Sunday, August 9, 2009

So What's Your Story About?

(I just realized that I had saved my last post as a draft, so it now looks like I wrote it weeks ago without fulfilling my promise to post my tagline on the next day. Note to self: don't forget to publish post once it is written...)

So, what's my story about?

When a tragic accident claims the life of their young daughter, a husband and wife must struggle through grief, blame, and guilt- and the possibility that their lives are now meant to follow different paths.

Okay, this still reads more like cover copy than a tagline, but it's a work in progress- much like my novel. Not very ironic, either, which doesn't make me doubt the bones of my story, but gives me something to ponder as I look at the layers of plot and character.

Speaking of irony, here are examples I've found in a few novels I've been reading of late. Note: I didn't write the following as taglines- I'm just pointing out the elements of irony found within the story itself...

From Karen White's The Lost Hours, the irony is found in her protagonist's character line. Piper Mills is a former equestrian champion who suffered a near fatal injury during a competition six years ago. Suffering from both internal and external scars, she hasn't had the courage to even get close to a horse let alone ride again. Yet, through events in the plot, she finds herself spending the summer at the estate of an equestrian family.

From Lisa Wingate's Drenched in Light, Julia Costell loses her dream of becoming a ballet dancer to the effects of anorexia/bulimia. Still coping with her own personal demons, she finds herself working as a guidance counselor at a school of performing arts. I found this line from the novel fitting: "If God had anything to do with my getting the counselor's job at Harrington, He certainly had a fine sense of humor, or irony, or both."

From Jaime Ford's Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, a twelve-year old Chinese American Boy befriends a Japanese American girl, at the height of WWII.

-- Okay, back to the drawing board......

Monday, July 27, 2009

Got High Concept?

High Concept. These were the buzz words at this year's RWA conference, with at least two workshops dedicated to the topic. High Concept taglines have long been a screenwriting technique used to define and sell scipts to Hollywood and beyond. And since novelists have long used screenwriting techniques...

"So what's your story about?"

This is the first question every person asks when they find out you've written a novel. It's also the first question a literary agent or editor will ask during a pitch session. Okay, so they may not come right out and ask it, but since the purpose of a pitch is to talk up your story, the implied question is pretty obvious.

The problem with pitching, and often querying, is the tendency to ramble. It's easy to do- you have five minutes (or one page, if you're querying) to tell the person sitting in front of you all about the novel that you've poured blood, sweat, and tears into- and you don't want to leave a thing out. That's when things go from bad to worse. That's when you start to ramble; that's when the agent's/editor's eyes glaze over.

Think about how many pitches an agent/editor has to sit through at any given conference, or how many queries they receive on any given day. My eyes would glaze over, too. A high concept tagline takes the whole of your story's plot, and trims it down to it's most vital being- all in one sentence. Yep, one sentence.

Hollywood screenwriter, Blake Snyder dedicates the entire first chapter of his beloved screenwriting technique book, Save The Cat, to the importance of having a great tagline. He offers a few up as examples:

A businessman falls in love with a hooker he hires to be his date for the weekend - Pretty Woman

A newly married couple must spend Christmas day at each of their four divorced parent's homes - 4 Christmases

According to Mr. Sydner, a brilliant tagline contains four important aspects: 1) irony 2) a mental picture 3) audience 4) an attention grabbing title. The irony part piqued my interest, because it is often the "off center" plot lines that grab my attention in the first place- whether it be in a movie trailer or on a book jacket.

Multi published author, Lori Wilde (whose workshop I attended at RWA) offers another key component of the high concept tagline: make it universal. One of the main reasons we are drawn into a novel or movie is that we recognize something about the character's plight that we can relate to.

Ms. Wilde shows the universal theme of spousal betrayal in this high concept tagline from the movie Double Jeopardy: When a young wife discovers the husband she's convicted of murdering isn't dead, she escapes custody to track him down and kill him.

In one sentence, a high concept tagline will not only answer the question "so what's your story about?", it will keep you on track throughout the writing process. I've heard from many authors who tack their taglines to their computer screens to use as a tow-rope so their story doesn't drift too far away from the original idea as they go along. I'm a plotter, so this idea appeals to my sense of structure. But I can see how the "tagline as reminder" approach could be advantageous to even the most fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants writer, if for nothing else then to make you aware of each new path your story has taken.

Although I've written the meat of a query for my current WIP (I always write what I think of as cover copy that evolves as my novel does), I've never honed it down to one sentence. Mostly because I'm chicken. I'll put some thought into it tonight, and post tomorrow.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

What Can RWA Do For You?

I love attending a good writers conference, especially the annual, national RWA (Romance Writers of America) conference. I don't write romance, and those who are familiar with my writing will often tilt their head in confusion. So why spend the money it costs to belong to the national organization, plus the expense of the conference, travel, hotel, and drinks in the bar?

Well, you see, I write women's fiction, and there has long been a gray line separating the two genres. The national RWA conference is consistently well organized, and is one of the few conferences I know of that pulls in some of the most respected literary agents like Donald Maass, Steven Axelrod, and Kristin Nelson. Nearly every major publishing house is represented en force by its senior and acquisition editors. These agents and editors participate in various workshop panels, as well as provide feedback during scheduled pitch sessions. At this year's conference in D.C., there were over thirty agents and editors in attendance- agents who not only represent romance and women's fiction, but YA, mystery, sci-fi, and mainstream.

What more can a writer ask for?

