Saturday, November 1, 2014

Stress vs. Fiction


This morning my twelve-year-old daughter will take New York City’s Specialized High School Admissions Test, which is the only criterion for admission to eight of the city’s top public high schools. About 30,000 eighth- and ninth-graders take this test every fall, competing for about 6,000 spots. The test is like the SAT used for college admissions but more devious; it includes logic questions that you’ll see nowhere else except the law-school admissions test, as well as an absurd exercise called “scrambled paragraphs” in which you have to put five sentences into the correct order based on tricky little clues. For many questions, two of the multiple-choice answers seem equally correct, but the arbitrariness of the exam is deliberate -- if all the questions were clear-cut, then too many students would get perfect scores. So the only way to make sure your kids excel at the exam is to enroll them in test-prep courses that teach them the tricks for scoring higher.

So here we have a good example of something that was designed to be perfectly fair (because your admission to the elite high schools depends strictly on your test score) but in practice turns out to be completely unfair (because most of the good test-prep courses are wildly expensive). But let’s forget the fairness issue for the moment. I’d like to talk about the stress caused by this screening process. In addition to this weekend’s test, my daughter is scheduled to take two more admissions exams next week, both geared to the specific needs of two other highly regarded schools. She also has to assemble a portfolio of her best writing to prepare for an interview at yet another high school, and she’s going to play piano, participate in a dance class and submit ten of her best artworks as part of the audition process for New York’s performing-arts high school (the one made famous by the movie Fame). Doesn’t this seem like a lot of stress to put on a twelve-year-old? (She going to turn thirteen in two weeks, but still.)

And here’s the worst part: this is just the beginning of the rat race. Over the next few months we have to start looking for summer internships for my son, a high-school sophomore. To get into the best colleges now, it’s not enough to have good grades -- you need to demonstrate that you have passionate intellectual interests and achievements. And if you’re admitted to a prestigious college, the race only intensifies. Last month I visited Princeton, my alma mater, for a Career Services event and was astonished to see dozens of college freshmen there, all asking me anxious questions about job prospects in the media industry. These kids had been attending college for a total of four weeks and they were already worried about what they would do after graduation.

There’s no question that the pressure on kids today is much, much worse than it was when I was a teenager in the 1970s. I never went to any Career Services events in college. I didn’t even know where Career Services was on campus. I have no idea why the stress has intensified so much, but it probably has something to do with globalization and our increasingly inequitable society. Fewer well-paying jobs are available these days, so the competition has grown fierce.

By now you’re probably wondering if there’s any connection between this rant and the business of writing fiction. There is: I believe that as economic strains and time pressures increase, the opportunity for leisure reading is decreasing. My daughter still reads good books in her English classes -- The Catcher in the Rye, The Great Gatsby, The Jungle -- but she has so much homework she can’t enjoy any books she chooses on her own. She’s so exhausted by bedtime (which is usually 11 pm or later) that I can’t even read to her while she lies in bed. And if this is true for twelve-year-olds, how can older kids find any time to read? How can they indulge in fantasies and mysteries and thrillers and develop a lifelong love for fiction?


I don’t see a solution to this problem. Does anyone?

Friday, October 31, 2014

Reader Friday: Trick or Treat?













Happy Halloween! Tell us about any ghosts, hauntings, or paranormal events you have encountered in "real" life. The creepier the tale, the better!

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Basic Formatting of Your Manuscript (Formatting 101)

by Jodie Renner, editor & author @JodieRennerEd

Often, the first thing I have to do when I receive a manuscript for potential editing, before starting my sample edit, is to reformat it, so it’s easier for me to read. Here are some guidelines for formatting your manuscript before submitting it to a freelance editor, a formatter, a contest, an agent, or a publisher. Most of these instructions are for Microsoft Word, 2007 or later.

1. For editing, your manuscript needs to be in Microsoft Word (Microsoft Office). This is a must, as almost all editors use Word’s Track Changes.

2. Send the manuscript as a .doc or .docx, unless instructed otherwise. Some contests prefer or require rich text format (.rtf) or even plain text (.txt), but most submissions want .doc or .docx documents.

