Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Varian: An Exploration of Dialogue-Heavy Scenes

Note: This is part of an essay written during my first semester at Vermont College. As I'm currently struggling with the balance between advancing story verses developing character in my work-in-progress, I thought it would be helpful to post one of my early essays on dialogue and emotion.


The goal of most fiction, especially when told from the first-person point of view, is to engage the reader to the point where the reader experiences everything that the main character experiences; in a sense, the reader becomes the main character. This closeness is achieved through a number of literary devises, such as sensory detail and interior thoughts. However, in instances where an author wishes to move a reader through a scene very quickly, the author must cut out as much unnecessary material as possible, while still conveying the thoughts and feelings of the main character.

Ron Koertge is a master of witty and believable dialogue, and in his novel Stoner and Spaz, Koertge crafts dialogue-heavy scenes that whisk the reader through the novel. While the dialogue is believable, there are instances where Koertge leaves the reader to wonder what the characters are thinking and feeling in the scene.

One scene that has mixed success in showing character traits and emotions is a conversation between Ben, a sixteen year old with cerebral palsy, and Colleen, the resident druggie, on the day after she kisses him.
“Look, let’s go over to Marcie’s.”

“I don’t know, Ben.”

“Oh, c’mon. I just want to see her camera.”

Colleen shakes her head. “Making out when I’m loaded is one thing; making social calls is...I don’t know. Doesn’t one of us have to wear pearls for shit like that?”
“It’s not a date.”

“It wasn’t a date last night, and I ended up with my tongue down your throat.”

“Like I said, you were loaded. So leave your stash at home. I think totally sober you’ll find me pretty easy to resist.”

“I don’t get you sometimes. What do you want with me anyway?”

“I want you to go to Marcie’s with me.”

She looks down at her black fingernails. “Let me think about it.”

“I’ll call her after school. Then I’ll call you.” (Koertge 83)
Koertge is successful in crafting dialogue that is true to his characters; Ben wants (or perhaps even needs) to be near Colleen, while Colleen is brash and distrusting. Koertge particularly thrives in showing the conflict within Colleen; she knows she shouldn’t be with Ben, yet she doesn’t overtly push him away. As Colleen looks down at her black fingernails, the reader sees that she’s mulling over Ben’s offer.

Koertge is less successful in showing Ben’s thoughts and emotions in this scene. This is Ben’s first conversation with Colleen since she kissed him. Ben has never even kissed another girl before Colleen; he is no doubt feeling a mix of emotions. However, none of these emotions are present in the scene. Colleen asks Ben, “What do you want with me, anyway?” Ben’s reply, while technically truthful, doesn’t reveal anything about what Ben really wants, or how Ben really feels about Colleen. Does he want to kiss her again that night? Does he want to kiss her again right there, in the middle of school, in front of the teachers and students that pack the hallway? Or, is he afraid that she may not really be interested in him—that the kiss the night before was indeed based more on her drug-induced state of mind rather than true desire for Ben?

By writing scenes with a minimal amount of interior thought, Koertge relies on the reader to draw conclusions as to the “emotional core” of the character. However, while the above scene doesn’t reveal the intensity of Ben’s desire for Colleen, it is clear from previous scenes that Ben is romantically interested in Colleen. Koertge relies on the reader to use previously provided material in order to come to his or her own conclusions about the level or Ben’s desire for Colleen.

Unlike the previous passage, Koertge is very successful in showing character traits and emotions through dialogue in the first speaking scene between Ben and his grandmother in Stoner and Spaz. Colleen and Ben meet by chance at an old movie theater, and when Colleen catches a ride home with him and his grandmother, she ends up throwing up on the side of his grandmother’s car.
My grandma let her forehead touch the steering wheel. “What a horrible girl,” she says to the speedometer. “I didn’t realize you even knew people like that.”

“I don’t really know her.”

“Why is she acting so peculiar?”

“She loaded.”

“On drugs?”

“Not Jujubes. Not anymore, anyway.”

“Why in the world did you invite someone like that into my car?”

“Grandma, we bumped into each other at the movies. It’s no big deal.”

“Did she ask you for money?”

“No,” I lie.

“She didn’t recruit you to traffic in narcotics, did she?”

“Well, she did give me this big bag of baking soda to hold for her.”

“Ben, this is no laughing matter.”

“Grandma, Colleen won’t even remember this tomorrow.”

“Well, I’m certainly going to try and banish it from my memory.”

Not me, I think. No banishing for me. (Koertge 15-16)
Though the scene is scant on interior thought and physical action, the reader is able to ascertain important information about Ben and his grandmother, and about how Ben feels about Colleen. The only physical action in the scene is of Ben’s grandmother resting her head on the steering wheel; the short drive with someone so “horrible” exhausts her. In addition to horrible, Koertge’s word choices of peculiar and banish, as seen in the context of the sentences in the passage, paint Ben’s grandmother as very formal. She is also very protective of Ben, and sees him as being na├»ve. Earlier in the novel, Koertge drops hints that alert the reader of the grandmother’s character traits: she drives a Cadillac (14), forces Ben to take an apple as a snack (5), and buys him expensive clothes (12).

Unlike his grandmother, Ben isn’t worried about Colleen’s “bad” influence on him, and is actually very witty and sarcastic when discussing Colleen. By placing Ben’s interior thoughts at the end of the passage, Koertge gives the reader a glimpse of how Ben really feels about Colleen at this moment, without sacrificing the quick flow of the dialogue.

In addition to being sarcastic, Ben lies to his grandmother during their conversation. Koetrge could have used physical description to convey that Ben was lying, such as having him look away from his grandmother, or perhaps Ben could focus on his sweaty palms. Instead, very simply, Koetrge uses, “‘No,’ I lie.” By using a simple speaker attribute instead of adding unnecessary description to the scene, Koertge is able to keep the reader firmly rooted in the “here and now” of the passage.

