Category: On Writing
THREE STEPS FOR ASPIRING AUTHORS

Pic - Buried

I often get emails from people looking to break into children’s publishing. I don’t have all the answers, but I do have some general advice I find myself giving again and again. Below are three steps, in order of importance, that I think writers should focus on:

1) Write a Really Good Book
First time writers don’t sell books based on partial drafts or outlines. They sell finished manuscripts. And there are a lot of finished manuscripts in the world. That means the first step is completing a book and revising it until it is airtight. Don’t expect an agent or editor to look at a sloppy manuscript and see the potential–that same agent or manager has hundreds (not an exaggeration) of other manuscripts to consider, and they’ll take the one that demonstrates the greatest professionalism and craft. Taking an example from my first book, Peter Nimble, I did about 15 complete re-writes before showing it to an agent … and then did another 3 drafts before the book went to an editor. I have yet to talk to a professional author who didn’t go through the same level of revision before finding a publisher.

2) Join SCBWI
The “Society of Children’s Books Writers and Illustrators” (SCBWI) is a national organization with local chapters all over the country. This group is a fantastic place for both professional and aspiring writers and illustrators to gather and discuss craft and business of children’s publishing. The annual conferences are often attended by agents and editors who are looking for new books. I have a number of author friends whose careers were launched when they met an editor at an SCBWI event who requested to see their really good manuscripts (see above point).

3) Query Agents
If a lot of industries, the “it’s who you know” rule applies. Not so in publishing! Book agents read and consider manuscript submissions from unknown writers all the time–that’s their job. Nearly every writer I’ve ever met was pulled out of the “slush pile” from an agent who discovered them. Your job is to query agents who will best understand your work and be in a position to sell it. This means doing a bit of homework, by reading the Writer’s Market and finding agents who are looking for material like your book. The internet is awash with resources about how to approach agents. A good place to start might be Kidlit.com, a website run by children’s book agent Mary Kole. She answers questions about the dos and don’ts of querying better than anyone!

The above steps aren’t a guarantee of any success, but they are a good place to start! Also, I might as well link to this brief but eloquent video of Neil Gaiman talking about step one (which is really the only step that matters):

 

The Upshot of Cancellation

One of the things I’ve been thinking about a lot lately are the differences between cable and network television.  This is not a new topic. Much hay has been made of the way pay-channels like HBO and Showtime don’t have to worry about commercial breaks … but why is it that even the shows on “free” cable channels like FX and AMC still feel better than network shows?1 

For me, one essential factor is the difference in season lengths.  Cable TV shows generally only run for 11-13 episodes per season, while network shows nearly double that number.  Obviously, a writer needing to produce twice as much content in the same year might end up sacrificing quality for speed … but what if there were another reason?  What if a shorter season was actually linked to better storytelling in some essential way?

This week I’ve been enjoying reading the AV Club’s series of interviews with “Freaks & Geeks” creator Paul Feig, in which he talks through the writing and shooting of every episode in the short-lived series.  In the interview, Feig discusses how he and co-creator Judd Apatow discovered early on they were being cancelled at the end of the season:

We all just went into scramble mode and started saying, “Okay, we’ve got to play out these storylines we wanted to do [in future seasons], so that when we get canceled, we won’t go bummed out.”

This comment was sort of an “Aha!” moment for me.  Suddenly, Feig and co-creator Judd Apatow had to cram all the best story parts into the final six episodes.  And maybe that’s why “Freaks & Geeks” was such a brilliant show — every episode felt like it was truly an event.  I can’t help but wonder if the show would have been quite as strong without the axe hanging over the creators’ heads?2

Going back to the question of cable shows, I can’t help but think of how Feig’s experience applies to season premieres and finales.  Premieres and finales are where a series delvers its biggest dramatic punch — rules are changed, people are killed, stakes are raised.  A little basic math informs me that a cable show (whose seasons end after just 13 episodes) will have those moments twice as often as a network show.  No matter how you cut it, that gives the cable show a huge storytelling advantage because it disallows filler.3

How does this apply to writing in general?  I suspect it connects somehow to series books, but I haven’t worked that part out.  In the meantime, it’s simply a powerful parable about the importance of not holding anything back.  I’m currently in the middle of a second book, and I’m constantly getting exciting story ideas that I think I should save for a story in the distant future.  That’s ridiculous.  I should be putting everything into the book I’m writing now.  I should be treating this book like the last one I may ever get to write.


