Sunday, November 24, 2013

Hook your readers with the very first sentence

Want your readers to follow you anywhere? Then you’d better hook them with your very first sentence because that’s as far as most people will go if they’re not happy with what they see.

I’ve written for seven newspapers, local and national magazines and had a couple of books published by traditional publishers. But the best lessons I’ve learned about writing weren’t taught at any of those places. They came from my very first freelance “employer” ~ MacFadden Enterprises in New York City

Most readers have never heard of MacFadden, so let me put it another way: how about True Story, True Confessions, True Love and True Romance. Oh yeah- you remember those. They were the tearjerkers we read back in the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s that told about women who loved and lost; loved and won; and those who never found love at all. 

The editors I wrote for at MacFadden never used the word “lead” like newspapers and (most) magazines do. They called your first sentence the “hook.” Instead of the “lead, nut graph and body” expected in a news article or feature story, at MacFadden, the words were always “hook, climax and conclusion.”

And you know what? That is the concept that has helped me over and over again in both fiction and nonfiction through story after story in my 30-plus years of professional writing and editing.
Right in the beginning, an editor at MacFadden told me, “If you want to sell to us, you’d better leave the reader laughing or crying because the first and last sentences are critical."

I soon found the conclusion wasn’t anywhere near as critical to my paycheck as the lead. If I didn’t have a compelling hook, the editors never got to my climax or conclusion. The stories with wishy-washy (or down-right poor) leads came back to me in  “SASEs” – the 9-by-12 standard brown self-addressed stamped envelopes writers used  before computerized submissions became the norm.

You bet your lead is important. And the ways to write it are as different as the stories that you’ll tell. It doesn’t matter if you’re a news writer reporting on a dull meeting or writing what you hope will be the next bestselling novel. If your lead sucks, few readers will get past it.

My late husband owned a commercial fishing business. He used to say “hey, if they return it, I can always use it to wrap what I sell.”
Bad joke honey, but oh, so true. 

In the beginning of any writer’s career, rejections aren’t a joking matter but eventually we toughen up and learn to listen to editor’s advice. Successful writers have to have more grits than Quaker and more balls than a bowling alley to fend off all the rejections that come with “staring to write.”

So how do we get that super fantastic lead that will make people pick up your story, or book? It’s really no secret. You have to be creative.

NONFICTION EXAMPLE: Would you rather read “The Johnson County Commission voted today seven-to-three to begin using an automated garbage collection vehicle where recycling containers will be emptied using a mechanical arm instead of workers lifting garbage cans and emptying them into the vehicle.”

OR: Commissioners talked trash today and it’s going to affect everyone living in Johnson County. Now give the details, not in the lead. This part is called a nut graph in news and “the body” in stories. It needs to include the what, when, where, why and how. You don’t need details in a lead, you need a fantastic “grabber.” But it has to relate to the story to follow. You can’t write something like “Godzilla ate Bambi” and then start talking about trash. If the story is about garbage, you have to write a lead about garbage. Misleading the reader isn’t only unfair, it’s just plain wrong.

SO HOW ABOUT A FICTION EXAMPLE? FIRST, THE DETAILS WE NEED: Joan Swanson had become a recluse after a terrible breakup with her lover of seventeen years. Now she spends most of her time drinking vodka alone, behind closed doors. Humm… how to tell this. There are so many choices. Let’s try a few.

MAYBE: “Do you want a drink Ma’am,” the butler called from outside the door to the master bedroom. He knew better than to open it. Miss Swanson would never approve.
“No thank you James dear. I've had enough.”
Of course it was a lie. Joan had made love to Absolut far too many times this afternoon and still had another full bottle in her room. But that wasn’t much different than every afternoon since her breakup. Seventeen years! I’ve wasted seventeen years on this man! She thought as she sucked the vodka down with a vengeance.

BETTER YET: Maybe if I drink enough of this I’ll never have to face this loneliness again, Joan thought as she finished off her second bottle of Absolut. How long had she been locked away in her room, refusing to see anyone, even her closest friends? She didn’t know and at this point, she really didn’t care. Ralph was gone and that was all that mattered. Seventeen damn years she’d wasted on that man. Seventeen damn years. 

There are as many ways to lead a story- fiction or nonfiction- as there are stories. You just have to decide which one feels right to you!

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Tough Editors Make for Great Manuscripts

If you want compliments, give the book to your mother or read it to the person next to you at the bar after buying them a drink. Better yet, give it to your best friend, especially if you have one that’s afraid to speak their mind.

If you want to improve the manuscript, hire a good editor. And when you do, you’d better have thick skin. Good editors don’t patronize their clients, but they don’t sugar-coat their critiques either. If a character lacks motivation, or the dialogue sounds stilted, a good editor will tell you that. But he or she should also give you an example of how to correct the problem.

