Friday, January 28, 2011

The “Whoa” Factor

The “Whoa” Factor

whoa stopI was all set to post something about dissection agents’ reaction during the Writers Digest Conference last weekend. It seems that overall, writers had a great response from agents, with tons of requests for partials. Why? Well, after spending the week thinking about it, I think it comes down to the idea that WDC simply attracted some of the best new writers (and I hope I’m in that group) and blew the agents away. Their pitches were refined and honed, and agents recognized the effort it takes to come to such an event. It was a writing love fest.

So that being said, I want to discuss what I think made my pitch work. (for full disclosure, I did receive a rejection so it’s not sure-fire). This is what I’m now calling, The “Whoa” Factor. It all comes down to evoking an emotional response in the target of your pitch, whether it’s a live pitch, a query letter, or even a synopsis. I could actually see the response in the form of widened eyes and a change in posture. (See my last post).

Here are some examples of “Whoa” moments.

  • Jill walks down the street and witnesses a little girl run out in front of a car and get hit.
    Note that you might want to immediately know what happened…is the kid okay or does she get hurt? What does Jill do?
  • Joe’s arrives at work to find federal agents rifling through all the company paperwork. He’s told he no longer has a job, and he can’t leave town.
    Why? What happened? How does Joe react? What is Joe going to do?
  • Fred has just taken off from La Guardia when the captain comes on the speaker and says, “we’re being re-routed….to Canada. I have no further information.”
    Oh no, is it another 9/11 or just terrible weather? Is the plane itself being threatened?
  • Maria walks into work one day and meets her new boss, neither knowing her boss had given Maria up for adoption 20 years ago.
    How do they find out? What is their reactions? Are they able to bond? Do they want to?
  • Barney receives a letter from the old country begging him to rescue his family before they are murdered in a campaign of “ethnic cleansing.” (a true story)
    What does he do? Can he rescue them in time?

Note one common thing about all these examples: I don’t reveal what happens. But they all suggest grand conflicts, life-changing moments, and potential hardship for the characters. They are intriguing, but don’t describe the entire story arc (which is usually the reaction to these events). They are usually found at major turning-points of the story.

So my question for you is this:
Does your story have The “Whoa” Factor? Are there a couple incidents in your story that could be summarized in just one sentence that effectively creates a visceral reaction, something unexpected that would catch a reader/listener off-guard?

If you can find them, consider adding them to a query letter or a pitch and see if it’s an improvement.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Writers Digest ’11 Conference Report

Writers Digest Conference ’11 Report

imageWow. What a weekend. So much has happened. I’ll have a few more posts about it in the coming days.

To summarize, last weekend I attended my first writers conference. The main event was “Pitch Slam” where I had about 60 seconds to describe Steam Palace to literary agents. The event took place in the Sheraton NY Hotel and Towers in Manhattan, a snowball’s throw from Times Square.

Throughout the first day, there was only one thing on people’s mind: refine the pitch. Test it out on others. So every chance we got, we practiced our pitches with each other. Earlier in the week, Janet Reid had claimed on her blog that a pitch is a one-line description of your main character and an inciting incident. That set the Twitterverse abuzz as this was contrary to the advice on Writer Digest’s own web site. Then Chuck Sambuchino added fire to the mix when he suggested yet another structure: “long line” and then hit the Inciting Incident.

BUT

To confuse matters even furtherer (and spell check is accepting furtherer as a word), earlier in the week, I had run across the new office of the PNWA in Issaquah, WA, and I had run my pitch by them. Frankly, they provided me with the best advice of all: describe the main protagonist and the most dangerous antagonist’s most tense moment, but don’t reveal the outcome. Kind of like, describe the Gunfight at the O. K. Corral just before the shots are fired. (Just read Mike Resnick’s Steampunk version of that event called “Buntline Special”…kewl).

So, with all that advice in hand, I spent the evening at a lounge with fellow writers honing and perfecting, trying variations, and getting the tempo down. That’s when I first saw it. In that lounge (Faces and Names), I saw reactions in the faces of my fellow writers. More about that to come.

The next day started with Don Maass’ presentation. Okay, no beating around it. The man is a god. He did a mini-workshop where I worked on one of my weaker scenes, and dammit, by the time he was done, I had a much better idea of how to rev up the tension. But once the morning sessions ended, I went back to my room with my box lunch, and did a little soul-searching.

