Archive | June, 2011

Researching Your Story – A Four-Step Strategy

30 Jun

by Julie Eshbaugh

~~~

Unless you’re writing a book about your own life, chances are you’ll have to do some sort of research before you can say your novel is finished. (Even if your book IS about your own life, you’ll probably have to refer to your family albums, at the very least!) Historical settings, legal proceedings, and medical conditions are just a few examples of story components that would require research. The object of this post is to suggest a strategy for research that will provide the authentic details you need without bogging you down in the process.

Step 1 – Make notes about the factual issues that you will need to research.

What will you need to learn to ensure that your story is authentic and appropriate for its genre? (I mention genre here because some genres have higher standards for accuracy than others. A “police procedural” mystery will require far more exacting details than would a contemporary fiction that includes an arrest in the plot.)

Once you’ve made a list of topics and facts you will need to research, divide it into two categories – “big picture” and “important details.”

“Big picture” knowledge is the information you need as you create the over-arching idea behind your novel and start your first draft. Examples would be:

  • In pre-Columbus North America, were horses a part of daily life?
  • Would a heart transplant be an option for a pregnant woman?
  • How long does DNA evidence last at a crime scene?

What qualifies an issue to be in the “big picture” category is the fact that it is at the heart of your story and essential for your concept to make sense. For instance, if your novel is about a crime that was committed aboard the Titanic, and how it is solved in the present day by the use of DNA evidence, you need to take the time to research these facts at the outset. What you learn about DNA evidence will have a huge impact on the course of your novel.

Step 2 – Attack the “big picture” issues and gain knowledge about the facts that will help form the spine of your story.

If you know that there is an area of study that is a major component to your plot, investigate that area as you form the seed of your story. If your story is set in Vietnam during the war, study up on the geography and the people. If your story is about an astronaut who makes an error that threatens to kill his entire crew, get an understanding of space missions and how they are structured and staffed.

Step 3 – Firm up your concept and dive into your first draft.

This is why you divided that list from Step 1 into two categories. The second category – “important details” – can be put aside for now. I’m not saying that you won’t have to look up those questions and answers eventually.  What I am saying is that you don’t need to know every detail of life in revolutionary France before getting started writing your rough draft. Authentic details will be required before you turn in your final draft, but you shouldn’t let research prevent you from getting started. If one of your characters lights a candle to read by, and you find out later that gas lamps had replaced candles ten years before your story takes place, that detail can be fixed in the revisions stage.

Step 4 – Firm up the details and make your revisions.

This step is where you need to add accuracy. What kind of gun would a pirate have used? Did matches exist or would the main character light a wick from the fireplace? How long did it take to travel from Glasgow to London by carriage in 1814?  Now that you have your first draft down, you can take the time to get the facts straight without interrupting the flow of your writing.

Do you do a lot of research for your writing? What process do you use? Do you have any ideas to add to the above? I look forward to reading your comments!

~~~

Julie Eshbaugh is represented by Natalie Fischer of the Bradford Literary Agency. You can read her blog here and find her on Twitter here.

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Show versus Tell: Macro-, Micro-, and When to Use It

29 Jun

by Susan Dennard

~~

Note:

This post has been UPDATED

and re-posted on

Pub(lishing) Crawl!

~~~

Susan Dennard is a writer, reader, lover of animals, and eater of cookies. Her debut, SOMETHING STRANGE AND DEADLY, is now available from HarperTeen. You can learn more about her on her blog or twitter.

Allow me to romance you while you question your sanity.

28 Jun

by Biljana Likic

~~~

Ah, l’amour!

Love, in any form, is pretty sweet. It’s why you constantly see me writing about it. I’m a hopeless romantic. And while I can’t consider myself an expert on romance, I do know a thing or two about it. My favourite part is the tension.

The thing that makes something exciting is the lead-up. You can talk all you want about how you hate waiting, but half of what’s making your stomach flip is anticipation of what’s to come. It’s like when you hear a crush will be at the same party as you. Your mind goes into overdrive. Will they see you? Will they talk to you? Will they, dare you think it, accidentally graze your arm as they reach for the punch they’re getting for your rival? Will you finally be poisoning it tonight?