3. The preferred font is Times New Roman or something similar. It’s easier to read than many other fonts. The font size should be 12-point.

4. To change the font and size for the whole manuscript instantly, click Control + A (for All) at the same time, which highlights the entire manuscript, then change the font and size by using the toolbar on “Home,” and then click “Enter.”

5. Left-justify the text, rather than justifying both sides. That way, it’s easier for the editor to spot spacing errors. That means the text is lined up straight down the left side (except for indents), but the right side is jagged, depending on the length of the last word in the line. To do that, click Control + A, then click the left-justify icon on the toolbar along the top (Click tab for Home first). You can also do that by clicking on the little arrow to the bottom and right of “Paragraph,” then click on the down arrow beside “Alignment” and click on “Left.”

6. Use only one space between sentences, not two. Two spaces between the period and capital went out with manual typewriters.

7. Do not press “Enter” at the ends of the lines to add an extra line-space between the lines. This is a HUGE no-no! It causes major headaches and a lot of frustration. As soon as a few words are added or deleted (which is what editing’s all about), everything screws up. So make sure that when you’re typing and you come to the end of a line, do not press “Enter” unless it’s for a new paragraph. Let the text “wrap” around on its own.

8. A quick and easy way to double-space your whole manuscript: Control + A (for “all”), then Control + 2 (Click on Ctrl and on 2 at the same time). Voilà! It’s done! To change the whole manuscript back to single spacing later, click on Ctrl + A, then Ctrl + 1.

9. To see at a glance all kinds of formatting errors, click on the paragraph symbol on the toolbar along the top. It’s called a “Pilcrow” and it looks like a backward “P”. Here it is: ¶. You’ll see dots where spaces are and a ¶ for every hard return (Enter), at the end of a paragraph or for an empty line space between paragraphs.

10. Correct spacing between sentences. Click on that ¶ symbol again to see a dot for every space (click of the space bar). If you have two (or 3 or 4) dots instead of one between sentences (between the period and the next capital), you need to take out the extra spaces and just have one space between sentences. You can fix that for the whole manuscript in a second or two by using Find and Replace. Click on “Replace,” then after “Find what” hit the space bar twice (if you have 2 spaces). Then after “Replace with” click the space bar once. Then click on “Replace all” and Voilà again! All fixed! (Unless of course you sometimes have 3 or even 4 spaces between random sentences, as I occasionally see in my editing - a heavy or over-enthusiastic thumb, I guess.)

11. Correct line-spacing and paragraphing: Click on that ¶ symbol in the toolbar again. You’ll see the pilcrow symbol ¶ at the end of every paragraph, to indicate a hard return (“Enter”), and then again at the beginning of a line-space. If you see the ¶ at the end of every line, all down the right margin, that’s a real problem – the biggest formatting mistake of all! You need to remove those pilcrows (returns) at the end of every line, either by using your “Delete” or “Backspace” keys before or after them, or by doing a “Find and Replace.” After “Find” you type in this: ^p (for the pilcrow or paragraph mark). After “Replace” you just hit the space bar once, to replace the carriage return with a space.

When you click on that pilcrow sign ¶, also look for extra dots at the beginnings of paragraphs, before the first indented word, and take them all out. There should just be the indents, with no extra dots in front of them. (I see that quite a lot in manuscripts I edit.)

Note that you should only see the pilcrow ¶ in two places – at the end of a paragraph, and on any blank line. If you see a ¶ anywhere other than those two locations, it’s misplaced and will probably cause some type of inadvertent mischief.

12. Paragraphing for fiction: For fiction manuscripts, don’t add an extra line-space between paragraphs. Just leave it at your normal double-spacing. Press “Enter” at the end of the last paragraph, then indent the new paragraph (0.3 to 0.5 inch) using the built-in paragraph styles, rather than tabs or spaces. (See #15 below for instructions on how to indent the right way.)

13. Paragraphing for nonfiction: Nonfiction usually uses block formatting, with no indents for new paragraphs but instead an extra space between paragraphs.

14. General rule for indenting and spacing paragraphs: If you indent your paragraphs, don’t leave an extra space between paragraphs; if you don’t indent, insert the extra space between paragraphs.

