Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Art of Letting Go

There is a famous quote by Reinhold Niebuhr that I try and live by daily. I'm sure you've heard it before: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

The agent search/publishing process falls neatly into the category of things we cannot change, nor have any real control over. Yes, we can tweak our query, revise our story, select who to approach, but the rest is all really up to the universe/fate/whatever. We can light candles, say prayers, do rain dances, and all sorts of other craziness (and, really, it probably can't hurt,) but at the end of the day, we can only do so much, and then it's simply time to let go.

Letting go of your work is probably the hardest challenge of all in the writing process. It's akin to the feeling you get in your gut as a parent when your child grows up and goes off to college or gets married and starts his/her own life. What happens to them from that point forward is out of your hands. So it is with your book. When you've done all you can do, and that book is in the hands of that agent, or that agent has sent that book out on submission, all you can do is wait. Nudging and pushing to find out the answer will more likely get you a no than a yes, and if it is meant to be, it WILL happen. And if it's not . . . it won't. It's that simple. Hard as it is to embrace that concept, it is essential in order to move forward as a writer. If you continue to focus solely on the project you are querying or are on submission with, you will never get to the task of writing your next book. Chances are, as your self-confidence naturally wavers and ebbs with the waiting and inevitable rejections that come, you will be less focused and less inclined to press ahead with new ideas.

The best thing you can do is to accept that whatever happens will happen, and start writing. Lose yourself in a new work, new characters, new world building. Use this time to catch up on reading and take workshops to hone your craft and meet people. These are all productive distractions, and ultimately, when that agent call comes, or that publisher wants to buy your book, you can let them know you are busy at work writing something else, or even better, have another completed work to share.

Checking your email 100 times a day and waiting by the phone will only make you crazy and unproductive. Accept the process, accept what you can do and know you've done all you can, and then let go. That's when stuff happens anyway, right? Just when we've given up, put it aside, and moved forward. Just as a watched pot never boils, it is no different with this process.



Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Fastest Way To Date Your Writing (And I Don't Mean Take It To A Movie And Dinner)

There is nothing that can shorten the lifespan of a book (or movie) quicker than references that make it seem dated. But how do you write for today's teens without including the ever-evolving latest technology that is so much a part of their lives? If you want your voice to ring true, you must. However, you need to keep on top of what the latest trends are.

For example, when I was a teenager, it was a big deal to get one's own phone line, and to communicate with my friends, we hung on the phone until all hours every night and wrote notes that we slipped in each others' lockers in the mornings. (And no, I did not also ride a dinosaur to school.) However, when my sixteen year old son wants to communicate with friends, the phone isn't even on the short list of possibilities. In fact, the mere suggestion of actually calling someone and speaking to them incites strange looks and rolled eyes, as if that is just simply too much effort. Even email, according to him, is already old and outdated by the time one gets it, reads it and responds. Kids today want everything instantaneous. Therefore, they text. Incessantly. They instant message. Sometimes they Skype. Sometimes they group chat online or on Facebook. But they rarely talk on the phone.

Chances are, whatever scene you write today about the mode of teen communication, or the game system they are playing on, etc. will already be somewhat outdated by the time your book goes to print, so sometimes it's best to keep things more general. For example, cell phones will be around for awhile, but the style or the features will rapidly change. Your characters may be playing Halo 3 on their Xboxes, but by the time your book comes out, they may be on to Halo 6, or Halo will be a game no one plays anymore, having been usurped by another hot title. Try and avoid referencing specifics unless you are writing something along the lines of THE FUTURE OF US by Jay Asher and Carolyn Mackler, in which the character exist in the 80's and are accessing their future selves. And what makes THE FUTURE OF US so damn funny? Among other things, the references to things like the AOL start-up discs we all got in the mail offering 100 free hours. Instantly, we're transported to a different time. If your book is set in present day, you want to make sure your readers really do feel like they are there.