The wonderful thing about that last question is that it’s only a half-joke.

In writing, it’s no different. If you want the reader to be rooting for two people to get together, make them feel like they’re part of the romance. Make their stomach flip when it looks like the boy will finally notice the girl. I’m not talking about endless woe-is-me from the protagonist, or secret, long-suffering proclamations. I’m talking about subtle things. Things that really show how every moment the girl spends in the boy’s company electrifies her.

What makes it doubly fun, is having her not know if the boy is doing it consciously or not.

She walks into the room with a glass of wine. Her eyes are drawn to him like magnets and she stares at his face. He’s sitting by the cake, already having eaten his dinner. She decides dinner isn’t important anyway and makes a beeline for the three-tiered confection, pretending to be considering the cake whenever she thought he looked over.

She’s there before she wants to be. Her sudden proximity to him is making her aware of every insecurity, from the slight tummy she could never lose to the fact that she isn’t very good at walking in heels. She watches him from the corner of her eye and jumps when he turns to look at her. She makes brief eye contact before taking a drink of wine to distract herself.

“Would you like some cake?”

She almost chokes on her drink. She clears her throat.

“Excuse me?”

“You seem to really want some cake,” he says.

A rush of embarrassment pours through her as she realizes she just spent the last few minutes seemingly entranced by white frosting and pink sugar bows.

She clears her throat again. “Is it any good?” she asks.

He doesn’t answer but stands, taking a natural step towards her, and picks up a cake knife. He’s unbearably close. He cuts a piece and hands it to her on a plate. She has to be careful how she raises her hand to accept it so that she doesn’t accidentally touch him. He’s watching her as she takes it, and she feels his fingers brush hers.

“Thanks,” she says quietly, not looking at him.

“You’re welcome.”

She sits down stiffly. A moment later, he retakes his own seat beside her, and as he pulls in his chair his thigh comes into contact with hers. Her grip tightens on her spoon as he starts to flirt with the girl on the other side of him, and it’s a good ten seconds before he moves his leg.

She sets down her plate, takes up the wine glass, and drains it.

Not once does it talk about how she’s infatuated, and nowhere does it outright say that she’s attracted to him. This is an example of showing instead of telling. Through her reactions, you can see that she’s attracted to him; it never has to be said. And it’s done with the little things, the tiny details: tensing up when he looks at her; staring too long at the cake out of nervousness; skipping dinner altogether for dessert she doesn’t want.

Scenes like these are what makes you want to scream. They make you want to either yell at the girl to grow a spine, or punch the guy in the face.

But, most importantly, when they finally get together, the event makes you squeal with delight.

What I love most about this stuff however is that they can lead to a happy, squee-inducing ending, or they can be the first sign of doom. As it stands right now, that scene can go in two directions: one is amusing, possibly frustrating, but ultimately happy; the other is degrading, miserable, and ultimately resentful. You don’t have to say right away right kind of relationship these two people will have. All you have to do is convey the immediate events. And though I would love for every scene like the one above to end in romance, it can always turn sour.

In the end, when it’s all said and done, the moment you leave the territory of maybe and cross into yes or no, the tension dulls considerably, and the conflict just isn’t as fun anymore. It is, after all, anticipation of the answer that keeps you at the edge of your seat.