  1. “Free” is, of course, a euphamism for hundreds of dollars a year
  2. British TV seems to have internalized this idea without the need of a network axe. Consider the abbreviated runs of “The Office” or “Fawlty Towers,” both of which ended because their respective creators would rather have no new episodes than bad new episodes
  3. If you’re in the mood for more TV thoughts, you should check out screenwriter Matt Bird’s current blog series “How to Create a TV Show
What I Miss About Being Unpublished …

Some months ago, the kind folks at Project Mayhem ran a very kind review of Peter Nimble.  Last week, they asked me to contribute something for a post about what authors miss from their pre-published days.  As fun as being published is, I could think of at least one thing that I miss from the old days of blindly hoping for publication — allow me to excerpt:

Before I had a book in the world, I had no real sense of my audience. Audience was an abstract idea that couldn’t be pinned down and had little say in my storytelling. With the publication of Peter Nimble, however, I’ve suddenly found myself writing stories with specific readers in mind. It’s hard to type a sentence without thinking: I wonder what Librarian X or Critic Y will think of this? While such thoughts may be helpful during revisions, they can be crippling to the early stages of the creative process.

Project Mayhem also got contributions from authors Kate Messner and Stephen Messer.  To read their responses and some great reader comments, check out the link below:

PROJECT MAYHEM: Rushing Towards Your Dream? Wait.

Writing With One-Arm Tied Behind Your Back

This weekend, I’m headed up to Portland for the Wordstock Writer’s Festival!  I’ll be doing signings, reading, a few panels about writing for young readers (with a whole host of awesome authors).  What’s more, I’m also teaching a workshop this Sunday:

ONE ARM TIED BEHIND YOUR BACK:
“Harnessing the Hurdles Unique to Your Work-in-Progress”

This topic was borne out of a recent observation made by Mary.  It came during the heat of final revisions for Peter Nimble.  I was cursing how much extra work it was to tell a visually rich story from the perspective of a blind child — going through every line to make sure I wasn’t taking my own sight for granted.  Mary heard my grumbling and responded with typical perspicacity:  “But isn’t that what you always do? You only pick the stories that force you to write with one arm tied behind your back.”

Of course, she was right.  I have never had a shortage of story ideas, but the projects I actually finish all contain some ridiculous formal hurdle that makes them insanely difficult.  Why write a feature film when I can write a silent feature film?  Why tell a horror story when I can tell a horror story for children?   Why inhabit the real world when I can build an entirely different world from scratch?

Readers love stories that tackle hurdles, but writing them is a serious pain!  Now, however, I’m starting to believe that the formal challenge is the very thing that gets me through a draft — long after I have grown bored with my plot and characters, I have this “Pet Hurdle” to keep me involved.  Since then, I’ve started doodling pictures of my Pet Hurdle:

 

Isn’t he cute?  The workshop on Sunday will walk writers through the process of identifying the Pet Hurdle in their own work-in-progress and give them some tools for turning that challenge into an asset.

It makes me wonder:  if Peter Nimble hadn’t been blind … would I even have finished telling his story?


One Word Every Writer Should Know …

Last week, I had the pleasure of watching a staged adaptation of CS Lewis’ Till We Have Faces.  In advance of the show, I sat down and read the book.1  There was something near the end of the story that seemed like a good jumping-off point for a topic I’ve been meaning to blog about for ages. 