It’s been almost 2 years since I was let go from my job. Two years of trying to learn a new profession, to turn a lifetime of writing dreams into reality. I knew when I sat across from an agent, I was putting my very existence on the line. This was like job interviews, except this was a job that I wanted more than anything I’ve ever wanted since I asked my wife to move in with me way back when. Yeah, I was nervous. Dead nervous. Cold hands, sweaty brow, churning stomach. And with two hours of sessions left before Pitch Slam, I knew I had to get my nerves under control.

The last session was Janet Reid’s. And she is the Query Shark. Every person that volunteered was ripped, stripped, and left the stage with a much better pitch. She, too, is a goddess. But I kept going back to the advice I had received in town before I left. I saw how my fellow writers reacted to it. So, I pretty much ignored Janet’s advice (I will go back and look at her advice for query letters though. May send her one just to see…) and headed to the Slam.

By the time I got in, it was packed. SRO. Every table was ten people deep, and with three minutes for each pitch, that meant that I was at least thirty minutes behind the first people in line. Shit. Then that damn bell kept ringing, hammering my heart like the Liberty Bell falling on me. Each bell meant I was that much closer. The man in front of me got to go early because the last person left before the bell. They talked. They talked. I could see it was a ‘No’ but they kept talking. I heard it! My bell, my beautiful bell that meant I could go and make my very first pitch, just like the first pitch of the World Series, and they kept talking. Hello? Hello??? HE-LLOOO???

He left. I sat down. “HiImAndrewMynovelscomplete120thousandwordsSteampunk” O M G. I don’t think I’ve ever talked that fast in my life. I think I forgot to breath, because at one point in the middle I said, “hold on". I took a breath. Then, “sotheEmperorgivesSophiaanimpossiblechoice: betrayyourcountryorIllkillyoursister.”

There. Done! I took a breath. I looked at her face.

She spoke. “So…what’s so Steampunk about it?”

I don’t know if you just heard the sound of the Liberty Bell falling on me again, but that was not a question I had prepared for. “Uhh…um…uh Victorian stuff? Giant machines? Uhh…” Crap, I was losing it. Then her next question, “would you say it’s more plot or character driven?” The Liberty Bell has now left the building….by crashing though the floor and taking me with it. “Sorta in the middle?” Holy shit, I sounded like a loser! “No,” I said with conviction. Never sound wishy-washy. Ever. Even if the answer’s wrong. “It’s more plot driven. But I do a lot of character work too.” Would that work?

Turns out she’s interested, but a little hesitant. I got my first “send me something.”
TADA!!! HALLELUJAH! Hey, now, hey now! Note (you know that song…)

On to the next one. Maybe I was overconfident, but I got a “not interested” pretty quickly. Good. PLEASE, agents, do not waste time at these events! Yeah, I was disappointed, but I was 1-for-2, and next up was probably the agent that I really, really wanted the most. I was running with the pitch I had worked on. I really had to nail it this time.

This is how I know I might be a writer. This is how I know that this has all been worth it. Like I mentioned earlier, I could see a reaction when I recited my pitch. Right in the middle, there is this widening of eyes. A slight pulling back of the chin. An “I didn’t see that coming.”

Sophia travels to Hartford where she meets this mean, angry, evil woman who tries to lure her into prostitution, but then finds out that this woman is her separated-at-birth identical twin.

I got the “whoa”. I had learned this from practicing, that I could elicit that “whoa” moment from my colleagues. I figured agents would be jaded, but I started to get the same reaction from them. I knew I touched some emotion in them, the “holy shit, Sophia must be conflicted” emotion. I even learned to put a “beat” at that moment, to allow the reaction to occur. (And it’s not even my Inciting Incident, Janet, it’s the Turning Point that leads into Act II, because once Sophia accepts that Viola is her sister, everything she’s every known about her life has changed, and she irrevocably in a Special World…but I didn’t mention any of that in my pitch).

Then I drove to the thrilling punch-line:

The Emperor captures the twins and says to Sophia, “give me the secret to the Sea Key” (which would lead to her country’s destruction), “or I will kill your sister.”

Then I stopped. Another “whoa.” I could see that I reached them. Nods. An intake of breath. Some mentioned, “now that’s a dilemma.” I sold this agent and the next three, a total of 5 out of 6 requests for query/partial. (And yes, I used a parenthetical expression in my pitch).