And when it comes to romance, there’s nothing more exciting than maybe.

~~~

Biljana Likic is an aspiring author, currently revising her first novel, TIME IS A FUNNY THING. She’s going into her second year of university, where she can’t wait till she’s out so she’ll finally have all the time in the world to write. You can visit her blog and follow her on Twitter.

Announcement! FREE online YA Writing Workshop!

27 Jun

Hey guys!

Susan and Sarah here!

In case you missed the announcement on our blogs, we just wanted to write a quick post to let you know that we’re hosting a FREE online YA writing workshop from July 5th-10th! You can check out the official announcements on either Susan or Sarah’s blogs!

Applications open TODAY (Monday, June 27th) at 5 PM EDT (2PM Pacific Time), and we will be providing links on our blogs to fill out the application form! We are only taking SIX students, so applications are done on a first come, first serve basis!

Here’s some more information about the workshop:

Writing For Young Adults Workshop

taught by Susan Dennard and Sarah J. Maas

with a special focus on Fantasy, Science Fiction, and Paranormal YA

Cost

Nada. It’s 100% FREE. Yeah, you read that right.

Dates

Monday, June 27th — Submissions for applications will open 5 PM Eastern Time (2 PM Pacific Time). It is FIRST COME, FIRST SERVE.
Tuesday, June 28th — Accepted students will receive notification via email
July 5th – July 15th — Workshop runs
July 18th — Final Assignment Due

General Information

The workshop will be conducted via Google Groups (in a forum style), so all Q&A will take place there as well as homework submissions. There will be “homework” assigned (it is, of course, optional), and additionally, you will be applying each lesson to your first 10 pages as the workshop progresses.

The first 10 pages of your novel will be due on the Monday following the workshop (July 18th).

There will be two Live Chats to discuss everything we’ve learned. The first will be Sunday, July 10th, and the second will be Friday, July 15th.

We will post lectures at midnight Eastern Time, and a day of discussion will be allowed until midnight Pacific Time the following night. In other words, each lesson (excluding the Introduction) will be allotted 2 full days of focus.

If you are an accepted student, you’ll receive a detailed syllabus upon acceptance.

Requirements

You MUST have at least 50 pages written of a manuscript, and your manuscript MUST BE YA. Though your novel may fall into any genre, keep in mind we will be emphasizing fantasy, science fiction, and paranormal genres because these are what we write.

We ask that you be familiar and comfortable with Google Groups. Because the workshop is brief, we won’t have time to deal with “technical difficulties.”

As stated, this is FIRST COME, FIRST SERVE. We are really sorry, but if you are not within the first 6 submissions, you will have to wait until the next workshop.

Lecture Topics

Lesson 1: Introduction to Young Adult Fiction (Tuesday, July 5th)

Lesson 2: World-building in YA (Wednesday, July 6th)

Lesson 3: Characters in YA and the Importance of Voice (Friday, July 8th)

Lesson 4: Pacing in Modern YA (Monday, July 11th)

Lesson 5: The Publishing Industry and Career Writing (Wednesday, July 13th)

Applying to the Workshop

On June 27th at 5 PM Eastern Time, a special post will open on our blogs. There will be a link that will take you to a submission form. You will fill out the form and hit send. We will wait until we have 6 suitable applicants, and then we will close submissions. (By suitable, we mean the author has a YA manuscript and has properly filled out the submission form.)

In case you want to prepare your answers ahead of time, the questions will be:

-Name?

-Email?

-Location (so we can coordinate time zones! Example: La Quinta, California, USA)?

-Length and status of your YA manuscript? (example: 30k written, incomplete manuscript; or 90k completed manuscript)

-Brief (a few sentences) summary of your YA novel?

-How/Where did you hear about this workshop?

And that’s it! Pretty easy, right?

~~

If you have any questions, you can email us:

Sarah: SarahJMaas AT (@) gmail DOT (.) com

Susan: Susan AT (@) SusanDennard DOT (.) com

OR you can send an email to our workshop email account: Nautilus DOT (.) Writing AT (@) gmail DOT (.) com!!

We are SO unbelievably excited about the workshop, and think it’ll be an absolutely amazing experience for everyone involved.

Thanks!

~~

Susan Dennard is a writer, reader, lover of animals, and eater of cookies. She is repped by Sara Kendall of NCLit, and her debut, SOMETHING STRANGE AND DEADLY, will be available from Harper Children’s in 2012. You can learn more about her on her blog or twitter.

Sarah J. Maas is the author of several novels, including QUEEN OF GLASS, a YA fantasy retelling of Cinderella that will be published by Bloomsbury in fall 2012. Sarah resides with her husband in Los Angeles. You can visit her blog here.

Saturday Grab Bag: Mashup

25 Jun

Mashup:

Here are some great links on writing, the industry, and all things book related. Some are serious, and some are just downright hilarious. We highly recommend you read them!

-An AMAZING response by author Sherman Alexie (The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian, Little, Brown 2009) to the #YASaves debate raging this past week.  Don’t know what the debate is about?  Head here, and read the article that sparked it all.

-From the Jody Hedlund’s amazing blog–how honest should we be when don’t like a book?  She has some great advice on how to handle the situation.

-Another wonderful and inspiring post from Jody Hedlund about the fear of failing and how to deal with it.  Even the multi-published writers are scared their novels suck!

-Want to get your novel critiqued AND help a good cause? Writer Kat Brauer offers a critique of 250 words for every $1 you donate to her charity: water fundraiser! Plus, she has a HUGE line-up of agents and authors offering critiques! Be sure to stop buy–it’s running until June 30th!

~

~

Quotes:

“So avoid using the word ‘very’ because it’s lazy. A man is not very tired, he is exhausted. Don’t use very sad, use morose. Language was invented for one reason, boys – to woo women – and, in that endeavour, laziness will not do. It also won’t do in your essays.”

– John Keating, Dead Poet’s Society

~

Happy Saturday! Share with us any cool links you might have, or let us know what you’ve been up to! 😀

QOTW: How will Pottermore affect the publishing industry?

24 Jun

Last night a reader emailed us with this question:

So I know a lot of you are avid Harry Potter fans (I may fall under the more rabid category.) J.K. Rowling announced Pottermore (pottermore.com) and I was wondering what you thought about it. I read an interesting blog post that I stumbled across here: http://albertriehle.blogspot.com/2011/06/pottermore-whole-new-ballgame.html

I would love you to react to it. Oh sure, I scoff at people who claim that the end to the book publishing industry is near. All the same… this is not very encouraging for new writers. What are your thoughts?

