Jane Friedman’s/Kathleen Ortiz’s Basic Pitch Formula for Novelists

I was following @Jane Friedman around on Twitter for a bit yesterday, re-tweeting some of her messages from Kathleen Ortiz‘s session on Perfect Your Pitch/Synopsis 101 at the Midwest Writers Workshop. And now Jane as put them all in one place — hurrah! Excellent, succinct advice here for those, like me, in the pitching/querying stages of novelling.

As an aside, yesterday was one more reason I love Twitter — there I was, sitting in Ottawa, virtually “attending” a conference miles away…

Speaking of social media, I’m checking out Google+ , too. Circle me! (Is that a verb? Do we have Google+ lingo yet?!)

Review: Caroline Woodward’s Penny Loves Wade, Wade Loves Penny

Caroline Woodward: Penny Loves Wade, Wade Loves Penny. 2010. 256pp. Oolichan Books.
Here’s the back cover description of the book: “Penny Loves Wade, Wade Loves Penny is a contemporary story about middle-aged love enduring despite prolonged separations. The story winds around Penny Toland, resolute ranch wife and part-time teacher, and her husband, Wade, reluctant rancher and good man, adrift behind the wheel of his long-haul truck. Wade loops south on an odyssey from the Peace River region to the West Coast and across the province through the Okanagan and Kootenays. At home, Penny endures covetous neighbours, not-so-friendly bank managers, and suave strangers, while Wade encounters lotus-landers, biker gangs, and a ravishing all-woman country punk band called The Sireens. As the first winter blizzard blankets the north country, Wade makes a desperate push home to prove his love for Penny.”
Ms Woodward has described the novel as “a retelling of The Odyssey,” and this is one of my favourite aspects of Penny Loves Wade…: Wade (Odysseus) battles lotus eaters (a.k.a. the motley crew of lotus-landers mentioned above) and sirens (that all-girl punk band), plus numerous other mishaps, in his attempts to return home to his Penelope. I enjoyed the modern twist Ms Woodward put on the story by making Wade a trucker and Penny have to fight off more than mere suitors!

Right from the outset, we get a clear picture of the couple: the love, the attraction, the exasperation, the patterns developed between any two people who have known each other for a good long time – we warm to them, recognizing relationships in our own lives. The narrative switches back and forth between Penny’s and Wade’s point of view, mostly in the third person and sometimes slipping, with a natural feel, into the deeper thought of first person. Both characters have wonderfully distinctive voices, with Ms Woodward settled deeply and comfortably inside each character’s skin, and their vocabularies and ways of speaking and preoccupations feel, again, natural and true. Wade’s sections have movement and adventure. Penny’s battles are different, on the domestic front (and here I will say that for me, Penny’s sections took a little longer to get going: they felt somewhat static until she actually left the ranch). I admired the tenacity of both – especially Penny, who just gets on and does the things she needs to do to keep the household running in Wade’s absence, which is just one absence in many. The details of both worlds are strong, and I visualized them clearly. These characters are easy to “see” and “hear”.

I enjoyed and appreciated the dual points of view, but as the novel builds to its climax,  I did find myself slightly detached from a narrative thread that I wanted to grip me more (and I may be alone in feeling this): having access to both storylines meant we could see what was happening in each character’s world, and knowing that both were safe caused a lessening in the tension for me. Maybe one of the character’s points of view could have been “blacked out” here, so that we had no access? But that might have felt forced or unnatural, and maybe it wasn’t the point:  one of the major themes of the novel is the endurance of love. Wade has always come home before and will keep coming home and this time is no different. Lastly, some copy-editing choices (I didn’t understand the occasional lapse into single quotation marks for dialogue, for example) and errors made me stumble in my reading. But on the whole, this is a fast-paced novel from a writer who knows her subject matter and her region, and even her trucks…!

Literary Tourist: Guide to the best bookstore and literary destinations

I just stumbled across Nigel Beale’s (a writer/broadcaster/bibliophile — and fellow Ottawan!) site Literary Tourist, described as “a website filled with searchable databases containing comprehensive listings of all things literary”. Bookshops, writers’ festivals, literary landmarks, libraries, literary workshops, all searchable by geographical location and month. Drool. You can get listings for free, or buy a subscription if you want deeper details.

