Wednesday, June 22, 2016

“There’s No Crying in Publishing!” (and other baseball rules of writing that work for me)

I love writing. I love baseball. And I love the Boston Red Sox. 

These are the truisms that direct my summers. Like most every writer I know, I have a day job—literary agent—and my own writing takes place outside the 50 to 60 hours a week I dedicate to helping other writers get published. In summertime, I work summer hours, just like the rest of the publishing world, which means I cut back to 40 hours a week. And try to get more writing done.

But the trouble with summer is that there is a lot to distract me from my writing:  paddle boarding on the lake, reading on the beach, gin and tonics everywhere.

And baseball. But baseball I find helpful, in that I can apply and/or adapt the philosophies and paradoxes of America’s favorite pastime to my own favorite pastime—and get more work done.
  1. “There’s no crying in publishing.” This is what I tell my writer clients and my writing students when they suffer rejection. (I suffer rejection on my clients’ behalf as well as my own for a living.) When the going gets tough, the tough write on. I remind myself to follow my own advice, which as I’m sure you know I stole from Tom Hanks in A League of Their Own.
  2.  Make the bed. On the mornings when I make the bed right away, I get down to my work more quickly, and I write more. I don’t know why this is, but I’ve found it to be true. If Jason Giambi can don a gold thong to avoid a slump, well, then I can make the bed. Whatever works.
  3.  “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” Yogi Berra said it all first—and funnier. When he said this, he was talking about baseball or life or the baseball life, but for me this advice is the key to a good plot. Whenever I come to a fork in my story, I take it. Plot problem solved.
  4.  Bake brownies. Mostly I do this because no matter how pathetic my output, no day is a total waste when the smell of freshly baked brownies fills your studio. And brownies for breakfast is my version of the Popeye’s chicken meal Matt Garza indulges in before every start.
  5.  Relax and concentrate. As Annie Savoy tells us in Bull Durham, that’s the secret to making love and hitting a baseball. It works for writing, too: You just have to relax and concentrate.
  6.  “I think about baseball when I wake up in the morning. I think about it all day and I dream about it at night. The only time I don’t think about it is when I’m playing it.” That’s what Hall of Famer Carl Yastrzemski says he always did, and I believe him—and not just because I’m a die-hard Red Sox fan. I want my story to be there, always, on the back burner of my brain—until I sit down to write.
  7.  Don’t forget the Seventh-Inning Stretch. Some say we have William Howard Taft to thank for the seventh-inning stretch; others credit Brother Jasper of Mary, F.S.C. of Manhattan College. Still others give the Cincinnati Red Stockings the honor. But no matter who we have to thank, getting up off our duffs after hours of sitting is a good idea. When I’m writing, my seventh-inning stretch usually consists of taking my Newfoundland retriever mix Bear—short for Yogi Berra—for a quick run around the bases.
  8.  “Baseball is not life. It is a fiction, a metaphor. And a ballplayer is a man who agrees to uphold that metaphor as though lives were at stake.”  David James Duncan writes this in one of the best baseball novels you may never have read (and should read now), called The Brothers K. Writing isn’t life, either. It just feels that way. But we as writers must agree to uphold that metaphor as though our own lives were at stake.
  9.  Keep swinging. That was Hank Aaron’s motto, during good games and bad games, good times and bad times, strike outs and home runs. Win or lose, you keep swinging. Publish or perish, you keep writing.  
Play ball!

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Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Yes, Virginia, the Beginning Does Matter

This morning I got an email from a writer that I found very disheartening. It went something like this:

Dear Paula,
I have written a great novel that I’d like to send to you in the hope of obtaining representation. Now I know that the first chapter doesn’t really work, but the rest of it is very good, and I know that you’ll love it if you read the entire manuscript. Does that really matter? Should I send it to you now or wait until I figure out how to fix the first chapter?
Aspiring Writer

At the risk of repeating myself: Yes, your story opening DOES matter. Because if the beginning doesn’t work, the rest doesn’t matter. The truth is that few readers—and even fewer agents and editors—will read past a poorly executed first chapter.  That’s why I do so many First Ten Pages Boot Camps and that’s why I’m writing a new book about story openings called BEGINNINGS:  How to Craft Story Openings That Impress Agents, Engage Editors, and Captivate Readers that Writers Digest Books will publish in the fall. Because I know how much the beginning matters—and I want to help as many writers get past that first hurdle in the novel-writing process as I can.

The First Page Sells the Book…
That’s what they say in publishing. So take the time to craft a first page, a first scene, a first chapter that engages readers—and keeps them reading.  Here’s a checklist designed to help you ensure that your first chapter:
          What actually happens?
Too often the answer to this is, “not much.” Make something compelling happen!
          Why will the reader care about/relate to the characters?
Readers want to fall in love with the protagonist at first sight.
          How do you want the reader to feel? What have you done to evoke that feeling?
Art is meant to be an emotional experience, not simply an intellectual one. Make your readers feel something.
          Have you used all the elements of fiction at your disposal—setting, plot, character, theme, etc.?
So many first pages fail to weave in all these elements—and you need them all to write fully realized scenes.
          Have you chosen the right voice?
When the voice is right on, readers read on.
          Does the dialogue ring true?
Bad dialogue kills the reading experience faster than most anything.
          Are the story questions strong enough to keep the reader turning the pages?
Without story questions, there’s no story—just writing.
          Is it clear what kind of story you’re telling?
Readers play favorites with genre; they want to know what kind of story they’re reading right away.
          What makes this story different from others of its ilk?
You need to set your story apart from the brand-name competition in your genre—and the sooner the better.
          Have you gotten the point of view right?
The misuse of point of view is one of the big reasons I pass on stories, even when everything else works.
          Is the scene well-written and well-edited?
Professionalism counts.

If your story opening passes this checklist test, then you may be ready to shop your work.  Good luck—and happy querying!

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