~~~

NOTE before I start: E-publishing and the general fate of the publishing industry is a sensitive topic with writers. We don’t want to give you guys a wrong prediction, or do something that will alienate our relationships with those in publishing. Therefore a lot of writers are opting for silence on this topic. But this means that those who want the pub industry to crash and burn become the vocal minority. Honestly I don’t think this is as big a deal as everyone is making it out to be. Self-publishers are screaming that they were right all along, and news sources are running with it because God forbid they report actual news instead of these speculations with ‘yellow journalism’ titles. But I digress. Let’s answer the actual question 🙂

I think that J. K. Rowling’s announcement and pre-announcement have been misinterpreted. You know what the first thing I heard was after the official video announcement? “I thought there was going to be an interactive MMPORG!” But when did she ever say that? People’s expectations got out of control. Secondly, when did Rowling ever say that she herself was e-publishing HP? For all we know the e-books are going to be sold through a traditional publisher and available solely on the website, in some major branding coup. The truth is that we don’t know what she’s planning, and won’t know until it’s officially ‘live’.

Honestly I think people are using this as an excuse to panic even more about e-books. But I’m not going to. You know why? Because nobody knows what’s going to happen. Agents don’t know. Editors don’t know. Writers don’t know. We’ll know when it happens. I’m not going to worry about it until then. Personally, I’m not locked into a contract. My rights haven’t changed, and won’t be changed by the market or the ‘new norm.’

I think we all need to calm down and wait for more details.

But for argument’s sake… suppose Rowling IS self-e-book-publishing and self-audiobook-publishing? So what? She’s J. Freaking K. Rowling. She can do what she pleases. Have you ever heard the saying, “Don’t assume you can do something just because Author X did it?” That means that you can’t assume you can break the rules of publishing or writing just because somebody else did. Don’t expect you can query with a 200k YA Contemporary novel just because you saw one in the bookstore.

If you really want me opinion on the whole e-publishing thing, then fine, I’ll go public with it: I’m sticking to traditional publishing.

Let’s pretend that physical publishing becomes extinct. No more physical books. Now all we have are e-books. Let’s say you’re a kid who wants to read something. Where do you go? You’re not going to hunt for hours to find an author who’s self-published what you’re looking for. No, you’re going to go to a website that specializes in selling e-books, and click on the ‘kids and teens’ section and then start browsing. And do you think that website is going to carry every Tom, Dick, and Harry who self-publishes? No way, they’re going to vet for quality because they want to be known as a place you can go to and order books you’ll enjoy.

E-publishing isn’t going to do away with publishers. The public still needs someone to act as a warden against the bad and the ugly. Publishing might go completely electronic one day, but I honestly can’t see it disappearing. Who will give you publicity money? Who will sell you to the e-bookstores? Publishing exists as a way to weed out the trash and elevate the good stuff to a higher level.

