last year double-triple checking historical facts and revising. Anywhere But Paradise will be published on April 14, 2015.

     
Readers can visit me anytime at www.annebustard.com.

Many thanks to Anne for joining us on Birthdayographies. Stay tuned, dear readers, for more books, more birthdays, and more ways to share the wonder of picture book biographies. As always, if you have suggestions, I'd love to hear from you. And, if you find Birthdayographies helpful, I hope you'll share it with teachers, students, librarians, and writer friends.

Thank you for your support!

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Patience: Measuring Publishing Time by Shoe Size

I have a new post up on the Emu's Debus blog about dealing with impatience and how my forthcoming book has grown alongside my youngest son.  Check it out, y'all.

https://emusdebuts.wordpress.com/

Monday, October 27, 2014

Two Causes Worth Supporting: We Need Diverse Books and Never Counted Out

Writers and Illustrators in the kidlit world are special people, don't you think? Our goal is to wrangle empowerment, entertainment, engagement, and hopefullness for children. Sometimes, remarkable things blossom from this community of children's writers and illustrators. Today, let's talk about two movements that we should all support:



We Need Diverse Books is a grassroots organization aiming to bring more books about diverse characters and more authors of color into disadvantaged classrooms. Additionally, they aim to support authors through grants and education while enlarging the conversation at conferences, etc. Check out the Indiegogo campaign site. Watch the brief video by well-known authors and consider donating toward the $100,000 goal. I just did!  And check out Elizabeth Bluemle's article on Publisher's Weekly's Shelftalker:   http://blogs.publishersweekly.com/blogs/shelftalker/?p=14262





e.E. Charlton-Trujillo, author of three novels, including FAT ANGIE, began something remarkable, too. It started as a book tour, but blossomed into a movement when she heard of a 13-year-old boy who had contemplated suicide. She asked to meet with him and they changed each other's lives. Eunice, as I know her, saw it as a call to action. She packed everything she owned into a storage unit, rented a car, and drove across the country, talking with at-risk youth and bringing the power of pen on paper with her. In the process, she filmed a documentary about kids on the fringe and how art can give a voice to the voiceless. I had the pleasure of attending a screening of At Risk Summer at this weekend's Texas Book Festival. To say it was powerful would be an understatement. And this is just the beginning. Eunice's organization, Never Counted Out, now aims to bring authors and artists to wherever kids are who have been subjected to bullying, dysfunctional home life, a history of drugs or suicide attempts, homelessness, a lack of emotional support, hopelessness. She is changing lives! Learn more about the movement, the documentary, and how you can add your support here. 
 Learn more at Never Counted Out.
View the trailer for the documentary, At Risk Summer here.




Friday, September 5, 2014

Research- The Scavenger Hunt of Writers

Do you approach research as a chore or as a scavenger hunt? I easily get caught up in the awe of research. If someone had told my teenage self that I’d grow up to be a research addict, I would have spewed Orange Crush out my nose. Fast forward a decade or two to my early interest in nonfiction for the age-challenged and I would have hissed at the idea of doing the same level of research for a 32-page picture book as I would for a scholarly adult book. Yep, it’s true.

Next week, I’ll be pitching in at an Austin SCBWI workshop dedicated to research techniques for nonfiction and fiction writers. When it comes to research, whether you write for adults or children, nonfiction or fiction, the tools and processes are the same. I wish I’d had this type of workshop instruction long ago, before I spent several years chasing shiny (barely related) factoids down the literary equivalent of rabbit holes; before flailing around in the wrong dark places to find the information I really needed. I’ve learned a lot through the school of hard knocks, but I can't wait to soak in the wisdoms, tips, and shortcuts offered by our workshop faculty: award winning nonfiction author Cynthia Levinson, award winning novelist Greg Leitich Smith, librarian-extraordinaire Jeanette Larson, and author and Calkins Creek Books editor Carolyn Yoder. I have a feeling my research will become more efficient. There are a few spots left, so click here for more information about the Sept. 13, 2014 event.

Since I write primarily about dead people, ahem, I mean historical subjects, my research destinations might look a bit different than someone learning about dinosaurs, or habits of today's teens, or which baseball player did what and when, or how Julia Child's kitchen was outfitted. But, we're all on the search for information that aids us in developing our characters, settings, and plots.