As you can see, Koerge is most effective in his dialogue-driven scenes when he provides either minimal interior thought, sensory details, or physical actions in the scene, or when he clearly establishes a character’s emotional state in a previous scene.

Works Cited

Koertge, Ron. Margaux with an X. Cambridge, MA: Candlewick Press, 2004.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Holly: Editor/Author Interview with Jill Santopolo

Some days I consider a success if I woke up before ten a.m. and wore matching socks. I can't even imagine what it would be like to spend a day as my editor, Jill Santopolo. In addition to her duties at HarperCollins' Balzer and Bray imprint, she's a published author (Alec Flint, Super Sleuth: The Nina, the Pinta and the Vanishing Treasure, Scholastic 2008), a graduate of Vermont College's MFA program, and a writing teacher. How does she do it? I have no idea. And I bet she always wakes up before ten a.m. and wears matching socks, too.

Because she completely puts me to shame, I asked Jill a few questions about writing, editing, and finding balance.

When I found out my editor also wrote books, I was thrilled. Do you think being a writer gives you any extra insight when editing someone else's work? How does being a professional editor help your own writing process?

My editor at Scholastic writes books, and it made me happy when I found out too.

I’d like to think that being a writer gives me some added insight, since I’m often immersed in the creating of worlds and people and plots myself…I do know for certain that it gives me some extra understanding because I’ve experienced both sides of the process. I have an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College and teach classes in novel writing as well, and I think both of those things inform my writing and my editing. I love being able to pick apart books and figure out why certain craft elements work and why others don’t. For example, my MFA critical thesis was about the connection between scenes involving food and the way they subtly reflect the stability of a family. That sort of thing fascinates me.

I think being an editor helps my own writing tremendously, because, as I write and revise, I look for the same things in my manuscripts that I look for in the manuscripts I edit. Sometimes I’ll make comments on one of my author’s manuscripts and realize I’m doing the same thing in the piece I’m writing at home—or vice versa, I’ll change something in a manuscript I’m writing at home and realize that it’s a problem in the manuscript I’m currently editing as well. Of course, it’s hard to be as objective with my own writing, but I do try.

How do you fit everything into the day--writing, editing, promoting your book, reading submissions? Do you ever have free time?

I like making schedules and I’m also pretty efficient, so those both help in juggling all of the things I do. I’ve been trying really hard do all of my editing and submission reading in the office, even if it means I work later than I’d like, and then when I go home, I use that as my writing time. Creating a clear division between editing time and writing time helps me change gears, and knowing there’s a cap on the time I can spend doing each of those things makes me really focus and get things done.

Your first book, ALEC FLINT, SUPER SLEUTH: The Nina, the Pinta, and the Vanishing Treasure, features a fourth grader investigating a missing Christopher Columbus exhibit. What mystery will Alec tackle next?

Alec’s next mystery is called The Ransom Note Blues, and is coming out June 1 of this year. In it, something mysterious has gone missing from the town of Laurel Hollows, and Alec and his sidekick Gina have to figure out what it is. Without giving too much away, this is an art-themed mystery featuring my favorite abstract expressionist (who Alec and Gina learn about in the book).

What attracted you to children's literature? Do you see yourself writing for adults, or editing adult fiction, in the future?

I’ve always felt that reading was the sort of thing that a kid could fall in love with, and then would love for the rest of his or her life. That’s what attracted me to children’s literature—the idea that I could help a child fall in love with reading and help him or her to become a book love forever. As far as the adult world goes, there’s always a possibility I’d write for adults, I guess, if I think of a story I want to tell that’s more suited toward the adult audience, but it’s not something I’m planning to do right now.

What sort of books are you interested in acquiring? Are you seeking any particular themes or subjects at the moment, or does your taste remain fairly consistent?

High quality writing is the most important thing to me. I love working on well-written, well-crafted books. And then the second most important thing is a cool concept—something different and fresh and unique. I always like books that project a feeling of empowerment. Like your book, THE SNOWBALL EFFECT, for example. Even though Lainey’s circumstances are pretty terrible, she realizes that she’s not powerless and that she has the ability to change her life and fix her world. That’s a message I like a lot.

Most children's/YA writers are not actually children or young adults. Do you have any tips/tricks for staying in touch with what's cool or relevant to kids, or do you think it's enough to remember what it was like to be 8, 12 or 16?

I think the emotions and experiences of being 8 or 12 or 16 are ingrained in all of us. Ursula Nordstrom, a great children’s editor, once said (and I’m paraphrasing and probably getting this slightly wrong) that she can edit for children because she was a child herself once and hasn’t forgotten a thing. And I think that’s really true on an emotional level. As far as making books feel contemporary, I keep an eye on the kids in my neighborhood, peek into toy stores, watch TV shows aimed at kids…and I do school visits a lot, and always talk to the kids about their lives and their favorite things. I think (at least I hope!) that doing those things keeps my writing feel real on a number of levels.

Thanks so much for the interview, Jill!

You can find out more about Jill and her books at her website.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Kristen: Cruising My Reviews

A few months ago, I decided to become a volunteer gardener on Alcatraz and help restore the historic gardens. I do this for balance. It’s good for me to interact with the earth. (Surprisingly, in addition to yanking out a ton of weeds, I have unearthed a few bones. Don’t worry. They aren’t human. Thus far they appear to be cow and chicken. Possibly pig.) In the process of gardening, I’ve picked up some new gardener friends. One friend in particular invited me to her house in Sunnyvale to hang out and then clock some quality time in Santa Cruz. I thought it sounded like a good time. So I went. And I brought along a copy of my first book for her, Lost It. I gave her the book and forgot about it and we had a great weekend. We basically clicked on every topic known to humanity (except for gun control).