Writing Rituals and (or) Integrating Writing Into Your Life

I am doing a nice thing for myself: I’ve joined a writers’ group here in town, a real live in-person writers’ group (as opposed to my equally valued “Humber Group”, which I’ve mentioned here numerous times, and which is all email based). I’m hoping it will keep me honest, give me a chance to critique again (I feel as if I’m getting rusty, and that’s not good, as I’m intending to start writing the occasional book review in here), and give me a monthly chance to yak writing with some fine people.

I went to my first meeting last night, and got so riled up and inspired that I wrote 300 words this morning. All flat out and sweaty-like. Yippee!

In the future we’ll be critiquing work, but last night we talked about integrating writing into our lives. We talked about the reasons we don’t write. Do you squander your time on TV, Facebook, Fritter Twitter? (*User raises hand*) You should put yourself through a “time audit” (I loved that) and figure out what you can cut.

Is THE FEAR blocking you from writing? (*User raises hand*) How can I possibly write if it isn’t coming out perfect, first time, every time (well, I may as well go check my Facebook… again)? We reminded ourselves of the freeing beauty of shitty first drafts. We talked about breaking things down into tiny, doable little units. Someone said she was spurred on by watching the word count grow. Not by a fixed amount per day or anything like that, but just that it was “higher”, and “higher” meant a good day. Someone else said she made word-count charts and time goals and that physical evidence of her progress kept her going.

We talked about establishing the habit of writing. The crazy rituals we have to do at the start of a session. Lighting a candle, say; or maybe putting all the “bad writing” thoughts (all the “you suck, you will never write anything good, what the hell do you think you’re doing?” thoughts) into a toy troll and simply *turning him around*, away from you, when it’s time to write — so the bad thoughts can’t interfere, see.  Kind of like a voodoo writing doll?

I confessed that when I’m planning to write, I put on my Writing Uniform, i.e. any one of my NaNoWriMo t-shirts that happens to be clean. Once I’m wearing the Writing Uniform, I have to write. I’ve also just bought myself a “Write Like A Motherf$*ker” mug. Drinking out of it is holy and must only be done while the Church of Writing is open. It works.

So I was wondering… what are your rituals? What gets your ass in the chair?

Out of the running for the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award

Rats! Cut from the semifinalist stage (250 people down to 50 in this round, from an initial 5,000 entrants in my category). It was a good run while it lasted, and in a way it’s for the best — the waiting was killing me. I’ll just carry on submitting “Letting Go” and revising and submitting and working on something new and revising and hoping and submitting… etc. etc. etc. Best of luck to those who are still in the contest! Some fantastic excerpts to read.

Donald Maass “Breakout Prompts”: all 31

Over the last month, agent Donald Maass tweeted (@donmaass on Twitter) 31 “breakout prompts” based on his writing book, Writing the Breakout Novel.

I collected them all, one a day, and have pasted them in below. There are some fantastic nuggets here, to mull over whether you’re revising (me) or starting something new (also me). Thanks, Donald!

So here they are. A couple of them are a little longer than your usual 140-character tweet, because I thought his “introductory tweet” to the actual prompt was useful as well, so I included it, or because he answered someone’s question.

01 What’s the worst thing your MC does? Whom and how does that hurt? Now work backwards, set it up to hurt even more

02 What’s the most selfless thing your MC does? What good change or effect does that have on someone unexpected? Add that in

03 Find any violence in your ms. Delete any shock, fear or horror. Replace with two *conflicting* emotions that are less obvious.

04 Choose a middle scene: What does POV character feel most strongly? Evoke that feeling without naming it, through actions alone.

05 What should your readers most see, understand or be angry about? At what story moment will that happen? Heighten it in two ways

06 How does your POV character change in your current scene? Work backwards. Make that change unlikely, a surprise or impossible

07 What does a sidekick or secondary character see about your MC that your MC denies? Force a showdown over it

08 Over what does your MC disagree with his/her boss or mentor? When does the boss/mentor prove to be right?

09 What’s a place in your story where something significant happens? Switch two other story events to that location too

10 In your current scene, what’s a setting detail that delights or disgusts your POV character? Why? Elaborate & add

11 Find a small passing moment in your manuscript. What big meaning does your MC see in it? Add that.

12 During a big dramatic event, what’s one small thing your POV character realizes will never change or never be the same again? Add.