If you're in doubt as to what the latest technology and trends are, I can't recommend enough the starting point of sitting down and talking to a teenager. They'll tell you everything you need to know. You can also regularly peruse websites like cnet.com, which talk about new technology, and keep up to date with the latest unveilings from Apple, etc. Keeping yourself savvy will lend authenticity to what you write. And obviously, if you're writing something in the future, use your imagination, building upon the realities of what exists today so that it still feels like something believable.


Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Writing About Controversial Topics For Teens

When I was growing up, a book that dealt with a character whose parents were getting divorced or were having their first sexual experience were considered pretty heady, if not controversial, topics. We still lived in an age where there were certain things that we just didn't talk about, despite the fact that they may be occurring. A book on anorexia or teenage alcoholism or drug abuse was really pushing the envelope, almost as if publishers then felt like teens couldn't handle those topics and censored us from them. Enter present day, where teens are offered choices like never before on subjects ranging from suicide to cutting to homosexuality, and even incest and rape. There are plenty of groups that still exist that wish to silence and ban these books, but teens are buying them. Why? Because they are real.

Teens don't like being lied to, nor treated like they are less intelligent just because they are not yet adults in charge of their own lives. They like characters they can relate to and find solace in, or explore subjects that they find interesting. Maybe they have a friend who is transgender, or maybe they are feeling pressure to drink or try drugs as an escape from everyday problems, or maybe they have been bullied. These characters seem far more realistic these days than the perfect, popular cheerleader whose biggest worry is if the boy she likes will ask her to the dance and if she'll find the perfect dress. It's not that teens today are dealing with any different issues than teens were when I was one - it's just that people are no longer afraid to talk about them.

But when it comes to tackling these heavy topics in writing for young adults, what is too much? I, personally, believe that today's teen readers are a savvy group, and the bar is high for catching and holding their attention. I believe they can handle more than most adults give them credit for, and sometimes these stories can offer someone solace in a world in which they feel entirely alone. However, what is the message you are trying to convey in the story? Gratuitous violence, profanity or sexuality bothers me no less in a book than it does in a movie, and can often serve to disconnect me from the story entirely. But, if you are writing it honestly and it fits the character and the story, it can make for gritty, raw, honest writing that can be extremely powerful.

Shying away from taboo topics is like sticking one's head in the sand - that is to say, to deny on some level that it exists. If you have a story inside you that you feel needs to be told, no matter how uncomfortable the subject matter, chances are, it does. Think about powerful books like SHINE by Lauren Myracle, or BY THE TIME YOU READ THIS, I'LL BE DEAD by Julie Anne Peters, or CRANK by Ellen Hopkins, let alone powerful non-fiction titles for teens and adults like Nik Sheff's incredibly raw and moving chronicles of his battle with meth addiction in WE ALL FALL DOWN: LIVING WITH ADDICTION and TWEAK: GROWING UP ON METHAMPHETAMINES. You can't read these books and not "feel" something afterwards. These books stay with you and creep under your skin, and that's a testimony to how important it was for the authors to be brave enough to tell these stories.

How do you feel about the kinds of stories offered to teens today? Do you think they're pushing the envelope or offering something important, helping kids today become stronger and more compassionate, thinking people?

Monday, January 9, 2012

How Reading Craptastic Writing Makes You A Better Writer

There is absolutely nothing more satisfying to me than reading a fantastic book, being completely drawn in by the characters, description and dialogue and immersing myself in their lives. By contrast, there is nothing more frustrating, as a writer, and as a reader, than investing your time and the writing is just blah, the story pointless and the ending unsatisfying. However, there is just as much to be learned from utterly craptastic writing, if not more, than great writing.

