Any writer is nothing without resources. Sure, we have our imaginations, but that's not enough. I've shared some of my favorite go-to sites for research before. Here are some I missed (in no particular order).
Nami.org - The National Alliance on Mental Illness houses the most extensive information on all facets of mental health.
AnimalPlanet.com - Animal Planet's site features information on all kinds of animals - domestic to feral to wild. Its coolest feature includes a dog and cat breed selector. This is great if you want to add a pet to your story and the pet needs certain characteristics.
Fabrics - Need to know the difference between nylon and rayon? You will if your villain is caught in a burning building. If you want him to really suffer, he should be wearing a nylon jacket (it melts before it burns).
Collegeboard.org - The College Board site offers everything you need to know about colleges around the world. Where is someone most likely to attend if they are premed? Which are the best small colleges? Find out how your young protagonist can get help to pay for college.
AutoTrader.com - Need car facts? Is one of your characters selling an old Buick? This site will give you a suggested price for buying or selling almost any car.
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism - Just about everything you need to know about alcohol and its effects on your body and you. Check out the facts about underage drinking for your YA characters.
Not everything you read on the Internet can be trusted. I look for familiar sites or those run by nonprofits or the government. I try to avoid sites that are selling something or that you have to register with before you get your info.
Here's an article from the University of California that you might find helpful.
Keep up the great research!
So you've spent time polishing your pitch, what's next? Time to write that synopsis - your story's summary that will excite an agent to help you sell your book.
First, go back and re-read your manuscript. While you're reading, jot down these things: the inciting incident, climatic moments and theme. Consider making a story board (maybe you already have one). Visualize the key elements of your story. Your synopsis should read like a movie trailer. Like your pitch, it needs to sell your story.
A synopsis is a summary, but it's not a retelling. It's the highlights of your narrative. It needs to wake up the reader and make them say, "Hey, I want to read this story. I want to know more about this character." It is written in third person, active voice.
First, a primer.
Next, as I've done before, I refer you to Pixar. Their writers operate from "22 Rules for Storytelling". I find Rule #4 an easy place to start.
Use these sentence starters, and see if you can complete them with the details from your own story.
Storytelling Rule #4
Once upon a time there was ______. Every day _____. One day _____. Because of that, _____. Because of that, _____. Until finally _____.
Finally, now that you're prepped, try it. Begin with the Pixar frame and go from there. Here are some thoughts on how to fill in the blanks:
If each of these elements is about a paragraph, you will have a nice two-page synopsis to share with an editor, agent or publisher. Remember, you want them to help you sell this story. They need to know how it ends. The trick is to infuse some mystery by leaving just enough of the middle out.
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My third novel rests again in the able hands of my talented editor (Jane MacKay), and all I can do is twiddle my thumbs.
Or so I thought.
What I need to do is work on my query, pitch and synopsis. I've done this before, but I've never felt totally satisfied; so this time, I did some more research.
Here's what I know so far.
What is a PITCH?
Sample from "Birds on a Wire":
True companionship means defying obstacles that may threaten to destroy it. For three best friends, the final days before summer break put their allegiances to the ultimate test.
Three boyhood friends find themselves in the last week of junior year and in the midst of too many secrets. Miguel can’t keep his feet off the soccer ball; he also can’t keep his pants on and mind in his books. Jesse has a girl, for the moment, but her eyes are wandering, and after she spills a secret about his best friend, Jesse isn’t sure she’s the girl for him. Then Jesse’s dad tells him what really happened the night his uncle died in a car accident 17 years ago. Finally, there’s Matt, the brains of the trio; Matt is also in need of a major dose of confidence. He's never met the right girl for him, and as junior year comes to a close, he begins to understand why. His attention turns to the kind smile of the basketball team's star player. His secret seeps out in the library, and this small town has ears.
As the story unfold, the boys must come to grips with the true meaning of friendship. More importantly, they must understand what it means to be a man. Courage comes in many forms, but can a 17-year-old boy actually find enough of it to stand behind his beliefs?
The fictional Southern California desert valley town of Santa Niña serves as the backdrop for the intense battles that ensue between the boys, their families and their friends. The town’s pride and joy, it’s Orange Grove, sets the stage for a heated confrontation that ends with some deadly results. Can the boys find the wings to fly; can they muster the faith and courage necessary to save their friendship?
A pitch must sell your book without giving away the end. It must intrigue the reader (agent, publisher...). The pitch can ask questions, planting them in the reader's mind. Don't answer them. They'll need to read the book if they want answers.
If you need a verbal pitch (one you need to use at a meeting with an agent), try this.
Next week: How to write a good synopsis. (Hint: if you write a good pitch, you're halfway there!)
Back in the day, there was a handful of genres. We had fiction or non-fiction, poetry or drama. That was it.
Oh, how times have changed.
We've always distinguished children's literature from adult, sports from humor, science fiction from mythology. However, in the recent years, one area of fiction has grown exponentially. YA.
So what is YA?
Young Adult literature primarily involves a protagonist between the ages of 12 and 17 who struggles in the story with any number of problems one typically faces growing up. In the end, the hero solves his own problem, and the reader learns a little about himself.
Common struggles include: friendship, relationships, getting in trouble or dealing with divorce, puberty, popularity, race, death, money, or spirituality.