Personally, any success I've had with research, I owe to:

Libraries
The staff of my local library, first. Who could love books and the research trail more? When I’m stuck on where to search for obscure information, they’re always eager to jump onto the trail with me. They know just how to get a copy of that rare book or article, often through inter-library loan.

Online Databases, historic photos, EBay
Yes, I said EBay. I have Google alerts set up for each of my subjects. Every time my designated keywords pop up on the web, I am notified. EBay sellers occasionally list souvenirs, books, pamphlets, playbills, photos, pinbacks, etc, related to my subjects. I've become somewhat of a collector.
 
Hands-on
I searched high and low for a rope of this material and circumference. I found it on EBay. It's related to a manuscript that's under consideration right now. I can't tell you what the subject is, yet, but being able to handle this rope and visualize it made a big difference in the storytelling.

Newspapers
I fell in love with archived newspapers, but learned that yester-year’s reporters weren’t always the most reliable sources. I want to believe that there’s an overall higher standard of accuracy today, but those kinds of assumptions can be dangerous to researchers. When the spring 2016 release date for my book, En Garde! Abraham Lincoln’s Dueling Words gets closer, I’ll share some of the unique challenges I came across when dealing with politically-slanted newspapers from the 19th century.

One of the advantages to perusing newspapers from my subjects’ times is getting a sense of the era. Styles, prices, labor, entertainment, culture, it’s all right there in smudgy print. Even prices for slaves, which makes me cringe to read. (by the way, Blogger freezes when I try to post pics of ads for women's clothing. Bah!)


Oh, and I always stumble upon unexpected historical finds, too.



 Like Charles' Dickens' serialized story, GREAT EXPECTATIONS. And Sam Houston's famous speech at Nacogdoches (especially relevant to my Texas friends.)

And there's always humor to be found, too. A great deal more humor than today, in fact. Some of it is too edgy to post here.



Interviews
Every interviewer is nervous. Really nervous! But I've found that most experts and people with firsthand experience are flattered to be consulted. They love that someone thinks their topic is worthy of a children's book. Usually, they are very generous with information.


Microfilm
Old fashioned microfilm can be a treasure, too. I squinted my way to a hard-earned headache at the Shelbyville, TN Library as part of my research for Step Right Up: The Story of Beautiful Jim Key (Lee and Low, fall 2015). As more and more of these films are digitized, use of the machines is becoming a lost art. Before a DVD version of a collection was available, I purchased my own microfilm copy, then struggled, along with a library assistant in a neighboring town, to figure out their dusty machine.



State and National Archives
I’ve donned white gloves to peruse fragile archive documents, including yellowed and musty scrapbooks from long ago eras. Friends, there is nothing quite like the smell of history and the nostalgia of touching the past. For my research at the Tennessee State Archives, I was not allowed to take anything into the room except a few sheets of paper and a pencil, so I have no photos to wax sentimental over.

Research for my current project took me to a Presidential Library. They have thousands of pages of documents related to my subject, which has nothing to do with the president. They encourage researchers to take photos of documents that they want copies of, so a camera or smart phone is allowed into the room. Now I just need to figure out how to catalog my 472 photos. Don’t think they’re willy-nilly about giving access to documents. I had to give a copy of my driver’s license, went through a one-on-one orientation with an incredibly helpful archivist, and followed strict protocol when ordering material. Every desk space in the room is monitored by the watchful eyes and monitors of staff who are passionate about preserving documents. It was an amazing experience. 


Left: Scrapbook from 1949 Europe.

Right: working my way through boxes of historical material. 


In Person
 Of course,  there's nothing better than visiting the scene of your historical research to get a feel for the place, but I know it's not always possible to make such trips. I've been known to ask friends to take photos for me if I know they're visiting an area relevant to a writing project.

To accommodate my needed research trip to Tennessee, where the story of Dr. William Key and Beautiful Jim Key began and ended, we planned a family vacation around it. I'm not ashamed to admit that I was more than a little teary-eyed when I visited the graves of both Doc and Jim. Yeah, it's that personal to me.



Yes, research is a scavenger hunt. Whether you write about dead guys or novels about contemporary life, research can be exhilirating, emotional, thrilling, even disappointing at times. It is always enlightening. Even when you're led down literary rabbit holes, they are full of wonder.