Category Archives: Deadlines

Help from Hollywood

Long before I ever started writing fiction, I worked as a script reader for studios specializing in children and family entertainment. It was a low-level freelance job that paid just enough to cover my monthly cellphone bill, but it was perhaps the best education I could ever have asked for as a writer.

My job was to read and provide “coverage” of screenplays that had been submitted to the studios, i.e. giving a brief summary of each script’s story, critiquing it, and determining whether it was a good potential fit for the studio. One of the most important things coverage did for me was it moved me away from thinking of a story as either something I liked or didn’t like, and instead moved me to approach every story as a potential problem to solve. Whether a script was initially a strong one or a weak one, my number one job was to approach it with the goal of figuring out how to make it better. That’s right; one of the first lessons that Hollywood taught me is that nothing is perfect, and almost everything is fixable.

Like a lot of writers, I tend to be a perfectionist with a flair for the dramatic. When I’m writing it feels like every sentence is a high-stakes decision that will determine the ultimate fate of the book, my career, and possibly even my ability to survive another day on this planet. While it can be paralyzing, before I sold anything that wasn’t that necessarily a big a problem for me. If I wanted to take years to write a book I could. But when deadlines come into the picture, perfectionism is no longer a workable plan, especially when those deadlines usually aren’t that far apart. Now when I’m working on a first draft, my husband and I have a joke in our house: “We’ll fix it in post.” It’s a reference to the cherished Hollywood tradition of fixing errors in the post-production editing process, after the movie has finished shooting. In the film and TV business, nothing is ever considered a perfect finished product up until the very moment it’s released, and then the audience and critics can gleefully start ripping it apart.

Hollywood is known for its short attention span. Studio execs are inundated with hundreds of scripts a month, and they might hear several dozen pitches a day. As a result, they wanted their notes broken down in easily-distilled categories. The execs I worked with were most interested in four main elements: premise, plot structure, characterization, and dialogue. By focusing on specific elements rather than the piece as a whole, it allowed me to determine what made a particular story resonate or fall flat. I could quickly identify strengths, and if something didn’t land, it gave me an efficient way to figure out what wasn’t working and why.

This has been invaluable in my own work. I always start with the story’s concept or premise. Hollywood is big on “high concept” ideas. This simply means that your story’s premise can easily be pitched and communicated. It succinctly answers the question, “What is this about?” Because I write for kids, having a high concept idea is a pretty good place to start. If a bunch of kids want to know what my book series is about, I want to make sure I can pitch it to them in one sentence and grab their attention before they lose interest and scatter. Not every great idea has to be high-concept, but I have found in my own work that if I can’t easily communicate my premise, it might be a sign that my story has problems.

Highlighting the importance of plot might be the Captain Obvious move of the year, but in screenwriting when we talk about plot we’re really talking about structure and pacing. Everyone’s writing process is different, but working as a script reader turned me into a dedicated outliner. In screenwriting, structure is everything; lots of times if a story isn’t working, it is likely a problem with either the structure or the pacing. My mom always used to say, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any path will take you there.” Focusing on structure keeps me focused on where I’m going and how I’m getting there. It’s purposeful, and it makes for efficient and effective storytelling. I think of the plot structure as the skeleton of the story. If the skeleton isn’t solid, then it’s going to cause problems down the line when we start adding the rest of the body.

If the plot is the skeleton, the characters are the muscle. They do the moving and the heavy lifting. Because I was reading for a kids’ network, my job was to find kid-driven stories. If the kids weren’t driving the plot, it was a pass. As a writer I always have to make sure that my characters are driving the plot, and not the other way around. Beyond the inciting event, the story shouldn’t just happen to characters; we want it to be driven by the characters’ choices and actions. Characters also have to be rich and nuanced and feel authentic. Scripts where a character felt more like a prop, or seemed to be there solely to stand in for an idea or lesson of some kind, were less successful. For novels I lump voice in with characterization. When reading for character, I was always look for honesty and authenticity. In other words, it’s the character’s voice we want to hear, not the author’s.

Because screenplays are so reliant on dialogue, working as a reader gave me a lot of insight into how dialogue can make or break a story. Dialogue is our best way of getting to know characters and build conflicts that keep the story moving. One of the main stumbling blocks for dialogue is when it doesn’t feel natural. Readers can spot inauthentic dialogue from a mile away. My biggest pet peeve as a reader was when kids didn’t talk like real kids. It immediately pulled me out of the story, and each time your reader gets pulled out of your story, it makes it that much harder to bring them back. The other problem is when characters don’t have distinct voices. I struggled with this in Babysitting Nightmares: The Shadow Hand, because I had four preteen girls with common interests. It took a lot of extra character work and revision to make sure that each girl felt distinct, and I’m still not sure I got there.