First, a little setup:  Lewis’ book is a retelling of the myth of Cupid & Psyche.  It follows Psyche’s scorned older sister, Orual.  After losing her beloved sister, Orual becomes embittered and angry.  At the end of the story, she finally gets an audience before the gods — a chance to make her case for how they have wronged her.  But instead of giving a sympathetic plea, she unleashes a tirade that betrays her own selfishness. 

Orual hears the ugliness of her own anger, and it prompts a revelation: 

“Lightly men talk of saying what they mean. … When the time comes to you at which you will be forced at last to utter the speech which has lain at the center of your soul for years, which you have, all that time, idiot-like, been saying over and over, you’ll not talk about joy of words. I saw well why the gods do not speak to us openly, nor let us answer. Till that word can be dug out of us, why should we hear the babble that we think we mean? How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?2

This “word” that Lewis eludes to is the magical, rare moment when a person sees him or herself with clarity for the first time.  Aristotle (the grandfather of writing analysis) had a word for this moment in a character’s journey: “anagnorisis.” 

Let’s let the man himself explain the term (through Wikipedia):

There you have it.  Anagnorisis is the moment when someone understands a Truth so powerful that it effects change in their lives.  I don’t know about you, but this moment is the reason I read stories. In fact, I judge the quality of a story by the quality of its anagnorisis, because when done right, I share in the character’s epiphany.

A great number of Aristotle’s playwriting terms have survived into the present age (climax, catharsis), but none of them are so valuable to understanding the power of a story as anagnorisis.3  Unfortunately, this word is all but forgotten — it’s not even in the OED.4 

I have a card with “anagnorisis” on it taped to the wall above my desk, because I never want to forget that every chapter, scene, and word is working to that one profound moment.  After all, How can my characters meet audiences face to face till they have faces?

 


  1. This was long overdue; people have been telling me that I would *love* this novel for years.  Summary judgment: I think this is a book that would have blown my mind in college, but less so as an adult.
  2. The excerpt is from Part II, ch. 4
  3. For those interested in learning a bit more about Aristotle, screenwriter Matt Bird just posted a great summary of how Poetics has influenced screenwriting for better and worse.
  4. Neither, I might add, is the word “scop.”
Irony vs. Sarcasm

What’s the difference between irony and sarcasm? Most thesauri list them as synonyms, but anyone who’s been on the receiving end of either type of humor can tell you the difference at once: ironic statements make you laugh, and sarcastic statements make you cry. 

Many a protective parent has assured his or her teased child that sarcasm is the lowest form of humor.  And the word sarcasm literally translates to mean “to tear the flesh.”  But what exactly is it it about a sarcastic statement that makes it a low form of humor?  And what makes it “tear the flesh?”  I’ve been mulling over this question for a while now, and I think I’ve landed on an answer:

Sarcasm happens when the observed irony does not extend to the speaker.

That is to say that an ironic person includes himself among the mocked, whereas a sarcastic person stands outside the situation in judgement.  See how it might play out in the below scene involving a bunch of nerds camping outside of a movie theater:

In this instance, the guy making fun of the people is including himself in the joke — after all, he’s in the line, too!  But consider what happens when the speaker is not in line with the others:

Sarcasm is the one kind of joke that can be made by someone who does not actually find something funny — it is humor for the humorless.  In life, I have a problem with sarcasm because I don’t believe that any person has the right to laugh at others unless he can first laugh at himself.

And what about sarcasm in storytelling?

To be clear, I’m all for sarcastic characters (I enjoy Holden Caulfield as much as the next guy!).  But sarcastic authors are a different thing altogether.  Sarcastic authors attempt to point out absurdities in the world, but they try to do it from a safe distance — never letting themselves become a part of the joke.  The only way to do this is by creating straw men for the express purpose of knocking them down. Ironically(!),  this ends up undercutting the author’s initial goal, because now instead of critiquing the world, he is critiquing some flimsy characters who bear little resemblance to the world. 