Vital to the YA tale is that the protagonist must solve her own problem.
Recently, a new genre has surfaced: NA. New Adult literature includes the above with a hero closer to the ages of 17 to 25 whose primary struggles include adult situations (drugs, sexuality, crime, for example). If you view the NA shelf on Goodreads, you will see many covers that suggest a sexual theme. Then you will come across Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell. That's because this new genre has already subdivided into "racey" NA and "edgy" NA.
Will it never end?
My advice for finding a book to read? Go to the section you are used to first. Ask the bookstore employees for suggestions. Read reviews online. Ask friends. (Uh, yeah, kind of how you've always done it.)
My advice for selecting a genre for your next manuscript? Don't. Write your story. Let the editor, agent, publisher, bookseller, etc., slot you in.
Don't like my advice? Try this for quick and dirty sorting:
It's YA if:
1. Your hero is aged 12 - 17.
2. Your hero is dealing with a problem you are comfortable discussing with your own mother.
3. Your hero solves her own problem.
4. Your hero learns something or the reader does.
It's NA if:
1. Your hero is aged 17 - 25.
2. Your hero is dealing with a problem that might make you blush to tell your own mother about.
3. Your hero solves her own problem, but might need help from an authority (police, lawyer) or health professional (psychiatrist, doctor).
4. Your hero might break the law at some point (drug offense or other misdemeanor).
Based on my list, where would you place these classics:
"Catcher in the Rye"
"To Kill a Mockingbird"
"Pride and Prejudice"
"Lord of the Flies"
I'd love to hear your thoughts on YA and NA, or genres in general.
A story needs to do more than narrate. A story needs to invite the reader inside its fictional world, provoke and titillate. One of the best ways to do this is through dialogue. By allowing your characters freedom to speak to each other, you offer readers the opportunity to get to know them more intimately (without YOUR butting in).
However, dialogue is more than that. It is an opportunity to work with your plot in a new direction. When I am stuck for how to show the reader what's happening, I often employ my characters. Why not let them tell all?
Here is what you need to know about writing dialogue in your fiction. The sample lines are taken from my YA coming out tale, "Birds on a Wire".
Dialogue should do one of three things:
1. Move your plot forward; foreshadow.
"Seen Ruby?" Jesse asks.
"Yeah, she was talking to Karen when I came back to the table. She mentioned something about letting Karen copy her English notes. I think Nate gave them a ride to the library." Matt picks at the cracked table. "She said to tell you to call her."
"You saw her get in his car?" Jesse can't even say Nate's name. The fury surges inside him. "Are you sure?"
"Yeah. Pretty sure." Matt looks over at the empty lot, trying to evoke an imaginary replay. "Yeah. Positive. You worried? About that big lug? Don't waste your time, Jess. He's a jerk. Too dumb for Ruby. She's just taking advantage of his wheels. Karen's her best friend. He's her brother. It's just convenience."
Jesse stands, shoves his thin fingers inside his jean pockets. "Damn, OK. Don't know why I worry. He's just so damn cocky. That Karen, she gets on my nerves, too."
2. Create tension, suspense, mystery (mood).
"Something's wrong, Daddy. Something's wrong with Matt or Jesse, or ... something's not right." She looks out the window.
The door opens, and Jesse races down the hall. A door slams.
"Seems the boys got some trouble." Harold Waters says. "Suppose it's my turn now."
The reluctant father walks down the hallway. "Jesse," he says through the closed door. "Jess? Son?" Nothing. "I'm comin' in." He pauses, opens the door.
3. Identifies your characters (their inner selves - thoughts, ideas, fears, hopes)
"Did you think you and Ruby were gonna be like forever?" Miguel asks.
"Huh? Yeah. Maybe. I dunno. What difference does it make now anyway?" Jesse takes another swig.
"Yeah, none, I guess. But, uh, ya know she's not the most faithful, man. She's, uh, she likes to flirt, ya know?"
"Yeah, I know, but I don't think she ever gave it all up to anyone else." Jesse turns his head toward the crowd. "I mean, it's not like she was screwin' that lughead while she was with me, man."
"Nah, but I bet she is now."
"What the-?! You on my side, or what, dude?"
"I'm on your side, man. Relax. I'm just sayin'. That's all."
One more thing. When you sit down to write, remember this about formatting:
1. Start a new paragraph when a new person speaks.
2. Use double quotes before and after the speaking.
3. Place punctuation inside the quotes. (“That looks great!”)
4. End dialogue with a comma when using a SAYS tag. (“I’ll be there soon,” Jenny says.)
5. Use SAYS whenever possible.
6. If you are doing it right, at some point, you won’t need to identify who’s speaking all the time because the reader will recognize the character’s voice.
7. Avoid using words for SAYS that don’t mean SAYS.
No: “I can’t wait to see you,” she smiles. (Do we smile things??)
Yes: “I can’t wait to see you,” she says then looks at me and smiles.
If you troll the Internet, or pick through books on writing, you will see these ideas. They are universal. As you grow as a writer, you will discover that what works for you, works for many. Writing is an art. It's also a skill. There are rules, but we know rules can be broken. These are guidelines.
What works for you? Share here.
(I'll have more on dialogue in the weeks to come.)