Mark this moment down. I entertained 5 literary agents for 180 seconds each. I showed them that I have the potential to be their client. Time will tell if any of these agents are interested in representing me. My gut tells me that it’s a long shot, but it’s a far shorter throw than I had just four days ago. My attendance at this event has catapulted me in front of the hundreds, if not thousands, of the queries these agents receive every month.

The other thing this conference has done is re-energized me as a writer, to keep working hard. I see a light, it might not be the right tunnel or even the right direction, but I can see it. I’m going to keep driving for it, because not only did I talk to my fellow writers about Steam Palace, I also mentioned the Family History project, and after seeing them react to it, I know that it will gain huge interest as well. I can do this. I just need an agent! Or a contract!

liberty_bell_2

Monday, January 17, 2011

What Makes a Hero

What Makes a Hero

HF_LogoIn the last two weeks, against the backdrop of me frantically preparing for this week’s Writer’s Digest Conference, I’ve had two massive projects dropped in my lap.

The first, which I’ve chronicled in my last two posts, is the story of my cousin Barney and his heroic rescue of his family from persecution in the 1920’s.

The second, which I won’t detail due to privacy issues, is the memoir of a new member of one of my writing groups where he chronicles his dealings with mental illness. Let’s call him Joe. I’ve been helping him figure out how to structure his account.

Both are true stories, and both share something amazing: a true Hero in both the real and the literary sense of the word. As I learn about both stories, I realize that these are stories that absolutely must be told. Not only that, they both revolve around probably the greatest motivator in the world: the need for love and connection with our fellow man.

Here are some of the things that makes them Heroes.

  • They are broken in some way. In Barney’s case, in 1920 he is living with his sister at 25. He seems to be stuck in some kind of rut. We’re still researching, but it seems to me he led a quiet, sheltered life without much interaction outside of his house. But he left his family to come to America at an early age—why?
    In Joe’s case, let’s just say at age 40 he’s an incomplete man but he want to be complete. He wants relationships and family.
  • They are presented with a challenge/invited to go on a Journey. Barney is faced with a letter from the old country pleading for help. Joe falls in love with a woman, probably for the first time in his life.
  • The Journey is dangerous. Mortally dangerous (is there any other kind?). This is not a journey to take lightly. Barney literally faces armed forces. Joe literally faces Demons. (not supernatural. I can’t be more specific than that but I assure you that they are violent and malevolent).
  • The Journey promises a great Reward. In Barney’s case, it is the reunification of his family. In Joe’s case, it is even simpler. He’s looking for love.
  • There is a parallel, inner Journey occurring. On the outside, both men are fighting for their families, taking on the demons that block their progress at every turn. But the greatest demons are the ones in our own heads. What the Journey teaches them, by defeating the outer demons, is how to take on their inner demons and win.

So now, the question for me as I head to New York, is what about little Miss Sophia Stratton, the main character of Steam Palace? Does she in any way compare to these real-life heroes?

I see her story a little like Barney’s. She leads a somewhat sheltered life. She’s avoided relationships, lived with her mother and older sister’s family (whoa---way parallel). She’s kept her nose to the grindstone, perhaps like Barney, and never looked at the “bigger picture.”

She’s had Calls to Adventure in the form of letters from her Aunt, begging her to visit, but it’s not until her own life becomes so untenable that she accepts it. In Sophia’s case, the Journey isn’t quite as well-defined, which may be something I need to look at. It’s actually a series of journeys, all revolving around her twin sister Viola. At the core, Sophia is trying to honor her father’s memory, to right a wrong that occurred long ago.

The Reward for Sophia is fairly clear: her family survives. But she is presented with an even greater reward: if she completes the journey, she will gain what her father lost: their ancestral lands and peerage. But there’s a reward greater than all of those out there: her twin sister Viola. This goes to the heart of the Evil Twin metaphor: by confronting your twin, you are really confronting yourself. Sophia not only sees what she could have become, but she learns to appreciate what she has. So if she can come to terms with Viola and who Viola is, Sophia is really coming to terms with who Sophia is, and that’s the Inner Demon she must ultimately conquer. Like Joe, Sophia realizes that her love for her sister can heal Viola, and by doing so, can heal the hole in her own heart left when her father died.

Have you looked at your own work to see what your character gains from the Journey? How do they change, and what do learn from the experience? How do they start broken in some way and then wind up more complete?

Monday, January 10, 2011

More History

More History

SS-Mount-ClaySo, as a writer, I see stories. And I uncovered a doozy in my family’s history. I see scenarios worthy of Academy Awards, Pulitzer prizes, and Oprah’s book club. All that is required is the proper delivery. Now these aren’t my direct ancestors, but rather the story of my grandfather’s uncle and first cousin. But they still resound with me.