There are those who are angry at traditional publishing. They talk about money, about how why would you share your profits when you could sell your own books for 90% profit?

To them I say, are you seriously doing this for the money? Personally I’m doing it because I believe I’m writing stories that will be cherished by my readers. I’m doing it because I want to reach the maximum number of kids who might benefit from my books. I don’t care that I could make a million dollars self-publishing to a fraction of the readership I’d get if I self-published (Note: Making a million dollars from self-publishing is currently a highly rare phenomenon).

I’m sticking with traditional publishing because I want to work with someone who knows better than me, who can mould and edit my novel into a masterpiece. I want a team of designers to analyze market trends and design my cover. I want a publicist who’s friends with a reviewer at the NYT. I want a Sales Associate who falls in love with my book and pressures bookstores into carrying it, where a young reader finds my work and escapes for an afternoon into a world they love.

Additionally, who will take care of your work when you’re gone? Who will still work at promoting your stories and repackaging your books for newer audiences when you’re dead? J.K. Rowling probably has a legal team to attend to Harry, but what about small time writers like me? I don’t have anyone in my family who could step into my shoes if I were to pass on. But companies don’t die. Rights get passed on. Look at the classics that are still beloved because publishers kept them in the public eye. Yes, most assuredly I’m sticking with traditional publishing.

In short, keep calm and carry on. The important thing is to write, and worry about all this publishing nonsense when you get to that point, and see what the market is doing when you get there.

~~~
Okay, we’re asking for the first time… what do you guys thing about e-publishing and the future of the traditional publishing industry?

What Sales Reps Do

23 Jun

or

What It Means To Work in Other Aspects of Publishing that Isn’t Editorial

by Vanessa Di Gregorio

~~~

Note: an updated version of this post is now up on our new blog, Pub(lishing) Crawl! Click here.

~~~

Disclaimer: I may or may not be tooting my own horn here (just a little). I’m also not going to talk about writing – I’m going to be talking about my career and the publishing biz for those of you who are interested.

~

Ah, publishing. The glamorous life of schmoozing with authors, publishing great books, spending extensive amounts of time reading, and a whole lot of talking (or so people like to think). When people think of the publishing industry, people think of  writers and editors. When writers think of the publishing industry, they think of agents and editors and bookstores and that damn slush pile. But people don’t really think about all the other aspects of publishing – all the marketing and the publicity and the sales people that lead to the things an author truly wants; for their books to be on the shelves in stores and do well.

When I first started out in this industry, my dream job was first editorial – but I didn’t even know what type. Then I realized that I loved substantive editing – looking at the big picture of a manuscript such as plot, characters, etc. And then I interned at a literary agency and thought, “this is what I’d love to do”. But ultimately, I wasn’t comfortable with the thought that I would probably not make any money for a year as a literary agent (props to all of you lit agents out there!) – especially since the hubster self employed. I wanted one of us to have a stable salary. And so I looked for other things I wanted to do; other areas of publishing where I could fit in.

During high school and part of university, I had worked at a book wholesaler, selling to schools and libraries. I took English Literature in University, went to school for Publishing, and figured my experience would get me places fast. But it wasn’t easy – publishing is VERY competitive (especially here in Canada). The only way to get an editorial gig in-house is to go freelance for years and then hope some editor somewhere kicks the bucket (sad, but true). And I wasn’t willing to be that patient (especially since the majority of publishing peeps are healthy, unlike me). So I looked into publicity. And marketing. And sales.

I was already familiar with sales from that wholesale job, and familiar with online marketing thanks to this blog; but when I began working at this sales agency I realized that I didn’t know a lot. Marketing, publicity, and sales are all major aspects of publishing, and all as important as editorial. I didn’t realize that publishers had sales reps who went to accounts (bookstores, wholesalers, gift stores, etc) and sold them their list. I don’t know what I thought – maybe that if a book was published, people just magically carried it. I didn’t realize you had to SELL to the sellers.

I’m lucky to be working for an agency repping some of the best publishers out there. Over 30 of them. And my job is to pick out what works for stores, which books deserve to be highlighted.

Selling is fantastic. Selling means talking to people about great books. It means getting excited about a new list every season, and making an impact on the people who, in turn, impact your average reader just by shelving a book in their store. It means grabbing a coffee, chatting, going through catalogues and samples, and learning what some book and gift stores have preferences for. It means going to book fairs and gift shows and finding new homes for books. I put the books out there – I can give the little guys a chance. And I think that’s pretty amazing. Will everyone listen to me, or have the same taste as me? Probably not. But I can try my damn hardest to get a book on the shelves if I really believe in it.

And you know what’s even more awesome? That I can actually do that now. Because I’ve been promoted to Sales Representative for Central Ontario and Inside Sales (told you I was going to toot my own horn, haha!). I’m going to be able to drive around with catalogues and samples in hand and I’m going to get to geek out over gorgeous covers, brilliant authors, and fantastic books with other people who love them as much as I do.

So those editors who sit in a chair for hours and hours, working on an author’s manuscript? I might not be that person, but I am one of those people convincing stores to stock and sell your books. And to all you published and soon-to-be published authors out there – on behalf of sales reps everywhere, I’d like to say, “You’re welcome”.

😉