The end result is a thing neither funny nor true.

Four More Thoughts on Writing Action …

I wanted to write a follow-up to my previous post about the importance of specificity in action scenes.  Namely, four things:

1. You do not have to be super to be a hero

Many writers make the mistake of thinking that action sequences are about showcasing a hero’s strengths … but for my money, the drama is found in exposing their weaknesses.  A while back, a good friend of mine wrote a NY Magazine piece on this very subject entitled Are Martial Arts Ruining Action?  The article traces the origins of the martial arts explosion in Hollywood action movies and laments how every actor now goes through months of training in order to make the wire-Fu look authentic in their cop movie.  Why is this bad?  Because no matter how well executed and thoughtful the fights may be, no character in a cop movie has any business doing backflips.1


2. Superhuman action is low-stakes action

So what about stories where the superpowers are already built into the plot?  Shouldn’t the X-Men be able to do backflips?  Perhaps, but it’s still important to make the super-punches mean something.  If characters can take an unlimited (or even undefined) amount of damage, it’s hard for audiences to care about the outcome.  Screenwriter and friend Matt Bird has a great piece about this subject over at his blog, The Cockeyed Caravan.  Check it out!


3. Above all, action should make sense

Last week, movie critic Jim Emerson launched a great series examining how action sequences can go wrong simply by ignoring the 101 of filmmaking.  His first example?  The Dark Knight Returns.  Emerson goes shot-by-shot through an epic car chase, revealing how careless editing can lead to a needlessly disorienting experience.  This reinforces my longstanding belief that James Cameron is the greatest living director of chases for the simple fact that he makes sure that at all times the audience knows the following three things:

1) where the good guys are

2) where the bad guys are

3) where the exits are

Don’t believe me?  I invite you to watch for yourself.

 
4. Sometimes no action is the action

While I generally think it’s bad for writers to summarize action scenes, there are some stories that deliberately do so because its essential to their overall message.  A good example of this is Tolkien.  Despite having written an epic trilogy about the battle between good and evil, Tolkien keeps his action scenes infuriatingly short — usually under a page.  Roger Ebert observed as much when he reviewed The Fellowship of the Ring, in which he points out that the central action set piece of the movie (the fight with the Balrog) takes up less than 500 words in the original book.  So was Tolkien being lazy with his action writing?  I’d say in this case, sidestepping the action was the action — the author was signaling to readers that the meaningful events of this particular story were found in the journey itself, not the skirmishes.


  1. The Rush Hour franchise, of course, gets a pass on this particular gripe.
Blow by Blow: What D&D Taught Me About Storytelling

In theatre, descriptive action sequences are almost non-existent.  Hamlet may talk a big game, but at the end of the script, all we get is: “dies” (Not even a definite article for the poor Prince of Denmark!)   This works in playwriting because specific action is limited to the capabilities of specific actors, budgets, and stages — why write a death scene that a director will just have to change anyway?1

The same is not true for novelists and screenwriters.  Books and movies are stories fixed in time — if every reader is seeing a different thing during an action scene, that’s a problem.2  Unfortunately, I often read action sequences that give me the feeling that writers are going on autopilot:  instead of writing a tightly constructed series of dramatic events, they simply write “and here we get an awesome chase sequence!” 

I’m ashamed to say I’ve done it myself.   Writing action scenes is hard, and it’s nice to think that those difficult bits can be reduced to a few lines of summary.  But summarizing fights and chases is like a comic carefully setting up a joke and then replacing the punch line with “hilarity ensues!”  (To be fair, “hilarity ensues” is sort of an awesome punch line in its own right.)

And when you get down to it, truly funny moments don’t even have traditional punch lines — watch your favorite comedy and write down the laugh-out-loud moments.  I guarantee you that the biggest laughs will fall on generic lines like “Actually I quite like it” and “I can imagine.”3  Such lines are not funny in a vacuum; they’re funny because that character said it in that specific moment.4

I’m going to make a confession that I might regret.  About a year ago, I joined some of Mary’s colleagues in a weekly “tabletop gaming” group … which is a dressed-up term for Dungeons & Dragons.  This was a pretty smart bunch of people (our game master has a PhD in comic books!), and I learned a lot from the experience — not only about roleplaying games, but also about the give-and-take of corporate storytelling.  

