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25February

What is “High Concept”?

In today's tough marketplace, agents and editors spend a lot of time talking about "high concept" books. Instead of being offended by the fact that this is more of a marketing term than a writing one, you better learn it, know it, and live it. Is your book based on a premise that will be easy to boil down into a logline? Is that logline unusual and compelling enough to attract the attention of a broad spectrum of readers (or viewers in the case of writing for film.)

It's all about the pitch, people. You have to be able to sum it up in two or three sentences in a way that is powerful enough to make people respond emotionally. You need an amazing subject, a provocative title, a compelling inciting even that opens your story, and a great hook that makes your version (possibly of an old theme, aren't most tales old as time?) unique or special.

Screenwriter Alexandra Sokoloff has one of the best explanations I've seen for "high concept." She says your premise needs to
1.be culturally topical (currently a cultural phenomena - vampires, anyone? zombies?)
2.exploit a common fear
3.center around a situation we can all relate to
4.generate water-cooler talk
5.be controversial enough to generate press
6.include a big twist

Okay, maybe not all those at once, but that list should get you started. I gotta admit I sometimes  want a "quiet" book - a character driven, in-depth storiy about the motivations and dreams of ordinary people - like Last Night at the Lobster by Stewart O'Nan, a terrific slice-of-life read. But I think it's gonna be a while before we see many of those books getting big pushes from publishers again. I'm still reading them, and I hope you'll let me know if there's a good one I've missed.

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Posted in 2010

10February

Hooptedoodle: Great Advice from E. Leonard

I've read a lot of lists of Writing Tips, and they start to sound alike. Not so Elmore Leonard. His "biggie" is to "Try to leave out the part that writers skip," and he points out that we never skip dialogue when we're reading - just long passages of description or characters' thought processes. I must be a voyeur at heart because I LOVE to eavesdrop on my characters' conversations. When I made my first stab at screenwriting this summer, it seemed a pretty natural medium for me - letting the dialogue carry the story. Don't get me wrong; it's pretty challenging to think in pictures and to find ways to convey backstory without the dialogue becoming too didactic, but it was a great exercise in livening up blocks of prose in my fiction writing. If you decide to try it, do buy Final Draft software. It ain't cheap, but there's just no good way to set up the format for a script while concentrating on your story, and it's important to turn out a professional looking product if you want anyone to look at it.

E. Leonard has managed to cover adverbs, attribution, adverbs, exclamation points, and a bunch of other good stuff in this short NYT article. It's worth a few minutes of your time, I promise.

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Posted in February, 2010

08February

Growing up in NOLA

Growing up in NOLA

In honor of the Saints' Superbowl victory, today's post will be a list of some of my favorite memories of growing up in N'awlins:

-chasing "mosquito hawks" and drinking from the "hosepipe" in Paw-Paw's Gentilly back yard
-standing on the "neutral ground" yelling "Throw Me Something, Mister" at masked men with beads
-throwing change to the flambeaux carriers who lighted the night parades
-riding the "flying horses" on the carousel at City Park, and visiting the Storyland nursery rhyme figures
-giggling with Julie and Carolyn over beignets until we were all covered in powdered sugar
-watching Aunt Ev in her "Metrie" kitchen fry up "erster po-boys", then "dress" them
-calling Maw-Maw for a weather report for an outing to Pontchartrain Beach
-hearing the guy in the shop on Royal say, "Hang on, dawlin', ah almos' fuhgot ya lagnaippe"
-smiling at the old women on Magazine Street who ask, "How's ya mama?" of total strangers
-getting hot doughnuts from the Verbena Street garage bakery late at night
-free "red drinks" (Barq's creme soda) from the "ice box" at Uncle Charles' Canal Villere grocery store
-getting a peek in the open doors of the strip clubs from the back of Uncle Norman's station wagon
-gathering with other families to watch the Mardi Gras fountain turn colors on a hot summer night
- dressing up for plays at the Little Theater in the French Quarter
-going to birthday parties on moving streetcars
-riding the ferry ovah da rivah for the view at night
-Old Fashioned Nectar Creme sno-balls with condensed milk

I could go on and on, f'sure, hawt, but it's time to get ta woik, so y'all have a good day, ah'right?