~~~

Vanessa is a newly promoted (!) Sales Representative for Central Ontario and Inside Sales at Kate Walker & Co., a book and gift sales agency located in Toronto. She also has a book publishing certificate under her belt. Currently, Vanessa is working on RIFT, a YA fantasy novel, and a Children’s non-fiction series. She also geeks out over stuff at Something Geeky.

High Context Versus Low Context – the Communication Style of Your Story

22 Jun

by Julie Eshbaugh

~~~

In 1976, Anthropologist Edward T. Hall published a book titled BEYOND CULTURE.  Through this book, Hall popularized a theory of two main styles of communication.  He called these contrasting styles “high context” and “low context.”  Essentially, Hall taught that certain cultures communicated more through inference and implied ideas (high-context communication,) while others communicated with more explicit and detailed information (low-context communication.)  Though Hall was interested in the broad differences between cultures, the ideas of “high context” and “low context” can apply to any social situation.  For us as writers, analyzing the setting of a scene and deciding if it takes place in a high-context or low-context situation offers an additional method to add realism to dialogue and tension to communication.

In general terms, “high context” refers to societies or settings that have long-established, deep connections. Because of the depth of connection between the members of the group, a lot of communication is understood through implication and less communication is stated explicitly.  Your family would most likely be a good example of a high context group. Other examples of high context situations might be a party of close friends, a small church congregation, a neighborhood diner with a very regular clientele, or a formal restaurant where the rules of behavior are understood without having to be spelled out.

An example of a high-context culture in a work of fiction would be China in Amy Tan’s THE JOY LUCK CLUB, especially as it exists in the memories of the mothers.

Conversely, a “low context” group or setting would be one where people tend to have a lot of connections but each connection might serve a specific purpose and last a shorter duration of time. Rules of interaction will vary more in a low context situation.  Expectations of behavior will be less inferred by the situation and more explicitly spelled out.   Examples of low context settings would include a cafeteria, a metropolitan airport, a hospital, or a large supermarket.

In the example used above of THE JOY LUCK CLUB, the United States that the daughters are a part of is a low-context culture.

Anthropologists will often describe an entire society as “high context” or “low context.” For example, Asian and Arab cultures are generally considered high context cultures, while the US, Canada, and Western European cultures are generally considered more low context cultures. But as writers, we should look at each situation and setting individually and decide if communication in that setting would be more implicit or explicit.

Here are a few examples of how high context or low context can impact communication.

First, imagine a scene in which a teenage girl brings home her report card to the father who has played a dominant role in her upbringing:

Alice creeps through the back door, hoping to get to her room unnoticed.  The door hasn’t even closed completely when she feels the hand on her shoulder.

She turns and slumps. Her gaze falls on her father’s feet as she stares at the floor.  Reaching into her pocket, she pulls out the wrinkled envelope and slips it into his hand.

Motionless, she waits while he opens the envelope and peruses the contents.

After a few long minutes, he folds the paper neatly and clears his throat. Without looking up, Alice heads for her room, where she will wait to be summoned when her mother gets home.

Now, imagine a similar scene – a girl handing a man a letter – but now the characters are strangers, and the girl works behind the counter of a large hotel:

Alice sorts the mail and messages by room number behind the registration desk – a phone message from a limo company, a dry cleaning receipt, a newspaper. The usual. But then she discovers the small pink envelope, with its frilly feminine script, and distinct scent of perfume. “Mr. Thomas Henry” is neatly written across the front of the envelope. There is a stamp, but no return address.

