Monday, June 27, 2011

Save the Cat: A Bridge To Story

So here is something I am learning about myself--it is very hard for me to blog about externally focused marketing type stuff when I am deep into my discovery draft mode. Therefore, today you are getting a post that I originally wrote when I was invited to guest blog over at Blake Snyder's blog (author of SAVE THE CAT).  Also? Since I am hip deep in the discovery draft, I am feeling especially indebted to this wonderful plotting tool!

Save the Cat: A Bridge To Story

Much like the budding individualists I write about, I have a love/hate relationship with structure. A closet rebel, I get twitchy whenever told I must follow rules or take a particular action. And what is structure, other than a cohesive, integrated set of rules?

When I am writing, I want to create and play and not be encumbered by this banal concept of rules and structure. I want to be freeeeeeee. Or at least until my Work In Progress becomes a sprawling formless mass that threatens to envelop the entire west coast. Right about then is when I acknowledge that a little structure, judiciously applied, can actually be MORE freeing than an absolute absence of structure.

It’s kind of like a baby who is at the crawling stage. You can let him have free reign of the house, but you will have to intervene every 30 seconds and wear yourself out and crush his soul in the process. But! If you were to put up baby gates, well then, you are free to step back and let the little fellow roam freeeeeee, just as he was born to do—knowing that the gates will keep him in place.

Blake Snyder’s SAVE THE CAT plotting template, referred to by those in the know as the Beat Sheet or the “BS2,” is my writerly version of baby gates.

As consumers of story, we all have a very strong, intuitive sense of the elements that need to be in place to make a book or film satisfying. But as writers, sometimes intuitive knowledge isn’t enough to create a gripping, compelling narrative drive. For that we need help.

One of the things that I especially love about the beat sheet is that it takes narrative structure out of the lofty realms of literary criticism or writer’s workshops and puts the structure in terms that any reader would understand. Which is exactly as it should be, for that is who we are ultimately writing for—the reader—and Blake’s terminology and definitions help remind us of how the reader will experience the various stages of our story.

There is a question that many writers like to ponder: Which is more important, plot or character? Of course, the correct answer is that they’re both equally important; in fact, plot = character, for if you change one, you change the other.

I have come to believe that there is a similar correlation between narrative and structure. Story = structure. If you change one, you change the other. Without structure, there is no plot and without plot, there is no story, only a character study or an existential experiment. Without plot, characterization fizzles, since characters are best defined through their actions.

A story is an ephemeral thing—ideas, make-believe characters, things that never happened. It is all illusion and lies. What makes it all hang together in a believable, cohesive unit is structure. And if you get the structure right, it creates the foundations of the bridge you will need to bring the reader effortlessly from the beginning to the end.

The set-up, the catalyst, the midpoint—those are all the rivets that hold the bridge together. They make the imaginary world strong enough, real enough, that the reader can be carried from the beginning of our story to the end.

The beat sheet works like an all-purpose bridge. I have used it to write a short, 18,000 word chapter book and an epic 120,000 word historical fantasy, and it worked equally well for both.

The other thing? I write kids books, and kids and teens are a tough audience. They are sophisticated consumers of story–from books and comics, cartoons, movies, graphic novels, and video games, they are constantly immersed in story. In fact, they are probably the most sophisticated audience ever in terms of having an instinctive sense of narrative, and the incumbent expectations that stuff will happen, and it will happen sooner rather than later. So even if you are lucky enough to hook them, you need to keep moving along at a steady clip.

Starting a brand new book is always daunting. Whatever will I have my character do in all those blank pages? As I stare down that long corridor of empty pages, I have two choices: I can panic, which I often do, and run away to clean out the pantry, pluck my eyebrows, and scrub the kitchen grout. Or I can pull out my Save the Cat! Beat Sheet and jump start my process, one beat at a time.

With well over 14 books behind me, I know enough about myself as a writer to know that beginnings and endings are easiest for me. I know what to do with those. But middles now, middles are HARD. They are longer, for one, and much less inherently defined. Which leads me to what I think is the true genius of the Beat Sheet: the way Blake breaks down the middle of the book into Fun and Games, Midpoint, then Bad Guys Closing In.

As a reader, I am most likely to give up on a book once I enter the second act. If nothing is happening, if I get no sense of forward momentum or increasing tension, I often give up. This is the point where I expect the book to deliver on the premise of the promise, and if it doesn’t, I am sorely disappointed.

Which is why Fun and Games is such an apt description for the first half of the middle. As a writer, it reminds me to let go and have fun with this joyous thing called writing. To look for cool ways to thrill, amaze, and move my reader.