One of the central aspects of any roleplaying game is combat.  Generally speaking, most roleplaying games are pretty conversational and free-form … but when a bad guy shows up, everyone pulls out dice, and charts, and (in my case) a calculator!  Suddenly, there’s an order of operations, and a series of rigid rules to help choreograph every movement of a battle.  

I sort of became obsessed with the details of these “encounters” and started taking copious notes about every move in the hope of unlocking some secret about how to write action scenes.  I wanted to figure out what separated the so-so encounters from the ones that sucked us in — inspiring recaps, arguments, and in-jokes.

What I discovered is that blow-by-blow, the actions in a fun encounter were no different from those in a boring encounter — sometimes you landed a hit, sometimes you missed.  What made a difference was when those ordinary actions were a reflection of the personality of individual character:  a hothead fighter dives into a suicide battle right after the rest of the group has agreed to retreat; a vengeful character murders an enemy who has already surrendered; a noble character sacrifices herself so that others can escape.  

That is to say, the actions are dramatic because that character did them in that specific moment. 


  1. One could argue that the unique appeal of theatre is this infinite variety in staging possibilities  — no two productions are alike.
  2. I am not objecting to ambiguous ideas or themes in books and movies, but I would argue that the basic questions who/what/where/when should be universally understood … because only when those things are clearly established can readers effectively debate the why behind those actions.
  3. These are actual examples taken from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy … I find such human moments far funnier than the digressions on multiple heads and improbability engines.
  4. This is something my MFA director Milan Stitt was fond of saying — credit goes to him for the observation.
Feeling Misunderstood & The Writer’s Praxis …

Last week author Nathan Bransford posted a question on his blog that I have been thinking about for a long time:

He elaborated very little on the question, only adding that his gut said it might be determination. The power of Mr. Bransford’s blog is such that he can sort of just lob a huge question into the universe and get a gigantic response from enthusiastic readers — I’m talking hundreds of people weighing in.1,2

When I glanced down the many responses from readers, I noticed that they fell into two distinct camps. The first group agreed with Bransford, listing traits that point to a strong work-ethic — “determination,” “passion,” “persistence,” etc. The second group focused more on traits that make up the writerly psyche — things like “curiosity,” “honesty,” and (my favorite) “bloody mindedness.” Obviously, this is a trick question; there’s no one answer to what makes a writer. But looking down this list, I felt like both types of answers were missing an essential element.

Consider the work-ethic answers. Are determination, passion, and persistence important to a writing career? Of course! However, they are in no way unique to writers. Success in any career requires these qualities.

The other camp at first seems more tailored to writers. They perfectly capture the fact that every writer has a unique point of view that (arguably) deserves expression. There’s only one problem: these personality traits have nothing to do with the actual act of writing. Curiosity, honesty, and bloody-mindedness could just as easily apply to a person who aspires to write but never gets around to it.3

To truly answer the question, we need to find a trait that combines the artistic outlook with the professional drive to get things done … in short, we need praxis. “Praxis” is a theological term that essentially refers to the point where faith becomes action.4

So praxis for a writer would be the thing that makes them translate their unique personality onto a page. My storytelling gut tells me that this praxis would likely be some kind of personal experience — an event (possibly traumatic?) that forces them to react by writing. I can’t speak for every author, but when I consider events/moments that spur me to actually write, I think of one thing:

feeling misunderstood

This feeling has plagued me my whole life. Every time I’ve sat down to write something, it’s because I feel fundamentally misunderstood by those around me. Writing is a chance for me to articulate all the things going on inside me in a way that I hope will make sense to others.