Monday, July 20, 2009

Divine Truth

Father Thom Donovan knew a thing or two about deception, and how given the right circumstances, even the most vile of actions could go unnoticed and undetected— even before the eyes of two-hundred witnesses.

Friday evening mass at St. Bards provided the best circumstances. The white marble, heavenly murals, flickering candles— a pious disguise that held many secrets. Donovan was an expert at disguise. The silks of a priest robe concealed all manner of things.

Tonight, the pews filled with the young: young mothers and young college students, all looking to confess their sins before happy hour. Women used to attend church wearing dresses that buttoned up the neck. Now they came in t-shirts and shorts, their toenails painted colors that drew attention, leaving the onlooker no choice but to cast a glance down the body, back up again.

“Sinners flock on days of forgiveness,” Father Mahoney said, approaching Donovan.

Donovan’s gaze faltered. “And are they each forgiven?”

“Of course.”

Donovan watched him lead a woman to the confessional, and followed, counting to sixty before entering.

“. . .so that your sacrifice may be a pure one-“ Mahoney cut off, wine sloshing down his fingers. “Father Thom-“

“Actually, it’s Samantha.” From under the robe, she pulled out a badge and cuffs. “Detective Samantha Donovan. Thom’s my dad’s name. It’s a great name, don’t you think?”

She turned to the woman sitting, stunned, on the bench.

“I wouldn’t drink that if I were you. It’s not what it appears to be.”
Originaly posted at The Clarity of Night

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Staying Power

I measure the greatness of a novel by how long the story and/or characters stay with me once I've left them behind on the last page. I finished reading Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet almost two weeks ago, and Henry and Keiko- and the lives they lead- have remained with me on a daily basis since then.

Quite simply, this debut novel by Jaime Ford is a superb example of storytelling at its finest. I won't synopsize the story here, because it is done wonderfully here. But I will say that the friendship, loyalty, and love that forms between young Henry Lee, and Keiko Okabe is beyond tender and endearing. The external prejudices that both Henry and Keiko battle during World War II rings of realistic truthfulness, and the internal battle of wills that Henry must endure with a father who is distant, and obsessively loyal to the war in China is nothing if not heartbreaking.

I discovered this book like I do most others-- by wandering my local book store (for sometimes hours at a time) and seeing what catches my eye. The cover for Hotel is beautifully done (Jamie really lucked out there), and I couldn't help but pick it up. I normally don't splurge on the cost of a hardcover by an author I haven't read before, but I remembered reading some buzz about this book, and so splurge I did.

Wow. I recommend that you splurge, too.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Writing Contests

I've been writing for ten years (yes, ten years...long story...for a different post), and I've never entered a writing contest. It's not that I haven't wanted to, and it's not that I think I'm not talented enough. Well, I take that back. Most contests are for short fiction, and I tend to write epics that need to be carved down from Mt. Everest proportions to that of, oh, Mt. McKinley.

So, I guess I never thought I was talented enough to produce a short, compelling story.

After putting my writing aside for life-gets-in-the-way ordeals, I've come back to it with a new mindset. And so, my first contest entry. For those of you who are not familiar with Jason Evans and his Clarity of Night blog and contests, you should stop what you're doing (after you finish reading this, of course), and head over there.

Each contest he sponsors, bless his heart, is based off of a photograph (the one pictured with this post). Here's the kicker, at least for me: your entry is limited to 250 words. Short story writers will scoff at my wariness, but remember, new galaxies are born while I write. Yet, there's a lesson to be learned from such word count limitations: you chose your words VERY carefully.

Now, this is not a new concept, writers should chose their words carefully- it's what we're best at. Yet, I found myself screaming at my computer when I couldn't get the blasted word count to my story down from 267 to 250. Just 17 words over. I needed those words, every single one of them. Removing them, switching them, changing them would have taken away from the story. Yet, it had to be done.

Who was it that said, "Kill your little darlings?" An editor, I think, but the name escapes me. I had to "off" 17 words. It took me three frustrating days, but I killed my little darlings. The title of my 250 (exactly) word short story is Divine Truth, and I hope to see it posted over at Jason's blog. I notice he isn't posting every single entry...not sure if that's a good or bad sign....I guess I'll have to wait and see....

Thursday, July 9, 2009

There's A Story Here

We all do it. Whether we're sitting in a coffee shop of a local book store, sitting on a bench at the local park, or trolling the mall for a good bargain- we people watch.

What our fellow men, women, and children say and do- and why- is simply fascinating. I don't know why that is, though I'm sure there's an official study published somewhere in the abyss of the Internet. Maybe we all posses some percentage of voyeuristic tendencies, or maybe we're just somewhat relieved to bear witness to the fact that someone's life is worse than our own. Or it could be that we naturally seek out the happy, sappy, and overall pleasant feeling that comes over us when we see that sometimes things really do work out for the better- and there's light at the proverbial tunnel.

Granted, we don't often witness the hows and whys of the full story played out in public- but we catch snippets of something: a word, a phrase, a movement of body language. Whatever it is, something catches our attention. And if you're a writer, that something has you thinking. . . .hmmm. . .there's a story here.

This is why I write; I catch a snippet and my imagination takes over, asking those all important questions- who, what, why, where, when, and how (if you're around my age- forty something- and grew up in my neck of the woods, then you should be hearing the "Conjunction, Junction" song from School House Rock playing in your head).

These questions won't rest until they're answered, and before I know it, said snippet and questions turn into characters, plot, emotion, motivation. . .well, you get the picture.

For me, it's just the beginning.