What can I say, tonight, that would be of most use to you?

The thing about writing a blog is that you feel like you have to hold up your end of the bargain. The pact is clear: you follow me, I say something at least half-way useful, at least half the time.

Well, lucky for me — and hopefully for you — some of my work this week has been judging a fiction competition. What better way to share how to please editors (which I claimed in my last blog to at least try to do) than to share an actual rubric that judges are using to evaluate your work.

1. Are you opening with a compelling hook that makes the reader/judge want to continue reading?
This is often interpreted to mean are you opening with a conflict, a crisis, a challenge: high drama? But for me, intrigue can be equally compelling: an authentic voice that makes the protagonist too interesting to walk away from; an atmosphere or setting that I want to dwell in; most effectively, something fresh or unique that signals that what I’m about to get from reading on, I will not get anywhere else.

2. Are the first ten pages an effective introduction?
In other words, is the promise that you’re making to your reader — the carrot that you’re dangling — well established by the time you get to page ten? You’d be surprised how many times that answer is no. In Dostoyevsky’s day, not a problem (although you could argue that his carrot is the beauty of his prose: you want more, you gotta read on). In our age, however, coyness is sadly a no-no. We’re busy. Your readers/judges might not need the plot, but we usually want the premise in the first ten pages.

3. Is the voice distinct and engaging?
I’ll put it this way. If you’re writing a romance, your heroine should not sound like a romantic heroine. Your heroine should sound like an alive, three-dimensional, interesting woman whom I’ll only meet in your pages. If I want to spend time with her, the only option I have is to keep reading. If I want to spend time with a romantic heroine, I can open many other books.

4. Is your manuscript appropriate for its designated category? 
A quick aside to many of my students: MG and YA are considered genre fiction, subject to forms and rules. Know your genre. MG, especially, is a citadel guarded by fierce librarians and protective mothers.

5. Does the conflict arise from the character’s motivations and goals?
Notice the focus is on the conflict arising from within the character and not out of external circumstances. Watch this one! That nuance is easy to miss.

6. When you lump that internal conflict with any external conflict, is there enough to sustain interest?
If in doubt, make it even tougher for your protagonist. Struggle keeps us interested. We prefer five-set to two-set tennis matches.

7. Does each character exhibit a unique voice, and is that voice consistent and appropriate?
This, I think, is often the hardest skill to teach. Some writers are just naturals at this. Others are always in the author’s voice — you’re aware that the character is the author’s puppet, and it’s the author who is speaking.

8. Does the story move forward?
It doesn’t have to progress at a gallop at all times, but it does have to always be taking us somewhere.

9. And the big kahuna: If this landed on my desk, wedged into a pile of manuscripts the sight of which, despite a life-long love for reading, evokes less pleasure than pain; if I don’t know you and feel no kindness towards you; if my eyes are tired; if my main need is to reduce this pile before it has the chance to grow again…would you give me an experience in two pages that would make me want to read more?
Because you can.
Completely unknown and unpublished writers have.

Go ahead and ignore my editorializing (ha ha, love it), but make this an exercise: hold up your writing to these measures. When you judge to a rubric, you see things that your more sentimental self might have missed.

Hope this helps. Happy writing!



Can science teach you how to write?

Earlier this week, a fellow writer sent me a link to A Reader’s Manifesto: 12 Hardwired Expectations Every Reader Has. It gave me a lot of trouble.

I was a Bio major and remain a science geek. Oliver Sacks is one of my favorite authors; An Anthropologist on Mars one of my favorite books. I thought I’d be exactly the type to embrace the concept that there are certain ways we learn, and therefore, unsurprisingly, certain ways we enjoy, and therefore certain ways we can predictably elicit enjoyment. If so, you can write to please, and I can teach my students how to write to please — and, after all, that’s what I do, right?

But no. The concept didn’t sit well with me at all.

First of all, on closer thought, I don’t attempt to teach my students how to please all identically-hardwired readers. I attempt to teach them how to please editors, and specifically, editors now. In my very short lifetime (she bats her youthful lashes), I’ve seen that change. Reading tastes change, and the publishing industry works hard to keep in step not because those tastes point to great literature, but because that way lies the buck.

So, statements for all time like “the reader [because of genetic hard-wiring] expects that the story will start making a point on page one” elicits a genetically hardwired response in me similar to that of a she-bear guarding her cubs.  Such a statement implies that all readers have always had and will always have this expectation; and all writers who don’t start making their point on page one is missing the mark; and those stupid writers are bad writers.

But how to argue — nay, prove — that this is wrong without getting into researching and understanding brain science? (Something that the author professes to know well, without once giving us a footnote or reference, or her scientific qualifications — yes I know she consults for TV and film, and has written a book.)

And then, right as I was grappling with this, in wafted the dulcet tones of Ira Glass, talking about a man who spent twelve years trying to chase down antelope to test the premise that this was the reason that humans evolved to walk upright. You don’t have to argue the cause, if you can disprove the effect.