The good news is that this never goes away. As of this month, I finally have my first novel in the world(!), and every time I read a minor quibble in a review, I feel the same burning shame and frustration that filled me as a child whenever a teacher or parent misunderstood what I had been trying to say.

It’s that feeling of being misunderstood that pushes me to write another story. And another. And another.

UPDATE:  Nathan Bransford just revisited the topic on his blog, highlighting what he thought was a particularly poignant response from one reader.  Click here to read. 


  1. Not that I’m jealous.
  2. Yes I am.
  3. Also, serial killers.
  4. Students of philosophy might recognize the term from reading Kant, who argued that praxis was the application of philosophy to actual events.
“Blogs, and Poetics, and Hermeneutics — Oh My!”

Over the last year-and-a-half, my wife and I have been reading Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain aloud to each other.1  While doing so, I started to form a brilliant theory about how traveling parties in quest stories often function as reflections of a specific trait in the protagonist — it was going to be the Greatest Blog Post that the world had ever seen!  That is, until Betsy Bird at the School Library Journal went and ruined everything by beating me to the punch.

Last week Betsy posted a piece entitled The Oz Quest Theory: Are Four Characters Too Many? She suggested that Wizard of Oz is but one example in a long list of quest books in which the hero picks up three sidekicks who represent guts, heart, and brains.  One of the reasons I like Betsy’s blog is that everybody reads it, which means that everybody also leaves comments.  Some readers mentioned titles that either broke or followed the “rule of three”,  others floated theories about what might be motivating the pattern, a few even chimed in to ask “what’s the point?”

While reading these comments, I noticed that there seemed to be two separate conversations taking place — each exploring different questions:

1)  How might three be a uniquely suitable number for storytelling?

2)  Why might three be a uniquely significant number in our culture/world?

These are two fundamentally different questions, and looking back you can see the tension that stems from people talking at cross purposes.2  The comments thread is also a perfect snapshot of a philosophical battle as old as literature.  It’s the reason MFA writing programs are distinct from Lit PhD programs.  It is the difference between poetics and hermeneutics.

If you want a scholarly breakdown of these terms, click here.  In the broadest sense, poetics is concerned with how and hermeneutics is concerned with why.  Poetics people look at stories the way auto mechanics look at a car engine:  they want to know how every moving part fits together to make a unified machine (maybe in the hope they might one day build a car of their own?).  Sticking with the metaphor, hermeneutics people don’t really care about what’s under the hood; instead they’re more concerned with what it means to live in a world with cars.

Often, the people most drawn to poetics are people who work directly with the nuts and bolts of storytelling — authors, editors, and dramaturges.  People who deal with hermeneutical questions are those whose job it is to administer books to the world – scholars, librarians, and teachers.  I have often found that people from one camp have little interest in the questions of the other.  (My own marriage is an example of this Capulet-versus-Montigues battle.)

So which camp is better?  Well, I might be slightly more interested in poetics, but I’d be a fool to argue that hermeneutics isn’t absolutely essential.  After all, hermeneutics is what justifies the very act of making of books (as Mary has informed me on more than one occasion!).

Perhaps this is what I find so compelling about the children’s literature community?  There exists an  unusual amount of cross-fertilizaton between poetics and hermeneutics — authors, editors, librarians, teachers, and readers all coming together to discuss this thing they all love.3  Is it messy?  Of course!  Is it frustrating?  Sometimes.  But what fun would a quest be without a few friends?


  1. For the record, I do a pretty awesome Gurgi … ask me to bust it out the next time you see me.
  2. As for my own contribution, I stupidly tried to tackle both questions simultaneously — which just made me sound scatterbrained.
  3. Except, I would point out when it comes to booking conferences:  ALA always seems to book the same weekend as major literary conferences (MLA and ChLA).  Because of this, Mary will miss my first book signing, and I will miss her presenting a paper on Octavian Nothing.  Not cool, conference planning people, not cool…
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