So the other day I decided to cruise my Amazon reviews, because I sometimes am prone to do stupid things. And guess what I saw? A one star review from a person in Sunnyvale who hated my book. (I actually don’t think the person read my book. The title of the post was “PARENTS BEWARE!”) Anyway, I immediately called another friend and said a lot of nonsensical things. Me: “I made a new friend on Alcatraz and I gave her a copy of my book and I think she trashed it for being immoral on Amazon. She might be a book-banner.” Phone Friend: “Why are you checking your Amazon ratings? I thought you’d stopped doing that.” Me: “I wasn’t looking at my ratings. I was cruising my reviews.” Phone Friend: “Is your new friend conservative?” Me: “No. But we have opposing positions on gun control.” Phone Friend: “Is your new friend a weirdo?” Me: “No. She’s wonderful. She made me coconut tea.” Phone Friend: “Your new friend didn’t write that review. “ Me: “You’re probably right.” Then we talked about ‘vibes’ and my overall sensitivity and I hung up the phone and did some reflecting.

It really bothers me that somebody thinks that Lost It is immoral. Because I think that book is incredibly moral and important. That’s why I wrote it. I wanted to write a story where a girl loses her virginity and isn’t wounded by the event. There are so many books that equate sex with violence, and I wanted to write a book that did something else. I wanted to write a book where a girl understood the importance of sex, but still crossed the threshold. And I don’t think it’s immoral to create a story where a junior in high school enters into a serious relationship with a guy and decides to sleep with him. I don’t. And it’s good that I feel this way, because there’s been some fallout for writing a book like this. Some people don’t like it. Some people say mean things. Some people think I’m a bad person for bringing the story into existence. And that sucks. Being judged is no fun. But I get it. I was raised Mormon. I have teenage nieces who are Mormon. Whenever I use their computer I stare at the Stephenie Meyer’s bookmarks. They love her stuff. A teenager and vampire who resist having premarital sex. It’s a smashing idea. A girl with wildlife phobias who loses her virginity underneath a canoe. Well, they think that idea is a little less smashing. Writing a book is like making ten thousand decisions. In a row. You choose everything. Word by word. And eventually you end up with a book. That will be read. And reviewed. Unless people object to the idea of your book, and then it will be reviewed without being read. It’s weird. But there’s not much you can do about it. Life is short. Write the story you want to write. Live happy. Make friends. And don’t cruise your Amazon reviews. Seriously.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Hanging out with my Agent Sister!

I got lucky a few weeks ago. Not only did I get to attend a fantabulous Not Your Mother's Book Club event at an enchantingly lit Bistro in San Francisco near Golden Gate Park, but I also got to meet one of my agent sister's Kristin Tracy! We've been emailing back and forth for awhile about doing blog posts and pirate store visits, so I invited her to join me for Laurie Halse Anderson's event to celebrate the debut of her new novel, WINTERGIRLS.

When you know somebody only online and then you meet them in person, I've discovered two extremes.  Either they are a) exactly as you pictured them or b) exactly the opposite of how you pictured them. 

And Kristin was almost exactly as I imagined her to be: quietly funny with a dash of dry sense of humor. We hit it off right away and chatted about all things writing and agent-sharing and publishing. We also talked about discovering buried bones on Alcatraz Island, but I'll save that for another day. 

I tried so hard to get her in a picture for this post, but like the Yeti, Kristin chose to remain hidden in obscurity. Even after much persuading (aka: begging and pleading) she still wouldn't budge!  I, on the other hand, was and remain a camera ham, so there I am above pictured above on the right of the amazing Laurie Halse Anderson with fellow writer, Mary (on her left in the red sweater).

Perhaps next time Kristin will get in the shot with me. Though, I doubt it.

Thanks for the great day! Kristen? Your thoughts?

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Lisa: On writing verse novels

Happy Poetry Month!

In honor of one of my favorite months, I thought I'd talk a little about novels-in-verse, since I've published two young adult novels, soon to be three, in this format.

One of the questions I get asked a lot is, "Why do you write in verse?"

Good question.

I didn’t choose the format as much as it chose me with my first YA novel, I HEART YOU, YOU HAUNT ME. I sat down to write, and what came out was sparse, poetic language. I had written three mid-grade novels prior to this one, and half of a young adult novel, all of them in prose. This verse stuff was all new territory. At least as a writer. I had read and loved many verse novels by authors such as Sonya Sones, Ellen Hopkins, and others.

I wrote about ten pages, sat back and thought, what am I doing? As if it isn’t hard enough to sell a novel, now I’m going to make it even harder by writing in a format that will scare some people off? But, I liked what I had and decided to keep going. As Sara said when she took me on as a client, the verse created a unique atmosphere for this ghostly love story, something that would have been harder for me to achieve through traditional prose.

When I wrote my second one, FAR FROM YOU, I had been thinking about the award-winning verse novel by Karen Hesse, called OUT OF THE DUST. At times, the writing is so strong you can almost taste the dust and heat. I wanted to try and do something like that so I thought, what's the opposite of heat and dust? Snow and bitter cold. And so the seed of an idea was born.

I like writing in verse for a couple of reasons. First of all, I do well with little description. That is, trying to find a unique, short, poetic way of describing something. This is much more my strength than writing beautiful, verbose paragraphs. But I didn’t actually know that until I started I HEART YOU. People ask me if writing in verse is harder than writing in prose. And I’m not sure how to answer that. It’s definitely difficult, because you have to tell a complete story and try to be poetic in how you tell it. But for me, it sort of comes naturally. That’s not to say I don’t have to work at it, because I do. I just finished revisions for my third YA verse novel, CHASING BROOKLYN, due out in 2010, and this was the hardest one yet, as the story is told in two alternating points-of-view, a male and a female. Not an easy thing to do in verse! But I hope with each book I improve, and get better at weaving in the poetic elements.

I also like writing in verse because it allows me to get to the emotional core of the story. I’ve received quite a few notes from people who say something like – I love your books, they make me cry! I believe through poetry, a writer can bring to light an emotional truth in a new way. FAR FROM YOU just received a review from “School Library Journal” which states, “[A] roller coaster of emotions to which many teen readers will relate.” That’s my ultimate goal, I suppose, and personally, verse helps me create that ride.