[The SS Mount Clay, the ship that brought this whole family to America in 1921]

Let’s take a look at a few of these characters.

Barney. Youngest of six…with five older sisters. I can picture his parents, finally receiving a boy (it’s not clear if there were any boys that died in childbirth/infancy) after 16 years of girls. A blessing beyond anything they had known. But when he turns 18, Barney decides to join his eldest sister Frieda in New York. His parents must be heartbroken.

Pauline. Youngest of the five girls. She’s the free-spirit, the crazy one. But when she speaks out against the injustices brought upon her people, her parents force Frieda to take Pauline with her to New York for Pauline’s own safety.

Frieda. Oldest of the six, she marries a relatively well-off man who emigrates to New York. Already with children, he pays their way two years later, but she must also take her youngest sister, the troublemaker. Frieda’s is the classic success story.

Nechamie. The father of six, five being girls. He has worked hard all his life to provide for his family. But his son’s departure is a crushing blow. Full of pride, he carries on, never asking anything from anyone, but he has no one to continue the family business, something he never gets over.

Bassie. In the middle of the six, she just wants a quiet life with her new husband. Her daughter Blossom is the pride of her life. But everything  is thrown into chaos when violence claims her husband’s life and Blossom’s cries of hunger wrench her soul.

Those are the main players in this drama. Nechamie had held everything together for years, despite the worsening conditions in his homeland. He has closed his eyes to the violence, even sending Pauline away to avoid it. But when Bassie’s husband is murdered, he knows he cannot close his eyes any longer. He has only one place to turn—his son who abandoned him years earlier and never wrote or sent a thing.

Barney’s life is comfortable. He just served his new country in WWI, still lives with his sister Frieda and her four children, and is beginning a promising career. The old country is now just a distant memory. He has heard of the unrest, of the violence, but it never occurs to him to do anything, despite Pauline’s strident activism. One day he receives a letter from his father. He has never known his father to ask for anything, but his father’s desperate tone chills him. Despite his misgivings and days of soul-searching, consulting with Frieda and Pauline, he knows there is only one thing he can do. He must travel the dangerous road back to his homeland and rescue his family before it is too late.

So I have all the elements of a classic story. A reluctant hero. A damsel (or two) in distress. A perilous journey into the heart of enemy territory (both social and emotional). A prideful father and an angst-filled son. A backdrop of social revolution. Characters filled with inner conflict. And, of course, the incredible fact that it really happened.

All that is missing are some villains, some faces to put on the forces opposing this effort. There are the usual suspects, such as unfeeling bureaucrats, corrupt officials, and ambitious military officers, but I feel like this story needs a more personal villain, the personification of everything they are struggling against. I think this is an area to use a touch of creative license. Note that this the same pool to draw unexpected allies from, although I do have a few names of people who helped along the way.

So this is a story that just begs to be written. And it is the kind of story I feel that I was made to write, a desperate adventure with a race against time. But it will require actual research to a degree I’ve never attempted before. But if I can pull this off, I think the possibilities are limitless.

Friday, January 7, 2011

History

History

Andrew - 001Samuel StumacherHow many of us know our family’s history? This week, a cousin of mine sent me a huge, 400+ page full-color tome illustrating my family’s history going back 8 generations. I cannot stop reading it. It is a truly humbling piece of work. It also shows what a giant clusterfuck history is.

My great-grandfather Samuel Stumacher on the left, me on the right. Apparently goggles were not the rage back then.

I’m sitting here in a cafĂ©, writing on my netbook computer. 110 years ago, my ancestors fled persecution using falsified documents with nothing more than the clothes on their backs. I know almost every American has a similar story in their background. But to see it come alive in one book was shocking to me.

Some of my ancestors are only known by their names, where they lived, and their approximate birth year. Many of the women have no maiden names known. These people are no more than lines in a census registry sitting in a government archive in Kiev, listed alongside their family members. So as a writer (and a human being) I start wondering about them. What did they do for a living? Did they love their spouses? What did they achieve that they are proud of? What are some of the challenges they faced? Did they have pets? How did they die?

A few of the lines in the census end with the word “conscripted.” These men were put in the army, and never heard from again. This was one of the “solutions” to the “Jewish Problem.” Cannon fodder. Back then, armies weren’t all comfy-cosy like they are today. It was virtual slavery which lasted 25 years before they were let go.

