Monday, November 30, 2009

and you thought getting a book deal was hard...

INTERN is back, after a delightful and adventuresome pilgrimage to her ancestral homestead, aka grandma's house, for Thanksgiving. It was nice and low key and most of the crazy belligerent long-lost relatives who cornered INTERN for a chat were too deaf to understand her responses to their questions, so she was able to get away with pretty much anything:

CBLLR: "Why don't you get a real job?"
INTERN: "The moon!"


An eye-opening thing INTERN learned this week:

Techie Boyfriend, who invented a neat tool a little while ago, and has been staying up late reading about the patent application process. Like book publishing, the whole concept of patenting something can push some powerful emotional buttons: "If I don't get this published/patented, someone can steal my idea!" "If this goes through, I can get rich off the royalties!" "The world really needs my idea!" etc.

With book publishing, you send in your query for the price of postage stamp and it gets read and processed at no further cost to you. Editors and agents and their interns read your pages for free and if your ms gets declined, you're only in the hole emotionally and not financially.

In patenting, though, you pay out the eyeballs for every step of the process. First, there's a $75 fee just to get your application in the door. Then, once your application makes it to the top of the pile, it's another $300 for some monochromatic civil engineering type to read it. Then, it's another couple hundred bucks for somebody at the patent office to search through other patents to make sure your idea hasn't already been taken. Then, the patent folks will probably find something to quibble about in your wording and you'll have to hire a lawyer to fix your patent application for several thousands of dollars.

If you make it that far without a snag, it's another several hundred bones to have the damn patent issued. Oh yeah, and even after the patent is issued, you have to pay a "patent maintenance fee" that starts at $700 and goes up every few years just to keep the rights to your patent.

Sounds an awful lot like a vanity press.

The funny thing is, the U.S. patent office was *supposed* to level the playing field between small-time inventors and big companies, and make it so the big guys couldn't rustle the little guys' ideas. Except now it's prohibitively expensive for most people except in big companies to afford a patent.

So, people, be glad you're only trying to publish books and not trying to patent groovy electronic action figure robots who act out your books. Publishing is at least still *sort of* accessible to everyone. Right? Right? ...

Friday, November 20, 2009

NaNoReVisMo #5: galumphing towards triumph

A little while ago, INTERN posted about a fictitious Character Transformation Bazooka which could make characters have deep realisations and catharses instantly, with no justification.

There are a few other weapons of mass manuscript destruction (WMMD) in the arsenal.

One is the Triumph Bomb, or T-Bomb.

If you go see just about any movie that's playing in a mainstream theatre, there's bound to be at least one scene involving a Moment of Triumph: the submarine crew realizes they've fixed their leaking vessel just in time (hugs, shouts, and meaningful apologies ensue) or a pair of starcrossed mental defectives realizes they're meant for each other and triumphantly race to the nearest marriage office.

These moments of triumph usually happen after about ninety minutes of false starts, dissapointments, and disasters.

One comment INTERN finds herself writing frequently in novel critiques is that the moments of triumph in the story come too soon, or make no sense, or seem to drop out of the sky with nothing to warn their approach but a faint whistle on the breeze. There haven't been enough obstacles or disasters to make the triumph meaningful—or the stakes were too low for anyone to care.

T-bombs are especially rampant in manuscripts that involve the following:

-unrequited love
-battles (literal battles. like, with axes and longswords).
-stories with quirky mysteries (particularly in YA and MG books)
-stories about overcoming bullies (particularly in YA and MG)
-characters with diseases
-stories involving sports

Actually, it is possible to drop a T-bomb in just about any kind of novel.

INTERN has been doing a lot of research into this triumph thing, and has found that really effective triumphs in novels happen only after one or a few of the following have happened in the story:

-a character has had to sacrifice something
-a character has had to make a high-stakes choice or moral decision
-a character has tried several other options and failed
-a character has suffered a hard loss or injury over the course of struggling towards a particular goal
-a character has, indeed, been struggling in some way, not floating along easily.
-a character has been forced to change significantly
-a character has undergone real trials and conflicts pertaining to the goal

If none of these things have happened, but your characters are still smiling weepily and holding each other while Chariots of Fire plays in the background, they're probably the victims of a T-Bomb. Edit at will!


INTERN is heading out for an extended Thanksgiving visit with her family, so she will be away for the next week. Have courage, revisioneers, and good luck!

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

a completely unscientific look at book-buying, part 2

Last night, INTERN went to her favorite bookstore just to hang out in the company of new books, as you might visit a bird sanctuary to hang out with an ever-changing roster of egrets just because you find it pleasant.

She had very sternly instructed herself not to buy anything. But in spite of her (apparently typical, in bookstore customers) preemptively raised defenses, one book mercilessly sank its fangs into her emotions and a Book-Buying Event transpired.