Being both an author and an editor, I view every manuscript that comes across my desk in two ways. First, there’s the creative side. Authors never cease to amaze me with what they can write. From nutritional guides to who-done-it suspense, every author eventually develops his or her own voice. Once I’ve edited a manuscript from an author, chances are I’ll recognize his or her work by the end of the first page when another work is submitted.

But as an editor, it’s a whole different process. We’re actually out looking for trouble. You see, finding trouble spots is exactly what writers pay us for.

Usually, the idea, or premise, of a book is apparent, even if the writing is rough, but sometimes, an author isn’t exactly sure how to best express that idea, or has trouble moving the piece along. That’s where an editor (sometimes calling themselves a manuscript developer or book doctor) can help perfect the work.

The editor’s job is to find mistakes, not just in grammar and punctuation, but incoherent segments, loose plot strands that need tied up, dialogue that doesn’t make sense, and anything else that impedes the reader from enjoying the story.

Expect red-lines through your manuscript because that’s what editors are hired to do. It’s surprising how many first-time authors get angry at their editors and insist they take out the change and put paragraphs back in their original form. When they do that with me, I wonder why they bothered to hire me in the first place. More experienced authors- unless they’re real primadonnas- welcome red lines and comment boxes from their editors.

Isn’t making the manuscript the best it can be the goal of everyone who helps with the work? After more than thirty years of writing professionally, I wouldn’t think of doing the final edit on my own work. I welcome the comments of my editor because I know she cares about details in the manuscript as much as I do. After all, it’s as much a reflection on her expertise as it is on mine (as an author.)

But when I’m wearing my author’s hat, I know I’m too close to the forest to see the trees. Everything I write except this Blog is edited by a completely different set of eyes. If  I didn’t trust those eyes, I wouldn’t have hired them in the first place.

So welcome those red-lines and comment boxes. Isn’t that what you’re paying your editor for?

ONE WARNING THOUGH: and this is a very important point. If you- as a writer- don’t understand the comments, you have every right to ask questions. More than that- you have a right to see examples of what the editor means when he or she makes a comment about how something is written. Just saying “style error” is not enough. Keep asking until you understand it because even though the problem may be corrected in the manuscript being edited, if you don’t understand why a change is made, you’re bound repeat that same mistake over and over again.

Editors need to spell out what the comment “style error” means each and every time it’s used and give the rule behind it. I usually put in an example in a comment box (besides correcting the error in the manuscript) just to be sure my reasoning is fully explained. Perhaps that’s why I get so many repeat clients year after year. They certainly don’t keep coming back for my compliments, although I do occasionally write “Bravo!” or “Wonderful metaphor!” when something is written particularly well.

Remember, you’re paying this person to cut, rearrange, shorten, clarify, or whatever else the work needs to be a success~ depending on the scope of the contract of course. If all you’re paying for is proofing of typographical and grammatical errors, a red-line change is all you can expect. But if you’re paying for someone to go in and “fix” your manuscript- you deserve to know why each and every change is done right down to the difference between taking out a comma and inserting semi-colon.

We writers need to get our compliments at the corner bar until the sale to the publisher is made. The whole idea behind hiring an editor or book doctor is to get our kudos after the book is published, bought, read, and reviewed.

                   Until next time, Write On!

Friday, October 18, 2013

What’s Stanislavski got to do with it?

  Our Oct. 5 Blog talked about the difference between “showing” your story and “telling” your story. This picks up where that left off, so if you haven’t read it, I’d suggest reading it now. Often publishers reject really good stories because they’re written in a “Once upon a time” fashion. Writers tend to describe something rather than show a character’s actions or mannerisms acting it out.

    Why say “He’s in a hurry” when we can show him tapping his foot, gritting his teeth, or putting one foot in front of the other so fast he trips on a jagged piece of concrete sidewalk? The best stories are a series of scenes strung together like a moving picture we can create scene-by-scene using recall and emotions from our own experiences. If your character is in love, remember a time when you were in love. If your character is experiencing grief, remember a time when you were experiencing grief in your own life and draw on the feelings that come to you. If her sweetheart just said “yes” to her marriage proposal, show her laughing or jumping up and down or buying flowers from a street vendor. Or maybe he’s just been accepted to medical school. The medical school of his choice! Clapping or singing or twirling around and around the room- any one of these could be used as the basis for a scene.