Case in point: This weekend I read a YA novel that I had been looking forward to reading for some time. It is in the genre I love, the storyline had me completely hooked in, the author had written an earlier book that had been successful and this had received advance praise, and I anticipated a thoroughly satisfying read. Um, not so much. (Obviously, this is totally subjective and just my opinion - clearly the publisher took a different view, and you might as well.) Because I read so many books in this genre, I was immediately able to spot exactly wasn't working for me, and why, and make a conscious point when writing my own work to not employ any of these mistakes. (At least not consciously, and hopefully that's what crit partners and beta readers are for!) The purpose of this post is not to bash the writer or the book, but merely to serve as a template for showing how what didn't work can truly make or break a story for your reader. So, without further delay, here is my list of writing pet peeves, which an author-who-shall-not-be-named did an excellent job of bundling together in one book:

UNLIKEABLE CHARACTERS THE READER DOESN'T CARE ABOUT
This story primarily focuses on a relationship that evolves over the years between the male main character and his female best friend. At no point did I ever see or feel what bound these characters together, other than history, and both of them were fairly surface, if not unlikeable. Just giving your characters a few likes, dislikes and quirks does not give them a personality, nor does making them angst-ridden and moody make them "troubled" and make me care what happens to them. In fact, one of the characters was so completely "angry" that I wondered from early on why the hell the male main character didn't run like hell. Instead, he starts to fall for her, wanting to "save" her, and based on the way she talks to him and treats him, not to mention what a self-proclaimed stud he is, the reader can't imagine why. The thrill of the chase? Is he just that desperate? A masochist? It's one thing to draw wounded characters, but you must still give them some redeeming qualities that make the reader root for them and have compassion for them. Think of Matt Damon's character in the movie "Good Will Hunting."

DIALOGUE THAT GOES ON FOR PAGES AND PAGES WITH NO PURPOSE OR ACCOMPANYING ACTION
I love great dialogue, especially when it helps propel the story in a way description simply can't. However, I hate just reading page after page of characters talking about absolutely nothing. And just sitting at a coffee shop shoving food around on their plate with their fork over and over while doing it. For six pages. It's worth it to sit with long passages of dialogue and figure out what the objective of the scene is and how what the characters are saying to one another furthers the story. Otherwise, it just feels like filler.

OVER-DESCRIPTION
Nothing helps paint the picture of the character and their surroundings, or the action at hand, than great description. However, over-description can get boring and lead the reader to skim. Is the author just describing the same thing over and over in a myriad of ways? If so, it starts to feel like gratuitous words on a page, or a writer just enjoying hearing himself speak. When this pattern repeats itself a multitude of times over the course of several hundred pages, you isolate the reader.

ONE-DIMENSIONAL UNREALISTIC PARENTS
Parents come in all shapes and sizes, and can be integral characters in a YA novel or peripheral, minor characters. However much they make an appearance, the rules for creating them as three dimensional beings are no different than it is for the main characters. To have parents that say "sweetie, sweetheart, honey, sugar, etc." at the end of every sentence when addressing teens, particularly their own, seems stilted to me, unrealistic and one-dimensional. I may have talked like that to my daughter when she was three or five, but I don't talk to my sixteen-year-old or his friends that way. I I did, he'd probably ask me if I was feeling all right. :) If the character is going to talk like that, back them up with character traits that help explain why. Are they over-protective and always tend to treat the main character like a child despite their age? Are they medicated and spacey half the time? Self-absorbed and dismissive and not even really listening to what the teen is saying? Do you know a lot of people who talk this way in real-life? What are their personalities like? For some reason, I have noticed that giving parental dialogue the short shrift is not uncommon in YA, and I often give these passages of dialogue extra time and review in my own. Part of this has to do with the age of the writer as well. I know before I had kids, it was hard to write parental dialogue with the same ease and truth as it is now that I'm down and dirty in the trenches of it.

GRATUITOUS DEVICES: I.E. CHAPTER NAMES THAT SERVE NO PURPOSE
I actually love when writers use funny chapter names that tie in to the context of the story. It draws me deeper in. In my own novel, BAND GEEK, each chapter of my novel starts with the title of a Beatles song. The main character is a ginormous Beatles fan, and the Beatles play a minor role in the story itself. Additionally, the "theme" of each chapter ties in nicely with the titles of their songs, so I used it. An editor or a reader may not agree, because using chapter names can also be viewed as a cheap or gratuitous device if not used effectively. Case in point: using a song title when the chapter has nothing to do with that song, or the idea the song brings, and not being consistent by using the song titles throughout each chapter. For example, if I titled the first three chapters after Beatles songs, then randomly titled a chapter "Dating For Beginners" and then the next "My Life As A Goldfish" and then the next was named after a Duran Duran song fro the '80's, it's distracting and makes the reader wonder, frankly, what the point is. Bottom line: Be consistent. Use it effectively, or don't use it at all.