INTERN spent the rest of the evening trying to analyze the event and pick it apart. What happened in that bookstore? It's like trying to recall an alien abduction.

INTERN remembers walking to the poetry section and plucking a book off the shelf because it looked thick and new and had the kind of matte cover that doesn't get finger-printy (very important for a book's seductiveness, at least when it comes to seducing INTERN).

INTERN remembers flipping through the book and reading a few lines from poems here and there, and how reading a few lines compelled her to read entire poems—she didn't have to search through the book to find a good poem, or encounter any poems she found to be turn-offs. The book was an anthology, so there was the feeling of getting much poetic bang for the buck of turning more pages.

INTERN remembers checking the publication information for the book and seeing that it was published in 2009. This felt important for some reason.

INTERN remembers sitting down in a chair with the book to spend some more time with it.

After that, there is only a flood of emotions:

-interest/love/identification with/for the content of the poems
-nostalgia/sorrow/regret for the days when INTERN read a lot of poetry, and a feeling that she should start again
-the sensation of re-sparking of a "lost connection" to a poetic side of herself
-feeling of lapsed belonging to some kind of imagined poetic community that could be reinstated by buying and reading the book
-feeling of grief/urgency/quasi-religious atonement, all tied into buying the book

After five minutes of handling the book, INTERN might as well have left an internal organ on the shelf and walked away from it as walked away from that book. Putting the book back on the shelf would have constituted a betrayal or a serious psychic wound. Buying the book was completely, overwhelmingly necessary.

Looking back over the experience, INTERN suspects the following elements are portable and could apply to other books and book-buyers besides herself:

-sense experience (book looks and feels good)
-feeling of "belonging" to a certain book or to the community implied by that book
-certainty that the book will deliver certain benefits (emotional, intellectual...)
-feeling that the (expensive! unnecessary!) purchase of said book is justified
-sensation of being brought to one's knees by the desire to own said book...sensation of acute distress if book is not immediately purchased...

Now if only one could bottle those elements and sell them...oh wait, that would be evil...

(The book, by the way, was American Hybrid, an anthology of new/experimental poetry.)

How is everyone's Wriming and Revismoing going? Word count increasing or decreasing respectively?

Friday, November 13, 2009

NaNoReVisMo #4: Tales from the Dumpster



INTERN's hippie roommate's trashier-than-thou friends from college have been visiting for the past few days, two very serious and scruffy anarchists who live in treehouses in Santa Cruz, from where they are plotting the "neo-anarchist ecorevolution".

Last night, they decided to go on a dumpster diving expedition, and hippie roommate kindly invited INTERN to tag along. And wow. Anyone concerned about enfeebled female heroines (see Rejectionist's post on this phenomenon) should write a YA book about INTERN's hippie roommate, the femme fatale of dumpters. She scaled chain-link fences three times her height, pried open locked dumpsters just widely enough to slip her (leaf-like) body inside, and hefted fifty-pound bags of rolled oats and slightly sprouting quinoa over brick walls—all while wearing a slinky red dress and blue tights which did not even get a run. (INTERN lolled along behind her in a giant black sweatshirt and tocque, looking like some kind of wannabe gangster and trying to make herself useful).

It was exhilerating and delightful and it felt so damn productive to harvest all that booty.

This morning, INTERN and Techie Boyfriend looked over said booty in the clear light of reason.

Techie Boyfriend: Those oats look good, but what are you going to do with thirty-six packets of wildberry glucose gel? Also, I think some of those artichokes are past their prime.

INTERN: Are you crazy? We're going to use all of it.

Techie Boyfriend: But those artichokes are

INTERN: They're still good! We FOUND them!

Techie Boyfriend: What are you going to do with sixty pounds of mouldy quinoa?


NaNoRevisioneers, as the booty of the dumpster, so the spoils of the first draft. Yes, it is a nice, satisfying, pile of words. Yes, you did go out and harvest it yourself. No, you are not allowed to hang on to every bit of it. Frankly, every bit of it is not worth keeping. And if you stay up all night trying to make a soup that will "use it all up" nobody will eat it (at least, not Techie Boyfriend).

That being said, there are enough shots of glucose gel to keep INTERN going for a week. ALL IS NOT LOST!

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

NaNoReVisMo #3: the transformers are coming

Has everyone seen one of those kids' movies about a [soccer/baseball/hockey] team made up of clumsy misfits with mouth guards and runny noses whose [bitter/resentful/hard-ass] coach reluctantly (then enthusiastically at the key moment) leads them to victory over the [snobby/evil/orc-like] rival team the Blood Jaguars? It seems to INTERN that every one of those movies has the exact same scene at the end with everybody high-fiving and the runtiest kid and the reformed bully practically make love to other through six layers of scrappy, home-made uniform. Hollywood got the memo about character transformation, and they got it big time.