    Emotions are universal. You don’t have to have lost a family member to show the despair  of a woman watching her husband die slowly of a terrible disease, or a father’s joy as he looks at his newborn child. Just think of a time when you felt the required emotion and then project that feeling in the form of a scene into your character. For any of you who have taken drama, this might sound a lot like the Stanislavski “system” of (actor) projection. That’s because in a way it is, and in a way it isn’t.

    When Stanislavski developed his method in 1906, he was talking about live theater. There’s a big difference between live theater and the pages of a story or a book. A book can become boring very quickly unless it comes alive. So that’s the goal: making our words come alive. What do we see? What do we hear, touch, taste and smell? Now let’s grab hold of that and show it to our readers. 

Saturday, October 5, 2013

The elusive “Show Don’t Tell” publishers ask for but can’t take time to explain

Any writer who hasn’t received at least one form letter (or email) of rejection that says something to the effect of, “Nice piece, but you have to ‘show, don’t tell’ your story,” hasn’t made it out of the slush pile yet. Most of us received plenty of rejection letters like this when we first started submitting to publishers.
But what does this mysterious “show don’t tell?” look like? Aren’t writers supposed to “tell” their story?
After all, some of the most famous writings ever published started like ~

Once upon a time…
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…

No, no, no!
That type of writing may have topped the bestseller lists in days gone by but now we have readers who are used to descriptive book jacket blurbs, fast-moving trailers, larger-than-life characters, and scenes bursting with raw emotion.  So let’s get right to the point. The best way to explain the difference between “telling” a story and “showing” a story is by example, so without a string of unnecessary explanation, let’s launch right into an example I call “Here’s Johnny!”

Johnny was so in love with Margaret he thought his heart would break but he knew he didn’t dare tell her. He was far too shy and he feared rejection. Some nights he’d stare at her picture for hours and cry.

There’s really nothing wrong with that paragraph. The grammar’s OK and it relays a lot of information. It tells us Johnny’s in love with Margaret, but he can’t let her know it  because he’s afraid she’ll reject him. It also tells us he has a photograph of her that he looks at and cries. 

But how much empathy does that paragraph give us for Johnny? I know I’d like to slap the crap out of him and tell him to get some backbone. I don’t like crybabies so I probably wouldn’t even finish reading the whole graph, let alone consider buying a book, or even a magazine story about him.
How then could we convey this same information in a way to make us root for Johnny – to make us want him to win?

TAKE TWO: Show it in a scene
Johnny lay face down on the bed. I never knew red dye tasted like this, he thought. He’d cried so long the cheap bedspread was soaked under his face and some of the dye had rubbed off on his lips. “Margaret. Margaret,” he whispered again and again, holding the Facebook photograph of her he’d printed out close to his chest. Just yesterday, his best friend had made fun of him for making her photo the menu background for his cell phone. Tears rolled down his face onto the photograph. “Oh Margaret, I love you so.” He swallowed hard and felt the lump in his throat descend to his chest. His hands shook. His lips trembled.
I can’t tell her. I can’t risk opening my heart to her and having her grind it on the ground with her heel, like all the others. Like Jenna, and Marie, and Mother. Oh God, not even Mother returned my love!

This time we didn’t say “brokenhearted” or “feared rejection.” We showed it by Johnny’s actions in a creative scene just like a moving picture would.
That in a nutshell, is the short version of “Show Don’t Tell.”      

More on the difference between scenes and narrative in the next Blog!

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Proofing, editing, ghosting or book doctoring? How to tell which one's for you?

I found out early in my writing career that some editors call themselves “book doctors” so they can charge hundreds, and sometimes even thousands, of dollars more than someone who classifies himself (or herself) as a content editor.

I found this out because I was royally screwed. Not just once. It took me three times before I caught on to their game.

I’m not saying everyone who calls herself (or himself) a book doctor is unscrupulous. But much of the time the only difference between “book doctoring” and “content editing” is the price, unless you need help with plot, characters, dialogue or creating a scene. For that, you need more than proof reading or even content editing ~ you need someone who knows how to help you develop the skills to finish the manuscript, or you choose to pay a ghost writer to fix the problems for you.

After writing and editing professionally for more than thirty years I finally know how to explain the difference between all the categories of “writer’s aides,” and what you should, and shouldn’t, have to pay for them.

Having been a Bureau Editor as well as a writer for large news organizations including Media General Communications Inc., Sunbelt Newspapers, and Amazon’s former self-publishing division, BookSurge, I have edited and improved thousands of manuscripts, continuously switching back-and-forth between Associated Press style for news and Chicago style for book publishers.

The most important thing I’ve learned is that all writers need to know exactly what they want someone to do for them and how to go about finding a person they can work with and trust. There are plenty of us to choose from that do a good job for our clients without causing them to hock the family jewels or mortgage their house.