“Excuse me.” The voice belongs to a man standing at the desk.  Alice turns to face him and nods. “Do I have any mail? Thomas Henry, room 134.”

“Uh,” Alice stammers. “This came for you.” She hands him the mysterious pink correspondence.

“Wait, what?” The man, so polished in his jacket and tie, seems flustered. “Did this come by mail?  Or was it dropped off in person?” His manner is intense, and Alice shrinks back.

“I can’t say for sure, Sir,” she says. “I only sort the mail. Mr. Jones, the concierge, brings it to the desk.  His podium is in the front lobby. He may be able to help you.”

“Thanks,” Mr. Henry grunts. He pauses a moment to smooth a hand over the front of his pristine jacket.  One moment more and he is once again perfectly composed. “Could you just point me toward the front lobby, please, Miss?”

The first conversation takes place in a high context situation. The relationship between the characters makes explicit communication unnecessary. The second takes place in a low context situation. Though some information is implied, information is mainly shared through clear words and gestures.

Analyzing the settings of your scenes can help you decide if your characters would be exchanging information implicitly (high context situations) or more explicitly (low context situations.)

If your characters are long acquainted and have an intimate understanding of each other, then an argument about the quality of a meal may really be about finances or betrayal. If your characters are new or casual acquaintances, an argument about a meal is probably just that – an argument about a meal.

Another way that high context and low context situations can impact your writing occurs when the characters start out strangers and become a close-knit group. As a situation evolves from low context to high context, so does the style of communication. The television show LOST, in which a group of strangers on an airliner become a tight group of plane-crash survivors, is an example in which communication would take on the style of a high context society over the course of a story.

To close this post, I want to leave you with an example of the incredible impact one line of high context dialogue can have in conveying the relationship between characters.  Although I no longer remember the movie, (maybe SHE’S HAVING A BABY?) I will never forget this brief exchange of dialogue spoken over the phone between a husband and wife:

HIM: “Meet me at that place by that thing where we went that time.”

HER: “Okay.”

So much of what you need to know about the relationship between those two characters is tucked into that one line of dialogue!

What do you think of high context versus low context? Do you consider this concept when you are writing dialogue?  Do you analyze your setting before you decide what should be said or left unsaid between your characters?  I look forward to your comments!

 ~~~

Julie Eshbaugh is represented by Natalie Fischer of the Bradford Literary Agency. You can read her blog here and find her on Twitter here.

The Importance of Focus

21 Jun

by Kat Zhang

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Hi guys! Wow, it feels like it’s been forever since I’ve done a real post here! I’ve missed you guys 🙂 ❤

I’d like to start this post off by showing you two pictures. First, this one:

Not exactly a great picture, right? In fact, you could say it was downright bad. The lighting is awkward. The focus is all wrong. You’re not quick sure what you’re supposed to be looking at, and nothing looks particularly good.

Now let’s look at this picture:

Now, I’m not saying it’s award winning or anything, but it’s a whole lot better, right? The flower in the foreground is clearly the subject. It’s clear and properly lighted, while the background is blurred slightly, giving the viewer the idea of something being there, but nothing too distracting.

The above two pictures are of the exact same flower, and all that changed to make one picture rather terrible and the other pretty good was the focus (I’m not really talking in concrete photography terms here, so I’m including lighting in there).

The same goes for writing. A scene can pop so much more if you adjust your “lens” correctly and take the perfect shot. The subject itself doesn’t have to change. At the heart, it’s the same scene. But you draw out different elements and present them to the reader while keeping the rest in the background, just like how the second photograph drew the closer flower into focus while blurring the ones behind it.