INTERN sees a lot of manuscripts (particularly YA) where the high-fiving, back-slapping scene is present, and the bully hugs the runt and the hard-ass coach finally tells his son he loves him and the prissy league official takes off her librarian wig to reveal ten feet of luscious blond hair...but there hasn't been any kind of build-up to account for these transformations. Like, none whatsoever.

It's like the writer was sitting there, drinking a martini and typing away happily, when all of a sudden somebody rang a bell and said "Simon says TRANSFORM CHARACTERS!"

Then the writer was like, "Oh sh**&$S*###!" and whipped out her Transformation Bazooka and started firing at will. Bam! Mean character becomes nice. Bam! Frumpy character becomes a sex god. Bam! Bitter character stares into the sunset for two seconds and has a life-changing revelation.

The reader is left in the rubble, surrounded by unrecognizable characters who have no apparent reason for their sudden transformations.

Just like you can stick your Conflict Toothpick into your manuscript, you should be able to stick in a Transformation Toothpick to make sure your characters are really having their worldviews challenged enough to account for change.

If we stick our toothpick into the first ten minutes of a Kids' Sports Movie, we see the bully terrorizing the runt. If we test again twenty minutes later, we see the bully witnessing the runt being terrorized again by his own father. Twenty minutes later, the runt helps the bully cheat on a test. When they get caught, the bully has to make a moral decision that might see one of them thrown off the team...and yadda yadda. At several points in the movie, the bully's view of the world is challenged, and a series of crises pushes him to the point of real transformation. Transformation doesn't just splash over him like a paintball hit.

Any of the following on their own are insufficient justification for Change:

-a character staring into sunset/sunrise/great whirling cosmos and spontaneously having a Deep Thought That Changes Everything.

-a character saying any variation upon "No, Sparky. This time we're going to kick *their* asses!"

-a character doing something out of character, then accounting for it by ways of a lengthy speech explaining how, exactly, he had a change of heart (if the transformation isn't justified by showing, no amount of telling will ever be convincing).

You don't win the Regional Team Sport Championships of the soul without breaking a few bones along the way.

Techie Boyfriend just made INTERN a cup of coffee with a shot of espresso in it, so she is off to go jitter somewhere stimulating. Hurrah!

Monday, November 9, 2009

zen and the art of self-publishing

INTERN was starting to feel a little mournful and over-serious after her last NaNoReVisMo post, so she packed herself some apples and half a loaf of bread and set off on a self-imposed Quixotic Journey. Over the course of her wanderings, she visited some kind of Zen buddhist establishment, where a kindly nun pointed her to a pile of Free Books. INTERN emerged from the temple with a cute little self-published tome called simply "CAUSE AND EFFECT," and repaired to the nearest forest to read it among the dry leaves and withering nettle.

Here's the deal with cause and effect:

"If in this life one loves and enjoys hunting, in the next one will suffer from chronic nervousness to the point of insanity."

(pencil drawing of sneering hunter with "effect" arrow pointing to foamy-mouthed madman)

"Excessive attachment to tastes will undermine the normal functions of the lungs leading to sickness there from"

(pencil drawing of vomiting man surrounded by garlic bulbs, leeks, and green onions)

"Do not simply pour hot water on the ground. This is because many small insects (cause) live in the ground. This reckless action will harm their lives and moreover it will result in us having a short life (results)."

(pencil drawing of helmeted, jackbooted soldier type sneeringly pouring water on the ground while centipedes and ladybugs twice his size writhe around him).

It goes on like that for 180 fully illustrated pages. INTERN wanted to run back to the temple and investigate the other books, but she might have splashed her coffee on the ground and was nervous about the Effect that might have on her lifespan.

Anyway, the whole experience made INTERN reconsider everything she's been hearing about the book is an antiquated form soon to be replaced by electronic readers. Had the buddhist temple offered free downloads of "CAUSE AND EFFECT" INTERN would have never bothered. As it is, the (rather spooky) little volume has wormed its way into her imagination and her shelf.

Maybe, like the cockroach, the Free Book will the last physical book scurrying around after the apocalypse, when all those weak, silly "for profit" print books are decomposing in their graves. Maybe self-published books with massive print runs will be the proverbial last man standing in the history of print. Somebody please prove INTERN wrong.

Back to regular scheduled Revismo-ing next time. INTERN is feeling refreshed, and a little paranoid about all that lion hunting and seal clubbing she used to do in the evening after interning. Four-point restraints in the next life...

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

NaNoReVisMo #2: two flavors of facts

The nice thing about having knowlegeable people around when you're editing or revising something is that you can enslave them as fact-checkers and constantly holler "Do drug dealers measure out weed with a scale or a ruler?" or "Would mixing baking soda with helium *really* create an anti-gravity wonder fluid?" or "Is it plausible for my character to choke on a credit card?"