What are some of the things that drive you crazy when you see them in books that you pay close attention to in your own writing?

Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Do's and Don'ts of Using Song Lyrics In Your Writing

The main character in my novel BAND GEEK is a major Beatles fan, and I decided the perfect way to capture that and weave it together with the story was to start each chapter with a lyric from a Beatles song that encapsulated the action and essence of that chapter. Sounds perfect, right? Not as simple as it sounds. There's a little something that stands in the way of that called "copyright infringement." So what's a writer to do when you absolutely, positively must use that song but you don't want to be sued within an inch of your life, and further, what can you do legally?

Don't throw the baby out with the bathwater just yet. First of all, you or your publisher may indeed be able to obtain the rights to use the lyrics, but usually for a fee. Depending on the artist, this fee may range from minimal to larger, but it can add up quickly if you intend to use lots of them. For a newbie writer, this may not be worth the cost to you or your publisher because obviously any money spent takes away from the money made. If you are a more established writer with a track record, this may not be as big a deal and an investment your publisher deems worthwhile if it significantly helps your story.

The rights holder may let you use the lyrics for free on a temporary basis, provided the author is not making any money off of their use, but always contact them and check before just doing so. However, if you intend to circulate the work widely (i.e. contests, writing workshops, etc.) you should probably contact them and let them know the nature of how the work will be circulated, and know that if it sells you will need to secure permission to use those lyrics properly. Once it sells, you will need to contact them again and enter into a contract agreement, they will tell you what the fee is, and you move forward from there. There is no hard and fast fee schedule because fees can vary based on artist and also the amount of lyrics used. If it proves to be too costly, or your publisher is not willing to go there, you may have to scrap the idea entirely.

BUT - there is still something you CAN do. Since a song title cannot be copyrighted, you can use just the song title, surrounded by double quotes, provided the title does not use whole lines of the song. If it does, these songs can be the rare exceptions whose titles are protected under the copyright infringement laws, so the best bet is still to contact the rights holder in these cases to make sure you are still within the fair use guidelines.

So how do you go about contacting these rights holders? The best place to start is by performing a Google search using the title of the song and then the keywords 'sheet music.' The sheet music will often reveal the music publisher, but definitely look at several sources because sometimes songs can be produced in different arrangements by different publishers. You can then contact the publisher directly. If you are still unsure, look up the song in the databases for the major music rights holders such as ASCAP, BMI and SESAC. If you have access to a music lawyer, they can also be a great resource for helping you obtain permissions and make sure you're doing everything above board, but keep in mind they need to get paid too. Once you get the music publisher's information, write them and tell them you are looking to obtain a print license, and what song lyrics you are interested in using.

I, personally, opted to use just the song titles in my case, as it seemed like a very costly venture to go down that road since there were twenty or so chapters, but I will always wish I had been able to include the actual lyrics because they really did work so well within the context of the story. You have to decide what's right for you, not to mention what's in your budget.

So what's the worst that could happen if you don't do all this and you just opt to use the lyrics anyway? The music publisher could sue you and not only would you end up having to pay all those usage fees anyhow, but also court fees and maybe some other fees as well. In the end, it could end up costing you far more than the original cost of the usage fees and also damage your reputation as a writer. Not worth it.

And last but not least, how about using a song title as the title of your book? The good news is: because titles cannot be coyrighted, you're safe there, unless it infringes on a trademark or brand name. Many books are named after songs, but the gray area is if the CONTENT of your book is the story within the song. Then that would, indeed, be considered copyright infringement.

Bottom line: When in doubt, ask before acting!