But my absolute favorite, can’t-live-without-part of the beat sheet is Bad Guys Closing In. All the truly brilliant ideas are deceptively simple. The beat sheet is no exception. This is the hardest part for almost every writer I know. In beginning manuscripts, it is one of the most common mistakes, jumping nearly from the middle to the end, without including the steady build-up of tension and stakes as the antagonistic forces of the story increase to the point of nearly breaking our hero.

Bad Guys Closing In tells us precisely what we need to do with this part of the book, what has to happen — but in only five words, so clearly it is not a formula or blueprint that will stifle your creativity. It is simply a better definition of what “middle” means. It not only conveys the mood and flavor of what happens, but tells us precisely what sort of scenes need to come here.

There are other story structures that do some of this, too; the Hero’s Journey springs immediately to mind, but for me, it is too structured to use early in the process—it forces me to look at a developing story in too rigid a way. It is much better applied to my story during later drafts. (Yes, I am a bit of a writing process slut. There! I’ve admitted it! And a children’s writer, to boot.) But the beat sheet is the one I always reach for first.

And lastly, probably the most important thing to remember about structure tools like the beat sheet and The Hero’s Journey is this: They are not artificial constructs dreamed up and constructed in some esoteric ivory tower or studio to be applied to stories. They have sprung up organically from years and years of studying stories and myths that have been written over thousands of years. They are, at their core, a reflection of the very human trials and tribulations we go through in our quest for a better understanding of our own lives. They are a map of the human experience, and since the human experience is infinite, so too are the ways you can use this tool.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Fortune's Wheel

I can’t help but wonder if whoever designed the Ferris wheel (that would be Ferris, I’m assuming) was after a cheap, momentary thrill or if he was inspired by Fortune’s Wheel of the tarot, intentionally trying to create a carnival ride that would encapsulate life’s ups and downs.
For the truth is, we all have them—or will have them if you’re one of the fortunate few who have yet to experience any downward travels. And Fortune’s Wheel is starkly evident in the publishing world. No one is exempt. And truthfully, a person should consider themselves lucky if they don’t get Towered a time or two along the way.
We are all of us on this hairy, exhilarating ride, but, we are all on different points on the wheel. Some are going up, others coming down, and still others hanging in the air for that long, glorious moment when they are on top of the world.
Of course, people are more likely to talk about their ride UP, that thrilling ascent as they are on the rise, cresting when they reach the top and hover—sometimes for minutes, sometimes for seemingly ever.
But eventually the wheel turns. The problem is, most people keep that particular part of their ride private, not wanting to share that long hard descent with anyone. We don’t like to talk about that fall, whether it is a gentle, controlled descent or a rapid, breath-taking plummet.
The important thing to remember is that the wheel may not turn where we can see it. The descent will not necessarily be in a person’s public professional life, or perhaps they spent their early years in one big downward slide, and we will only get to see their upward trajectory. But just because we don’t see it doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. In fact, sometimes we won’t see the downward direction because they adjust course before it becomes apparent to others.
Part of that is the nature of the business. Our success is heavily seeded in the smoke and mirror nature of publishing; the desire to create the illusion that everyone wants/loves your book so that in turn, others will love/want it, too.
But another factor is simply human nature. We don’t like to talk about our failures or mistakes. We are a society that places a huge premium on success and wealth and happiness. The downturn of Life’s Wheel threatens all of those, and so we keep silent. Which in turn only further fosters a shame over the ups and downs of life that often can’t be prevented.
Lately however, a few brave souls have been speaking out on the downsides of a publishing career, the heartbreak, the rejection, the financial uncertainty, the sheer lack of control authors have, the envy that slips in, even when we don't want it to. The reality check that provides is a really, really good thing.
In fact, I have come to believe that that is the true value of networking; connecting with enough people and being around them often enough that you get to hear them share their real story, not the marketing hype, but the slog behind the appearance of overnight success, the number of times they had to get back up and start over again, the hugely trumpeted success that never materializes. You get to be there to hear their war stories and share their battle scars. Most writers will tell you that these battle scars are a rite of passage; they are simply part of the writing life. 

When my oldest son graduated from college last year and I asked him what he thought was the most important lesson he got out of his college experience. He thought for a moment, then said: “That everyone has their own sh!t. Everyone has bad stuff they have to deal with, even if you don’t see it."
I feel the same way about publishing.
How many times have we all heard that we shouldn’t compare ourselves to other writers? Other careers? And yet, I’ve always wondered how you don’t compare, how can you prevent it when all the numbers and markers and metrics are broadcast everywhere, from deal announcements, to sales numbers, to blog and Twitter followers, bestsellers lists and FB fans. How do you NOT see all that stuff?
And then I realized that Don’t Compare is really shorthand for, Don’t let envy erode your own path to success. That is easier for me to get my arms around. The truth is, if we talk with enough people who are honest about their own situations, it becomes apparent that there isn’t nearly as much to envy as we think there is.*
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve met or talked with high profile publishing successes who have lousy sales numbers, who are terrified of not earning out their big advance, who’ve become NYT bestsellers only to find their creative control over their own work evaporate, or dry up with the pressure to make the list again, who are expected to travel, often months on time, leaving small children behind, or who have waited years between sales, or whose second book tanked in a hugely public, painful way.
Once we know that stuff, the behind the scenes of huge successes, we see the painful trade offs that are sometimes made. That in turn gives us a better understanding of what is to be envied in our own situation, whether it is complete and utter creative freedom, low sales expectations and the lack of pressure that accompanies that, the six rabid fans who are always there to rave about our newest project, a handful of supportive indies who hand sell us like crazy, the reviewers who love us, or the opportunity to completely recreate ourselves when we go up in flames.