If you’re worried about how your dialogue is landing, a table read is a really easy way to test it out. In Hollywood screenwriters often host table reads, where they invite actors or friends sit around a table and read a screenplay out loud. Invite a few folks over and have them do the dialogue of your scene. Listen to how they sound. Ask them how they felt reading it. This is a really effective and fast way to spot and fix dialogue problems. If you’re feeling shy or short on time, act out the scenes yourself. I do this all the time when I’m workshopping dialogue in my books. I’ll use physical gestures, move around the room, and speak in different voices so I can imagine how the characters might talk about what they’re feeling in the scene. Unlike film and TV where actors bring the writing to life, books have to rely on the reader’s imagination to bring the authors’ words to life. Don’t be shy about channelling your inner actor to make sure that your character’s voices will be heard.

The time I spent reading for film and TV was a huge gift I gave my writer self, because it forced me to look at my own work through a completely different lens. Many writers dedicate time and energy to reading within their lane, but consuming content outside your lane is a really effective way to inject some much-needed outside perspective on your own work. If you’re feeling stuck in a rut or uncertain of what your own story needs, go check out something completely different. And don’t just read; watch movies and watch TV. Watch what your audience watches, and take notes. Definitely watch the good stuff, but make sure you cover the bad stuff, too. I read a lot of great screenplays, but I also read a lot terrible screenplays, and every one of them taught me something different. The beauty of writing is that every experience brings an opportunity to learn something new.

 

Author PhotoKat Shepherd is a writer and former classroom teacher living in Minnesota with her husband, two dogs, and a rotating series of foster dogs. Her Babysitting Nightmares series (Macmillan/Imprint) debuts June 5, 2018. You can find Kat at katshepherd.com or connect with her on Twitter @bookatshepherd.

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Filed under Advice, Character Development, Characters, craft~writing, Deadlines, Editing and Revising, middle grade, Middle Grade, Plotting, process, Screenwriting, series, Uncategorized, Writing

Gone Revisin’

Wasn’t Tara Dairman’s launch party week fun? And lucky me, she and I are neighbors, so I was able to join in the festivities in person at her launch party in Boulder. I sampled Tree-nut tarts, homemade hummus, and gajar ka walwa, three recipes inspired by All Four Stars. Tara (and Gladys!) charmed the crowd, and the party ended with a long line of readers eager to have their book signed.

 

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And a lucky one of YOU is the winner of a signed copy of All Four Stars! And that winner is:

leandrajwallace!!!

Congratulations, Leandra!

*     *     *     *

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I wanted to write a funny post for today about receiving my first-ever, under-contract, editorial letter from my editor, and the excitement of that moment. (I may have kissed my letter).

 

 

I wanted to write a post about how receiving that letter makes everything feel real, and how you have all these fluttery feelings about your dream being realized, and you read the letter in a state of almost disbelief and wonder . . .

 

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Approximately what I looked like upon receiving my editorial letter.

 

. . . and then the panic sets in when you realize this is for real-for real, and strangers are going to be reading your book, and these revisions are one of your last shots to make your book as good as can be, and–AAAAAGH!

(Just a minor panic attack. Excuse me for a minute while I hyperventilate into a paper bag.)

Okay, I’m back.

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My desk pre-revisions.

 

My plan had been to write this post in diary format, like I’d gone missing while doing revisions and the diary entries would show me progressing from enthusiasm to panic to determined resolve to the voices taking over and me going crazy . . . I don’t know, it was hilarious in my mind. But that’s the thing about writing, right? It’s all brilliant in our minds. Who would ever sit down and dedicate priceless hours, weeks, months, years to craft a story with the intention of having flat characters and a derivative plot and clichéd dialogue? We are all trying to tell good stories to the best of our abilities.

 

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My desk during revisions. . .

 

But I couldn’t pull off the super-duper funny (no-really-it would-have-been) (probably) diary format post idea because my brain is totally fried, you guys. More fried than eggs at a roadside diner. More fried than a bucket of KFC.  More fried than all the food combined at a state fair.

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Mentally speaking, this is about the phase I’m at right now with my revisions. So things are going well . . .