Anna Karenina didn’t make its point on page one. It has a wonderful opening line that sets you up to expect an unhappy family, but Anna herself gets first mentioned — and only in passing — on page 33 of my copy. She doesn’t step off the train until page 146, by which time, like the Pony Express, we’ve changed horses and possible “points” at least three times.

The Jungle Book doesn’t make its point on page one either — nor for that matter on page two. All that happens in the first two pages is that Father Wolf stretches from his nap and a jackal comes by wondering if he can snoop around the cave for something to eat. What’s the point?

I’m not claiming to be in this league, but Ruby’s Wish didn’t make its point on page one.  Page one was spent not making a point but creating an atmosphere. It was a very long (and I’d like to think lyrical) “once upon a time, a long, long time ago.”

So, to be frank, I don’t think we’re hardwired to expect anything on page one. I think history has shown that the human brain and our aesthetic expectations are pliable. What we expect and enjoy changes. Remember the reaction to Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring? The music almost caused a riot. The audience hated it. Nobody understood it. They weren’t hardwired to like it. And now it’s one of the most recorded works in the classical cannon (at least according to Wikipedia).

I have another writer friend who thinks that the meaning of life is not so difficult to deduce. She believes that we are all biologically still cavemen and cavewomen. When the sun is in the sky, we must take the opportunity to gather as much food as we can in relative safety. When the sun goes down, we eat that food. Then, once fed, we sing and dance, and love, and tell stories.

In my imagination — even less scientifically, in my heart that holds art sacred — the storyteller by the fire is not addressing a clientele hardwired to need to know now; he or she is beguiling an audience in the flickering light, a small group of humans huddled together who are sensitive to atmosphere, open to mystery…who can be entranced by many qualities of a first page, sometimes by just the rhythm and cadence of the words.

By this theory, our impatience isn’t hardwired. It’s our culture that’s to blame. It’s not too late to learn how to read slowly!

Happy writing,

Burrs, Obi Wan, and my new fiction press

In June, I began thinking about publishing fiction. I read fiction. I write fiction. I edit fiction. Why wouldn’t I publish it too?

Marketing Me was wary. The problem with publishing fiction is that it is so hard to position yourself against the market. “Publishers of quality fiction.” That tagline could belong to anyone. Whereas it’s been relatively easy to create an identity for Goosebottom Books that gives you a pretty clear idea of what we’re all about.

Still, the idea hung in there. Like a burr. You know the ones. If you’re reading this blog you’re probably a creative person yourself. Those ideas that won’t shake loose, they will change your life if you let them.

That month, I helped one of my students edit a manuscript as an application for a scholarship. The work was so good I felt agitated — as if I’d taken a swig of my sister’s triple-shot coffee. (My sister can metabolize caffeine but not alcohol; I’m the other way around.)
I wanted to publish that book; never mind that only the first few chapters had been written. Those chapters not only delighted me and touched me, they made me think. They brought my mind to something that I’d never thought of much before, and they made me compassionate in my contemplation.

In the same month, I bumped into not one but two ex-students at two separate conferences. Both of them were working on wonderful, altruistic projects. Both projects didn’t scream “money.” But they rumbled, “the Force is strong.”

Then at another conference, I started talking to an author about a project languishing in her drawer. Something in her description caught my attention. “Use the Force” echoed just beyond the range of human hearing.

At this point, part of me cringed. I have a Business Jedi brother, and I could already see the disbelieving shake of his head, the single word laughed, not spoken — “Wh-ut??”

“I want to start an imprint publishing worthy fiction. Fiction with a cause — only it’s fiction that doesn’t read like fiction with a cause. It just reads like great fiction, but it has a cause.”

Follow the “whut” with some expletives.

From where I sit, the big question in independent publishing is how do you do what you love, what is worthy, what you think will be on the side of good, and not go bankrupt?

How, indeed.

Actually, at this point that’s exactly what my two ex-students asked me. And I realized, there may be a way, if we did this together: if we shared the risks that I could no longer afford to assume single-handedly; if I provided the design and marketing skills and the industry knowledge that they were lacking — and access to my rolodex and to national distribution; and if seed funding were provided by other people who also believed that the projects were worthy…

And just as this thought took shape, just as the burr untwined its spines and grew, I came across this story of a publisher combining publishing services with crowd funding. They’ve published 6,000 books this way in the last five years. Maybe I can publish six?

Anyway, now we’re four months along. I’m starting this new month by announcing my new imprint: Gosling Press, four years to the day after we announced Goosebottom Books. It’s called Gosling not because we’re publishing for younger kids (although we still are focused on kids); but because I’m taking these authors under my wing. Gosling Press is a partner publisher — we will share the investment, and share the rewards.

That’s the positioning: A curated list of partner-published, fiction-with-a-cause.

It’s riddled with hyphens, but I’m very excited.
May the Force be with us.