*(Conversely, neither is there a good reason for gloating. Even if your career appears to be Golden and Charmed, it is best enjoyed with a healthy dollop of humility, fueled by either the knowledge that fortunes’ wheel does have something to do with it, or the idea that that wheel will turn eventually, and your landing will be much softer if you have a cushion of humility on which to land.)

Monday, June 13, 2011

Some Tips For Introverted Parents Raising Extroverted Kids*

Are you an introvert who somehow has managed to give birth to an extrovert? Or two? Parenting—even with all its joys and rewards—can also be unbelievably draining, most especially if you are an introvert with a child whose needs for interaction far exceed your own.

My own family is comprised of three introverts and one lonely extrovert, so it has been a huge shift in education and focus for us to step out of our own preferences and learn to meet that child’s needs. Meeting our introverted child’s needs was clearly a no-brainer, but that extroverted kid—well, he was a different story. It involved a radical internal shift and some extreme self-protection maneuvers.

One of the first things to understand about the extroverted child is that he needs and craves interaction as much as you need and crave solitude. Just as you need solitude to process and think and recharge—your extroverted child needs social interaction to do the very same. That is what his system requires to recharge his batteries and allow him to operate at optimum performance levels. However, to an introvert, the constant chatter as they interpret and process their experiences and thoughts and feelings can feel like an all out assault.

It is important to remember that they are not being overly demanding. At least not by their standards. They will feel drained and overwhelmed if they are kept from being able to socialize and share.

Extroverted children:
  • Are gregarious and outgoing.
  • Love to be around lots of people and other kids.
  • Prefer playing in groups.
  • Do not feel they have fully experienced something until they’ve shared it with others.
  • Talk a lot.
  • Find being alone extremely isolating and difficult.
  • Do not generally enjoy solitary activities.
  • Share. A lot. About everything.
  • Do not really get why anyone might want to be alone.
Being the parents, it falls on us to meet the kid’s needs. But being introverts, we can’t do this effectively unless we replenish our batteries on a regular basis. And clearly our coping strategies will depend on the age of the child: the baby that loves to be held all the time; the toddler who follow you everywhere, a constant stream of toddler-babble; the two year old who seems to be constitutionally unable to let you have two minutes peace, will all require different approaches.

As parents, it is our job to meet their very legitimate needs, but it is also our job to socialize them, and part of that can include learning to respect those who have different needs. Plus, you won’t be able to parent optimally unless you yourself have a chance to collect some energy. By insisting on a small recharging break each day, you may well be a much better, more effective, and certainly saner parent.

Coping Strategies:
  • Be sure your spouse understands and gets the whole introvert/extrovert thing. Their support will be crucial.
  • Create lots of opportunities for your child to interact with others, whether other adults, your extended family, or playgroups.
  • See if you can find another introverted parent who understands your need for solitude and see if you can spell each other for solitude breaks.
  • Do not feel guilty! You are not being selfish in needing this time—it is critical and will make you a much better, more loving, and effective parent.
  • If your spouse is an extrovert, try to let them take up some of the socializing slack. Washing the dishes by yourself might be more rejuvenating than trying to entertain an extrovert for a half an hour before bedtime.
  • Try to find ways to turn other duties/activities into recharging time. Play special music or listen to an especially soothing audiobook on your commute home; choose solitary activities for your exercise time—walking or running or biking rather than working out in a noisy, crowded gym.
  • Do not feel guilty! You are not being selfish in needing this time—it is critical and will make you a much better, more loving, and effective parent.
  • Teach your little extrovert to understand—and respect—others’ need for alone time. Have them do something for just five minutes, and for those five minutes, they cannot interact with you. Help them to build their self-reliance muscle because even though we live in an extroverted world, there will always be times when we have to work alone.
  • Insist on some kind of alone/recharging time every day—whether it is a bath once your spouse is home to take a turn with the kids, or a nap when your kids are napping, or even (horrors!) turning on the television or a DVD for half an hour. Let your housekeeping standards drop a bit and put solitude/recharging time at the top of your list.
  • Do not feel guilty! You are not being selfish in needing this time—it is critical and will make you a much better, more loving and effective parent. (No, this is not a typo--it is just that important to reinforce.)
When my extroverted son was in middle school, he got into online computer games and let me tell you, those were a goldmine! Guilds, leagues, clans, alliances, corporations, agencies, groups, people to talk to—he was able to shift some of his needs for feedback and socializing from his introverted family to his new online community. In fact, this sort of interaction can be critical for extroverted teens who live in small communities or have limited social choices available to them—it’s such a great, positive way for them to reach past their physical boundaries and connect—at that fully engaged, extroverted level—with people with similar interests.