15. How to indent the first line of each paragraph:

Do not click repeatedly on the space bar to indent! Click on that pilcrow again ¶ and if you see 2-6 dots at the beginning of the paragraph, you’ve used the space bar to indent. That’s another big no-no, and a bit of a headache to fix, especially if you don’t always use the exact same number of spaces. Using the “Tab” key to indent paragraphs is also not the best. By far the best way to indent for the first line of a new paragraph is to use Word’s formatting. To do this for the whole manuscript at once, use Control + A (for All), then, in the toolbar along the top, click on the little arrow to the bottom right of “Paragraph” (in Word 2010), then under “Special” click on “First line,” then 0.5" or 0.4" or 0.3". Don’t go for less than .3" or more than .5".

And by the way, by popular current convention, the first line of a new chapter or scene is not usually indented - don't ask me why!

16. To center your title and chapter headings, do not repeatedly click on the space bar. Again, if you click on the pilcrow (¶) and you can see a bunch of dots in front of the title, you’ve used the space bar to get it over there in the middle. And don’t use the Tab key for that, either. Instead, highlight the title with your cursor, then click on the centering in the toolbar along the top, under the “Home” tab. Or go to “Paragraph” below that, and click on the arrow in the lower right corner, then go to “Alignment,” then click the down arrow and choose “Centering.” A quick trick for centering a word or phrase is to click your cursor in the middle of it, then click Ctrl + E. (Thanks to Hitch for this one!)

17. For extra line spaces between chapters, do not repeatedly click on Enter or Return. To force a page break at the end of a chapter (in Word 2010), place your cursor at the end of the chapter, usually on the line below the last sentence, then, in the toolbar along the top, click on the tab “Insert” then click on “Page Break.” In Word 2007, click on “Page Layout” in the toolbar, then click on “Breaks”, then on “Page.” Another quick trick? Press CTRL+Enter. This will give you a forced page break for the end of each chapter. Do not do this at the end of a normal page, only for the end of a chapter. (Thanks, Hitch, for another trick!)

18. Your next chapter heading (chapter name or number) should start at least 3 line-spaces down from the top of the page.

19. For more advanced, specific formatting, read the guidelines set out by the agent or publisher. Or stay tuned for “Formatting 102,” to appear here at some future time. And of course, formatting for publication, for example on Kindle, involves a lot more that's not discussed here! Especially if you're writing nonfiction like I do, with subheadings and lists.

20. And a few quick notes about formatting for dialogue:

~ Make a new paragraph for each new person talking. Also a new paragraph for someone else reacting to the previous speaker.

~ Comma after “said”: He said, “How are you?”

~ Comma at the end of the spoken sentence, where a period would normally go, inside the last quotation mark: “Come with me,” she said.

Do you have any formatting suggestions, tricks, or questions? Let me know in the comment boxes below. Thanks!

Besides publishing her popular craft-of-writing books under the series, An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction, the award-winning Fire up Your Fiction and Writing a Killer Thriller (and the upcoming Captivate Your Readers), as well as her handy, clickable e-resources, Spelling on the Go and Grammar on the Go, Jodie Renner is a sought-after freelance fiction editor and author of numerous blog posts on writing captivating fiction. Find Jodie on Facebook and Twitter

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Coming To Terms

By Joe Moore
@JoeMoore_writer

When I first started trying to write fiction, about the only thing I knew for sure was that I wanted to tell a story. I had no idea what the basic rules for writing were, so I broke them all. I also came across many words and terms related to writing that remained undefined for a long time. As time passed, I started honing the craft and the terminology that goes with it. I’m still learning the craft today, but once a term is defined, it rarely changes. To help those that are just getting their feet wet in this wacky business of making stuff up in a dark room staring at a monitor and talking to imaginary people, here are a few terms that I wish someone would have defined for me back in the day. Hope there’s one here that you’ve wondered about but never knew for sure. Or maybe two or three. So let’s come to terms with writing terms.

Concept: A vague notion such as: A world ruled by apes.

High Concept: Usually verges on the outrageous or bigger-than-life “world” story such as: A world ruled by apes where humans are the subspecies.

Idea: A story description that sounds more like a short synopsis.