Everyone needs an editor before they submit to a publisher or self-publish a book. I’ve been an author and editor for more than thirty years and I wouldn’t think of letting a book go out without my trusty editor going through it with her red-line first. This Blog is different. It’s coming straight from me to you. Why? Because it’s supposed to be a conversation, not a lesson, so I hope you’ll take part.

Get everything in writing. If an editor (or book doctor) is hesitant to send you a simple contract spelling out what each of you expects from the other, think of that as a huge red flag. I do know some perfectly legitimate editors and writing coaches who use email confirmation of details, like prices and delivery dates, and that’s OK too because at least it’s written proof. And it’s not just writers who get shafted by the lack of a contract. As an editor, I’ve shot myself in the foot low-balling a price more than once because I forgot to specify “double-space type” or “must be in 12-point type.” 

You see, if an editor bases a price on page count, and the copy comes in a font he (or she) needs a magnifying glass to read and has no white space between the lines, that editor is as screwed as the writer who pays an editor by the hour and can’t tell whether they’re editing the manuscript or watching daytime TV.

Know exactly what you’re asking for. If it’s a quick read-through to check for errors, you need a proof reader. If you want changes made to sentence structure, noun-to-verb-tense and similar content changes to “smooth” the work out, you need a content editor. If you’re asking for help with plot, scene-setting, dialogue and narrative, you’re asking for manuscript development. Sometimes someone who does this type of work calls himself (or herself) a coach. Others use the words “book doctor,” or “professional critique,” while still others call themselves by a variety of names, including just plain “editor” when actually they do a lot more than edit.

To sum it up: Hiring an editor or coach is like going to the grocery store. Never go in hungry or without a list.

* Please put Penny Lane in your news feed and send me your email so I can add you to my “specials” list. From time to time I drop my manuscript coaching and editing rate as a payback for help I’ve received along the way. If you want your name in that hat be sure I know who you are and how to find you!

Saturday, September 21, 2013

There's never been a better time for new writers to gain a following

A big-name publishing house label on the side of your book doesn’t mean the same thing it did ten years ago- or even five. Oh, it’s still true some distributors won’t put your book in the stores if you self-publish, or publish print-on-demand, but who cares as long as you’re selling and making money? Bookstores are closing, media giants are gobbling up small presses, and smart authors are becoming entrepreneurs and making a higher profit by self publishing on the Internet.

The whole publishing world is upside down.

I’ve tried it all. I’ve been traditionally published by major houses; published POD (print on demand); and paid to publish on my own work. One thing I’ve learned along the way is there’s definitely more than one way to make a buck writing (and selling) your books.

The goal is to reach and affect readers, right? Now, the way to do that may have changed, but readers are smart so they’ve changed too. They don’t care who wrote it, or who published it. They care about style, plot and characters. Give readers a character they can love and root for on Page One and they’ll keep turning those pages until they hit “The End.”

Nobody but the few editors left in the Ivory Towers care if you’ve been “discovered” by a top New York publisher or created your own book with a desktop publishing program. They just want a good read.

Because I write both fiction and nonfiction and have edited for newspapers, large media companies, and Amazon’s former self-publishing division BookSurge, I can spot trends. Thirty five years in the business gives you good hindsight. I’ve reinvented myself and the way I sell my work over and over again.

And you know what? This is a great time for new writers to be discovered but you have to stand out above the crowd. With more people publishing their work online as well as in soft cover binding, you’d better find a way to make your book the one they’ll pick up or hover that cursor over until they hit “Buy Now.”

So let’s start our journey here on Penny Lane together by talking about what we write and how we want to publish. Our dreams and aspirations are what makes us who we are, and who we are is what makes any story we write- fiction or nonfiction- ours and ours alone.

You see, nobody can write your story but you!

Monday, December 19, 2011

Journalists assaulted regularly

Holiday shoppers may be crowding city streets across America, but so are protestors in movements such as Occupy. So why are there more reports about Blue-Light Specials than about thousands of protesters being assaulted and hauled away by police?
Perhaps the fact that so many journalists have been assaulted recently while trying to report this story has a lot to do with it.
In fact, 50 professional writers and photographers were arrested, jailed or threatened in the dec. 17 gathering in New York's Zuccotti Park along with several clergymen who were out peacefully trying to support the cause.
Staff writer Nick Pinto of the Village Voice and freelancer Zack Roberts were consistently tweeting throughout the ordeal, even as they were arrested and placed in the paddywagon.
The worst offense I could find, however, was a report by well-known journalist Ryan Devereaux of Democracy Now who told of being pushed, threatened, and watching his cameraman hit three times as they reported on the scene despite the fact he was holding up his press credentials.