Friday, January 19, 2007

What is a story?

A story leaves you speechless for a few moments or a few hours, because there aren't any few words that sum up in your mind what you just read. And that's exactly it: a story is an emotion that takes exactly the number of words in the story to convey what it is.

It can be very long or very short. A story can be six words. In fact, here are dozens of six-word stories:

These stories are also a lesson in trusting your reader to fill in the blanks. Some examples from Wired, Issue 14.11:

I’m your future, child. Don’t cry.
- Stephen Baxter

I’m dead. I’ve missed you. Kiss … ?
- Neil Gaiman

Easy. Just touch the match to
- Ursula K. Le Guin

...and Ernest Hemingway's famous one:

For sale: baby shoes, never worn.

Chapter 1... and its unregarded little sister

Much advice is given on the novel's first chapter. For instance, Hilary Masters teaches a whole class on it. His suggestion is that the novel should be contained in it -- the characters, the core conflict, the nuance of theme, and setup for the story's most important images. That's a lot of work for 7,500 or so words to manage, but I agree. Chapter 1 is a handshake. Readers' expectations are based on it. Unless your main character is a demolitions expert, it better be more than a few big booms.

Many agents will ask for your first 50 pages -- another reason to have a brilliant first chapter. You get rejected, you tinker with your letter and go over Chapter 1 again, and submit some more. Repeat.

But wait... 50 pages? Oh yes, there's that's second child; what did we call her? Oh, right of course -- Chapter 2. Lately I've been reading manuscripts where the second chapter falls through like a trap door. In this one little sample set, the issue seems to be with pacing. How the novel is paced depends on the story, but no matter the genre I want to take a breather and have the fabulous Chapter 1 put into perspective for me before the plot unfolds any more. I want to know that the story is big enough for the remaining 300 pages. In short, I want to know about character.

Speaking of Hilary Masters, he teaches a cookbook formula for pacing in his short story classes that applies here.

1) Scene,
2) summary,
3) scene.

Give us the action. Then tell us why it matters to the character whose POV encountered the action. Then give us a scene that shows us how the character tries to resolve the problem that arose in #1, based on what we learned about him/her in #2. A chapter can unfold along these lines, and so can a novel. If you handle the pacing well, the chapters will live together in one big happy family.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

75-cent words for hoi polloi

We all have our writer-personalities that come out on the page when we don't know what we're really trying to say. One of those personalities is a moody 15-year-old who calls herself Jude, and she slouches to the rescue with too many syllables and too much vocabulary and gets way too serious and abstract.

If you find yourself needing to prune syllables, but also love your OED, here are some fun, clipped, 75-cent words that may satisfy both urges.

  • Fizgig:A flirty, frivolous girl.
  • Os:A mouth or an orifice.
  • Jimjams:Extreme nervousness; jitters
  • Pencel: A small flag at the end of a lance.
  • Swot:One who studies hard, especially to the exclusion of other interests.
  • Skosh:A small amount; a little bit.
  • Quaggy:Marshy; flabby; spongy.
  • Guttle:To eat voraciously; to devour greedily.
  • Ret:To soak or expose to moisture (flax, hemp, etc.) to remove fiber from softened wood.
  • Looby:An awkward, clumsy, lazy fellow.
  • Palmy:Flourishing; prosperous.
  • Bevy:A group or collection.
  • Cark:To worry.

Mystery/thriller contest

If your manuscript is finished: The winner gets a free manuscript evaluation from an agent or editor attending the conference.

Monday, January 15, 2007

POD book awards

To the skeptics of print-on-demand (POD) technology, offering a POD book-of-the-year award may sound like either a hoax or a dubious honor, something like being named "worst dressed" at the Oscars. But slowly, slowly, the POD stigma is fading. In part, we have the excellent book reviewers at POD-dy Mouth and Glynn's Book Reviews to thank. There may also be more competition among POD companies themselves, a growing number of which are boutique companies like Plain White Press, run by an industry veteran who can offer everything from design to printing to experienced marketing. In short, the quality is going up, and all the believers are holding their breath. They're waiting for the tipping point: the day when the public finally catches on.

Writer's Digest is running a self-published book contest that one of my clients lauded. He says the judges rate and comment upon plot, grammar, character development and cover design in a way that suggests that entries are read with at least one eye open. (If you wonder where the critics of POD focus their wrath, look no further than the judging categories, i.e., grammar.) For a $15 entry fee, you have a shot at being published by Outskirts Press and flown to NY for an awards ceremony.

If you like free better, you can generate just as much good press for your POD book by submitting it to POD-dy Mouth's annual Needle Awards. The award is top props on a very popular blog. She's looking for nominees as of today, so I encourage you to submit.