Some people will say – but do teens really want to read a book written in a poetic format? And I say, of course they do. Not all teens, but yes, some do, just like some teens like science fiction and some don’t, some teens like nonfiction and some don’t, etc. Verse novels give readers another type of book to choose from. I’ve found they are great for reluctant readers, because there's lots of white space on the page and they are a fairly quick read.

However, I won't write every book in verse. Not all stories are going to work in that format, after all. But if the verse can add something to the story and help me create that emotional roller coaster teens want to ride, than I'm going for it.

Have you ever read a verse novel? If not, this is a great month to try one!

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Saundra: Saying Yes to Possibility: The Art & Craft of Self-Promotion

As authors, we're pressed to do more and more promotion on our own- and because we love our books best, we're our own best advocates. Some people will tell you that your own efforts won't make a difference.

But you can see where your book is being stocked as a direct result of your marketing. You will see the increased and regular traffic added to your website; and you'll see it when booksellers and librarians you contacted return the favor. And when a house sees the effort you put into marketing, they're often willing to invest more as well.

We can all raise the visibility of our books, and raising visibility is what marketing is. So let's get started!

Point One: Online

Print publications dwindle, newspaper coverage for books shrinks, and everyone agrees that the Internet is the next new frontier for marketing books. But with such a vast resource, where do you start?

1. Bloggers

Since the advent of easy-to-use interfaces, bloggers of all sorts have flourished, but none so much as book bloggers. These bloggers have communities- they share not just reviews, but recommendations, actual books, regular features that discuss covers, trends, themes, and so much more. The Romance community is especially rich, and YA boasts a full-bodied community made up not just of adult writers and librarians, but of actual teen reviewers.

Reaching out to bloggers is your first, best step when it comes to promoting your own books. Make it a point to follow lots of blogs. Pay attention to those who read and like books like yours. Make a note of their review policies- and four to six weeks before your launch, query them. This is a business letter like any other- introduce yourself, pitch your book, offer a copy for review.

Be aware that the Internet is global. Though some sites give a bio that will tell you whether you're mailing to Montgomery or Mumbai, most don't. So be prepared to pay for international postage. In promoting my book, I've sent copies to every single continent except Antarctica.

And remember that even when you buy the book and pay postage, you're not buying a good review- you're not buying a review at all. Just because you send a book doesn't mean they'll ever read it. Or review it. Or review it positively. You can't buy a review- but you can try to raise your visibility. That'll help you keep some center when someone ignores or pans a book you mailed to them.

When: Start 4-6 weeks before your book comes out. Bloggers have big To Be Read piles, and to get your reviews to appear clustered around your launch, you need to start a little early- but not too early!

2. Giveaways

I think giveaways are the most effective tool you have in your Internet arsenal. LibraryThing and Goodreads will run giveaways for you, and many book bloggers will, too. Giveaways are full of so much good, I'm not even sure where to start with the extolling.

They raise visibility, especially when bloggers run them. Bloggers link to each other and many of them have an automatic feature that reposts headlines from other blogs on their sites. Sometimes, they give out extra entries for readers who link back to the contest- remember, the whole point is to raise visibility.

Then, get your book into the hands of actual readers, many of whom are reviewers themselves, or participants on review sites. And again, bad reviews will occur for even the best books. Nevertheless, I've seen time and time again people replying to a bad review with something like, "I've heard of this, I can't wait to read it."

This chill in the face of apparent disaster counts for spoilers, too. Although it makes me wildly crazy to see the ending of my mystery posted everywhere- visibility is visibility. Reinforcing your cover, reinforcing your title- that's your ultimate goal, and if you get some awesome reviews out of it- that's extra.

When: Goodreads/LibraryThing- start 4-6 weeks before your book debuts, or when you get author copies. Bloggers, start 2-3 weeks out.

3. Social Networking

This is the most contentious part of being an author online. Should you do it? How much should you do it? Where should you do it? And in the end, I feel like two things are true: social networking should be something you do for yourself, but if you genuinely enjoy it, it can be promotionally helpful.

The people you meet in debut groups and lit loops, on Facebook and Myspace, are also people who can point you toward opportunities you might have otherwise missed. And you can be that same person for other authors as well.

But I don't want to say join everything! Be a hoover! Because hoovers, frankly, suck. Showing up just to scrape PR off of other people's hard work and goodwill sucks, and we'll talk smack about you. But if you find a community you love, where you make genuine friendships- you're also going to find tons of amazing support and opportunity there.

When: Start when you get your contract, and keep on going.

Point Two: Offline

Again, promotion is all about raising visibility. You probably don't have the contacts to get into print on your own (if you do, use them!) But you do have the ability to make sure the right people know your book exists. Besides readers, who are the right people?

1) Independent Booksellers.

Indies still account for the major motion in book sales for any author. They're the pulse of the industry and you're getting nowhere if you don't have a pulse.

a) Postcards. While your publisher has a sales staff, they have a lot of books to push. You have one, so make the most of your indie outreach. Send at least 200 postcards to independents- to stores that specialize in your genre, and to general stores in your area. Most importantly, WRITE A NOTE. By hand.

While most postcards probably do get thrown out, you're achieving two things: raising awareness because your cover is on the front of the postcard, right? And if they do read the note, you're telling them why your book is ideal for their store. They want to sell books, so help them.

Tell them if you're a local author, that your book is set in their hometown, that your book is perfect for Cat Lovers Books & News because it features tons of cats. Whatever you tell them- have a reason for sending that card that's beyond simply "I have a book and I want you to sell it."

If you have no compelling reason why your book fits their inventory, you're wasting a stamp because they're not wasting the shelf space.