Premise: Similar to an idea, the premise is a one- or two-sentence reply to the question: “What is your story about?”

Genre: Categories of fiction (suspense, science fiction, horror, romance, etc.) that help create inherent expectations for the reader. Each genre will predetermine your basic story structure.

Mystery: Usually begins with an event and spends the rest of the story finding who caused it.

Thriller: Usually begins with the threat of an event and spends the rest of the story trying to stop it.

Plot: A series of events that determine the beginning, middle and end of a story.

Subplot(s): A secondary series of events that contribute to the main plot and characters.

Commercial Fiction: Plots that generally deal with externally driven characters and conflicts.

Literary Fiction: Plots that generally deal with internally driven characters and conflicts.

Plot Driven: A story that relies heavily on a series of events to push the characters forward.

Character Driven: A story that relies heavily on the characters to push the plot forward.

Story Question: A global question posed early in the story that intrigues the reader enough to keep reading. The story question signals to the reader when the story will end.

Theme: What the story says about the human condition.

Moral: A life lesson taught or insinuated at the conclusion of a story.

Suspense: Creates a desire in the reader for something to happen, delays the satisfaction of that desire, then delivers what the reader wants in an anticipated yet unexpected manner. Suspense is used to keep the reader wanting to read more.

Conflict: Conflict is the basic difference of goals between the protagonist and antagonist.

Foreshadow: The delivery of small hints about what’s going to happen later in the novel, and is used to heighten suspense.

Telegraphing: Revealing too much too soon. Telegraphing can diminish or destroy suspense.

Query Letter: A one- or two-page business letter to an agent or editor that serves as an introduction and selling tool for the writer and story.

Elevator Pitch: Similar to the premise, the elevator pitch is a short summary of the story that is meant to attract the attention of an agent or editor.

Copy Editor: An editor who addresses such story elements as word choice, plot points, paragraph flow, clichés and style issues. The copy editor will also point out a need for clarification and possible plot mistakes.

Line Editor: An editor who deals with the rules of grammar and punctuation along with addressing such issues as passive voice and formatting.

Acquisition Editor: an editor who reviews submitted manuscripts for possible purchase and publications. The acquisition editor also deals with global issues that might need addressing before the manuscript is accepted.

This is by no means a complete list of writing terminology. Additional lists can be compiled dealing with terms about publishing contracts, marketing, and so many other topics. So, Kill-Zoners, is there a term and definition you would like to contribute to today’s discussion? Perhaps a term you would like defined. Now’s your chance to come to terms.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

FB and Twitter, she just can't quit you

Eighteen months ago, I wrote a post in which I wondered whether social media were developing a personality disorder.  Now I'm wondering whether social media are causing people to develop personality disorders.

Over the years, the content of my Facebook feed has become progressively darker. It's reliably clogged with distressing missives--political rants, plus tales of woe about suffering animals and the environment. (I suspect this content appears because Facebook's algorithm, like Google's, does an excellent job of micro tracking everything I "Like", share, or search for.) Yes, I care about these issues, but I don't want to be slapped in the face with how dreadful everything is, first thing in the morning when I turn on the computer. 

The more I read these distressing posts, the more upset I get about the state of the world. I do try to tune much of it out. For example, I skip over my friends' political rants online--they're tiresome, no matter what the point of view. (I don't block these friends, because some of these people are dear to me in real life.)  But I worry about my friends who are struggling with depression or some other personal issue in real life, who do nothing but mutter darkly online about the nefarious activities of Evil Government, or Evil Corporations. Is it a sign that they're slipping over the edge?

I tell you, it's enough to make me long for the boring old days when people shared what they ate for breakfast.

And it's not just Facebook. Whenever there's a breaking news, I find that I stay ahead of the headlines on cable news by monitoring Twitter updates. Twitter has become our new wire service, and anyone can use it. I've developed an unhealthy fixation with the #Breaking hashtag. 

I know there's a simple solution to my situation. "Turn it off! Unplug!" Easier said than done. I've been a news junkie all my life. Now apparently I'm a social media junkie, as well.