 

But what I do have for you today are links to some great posts on revision that have helped me along the way in my own process. I’m including snippets that give you a taste, but if you are revising or will soon be revising, I highly recommend reading all of these in full. Without further ado:

From Anna Staniszewski‘s blog post “Lessons from the Revision Cave”:

“. . . since I didn’t have time to let the manuscript sit in order to gain some perspective on it, I read the entire manuscript aloud. This got me to really focus on it again, instead of just skimming over what I’d read a hundred times before, and notice things that still needed work.”

From middle-grade author and former literary agent Nathan Bransford‘s post “How to Respond to a Manuscript Critique/Editorial Letter”:

“Confronting a revision can be extremely daunting because of the Cascade Effect: when you change one plot point it necessitates two more changes so that the plot still makes sense after the change, which prompts still more changes and more and more. Ten or more changes can cascade from a single change, even a minor one.”

From author Lisa Schroeder‘s post, “Monday Motivation on Revision”:

“For me, when I’m deleting old scenes and writing new ones, I’m often scared I’m making the book worse instead of better. And it’s so messy – all that deleting and moving things around.”

From author Jeannine Atkins‘s post “Building and Wrecking Walls of Words”:

“Revision means going back to dredge through what we first came up with. Kicking holes while asking new questions, which lead to still more questions, which stage greater messes, demanding we again haul out the trash and finally tidy.”

From Maggie Stiefvater‘s “On Characters, Knowing Them”:

“I need to know what they want out of life so I can deprive them of it. I need to know what their mortal flaw is so they can struggle to overcome it. I need to know who they love so I can turn that person into a wolf and laugh meanly.”

From Jennifer Hubbard‘s “Avoiding Info Dumps”:

“People around us don’t stop to explain every little thing, every piece of their history, every allusion they make. We are used to gathering information and piecing it together ourselves.”

From Nathan Bransford again, this time on revision fatigue:

“The best way to deal with revision fatigue is to trust in your heart that it’s a very useful and necessary feeling: what better time to turn a critical eye on your book than when you think it is an affront to humanity?”

And from the Emu’s Debuts archives, a post by Lisa Schulman “Real Life: The Nemesis of Revision”:

 “No one ever warned me that the pre-publication revision stage would result in Foggy Brain Syndrome, which gives another disorder I suffered from, Pregnancy Brain, a run for its money. Life has somehow become the dream, and the world of my book-in-progress, reality. I am not fully functional in the noggin’, and I can’t quite explain why.”

 

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jenn.bertman-2002139Jennifer Chambliss Bertman is the author of the forthcoming middle-grade mystery, Book Scavenger (Christy Ottaviano Books/Henry Holt/Macmillan, 2015). Book Scavenger launches a contemporary mystery series that involves cipher-cracking, book-hunting, and a search for treasure through the streets of San Francisco. Jennifer earned her MFA in Creative Writing from Saint Mary’s College, Moraga, CA, and is represented by Ammi-Joan Paquette.

You can find Jennifer online at http://writerjenn.blogspot.com where she runs an interview series with children’s book authors and illustrators called “Creative Spaces.

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Filed under Advice - Helpful or Otherwise, Anxiety, Deadlines, Editing and Revising

Permission to Fail: Granted

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This is a red F, in crayon, that I have awarded a gold star. Yay, failure.

A draft of my second book is due in a few days, but it’s not finished.  The reason it’s not finished is that I don’t want to write the end, and the reasons I don’t want to write the end are these:

1. I want to write a satisfying ending, but there can only be a truly satisfying ending when the structure of the plot is sound enough to usher the story to an equally sound conclusion.

1b. Therefore, if I write the ending and it isn’t fully satisfying, I’ll have proof that the plot isn’t fully cooked;

1c. Which means I’ll have to do rewrites.

2. If I write the ending, the draft will be finished.

2b. As soon as the draft is finished, it’s due to my editor.

2c. My editor really likes my first book.  What if I give her the second one, and she thinks it’s a total letdown?  What if, as an author – which is something I’ve worked very hard for a chance to be – I turn out to be a one-book wonder?

There’s only one thing on that list – #1 – that’s actually based in a desire to write well.

All the other reasons are based in fear.  Specifically, the fear of failure.

I’m not unique.  We all fear failure.  And we know that we have to push through that fear if we’re ever going to achieve our goals.  But the human brain has an amazing talent for knowing something and ignoring it at the very same time.  For example, take 1c, above.  I am certain that there will be rewrites.  I have come to expect many rounds of rewrites.  Why am I pretending that I can somehow escape what is inevitable (and important)?