When: After the catalogue in which your book is available is published. There is NO POINT in contacting booksellers until they can order your book.

b) Review Copies. People often wonder what they should do with the review copies their publishers send them. If you get tons and tons, by all means, have a giveaway. But if you get only a few, take them to your local indies. Introduce yourself, leave your book and leave your contact information. The chain stores take orders from a corporate headquarters, but your local indies are- well, independent.

These are relationships that will be valuable to both of you, and not just on launch. If you have a signing, it will probably be with an indie. If you have a launch party, you'll want to have it at an indie. If you do school visits or corporate visits and you need someone on point for book sales- yup, that's your local indie.

When: After the catalogue in which your book is available is published, and you have ARCs in hand.

2) Librarians.

Librarians are the other gatekeepers of the book world, and you can't afford to ignore them. Libraries are major markets for books, and they're direct access to readers. Again, always remember that promotion is about raising visibility.

Someone who reads your book at the library can still recommend your book to buying friends and family. They'll be the ones to ask your library to buy future works by their favorite authors. Don't ignore the libraries!

a) Postcards. Follow the same rules as you did for sending to indies, though for libraries, it's a little simpler. Unless you're independently wealthy, send postcards to all the libraries in your home state, and again, make sure you write a personal note on each one.

For YA and kids' book authors, I'd also suggest sending postcards to every single school library in your town, in your market. (PB authors, don't bother high schools. YA authors, forget the elementaries.) When reaching out to school libraries, make a note that you're a local author and if you're available for school visits.

When: After the catalogue in which your book is available is published. There is NO POINT in contacting librarians until they can order your book. For school libraries, keep in mind the school year. There's no point in sending a postcard to an empty building, either!

Point Three: Outreach

Outreach is the trickiest part of self-promotion, because it requires you to be canny about your own market. And you're required to think about your beautiful book as a product. Since every book is different, every outreach attempt must be different. And sometimes, you can't tell whether they work- until they work. So rather than give you a specific plan, let me give you some general outreach ideas.

Market Outreach: Figure out who your audience is, and give them finished copies of your book. If your book is about martial arts, offer 10 copies to your local dojo, for example. If your book is about zombies, offer 10 copies to a local horror film group. Or, seek out book groups in your area, and offer copies to their members. People who love books enough to join books to talk about them also talk about books when they're not at the club.

But here's the pinch: you have to give them your book and walk away. Feel free to include ONE bookmark or ONE postcard with your URL or other information in each copy of the book, but you have to give up the goods and walk away. People don't like to be pressured; they really dislike it when you're pushy. Give readers the ability to follow up, but don't require it.

When: When you get your finished author copies. Don't use ARCs for this unless you have a metric buttload of ARCs.

Risk Outreach: Risk outreach is the most fun to do, but it's also the biggest gamble. This is writing a letter to your favorite celebrity, and including it in a copy of your book. Or unstealing your book- leaving it in strange places for people to find. Or guerilla readings- getting up in the middle of the mall and reading from your book just on a whim.

It's the long shot that you shouldn't spend a lot of money on, but it's a lot of fun if it pans out. Please don't break the law when you do your risk outreach. Jailtime puts a serious crimp on an adrenaline rush. (Although it might get you some print inches...)

When: When you get your finished author copies.

Possibility Outreach: This is the craft of finding opportunity; this is the art of saying YES. Pay attention to the writing community, to your loops, to the trades. When an opportunity arises, say yes. Whenever possible, say yes.

Yes, you will judge a local book contest. Yes, you will write a few lines on what it's like to be a writer. Yes, you will write a profile for yourself for the State Library.

If a popular blogger is hosting a blogiversary, YES, you will donate a prize. If a 'zine is doing a theme week, YES, you will guest blog. Anytime, anywhere, that you can be visible, that you can make your book visible, say yes.

And I know some of you are hyperventilating now, so let me add the caveat: you don't have to say yes to everything.

My family has limited means and single car- so I have to say no to lots of travel and appearance opportunities. But I can say YES to anything online. If you hate the Internet, you can say yes to events in person. Possibility Outreach is easy- all you have to do is say yes and follow through.

When: Anytime, but you want to concentrate your interviews, your blogs, your visibility in the 2 weeks leading up to your book's release, and the 6 weeks after.


To be honest, all marketing is possibility outreach. While it seems daunting, if you break it down into smaller parts- what can I do online? What can I do offline? What crazy thing can I do just because it might work?- it's easier to manage.

We have so much lead time in publishing- instead of worrying about when your next revision letter comes, or when your copyedits will come, or when you'll get news about the next step in the process- be the next step in the process.

I can do this. You can do this. Just say yes.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Vanessa: Healthy Micromanagement

Call me melodramatic, but I swear divine intervention stepped in after my brutal second semester as an MFA student at Vermont College. I had just spent five months moving at a sloth's pace with my creative work because my advisor, the inimitable Marc Aronson, wanted me to imbibe the pure essence of writing: to fully engage the reader in what the character was feeling, to make a visceral connection. Marc challenged me to get control of every line, to make each mark on the page matter, to agonize over every decision in the name of voice and characterization. If that meant only a single great paragraph by the semester's end, so be it.

Typical work fiend that I am, I made it my mission to emulate Aronson's "essence of writing" in my own work. I studied writers of the utmost restraint, writers who pick and place words and punctuation like perfect pebbles, precise and refined. I reshaped every noun and verb, sloughed away every adjective and adverb littering the path, extricated every meaningless summary, generalization, analysis, and abstraction. I nailed down the goal of each shot within a scene, figured out what my characters yearned for, and where they needed to be emotionally, mentally, by the end of each paragraph, each page.

Then I sat in front of my laptop and waited.
Wrote and crossed out and rewrote again.
A paragraph a day. A scene a week.
I'd send a piece out; Marc, God love him, he'd kick it kindly back.

Slowly, a terrible truth began to surface, bubbling beneath the critiques, infiltrating my own intuition. It was a truth I recognized from the "Interview with the Author" pages at the back of An Na's debut novel, A Step From Heaven: no matter how hard I worked at this point, my fledgling skills as a writer were not yet up to par with what I visualized or felt or heard in my head.