We've become a nation of social media junkies, it seems. I remember an incident from years ago. I was at a cocktail party, and feeling uncomfortable for some reason. I withdrew to a dark corner and began checking my cell phone. My husband came over to see what was wrong. Nowadays, I don't think he'd bother. Everywhere  one goes, everyone is checking their devices. 

In the context of this discussion, I have to mention the Marysville shooting. I was stunned to see excerpts of the conversations that some of children involved had been posting online. I'm wondering why minors are even allowed to post profanity, plus violent and sexual content. Unfortunately, that kind of language seems to be the rule among adolescents in the Twitter-verse, rather than the exception. And that's scary.

When one of my daughters was young, she was an early adopter of computer technology. She had taught herself to create a web site, and she posted a .gif of an animated dancing devil, complete with pitchfork. The image caused a big kerfuffle among the mothers of her friends, I recall, and I made her shut the site down. (I actually thought the dancing devil was kind of cute and creative, which tells you something about me. But I did want her to learn to respect "community standards", such as they were back then).

Fast forward to current time. Where are the mothers and fathers who should be monitoring their kids' online activities today? Perhaps we've all become  used to a level of discourse that's unhealthy. Perhaps it's unhealthy for us, as well as for our children. 

Here I was complaining about Facebook rants, but I seem to have written one of my own today. As writers, I know we all tend to be heavy users of social media. (For example, the #amwriting hashtag is a frequent trend on Twitter.) Do you think that social media is causing people to develop personality disorders, or does it merely reflect a pre-existing condition?

Monday, October 27, 2014

Choosing Character Names

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

I'm winging my way to Australia today so apologies that I won't be able to join in the discussion. I will, however, be trying to do a little writing on the way (although you all know how hard I find it to write 'in public'!). I started a new project last week and have been enjoying coming up with my new characters' names - something I always have a lot of fun with and yet also suffer way too much angst over...

A character's name can be critical to establishing the voice and feel of that person in the world that I am creating, and I often spend a considerable amount of time tinkering with main character names until they feel and fit the character exactly right.

Since I mainly write historical novels, I have a number of resources at my disposal to help me come up with names. These include lists of popular boys and girls names for  the time period I'm writing about as well as handy British last name resources like census data, historical records, newspapers, magazines and even Debrett's (I often write about aristocrats, after all!). I'm like a sponge at first, soaking in all the details about names and then I play around with combinations until I find the right fit. Since I've also been writing with a renewed sense of appreciation for the humor in certain names, I have also been rereading Charles Dickens. He is, in my opinion, one of the cleverest 'namers' in literature (who can forget names like Uriah Heep, Ebenezer Scrooge or Mr. Pumblechook!). I recently discovered the often hilarious Dickens name generator and have spent many an hour or two concocting my own 'Dickensian' type names. 

So how do you come up with your character names? What resources do you use and how much time and effort do you spend? Is it something you agonize over, trying to make sure the name 'fits' the character or do you find the names just come to you and slide on your characters as easily as a silk glove? Apart from Dickens, who do you think has come up with some of the greatest, most memorable character names? 

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Sympathy for the Devil: Writing Unforgettable Villains

James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell


Back when I was pounding the Off-Broadway boards I got a bit part in a production of Othello.  I got to wear tights and say Shakespeare things.

Our Othello was the marvelous stage actor Earle Hyman, better known to most of you as Bill Cosby’s father on The Cosby Show. In point of fact Earle is one of the great Othellos. He is also a very nice man.

Once we were chatting backstage and I told him that someday I would love to play Iago. He said I would be perfect for it because I had such an open, honest face (this was before I went to law school). That, after all, is what makes Iago powerful. Othello calls him “My friend ... honest, honest Iago.” And if the part is played right there is even a touch of sympathy for Iago at the end as he’s dragged off to be tortured to death.

This, in fact, is what set Shakespeare apart from his contemporaries. He knew how to mangle the emotions of the audience, even to the point of rendering some sympathy for the devil.

Dean Koontz wrote, “The best villains are those that evoke pity and sometimes even genuine sympathy as well as terror. Think of the pathetic aspect of the Frankenstein monster. Think of the poor werewolf, hating what he becomes in the light of the full moon, but incapable of resisting the lycanthropic tides in his own cells.”