Let’s start with an easy example. Say you’re writing a fight scene. Focus is especially important in action scenes because you want your prose to move quickly. You need to get the sense of tension and motion and adrenaline to your readers. Every line of description slows this action down. Remember that. But you can’t just turn the fight into: “Jim hit Drake and Drake slugged him back. Jim fell down. Drake jumped on top of him.” That’s boring, and your characters are floating in a vacuum. You do need a certain amount of background. The second picture doesn’t have a blank canvas behind the flower, it has a blurred scene. Paint a background in broad strokes, but keep the details tied to the action.

This isn’t only important, however, in action scenes. Any scene can be weighed down by a scattered focus, by too much description of unimportant things. Yes, it’s very important to situate your readers, to make sure your characters aren’t floating in a vacuum, but always keep in mind: 1) what are my characters paying attention to? This is especially important in 1st person and close 3rd. If your character is in mortal danger, she is most likely not going to be going into great lengths detailing her attacker’s fashion. 2) what do you want your reader to be paying attention to? Often, 1 and 2 are the same. But sometimes it’s not, especially if you’re trying to drop clues for the reader about something that the main character doesn’t know yet.

If you’re itching to describe something that neither falls under 1 or 2, that’s fine. But consider the length. Remember, every line is slowing down the action, the forward momentum. Sometimes you want to slow down the momentum. Other times, you need things to be going along as quickly as possible, and that is when you really need to start paying attention to focus.

Pictures above were taken by yours truly at the Botanic Garden in Madrid.

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Kat Zhang is a Spoken Word poet and a Creative Writing major. She is represented by Emmanuelle Morgen and her book HYBRID (currently undergoing a title change) is about a girl with two souls. It recently sold in a three-book deal to HarperTeen. You can read more about her writing process, travels, and books at her blog.

Knowing When to Take a Break

20 Jun

by Susan Dennard

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As some of you may know, I took a break from the internet for 1.5 weeks. No, I didn’t completely leave the internet behind, I just stopped tweeting and only answered emails of Absolute Importance (e.g. from my editor or agent! Okay…and my mom).

I needed that time off–like desperately needed it. My brain was at a breaking point from using precious time each day to answer emails, to answer blog comments, to write blogs, to maintain twitter conversations, etc. Don’t get me wrong: I LOVE doing these things. In fact, I’d way rather do all that instead of my work…

And therein lies the problem. My heart wasn’t in my writing.

GASP!

You read that right: my heart wasn’t in my writing! But it took me a week long internet break to even figure that out. You see, it wasn’t the Internet and all you amazing online friends that were keeping me from my work.

It was ME keeping me from my work. So during my internet break and without the usual culprits to distract me, I still wasn’t getting any work done!

Now, I’ve talked about when forcing your story is bad or when the solution to a writing slump is BICHOK, but this was different.  I wasn’t forcing SCREECHERS or SOMETHING STRANGE AND DEADLY–I adore both those stories!  And no matter how much I sat down and BICHOKed each day, I wasn’t making a whole lot of progress…  As you can imagine, I was really scared I’d lost my writing mojo forever.

And then I decided to take a drastic measure: stop working.  For two full days, I was going to give myself the luxury of not doing any work.  I read, took bubble baths, watched crap TV, and read some more.

You know what?  It totally worked. At the end of the two days, I came back to my computer completely revitalized.  Or, at least, I was able to focus… My heart, though, still wasn’t in the work–which was, at this point, SCREECHERS.

And so now I’ve decided to take another drastic measure: work on something completely different.  I don’t like not finishing what I start–not when I still adore the story.  But at the same time, the quality of what I’m trying to force onto the page…well, considering I wrote one scene, rewrote it, and then rewrote again and am still unhappy with it, I’m kind of wasting my time.

So for the next two weeks, I’ll focus on other important things–other books, my blog, etc.–and after that, I’ll try BICHOKing SCREECHERS again.

And who knows?  Maybe inspiration will strike again during that time.  Either way, just the prospect of this other-stuff-break has lifted my mood enormously! 😀

What about you? Do you ever need a break from a particular story or your work?

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Susan Dennard is a writer, reader, lover of animals, and eater of cookies. She is repped by Sara Kendall of NCLit, and her debut, SOMETHING STRANGE AND DEADLY, will be available from Harper Children’s in 2012. You can learn more about her on her blog or twitter.