I don’t know.  But I do know that I have to write an ending.  Like, right now.

Today, I gave myself permission to write pure crap.  And by “gave myself permission” what I really mean is that I forced myself to write words even while knowing that they are not my best. I let every hackneyed phrase stay put, I let the gushy mushies take over, I overused adverbs and got spicy with the dialogue tags, I exercised no restraint, and I told rather than showed (gasp and horror, yeah, yeah).  I reminded myself that my editor is a professional who has seen first drafts before and will not damn me for mine.

(I also reminded myself that I still have a couple of days, so if I finish now, I’ll have a tiny window of time to do a little tweaking before I send it in.)

The result of giving myself this permission is that I’m finally closing in on the end of this draft, which is exactly what I need to be doing right now.  What I’m generating does not thrill me yet, but that’s okay. It doesn’t feel okay, but it actually is okay.  It’s even necessary.  If I want to write something good, then I have to write something.

While I’m on a roll, I think I’ll also give myself permission to fail in writing a decent conclusion to this post, because you know what?  I really want to get back to writing my crappy ending.

 

HiRes_Morrison_6861_cropMegan Morrison is the author of GROUNDED: A TALE OF RAPUNZEL, due out summer 2015 from Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic. GROUNDED is the first book in the Tyme Series, co-created with Ruth Virkus. You can follow Megan on her blog at makingtyme.blogspot.com or on Twitter at @megtyme. She is represented by Ammi-Joan Paquette.

 

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Filed under Anxiety, Deadlines, Writing

Not-So-Deadly Deadlines

I love deadlines. Usually.

“Ummm… that’s due TOMORROW??”

I have a confession. I’m a terrible procrastinator. (Well, actually I’m a fabulous procrastinator. Ask my husband. “Have you made those reservations yet?” he will ask me. *Gulp…)

In fact, as I write this, I have deadlines for three projects. All due tomorrow.

*Deep breath* I can do this.

A few years ago I decided the time had come to finally get my master’s degree. After considering many options, I decided to do a crazy thing. I would take a leap of faith and apply for Vermont College’s master’s program in Writing for Children and Young Adults. Not only would I be adding a suggested 25 hours of reading and writing per week on top of teaching full time and being a wife and mom, I would need to complete 20 packets of work during the two-year program, including new manuscripts every month.

Where was I going to get ideas for 20 packets worth of new stories?? Oh, if I were working on a novel, maybe. I could add a few new chapters a month. But I write picture books. That’s two to six new story ideas every month.

The first month was covered. I had a few manuscripts saved up that I could pull out and submit. (It was a good thing, too, as we ended up moving that first month to a new house after living 17 years on our farm.)

Then came the second month. Again, I had a few stories I could dust off, plus a brand new idea or two. The third month rolled around, and once more I had new ideas. Every time I would come down to a due date, the ideas were there. Every time I hit “Send” I was sure that the idea well was now dry. Yet the next month would come, and with it came more ideas.

How was this working? Did panic get the creative juices flowing? Did I have a cooperative muse? Was it the power of prayer?

Panic and prayer notwithstanding, I think the secret lies in having a deadline. Deadlines help me organize my priorities. I am the WORST in the summer when I don’t have to show up for work. Somehow, the morning slips by without anything getting done. But if I have a deadline, it bumps laundry, weeding, and checking my email to a lower place on my “To Do” list, and I actually end up with something to show for my time.

Deadlines make me accountable to someone besides myself who will be expecting results. Not just any results, but my best work. When I am accountable to a critique partner, my agent or an editor, I don’t want to disappoint them. They are expecting something good to land in their inbox, and I don’t want them to see shoddy work, or worse yet, an empty inbox.

Finally, regular deadlines make me develop the habit of writing. And while practice may never make me a perfect writer, it certainly helps me improve my craft. I know that unless I actually show up to do the work, any creative juices, chance muses or divine interventions will pass me by.

So if you’re facing a revision, in need of some inspiration, or working on a new story, having a deadline just might be a lifeline.

Congratulations to Melanie Fishbane, winner of a copy of Adi Rule’s STRANGE SWEET SONG!

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Filed under Advice, Anxiety, craft~writing, Deadlines, Deadlines, Education, Faith, Panic, Time Management, Uncategorized, Writing, Writing and Life