Women were all but ignored in the records. Daughters were married off and never heard from again. Wives seemingly came from nowhere. My thought was, “well someone must have a record of these people.” Yes. The synagogues did. Until they were burned. With their congregations inside. (I am not exaggerating this).

One of the most heart-wrenching mementos in the book is a letter written from a father to a son, begging for the son (a US WWI Vet who emigrated much earlier) to return from American and take them away. Why? Because pogroms were decimating the Jewish population. The father Nechamie literally did not know “hour-to-hour” whether he was going to stay alive.

Many people were killed, and our daughter Bassie had married, but her husband was murdered. Now she is left with a child, and has no means with which to keep it.
–Nechame Stumacher, 1920, translated

His son Barney did come and rescue them in an ordeal worthy of any Hollywood movie.

…56 extended family members set out in wagons for the Romanian border, They were robbed and harassed by soldiers but managed to get to the border…they were stopped by the police who noticed the [fake] passports sticking out of the neckline of Bassie’s dress (where she had hidden them)…
–Based on Barney Stumacher’s audiotape recollection

IMG_1158

Pictured: Barney Stumacher, Bassie Stumacher, and the baby Blossom Batt, who incidentally lived to the age of 89 and died in 2009, survived by 4 children.

One thing that gets me is all the blank entries in the book…those people who stayed behind, those that didn’t “make it.” Their records continue up until 1939, then end. That is when the Nazis invaded the Ukraine. In the town where my ancestors are from, the Nazi’s executed 7,000 Jews. Seven Thousand. That was about a quarter of the town’s entire population. Two 9/11’s in one small town. I don’t know how many of my relatives died, but it’s probably dozens, if not hundreds. There were only a handful of survivors. The cousin who compiled this history did not consult the Holocaust records, and frankly I don’t blame him. It’s mortifyingly depressing.

There is one thing that gets me more than anything, one thing that I cannot shake, and maybe this is the part I can take into my writing. I think about the people that left, that came to America to start new lives. They left everything behind to sail into an unknown future, to travel to a land where they did not speak the language. You may think that they didn’t have much to lose given their circumstances, but I look at all my ancestors and see dozens that were born, lived, married, raised children, and died in that same town. Let me tell you something right now.

They did not want to leave.

I had a conversation with a friend of mine after 9/11 that I’ll never forget. The majority of people are simple folk. All they want is to have a chance for a happy life. To have a decent job, to marry someone they like, to raise a few kids. Nothing special. They want to build a home they live in the rest of their lives. Most of the people who died on 9/11 were just plain old office workers, janitors, moms and dads. And most of the people in Iraq, Iran, and Pakistan are exactly the same. People just want to live their lives.

I look at the records of my ancestors, and I see the same kind of people. Married, families, strong religious beliefs, and working simple jobs that kept food on the table. Shopkeepers, tailors, carriage drivers, carpenters. They did not want to leave. This was their home for generations. But then everything changed. Their homes were invaded. Their businesses were burned. Their husbands and wives were murdered, all tacitly approved by the government. They had no choice but to leave. Not all of them did.

I realized that these people were Heroes, in the truest sense of the word. They did the unthinkable. They moved their entire families to a strange country and faced countless dangers along the way. They faced death and survived (followers of my blog should see where this is going).

I’m not suggesting every story you write should be about people facing genocide, living in a dystopic hell. But if I could channel even a tiny portion of the emotion that I’m feeling right now about my ancestors, I think I will be a successful writer.

In your novel writing, consider whether your main character is truly facing an impossible choice, but in some ways, there should not be a choice at all. Your main character must do what they must do, face the enemy straight on, and risk everything. Only then can they be a Hero.

I can’t really think of many things more courageous or more difficult than what my ancestors achieved. If they had not found the means to leave, if they decided to “wait it out” or hope for better times, then I would not be here today living in relative comfort, and their lives would have ended in a horrific way.

So I salute the man pictured above, Samuel Stumacher, for bringing his family of 8 (including my paternal grandmother at age 7) to New York in 1901. He did not live long enough to see my father’s birth (his grandson), but I know he’s up there somewhere looking down on his dozens of descendants. Thank you, Samuel.

PS Apparently Sholom Aleichem, famous Yiddish writer, lived for a few years in this very same town. He is the author of the story that Fiddler on the Roof is based on, which depicts life in a town that neighbors my ancestors’ town at that same time period.