Revision is a time for making sure the physics and chemistry of your world are sound, that you haven't completely botched the slang of whatever underworld you're trying to portray, and that you haven't confused hepatitis with haemophilia.

INTERN has seen some embarassing mistakes. Doctor characters who take someone's temperature to see if they have epilepsy. Fir trees whose "leaves" turn "brilliant orange" in the fall. Improper use of the word "do-rag".

This is the easy kind of fact-checking: the kind you can do on the subway, merely by polling wise-looking travelers and trying to read Wikipedia on your cell phone.

The more challenging (and painful) kind of fact-checking involves your characters' emotions.

"Would my main character really feel satisfied when her mean neighbor's house burned down, or would she feel lingering regret?" "Maybe I need to change how Ebenezer feels in that scene where he makes out with Britney, since I added that new scene before it where she reveals her base digust for him."

Too often, revision only consists of adding new scenes without adjusting existing scenes to account for the changed dynamic. It's like taking a go-kart, adding an extra wheel, and then expecting it to run the same way.

A little emotional fact checking can fix this:

In Draft 1, Ebenezer is overjoyed to be making out with Britney. In Draft 2 (now that we've added that extra scene) we realize that our Ebenezer can't possibly feel overjoyed—now he feels used or humiliated or angry-yet-lustful. If the Britney-Ebenezer makeout scene doesn't get revised, the manuscript stops making emotional sense.

INTERN suspects that the reason many emotional inconsistencies stay put in manuscripts instead of getting revised is because old scenes can start to feel like they're set in stone, and somehow "meant" to be how they are. In fact, old scenes are the ones that most need to flex, or even get cut, because the characters they portray are no longer the real characters in the book.

Now that INTERN is reading this over, it sounds kind of obvious. If this were a novel, INTERN would have to go back and revise the end of this post to reflect her authentic emotional state of fretful perfectionism. Since this is not a novel, INTERN is going to finish this post exactly how she planned to:


Monday, November 2, 2009

NaNoReVisMo #1: the electric kool-aid conflict test

INTERN used to have a terrifying Cuban piano teacher who would stop her at random while she was playing a piece by memory, question her extensively about the reasoning behind the tonal, rhythmic, and expressive qualities of the notes she had just played and the notes she was about to play, then make her start playing again in the exact (usually awkward and off-beat) place she had stopped.

INTERN would complain that *of course* she didn't know exactly what was going in those spots—they were in the middle of difficult passages, there were too many notes for each one to have a purpose, and she relied on sheer momentum to get herself through to the sections where she *did* understand what she was doing with each note and why.

It was like trying to take a cake out of the oven, and someone really annoying comes up and stabs it with a toothpick: "But it's not cooked here!"

Lately, INTERN has been conducting a similar test on manuscripts and library books. Here's how it works:

-Open novel to a random page
-Read a couple paragraphs, or at most, a couple pages
-Can you tell what the conflict is, or what the character is yearning for? Can you explain, in just a few words, what these paragraphs are doing and why?

It can be as concrete as "she is trying to catch the rattlesnake" or as abstract as "he is struggling to understand his son's anger".

Some examples from INTERN's handy pile 'o' library books:

In a random paragraph from "Small Island" by Andrea Levy: "character is having moral qualms over what to do with an expensive brooch she finds on the ground."

In a random paragraph from "East of Eden" by Steinbeck: "character is deciding to punish two boys, even while having doubts about their guilt."

In a random paragraph from "Lullabies for Little Criminals" by Heather O'Neill: "character realizes that she's been so wrapped up in her own struggles that she hasn't noticed her father's life falling apart."

In a random paragraph from "The End of the Affair" by Graham Greene: "character is frustrated at his own inability to confront a friend."

These are not carefully selected examples. These little conflict summaries are literally pulled from single paragraphs on randomly opened pages. Stab these books with a toothpick all you want—that sucker is gonna come out clean. At seemingly every moment in these books (except maybe in passages describing the scenery), there is some kind of tension or revelation going on.

If you stab your own manuscript with that toothpick and need to read an entire chapter before being able to identify some kind of internal or external conflict, you might have a problem. If you can't identify what's going in any particular spot in less than twenty words, chances are the conflict or tension is too vague (or there isn't any). [Note: obviously, all books are different, and a surrealistic alinear epic space opera needs a different barometer than a linear coming-of-age novel. But still.]

Lack 'o' identifiable conflict (especially in the first few chapters) is a major problem with first drafts. If you can't identify any conflict until Chapter 3, the book either needs to start at Chapter 3 or the first two chapters need to pony up.

Remember: Nobody taking a bite of your half-cooked cake is going to say, "That's OK, I love salmonella" and keep eating it.

That's all for today, revisioneers. Be bloody, bold and resolute!