All this to say that the best villains in fiction, theatre, and film are never one-dimensional. They are complex, often charming, and able to manipulate. The biggest mistake you can make with a villain is to make him pure evil or all crazy.

So what goes into crafting a memorable villain?

1. Give him an argument

There is only one character in all storytelling who wakes up each day asking himself what fresh evil he can commit. This guy:


But other than Dr. Evil, every villain feels justified in what he is doing. When you make that clear to the reader in a way that approaches actual empathy, you will create cross-currents of emotion that deepen the fictive dream like virtually nothing else.

One of the techniques I teach in my workshops is borrowed from my courtroom days. I ask people to imagine their villain has been put on trial and is representing himself. Now comes the time for the closing argument. He has one opportunity to make his case for the jury. He has to justify his whole life. He has to appeal to the jurors’ hearts and minds or he’s doomed.

Write that speech. Do it as a free-form document, in the villain’s voice, with all the emotion you can muster. Emphasize what's called "exculpatory evidence." That is evidence that, if believed, would tend to exonerate a defendant. As the saying goes, give the devil his due.

Note: This does not mean you are giving approval to what the villain has done. No way. What you are getting at is his motivation. This is how to know what’s going on inside your villain’s head throughout the entire novel.

Want to read a real-world example? See the cross-examination of Hermann Goering from the Nuremberg Trials. Here’s a clip:

I think you did not quite understand me correctly here, for I did not put it that way at all. I stated that it had struck me that Hitler had very definite views of the impotency of protest; secondly, that he was of the opinion that Germany must be freed from the dictate of Versailles. It was not only Adolf Hitler; every German, every patriotic German had the same feelings. And I, being an ardent patriot, bitterly felt the shame of the dictate of Versailles, and I allied myself with the man about whom I felt perceived most clearly the consequences of this dictate, and that probably he was the man who would find the ways and means to set it aside. All the other talk in the Party about Versailles was, pardon the expression, mere twaddle ... From the beginning it was the aim of Adolf Hitler and his movement to free Germany from the oppressive fetters of Versailles, that is, not from the whole Treaty of Versailles, but from those terms which were strangling Germany's future.

How chilling to hear a Nazi thug making a reasoned argument to justify the horrors foisted upon the world by Hitler. So much scarier than a cardboard bad guy.

So what’s your villain’s justification? Let’s hear it. Marshal the evidence. Know deeply and intimately what drives him.


2. Choices, not just backstory

It’s common and perhaps a little trite these days to give the villain a horrific backstory and leave it at that.

Or, contrarily, to leave out any backstory at all.

In truth, everyone alive or fictional has a backstory, and you need to know your villain’s. But don’t just make him a victim of abuse. Make him a victim of his own choices.

Back when virtue and character were actually taught to children in school, there was a lesson from the McGuffey Reader that went like this: “The boy who will peep into a drawer will be tempted to take something out of it; and he who will steal a penny in his youth will steal a pound in his manhood.”

The message, of course, is that we are responsible for our choices and actions, and they have consequences.

So what was the first choice your villain made that began forging his long chain of depravity? Write that scene. Give us the emotion of it. Even if you don’t use the scene in your book, knowing it will give your villain scope.


3. Attractiveness

The devil is not a cloven-hoofed, red-suited, pointy-eared demon with a pitchfork. Indeed, the Bible says Satan appears “as an angel of light.” He is the most beautiful of the heavenly host. His mode is to entice, not coerce.

The same with the best villains. They are sometimes attractive through raw, worldly power (Gordon Gekko). Intellect may be their weapon (Hannibal Lecter). Or a certain way with the opposite sex (innumerable homme and femme fatales). Hitchcock’s best villains were charming and therefore disarming. They often had wit and style. (My favorite is the widow-murdering uncle played by Joseph Cotten in Shadow of a Doubt.)

Give your villain at least one attractive feature and then see what the other characters do with it.

The strength of a thriller is directly proportional to the strength of the villain. The reader has to feel that this character has got what it takes to pull the wool over the eyes of the many. And if you create a touch of empathy as well, you’ll have your storytelling hooks deeply embedded in the readers’ hearts. They’ll thank you for that by buying your next book.

What’s your approach to villain writing?