By the end of the semester, only paragraphs of my creative work were deemed “Masters-worthy” to Mr. Aronson. A crushing blow to the ego. But my critical work? That scientist’s eye? Soared. I sucked! Excellent. So what -- Quit?

I'm a silver-lining kind of girl; maybe it's a self-preservation mechanism. Anyway, I'm telling you, when the sophomore hazing ended, I felt different. Refreshed. Not in a masochistic manner of speaking. More like…I woke up…something…in me, my inner micromanager, who'd been prancing around with glee, pointing merrily to another truth, a miraculous one: the semester's challenges had played perfectly to my inherent detail-oriented tendencies, my strange fascination with the miniscule.

Enter Divinity with a way to crystallize all the introspection and heartache endured that previous semester: the Critical Thesis. I titled the sucker, Please, Sweat the Small Stuff: Shaping Tone with Sound and Syntax. In short? Healthy Micromanagement.

Here's the gist of what I learned, and it's at the heart of my thesis: Story is built upon voice, plot, setting, point of view, structure, imagery, and dialogue; yet, none of these macro-elements reach the reader without the fundamental microelements of sound and syntax. Sound (the articulation of letters, syllables, and words carrying within them distinct intonations) and syntax (the arrangement of words and punctuation to create rhythms and accentuation) must be layered in purposeful patterns throughout each scene of a novel in order to produce meaning, cadence, and mood that evoke an emotional response from the audience. Deliberately chosen words, sentence length, punctuation, and arrangement touch the reader’s emotions by shading meaning in the voice of narration on the page. Every line of every scene should carry calculated function and style so that the story reflects a character’s spirit from the first page to the final word.

Sound Bites

Words are made from combinations of sound, and every combination has its own distinct denotation and connotation. A house is a building in which a person resides; a home is the place in which a person carries out his domestic life. Though the definitions of house and home are similar, the words do not feel the same. A house implies a physical building structure filled with furniture, clothing, and people. A home signifies family, love, and security. Not only do we bring a unique personal history to each word, but also the very sounds of the letters that comprise the words suggest unspoken layers of meaning. For example, in these lines of Jack Gantos’ Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key, the reader senses the wired tone of the story through a series of long i sounds highlighted here:

“Grandma was born wired, and my dad, Carter Pigza, was born wired, and I followed right behind them. It’s as if our family tree looks like a set of high-voltage wires.”

Language is a system of communication governed by rules. Nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs are the four word classes whose main objective is to carry content and meaning. If syntax and sound comprise the house in which a story is built, then nouns and verbs form the foundation and framing while adjectives and adverbs supply the ornamentation. Choosing the best words from these classes of speech requires the writer to explore their variety of sounds. One word can carry many layers of meaning and sound that affect tone. Precision is key when choosing what sounds will best flesh out a story. The meanings and melodies of words should play off one another to produce a distinct cadence. Listen to the lazy tone of this summer scene in Meg Rosoff’s novel, How I Live Now. It comes from the zzz sounds, short vowel sounds, and the long o in low, and closed:

“I just closed my eyes and watched the petals fall and listened to the heavy low buzz of fat pollen-drunk bees and tried to imagine melting into the earth so I could spend eternity under this tree.”

Imagine if the nouns were altered so that it read:

I just closed my eyelids and watched the leaves fall and listened to the heavy low murmur of fat pollen-drunk bugs and tried to picture melting into the ground so I could stay forever under this branch.

Not quite the same, dreamy tone.

Gantos and Rosoff's deliberate sound patterns convey their characters’ temperaments, creating tempo for the scenes and planting seeds of subtext within the spaces between words.

Sound Barriers

Sound is essential to the flesh of a story, but it cannot save a poorly executed idea. Any decent adjective or adverb can be blacklisted for unnecessary modification, any verb or noun for not standing vigorously on its own. Stephenie Meyer provides an unsuccessful example of sound in her New York Times best-selling novel, Twilight. Sour seventeen-year old Bella Swan moves from Phoenix to her father’s house in Forks, Washington where she falls for a hunk of a vampire named Edward. While the plot may appeal to teen readers looking for both edge and romance, the voice of Bella often drowns in sloppy linguistics. In the following passage, it is next to impossible to discern meaning out of the clutter of adverbs. (Notice, too, that the father’s name, Charlie, has the same –ly ending as the surrounding pile of adverbs. I’ve also bolded any other distracting words that follow this same long e sound):

Charlie had really been fairly nice about the whole thing. He seemed genuinely pleased that I was coming to live with him for the first time with any degree of permanence. He’d already gotten me registered for high school and was going to help me get a car."

This is a clear case of both mindless sound repetition and unnecessary modification. Meyer has disabled otherwise vigorous nouns and adjectives that could have easily stood on their own. The passage is glutted and imprecise. Meyer needs to pick the right words and stick to them. As editor and author Constance Hale says, “Verbose is not a synonym for literary." As Hemingway puts it, “Prose is architecture, not interior decoration, and the Baroque is over."

The Flesh and the Underbelly

The flesh of a story is the words and symbols on the page, the details that drive a novel and fill the story with rich, interconnected ideas. The underbelly is what is left off the page, the silence within the tiny pockets between letters and the white space surrounding words that is ripe with its own implicit significance. Both flesh (sound, syntax) and underbelly (silence) are essential to story. Award-winning author Ursula Le Guin describes these two concepts as crowding and leaping. Although crowding keeps the story full and moving with explicit thoughts, Le Guin states, “what you leave out is infinitely more than what you leave in. There’s got to be white space around the word, silence around the voice."

Silence, The Underbelly of Sound

Silence is the breath between descriptions. It is a signal of movement in story, and the shape of that movement across a page, scene, or complete body of work. “Some of the greatest writing mankind has ever produced comes in the caesura; the pause between words” says Newberry award-winning author, Madeleine L’Engle.