One of the Meyers-Briggs' biggest uses is in companies that want to help their employees work more effectively together. I think understanding each others’ preferences is equally important in families. As parents, we need to help our kids step outside their own experiences and preferences so they can become fully socialized, interactive beings. What better place to begin than in our own homes?

And yes, I realize that is much easier said than done, but that doesn’t make it any less true. And repeat after me: You're not being selfish. You're saving your sanity.

[*Last week when I said I'd talk about what sells middle grade books? I lied. I was out of town for the weekend and just wasn't able to get the post together. So instead, I'm sharing this article that I wrote for GeekMom a few weeks ago. Back to our regularly scheduled programming next week!]

Monday, June 6, 2011

What Happens When The Chains Won't Carry You

In the last few months I’ve seen a number of authors worried about what it means for their career when the Big Chains don’t carry their book. Many fear it sounds the death knell for their future, so I thought I would show a couple of actual, numerical examples of where it didn’t sound the death of a career. Namely, mine. One will be actual sales numbers, the other percentages.

[Please note, exposing my own sales numbers is not my idea of fun, but I have no one else’s to go by. Also? You will quickly see that this is by no means a brag-fest. Far from it. But, I am a true believer in the power of information and solid data as a vital tool in helping an author manage their career. Your mileage may, of course, vary.]

THE FORGING OF THE BLADE came out in Oct of 2004. It was envisioned as a young chapter book geared toward 2nd – 4th grade boys who wanted to read fantasy adventure books; a Lord of the Rings for the 8 year old set. Suffice it to say, it did not set the publishing world on fire. One year later, the hardback had sold a whopping 3,500 copies, 500 of those through the chains. So even with those paltry sales numbers, the chain percentage of overall sales was pretty small (14%).

However, the way to publishing success is often paved with happy accidents. About a month after that royalty statement, the (rather startling) announcement was made that FORGING OF THE BLADE would appear on that year’s Texas Library Association’s Bluebonnet List. I know you have heard that those state reading lists can breathe life into a book, but let me show you just exactly how much life . . .

The book went into a 3rd printing and I ultimately ended up selling nearly 15,000 hardback copies of the book. Which are still not Middle Grade Rock Star numbers, but they are a heckuva lot better than 3,500! Even so, only about a third of those were through the chains.

The paperback went on to sell over 26,000 copies and unfortunately my royalty statement for the paperback sales doesn’t break down the chain numbers. However, 11,000 of those sales were through a book club (for which I earned a whopping $773—or seven cents per book. Yes, that’s right, seven cents. Book club sales are terrific for exposure, but not exactly money makers.) Overall paperback sales were just under double of what the hardcover did.

This particular book has sold very few copies over the last couple of years and I expect it will be going out of print any day now, which is one of the reasons I’m so willing to share all the sales data. ☺

With THEODOSIA AND THE SERPENTS OF CHAOS, because it's still in print and selling strongly, I don’t know how kindly my publisher would take to me broadcasting the numbers far and wide, so for this one I’m going to talk in percentages rather than hard sales figures. But the point will still be made.

When the book first came out, one of the chains had placed a big initial order for the book while the second chain ordered zero copies. Of course, I panicked. Surely I would be handicapped from the starting gate!

But once again, that did not prove to be the case. To date, my chain store sales of that title are about 7%. Yep, 7%. And the paperback is now in its 5th printing. Clearly the less-than-stellar performance in the chains did not kill the book. In fact, just a couple of weeks ago I found out the books are going to be published in Turkey! That's the seventh or eighth foreign country Theo will be visiting, and I think it's really interesting when you realize the book's been out since 2007, but happy accidents keep happening.

In order to hit a bestseller list such as NYT or the PW bestsellers, yes, you would absolutely need to be well represented in the chains. But as we talked about before, that is not the only path to success for middle grade books.

So please let this be heartening to all of you who worry and fret that without the chains your careers are in a deadly downward spiral! It is most definitely not the case.

Also, if there are any other authors with similar stories and percentages, feel free to leave an anonymous comment with your percentages/numbers if you’d like. Although of course, there’s no requirement. ☺

Next week we’ll talk about what does sell middle grade.