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Posted in February, 2010

03February

RIP JDS

Several of you who studied Catcher in the Rye with me wrote me with thoughts about the death of J.D. Salinger at age 91. Much has been said about Salinger and his work over the past week. The New York Times said Catcher's narrator's unique (at the time) voice, "struck a brash new note in American literature." Holden Caulfield's impact on people of all ages was described in a post for Slate by an editorial assistant tasked with answering his mail, which he refused to read.

If you're a scoffer of Salinger devotees, you could be a victim of overexposure; a Washington Post writer points out that making Catcher required reading has taken its toll on him as a cultural hero. ". . . how can you be subversive when your books are assigned by the sort of educational pooh-bahs whom Holden might have spotted as phonies?"

Like him, love him, hate him, loathe him - J.D. Salinger changed the landscape of literature for Young Adults. Never before and seldom since has anyone so authentically captured the cadences, the humor, the angst, and the insecurities of a high school guy. Whether you write him off as a hopeless hypocrite or revere him as a spokesman for isolated youth everywhere, Holden Caulfield broke ground.

If you're looking for a way to honor the passing of J.D. Salinger, consider reading a YA book in honor of the man who helped invent the genre. I have a few suggestions. (Are you surprised?) A few of my favorites for authenticity of voice:

The Perks of Being a Wallflower - Stephen Chbosky
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian - Sherman Alexie
King Dork - Frank Portman
Looking for Alaska - John Green
The Graveyard Book - Neil Gaiman
The Unthinkable Thoughts of Jacob Green - Joshua Braff
Days of Little Texas - R. A. Nelson
What I Saw and How I Lied - Judy Blundell
Story of a Girl - Sara Zarr
My Heartbeat - Garret Freymann-Weyr

What are your thoughts about Salinger's work? And which books would you add to this list?

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Posted in February, 2010

21January

Adverbs Are of the Devil

Adverbs Are of the Devil

Yes, I confess to my own part in the misconception that good writing is full of them. I did once *gasp* encourage students to slather their poetry with adjectives and adverbs, but I do have a defense: You know how you've read that Picasso had to be able to paint realistic scenes in order to hone the skills that allowed him to create his own masterful style? Well, while beginning writers are learning to choose the exact right noun or verb, adjectives and adverbs help create the images that bring life to the page.

Stephen King says in On Writing (y'all know how I love that book): "I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops. . . they're like dandelions. If you have one on our lawn, it looks pretty and unique. If you fail to root it out, however, you find five the next day . . . fifty the day after that . . ."

It's no accident that Hollywood uses the term "wrylies" (as in "he said wryly") to criticize overuse of parentheticals in screenplays. If you're doing your job with dialogue, your readers will know the tone of the lines without adverbs or parentheticals to guide them.

"But I like adverbs!" she shouted defiantly. (Bad.)
"Fine," he said. "You may continue to show your ignorance on hundreds of pages of adverb-filled prose." (Good.)

One of the best tips I ever heard was from a woman at a B'ham SCBWI meeting who told me, when we were discussing adverbs at a cocktail dessert party (ah, the social skills of writers) to run an "ly" search on my manuscript after I thought I'd rid my novel of adverbs. I was shocked at how many were still there! Did I delete all of them? Of course not! But I made freakin' sure they were all really, totally, completely, undeniably, indisputably needed. (Yes, those adverbs were intentional. I was just havin' a little fun.) Thank you, nice blonde-haired lady. I wish I knew your name to give you credit. If you're reading this . . .

*Note: Two years after I wrote this (and five years after it happened,) I actually recognized the nice blonde-haired lady at another SCBWI conference and told her how helpful her adverb tip had been. So now I can appropriately thank Cathi O'Tyson for her great advice and for being a new writer friend; we can't have too many of those!

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Posted in 2010

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