Silence is a masterful translator of subtext and tone in fiction. Whether through omission of words or packed within the words themselves, silence sharpens the reader’s moment-to-moment sense impressions, it converts every inch of the page into priceless real estate. A story stripped to its barest essentials requires a deep journey of the mind and heart, within the author and between the author and the reader. Silence is the tree of thought that an author plants within the reader. It requires that she listen, and wait, and see the truth behind the quiet, often absent words on a page, for these truths are the magical fruits of labor and restraint. These are the truths that leave the reader breathless, that endure long beyond the final page.

Rita Williams-Garcia writes sparse, poignant dialogue. In Every Time A Rainbow Dies, sixteen-year old Thulani witnesses the rape of Ysa in a Brooklyn alley. He falls for the headstrong, colorful girl and both in time discover how love heals the heart. Perhaps the most telling line in Williams-Garcia’s entire novel is a dialogue compressed into three words. “‘I am Ysa.'" The greatest gift Thulani can ever receive, the most precious and personal thing the young rape victim has left to share, is her name. In three quiet, one-syllable words, Ysa opens up the entire novel with her confession. The reader senses more clearly here than anywhere else that the two teenagers will enter into a trusting and healing relationship. Williams-Garcia’s line of dialogue is the ultimate example of silence on the page. Her writing is so pristine that her restraint never once confuses the reader; rather, it sharpens her senses and understanding of the characters in a near mystical way.

Belly Up

On the other hand, too much sound in a quiet moment ruins the tone of the scene. In Twilight, after Bella reaches her father’s home and checks out her cool, new vintage truck, she locks herself in her room, telling the reader that she needs to have a good cry. As if these tones weren’t already at odds with one another, Bella’s internal dialogue seems all the more out of sync. The reader is supposed to feel Bella’s sorrow for having left her life in Phoenix; the scene should feel sparse, tense, heartrending. Instead, sound doesn’t echo sense and this passage is noisy, overcrowded, and trite: “It was nice to be alone, not to have to smile and look pleased; a relief to stare dejectedly out the window at the sheeting rain and let just a few tears escape. I wasn’t in the mood to go on a real crying jag. I would save that for bedtime."

Meyer is not aware of how loud this passage truly is. Ineffective words like nice, look, dejectedly, and just are drab. They scrape and shamble along the length of the line, dumping noise pollution all over this quiet moment. Even a small dose of revisions and reading the lines aloud makes a world of difference in toning down this passage: “I shut the door and stared out the window where the afternoon rain fell in jagged sheets. This was home now--Charlie, the truck, this endless green. It wasn’t even bedtime and there I was, crying.”

Condensing the amount of words in this passage is one way to quiet the scene. Minimizing sarcasm and melodrama is another. Using punctuation sparingly, such as with a single dash to provide a caesura, or a period at the end of a ruminative line, is a third way to lower the decibel of a passage. Subtext grows in the breath between the details. The more precise the writer’s choice of syntax and sound, the richer the silence for the reader. When sound and silence work in harmony on the page, fiction flows. And when fiction flows, it resonates with the reader.

What is Syntax and How Does It Regulate Sound?

As previously mentioned, syntax is the arrangement of words and punctuation to create rhythms and accentuation on the page. It enables words to connect in a sequence so that the whole of the sentence and its individual parts convey meaning, cadence, and tone. University of Southern California English Professor, Virginia Tufte, adds that successful syntax, “is a matter of controlled rhythm through spacing, grammatical pacing, endings, beginnings, widening, and narrowing of sentences.” Syntax is a tool of both functionality and style. Skilled writers calculate the syntax of every line because they understand that the rhythm of those lines must build to produce a tone reflective of their character’s spirit at that given moment. This is where sound comes in to the picture.

Syntax choreographs rhythm and rhythm is a pattern of sound that affects tone and mood. Thus, syntax regulates sound on the page. It choreographs “the noise words make and the rhythm of their relationships” states Ursula Le Guin. It also touches the reader’s emotions by shading meaning in the voice of the characters or the narration on the page, much in the same way a gesture, expression, or fluctuation in voice changes the shades of a conversation. There are three functional and stylistic components to syntax that work seamlessly together with sound to shape tone through every line on a page: length, punctuation, and arrangement.

Length Matters

Two sentence sizes matter in prose: long and short. When arranged in juxtaposition, they produce interesting rhythms on the page. Short, simple sentences create a choppy, blunt tone. Clumped together through the course of a scene, they elicit a sense of monotony, particularly when used in conjunction with one-syllable words. By contrast, long, complex sentences, full of embedded clauses must be carefully managed and solidly constructed so that they flow gracefully and carry readers along without knocking the wind out them. Ideally, short and long sentences will coalesce amicably on the same page. In this way, the sound of a word can be spotlighted in a short sentence, while a pattern of sound may shine in a long one.

Sixteen-year old Berry in Carolyn Coman’s Many Stones is tense with grief and rage for the sister she has lost and the father from whom she is estranged. Berry and her father embark on a two-week tour in South Africa, but Berry stubbornly resists his constant, well-meaning attempts at reconciliation. In the next passage, Berry takes slow, painfully jerky strides as she begins to crack open her nerve-frayed heart. Notice how Coman transfers the spotlight onto different words using both short and long phrases, italics, and punctuation marks. In the span of a paragraph, Coman shifts the tone of this passage from aggression to confession:

"I go back to how I started all this: 'I hate…' and it is still hanging in the air where I left it, and it comes back to me, fills me. 'This is all wrong,' I say. 'What we’re doing, and why we’re here, and how we’re pretending everything’s all right.' He watches me. I am not getting through, saying what it is. 'I,' I start. 'I don’t…I can’t stand…' Nothing I try to say gets finished. 'I hate words,' I say finally, 'for starters,' I add. I hate them for not helping me enough, not saying anything that is the same as how I feel inside."