13 For your MC, what are the best things about these times? The worst? Create a passage of his/her take on this era.

14 In your climactic scene, what are 3 details of place that only your MC would notice? Cut more obvious details, replace with these.

15 What’s one thing your MC hates as the story opens? By the end have your MC love that same thing. (Or vice versa.)

16 To provoke a noticeable change, create a sharp provocation. Today’s Breakout prompt zeroes in on your current scene… What’s the precise turning point in your current scene? Make its trigger more dramatic—or less obvious.

17 Who in your story has an ironclad, unshakable belief? Shatter or reverse it by the story’s end.

18 Engaging characters are passionately engaged in life. Their feelings tell us so. Today’s Breakout prompt coming up… Give your MC passionate feelings about something trivial: e.g., cappuccino, bowling, argyle socks. Write his/her rant. Add it. (It doesn’t advance the story, it deepens character. @suelder How does a trivial rant advance the story?)

19 What do you stand for? What about your MC? Today’s Breakout prompt matters… What principle guides your MC? At what moment is it most tested? When does it fail? Put it into action three times.

20 Cut 100 words from your last 3 pages. You have 5 minutes. Fail? Penalty: cut 200 words.

21 Dialogue is an opportunity not to be missed—an opportunity for tension. In the last dialogue passage you wrote double the friction, disagreement, overt hostility or hidden agenda.

22 Exposition, inner monologue, stream of consciousness…whatever you term it, use it to create tension. In the last inner monologue you wrote, insert one insight, question or worry that hasn’t hit you (or your MC) before now.

23 People’s observations—especially of other people—make them interesting. Same is true of characters. What does your MC know about people that no one else does? Create 3 moments when he/she spots that in others.

24 In fiction, obvious emotions rarely need stating. The reader’s already felt them. Find a strong emotion and replace it with a secondary one; find a throw-away moment and infuse it with rich feelings. E.g., “He recoiled in horror!” Ugh. “He wanted to rage, chant a dirge, anything but see this.” Ah.

25 Secondary characters can come and go, making little impression—a shame. Before a new character debuts, give your MC an expectation or fear. Make the reality three times better or worse.

26 MC’s make mistakes but often it doesn’t cost much. Today’s Breakout prompt is designed to hurt. Whom is your MC afraid to let down? What is the sacred trust between them? What would cause your MC to break it? Break it.

27 What you don’t know can’t hurt you? Heck, why *wouldn’t* you want to hurt your MC? What secret is your MC keeping? Who is keeping one *from* your MC? Spill the truth at the worst possible time.

28 Why have your characters merely talk when they can snipe, attack, burn or lay waste—verbally, I mean? Set off fireworks between two characters. What’s the biggest skyrocket you can explode for the finale? Go ahead…kaboom!

29 What’s the emotion or experience you’re most afraid to put your MC through? Go there. Do it. Now.

30 What’s the worst thing that happens to your MC? Work backwards. Make it something your MC has spent a lifetime avoiding.

31 What’s the very worst aspect of the main problem your MC faces? Find one way to make it still worse.

Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award Quarterfinalist

So, hey, I’m a quarter-finalist in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award for my as-yet-unpublished novel, Letting Go: me and 249 others in the General Fiction category (starting field: 5,000)! Now reviewers over at Publishers’ Weekly are reading the quarter-finalists’ full manuscripts and on April 26th, they’ll post reviews (eek!) and tell us who’s going through to the next round — 50 semi-finalists in General Fiction. Once again, I believe this will be my last round, but having those PW reviews will be invaluable as I move forward with revising the novel.

I’ve been waiting and waiting for Amazon to post the novel excerpts so I could point you all there when I gave you the news, but Amazon has just been saying they’ll be posted “shortly” since Tuesday, so you can go to the main contest page and see my name on a PDF instead, if you really want to! I’ll be back with a link as soon as I have it.

It’s good for you.

OK, one more quick one for today — WordPress throws up random posts when you log in, and I liked this one it gave me: Eat Your Lima Beans: The Importance of Becoming the Writer You Aren’t. It’s about “doing what doesn’t come naturally” to become a better writer. I concur with the blogger: for me it’s outlining, too. I haaaaaate outlining. I’m all about the “hey look at me I’m winging it and I’m on page 50 and now I’m on page 51 crash burn aargh”. You’d think I’d have learned by now.