Through syntax, Coman successfully portrays a teenager struggling to understand the notions of death and resolution. Small wonder the novel won a Printz Honor Award. Coman’s expert syntactical decisions help to shape authentic tones for her scenes, giving Berry a captivating voice.

Trade Marks

Punctuation provides a means by which the reader can make sense of patterns in language and subtleties in tone. Varied use or elimination of commas, periods, dashes, semicolons, parentheses, question marks, and exclamation points has a lasting effect on the reading experience. Punctuation can help to surround an instance of attention. Those brief pauses are the microscopic silences out of which the reader constructs meaning. Coman in Many Stones uses impetuous punctuation to mirror Berry’s volatile emotions:

"It’s what I love, though: how swimming can take me really, really far away. Doing laps can make me forget everything--or it’s not even forgetting, it’s like it never was, like nothing ever was. No anything, no me: the details of me, my body, whatever is in my head, my name--the whole story dissolves into the water. And I love it there--here--under water."

Coman’s punctuation choices make the reader hyper aware of Berry’s dangerously fragile emotional state that teeters on the brink of depression. Dashes mark sudden jerks in thought; commas hold together fragments of Berry’s self; colons give her permission to release. Berry’s subconscious yearning for understanding and finality in her sister’s death seeps out from the silent spaces in between punctuation marks.

Punctuation marks enable the writer to control the pace of her story and the weight of her words. They surround a moment of time, nudging the reader toward subtle patterns of sound, key details, and subtext. Punctuation, however, can spoil a scene like too much spice to the pot. When abused, it calls attention to itself, and as an effect, clouds the true tone of the scene.

Maximizing Real Estate

Arrangement speaks to the deliberate order of words and their punctuation in sentences as well as those sentences’ organization on the page. Balances and imbalances in syntactical arrangement should be calculated and contributing to the unique rhythms and patterns of a particular scene. While attention to arrangement seems more common for poetry, fiction can also manipulate word placement. “A break in rhythm is everything,” Mary Oliver explains in A Poetry Handbook. “Patterns are potent. Put one word on a line, it has become critical. All attention is drawn to it. Alter a line length or rhythm and you change the very physiological mood of the reader.”

Watch how Meg Rosoff in How I Live Now portrays Daisy’s revolting discovery of a massacre in an abandoned farm. The arrangement of sentences down the page mirrors Daisy’s shock. The scene moves in slow motion as she moves bodies aside in an attempt to locate her missing cousins:

"I could see that some of the bodies were human and then a kind of coldness came over me and no matter what I discovered I wasn’t going to scream or cry or anything. / I was ice. / The birds were pecking at a dead face in front of me, tugging at the skin and using their beaks to pull jagged purple strips of flesh free from the bone […] I knew from the size of the body and the clothes that it couldn’t be Edmond and if it couldn’t be Edmond it couldn’t be Isaac and it wasn’t Osbert either. / There were more bodies. / […] My legs started to shake against each other so hard that I had to squat down in the dirt to keep from falling over. / One by one. / One by one I approached the bodies, nice and methodical."

Conscious placement of words gives the writer the ability to restrain or advance the pace and tone of her work. Within syntax, Tufte explains, the left side of a sentence is generally composed of new thoughts while the right side is composed of cumulative thoughts, the “real news of a sentence.” That leaves the mid-branches, the clauses embedded within a sentence that can accelerate a reader’s anticipation to complete an interrupted idea. This is exactly what Rosoff intended to do with the mid-branch phrase, “tugging at the skin and using their beaks to pull jagged purple strips of flesh free from the bone.” The left side of the sentence, “The birds were pecking at a dead face in front of me,” piques the reader’s attention; the terrifying mid-branch accelerates the reader’s desire to find out who the face belongs to; the right portion of the sentence, the most important information, allays our fears: the face does not belong to one of Daisy’s cousins.

In addition to meticulous placement of clauses, Rosoff intentionally stops Daisy’s usual runaway narration cold in its tracks three times at the sight of the bodies, each instance earning its own line on the page. A frightening silence surrounds these single-line beats, and their arrangement draws the reader’s eye down the page. Rosoff has also positioned an important string of words within this passage that enhance its disturbing tone: “putrid and rotting”, “bodies”, “coldness”, “scream or cry”, “ice”, “jagged purple strips of flesh”, “more bodies”, “one by one”, “methodical.” Rosoff’s syntactical design decisions make this scene truly gruesome.

The significance of word and line arrangement cannot be overstated. Syntactical placement keeps sentences limber and lively. It maximizes the real estate on the page.

Re-visioning Story Through Sound and Syntax

The components of syntax and sound are inextricably intertwined. One cannot write a sentence without considering length, sound, punctuation, and placement all at once. Only by breaking these elements apart can a reader truly appreciate how they work seamlessly together on a page to produce an authentic tone that flows through an entire scene, and through an entire novel.

The importance of deliberate sound and syntax seems obvious, yet time and again these microelements of writing take a back seat to content. How often do writers really look at the individual sounds that comprise each letter in a word, or how the turning of a line affects the tone of the scene? Every mark on a blank page should reflect the end creation of countless authorial deliberations. Yet syntax and sound cannot work alone. Without worthy ideas and carefully controlled characters, linguistic facility is meaningless. Working in collaboration with the content on the page, syntax and sound help to sculpt the tone of each scene; they are the vehicles through which a writer inhabits voice.

* * *

For all that I have gleaned up to this point in my writing career, I have surely internalized more techniques than I can yet produce successfully on the page. Well, bring it on! By teaching myself how to control my writing, by practicing daily, and reading from the pros, I have begun to truly own the skills I’m developing. Consequently, I'm more confident in my ability to decipher what's working and what's not, and more patient with the time it takes me to churn out the good stuff.

I urge everyone to analyze others’ work as a jumping off point to exploring their own, from a single sentence to an entire scene. And when you revise, do as Francine Prose suggests in Reading Like a Writer: put every mark on the page, “on trial for its life.”