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No One Really Knows What Satire Is

While re-watching an episode of 30 ROCK for the fifth or sixth time, I witnessedJack Donaghy say to Liz Lemon, “no one really knows what satire is.”

What wise words these are. I had to wonder, how true are they? We’ve heard the word and of works being a satire of something, but how many folks actually understand the difference between that and an adaptation?

A satire makes fun of a something (politics, ideas, theories, etc), while an adaptation is based on a prior work. For example, GULLIVER’S TRAVELS by Jonathan Swift (love it), makes fun of party politics in England. Political cartoons might target a particular candidate or party view (see below).

An adaptation, in contrast, is based on another work. I recently read THE BEGINNING OF EVERYTHING, which is a fun take on THE GREAT GATSBY. BRIDGET JONES, which I have read approximately 413 times, is a loose adaptation of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE. (Why did Helen Fielding kill off Mark Darcy in the sequel? Why? I demand answers!). CLUELESS is a valley girl interpretation of EMMA. Neil Gaiman’s THE GRAVEYARD BOOK is based on THE JUNGLE BOOK.

I’m glad Jack Donagy raised this issue in 30 ROCK, because quite honestly, I haven’t thought about the distinction in years; and as a writer, you need to constantly educate yourself. I will never forget getting a rejection on a query I sent to an agent back in the day, when I first started looking for representation, and s/he kindly pointed out that I shouldn’t be calling my book a “fiction novel.” Oops.

The distinction is also particularly important to me because of my new project, which is loosely based on Stephen King’s NEEDFUL THINGS. It is not a satire, it is an adaptation; and I confirmed this to be sure I was referring to it properly.

I maintain that was a smart move. Because after all, in the words of Jack Donagy, “no one really knows what satire is.”

Below: An example of what satire really is, from Belleville, Illinois-area cartoonist Glenn McCoy:


Bang! Writing a Killer First Chapter (Part Three – Voice)

Writers hate hearing about voice. For many of us, the mention of voice comes simultaneous with a “no.”

“Thank you for thinking of me, but in the end, I didn’t connect with the voice in the way I would need to in order to take this on.”

Does this phrase sound familiar? Writers hear it all too often from agents and editors – if an agent or editor doesn’t love the voice, it’s a deal breaker.

When it comes to voice, there are a number of tips to keep in mind. Although voice is perhaps the most subjective element of a project (It’s like warming to a person – you might love their quirky sense of humor, but another person might hate it), there is such a thing as an objectively “bad” voice.

To make sure your book’s voice is strong, ask yourself these three questions:

First, when you’re writing, can you hear your main character’s voice in your head? You should. (Well, in this instance. Generally speaking, hearing voices in head = bad). You should know if your character will curse, if they’ll say “ain’t” instead of “isn’t,” if they’ll talk a mile a minute in an awkward social setting or clam up, if they’re the type to say “um.” If you don’t know that, it will give your reader pause.

Second, does the voice match the character? If you’re writing Boy, the character needs to sound like a boy. If you’re writing Girl, same thing. Read other successful books featuring characters similar to yours (age, background, demographic, etc.), and see how the voice is done.

Third, does your voice connect with a reader? Keeping in mind that voice is subjective (which is why ten publishing houses will pass and one will make a writer as happy as Eddie Redmayne winning his Oscar), be aware that your main character should connect. And when I say “connect,” I don’t mean “be likable.” For example, look at Patrick in Bret Easton Ellis’ AMERICAN PSYCHO. He’s a sociopath, and somehow it is fun to listen to him (especially while he is pontificating on the merits of Huey Lewis and the News while murdering someone). Along with the hook, the voice is what draws the reader in. They start the first few pages of a novel, and decide whether they want the conversation to continue. (One of the best voices I’ve read in recent months is Ezra in Robyn Schneiders’ THE BEGINNING OF EVERYTHING, a contemporary young adult novel loosely based on THE GREAT GATSBY).

If you can answer all three of these questions affirmatively, and honestly, you have your voice. If agents and/or editors don’t like it, know that voice is subjective and you simply may not have found the right home for your work yet. And here’s to hoping that you do soon!

*This article is one of a three-part series written for C1Blitz 15, a competition hosted by Freshly Squeezed Reads which will be part of the Digital Writers Festival 2015. I was thrilled to play a role as an Industry Pro judge and featured blogger!

Bang! Writing a Killer First Chapter (Part Two – the Stakes)

A few weeks ago, I blogged on the first rule in writing a killer first chapter, which is preparation. Namely, don’t worry about making a first chapter perfect straight out the gate – get your story down, understand what your book is about, and take another look at the first chapter before sending it to Query Land. The first chapter will/should always be rough because you wrote it first, which is why you should look at it last, as well.

So what’s the next rule in writing a killer first chapter? Are you ready for it? Here we go…

Start where the story begins.

Well, thanks a lot, you’re thinking to yourself. I totally could not have thought of that on my own.

I know, I know, this seem obvious, but it’s hard to get right. In your mind (and probably on paper), you have an outline of your story. You’ve mapped out the major conflict, the subplots, and the characters; and while as a good writer, you know that your imagination might make you stray from your path if it feels right, you know your destination.

With so much information in your head, it might be hard to figure out where to begin. You want the reader to understand your character, so you might be inclined to bog down the beginning with well-written (but unnecessary) backstory. You might worry that you need a lot of action right away, so the result is an action-packed start that endangers characters before the reader is invested in them.

To start where the story begins, think of where you’re headed. The beginning should be the action that introduces the stakes. For example, while house-sitting for my parents last week, I read three books: THE STAND, TWILIGHT (I know, I know, but those books are entertaining), and ELEANOR & PARK. Consider where these three books begin, based on where they end up:

  • In THE STAND (which is possibly the greatest novel ever written), the book begins when an Army official escapes from his post after a weaponized strain of influenza (Captain Trips) is accidentally released. That Army official goes on to infect others, and Captain Trips ultimately wipes out about 99% of society. The book is about what happens post-Armageddon and who will prevail in a stand between the remaining good folks versus the remaining evil folks. The beginning to this novel is perfect, as the story begins when Captain Trips begins its trail of destruction.
  • In TWILIGHT, the book begins when Bella moves to Forks. After setting the scene, Stephanie Meyer almost immediately introduces the love interest, Edward. Right away, the reader has a sense of Bella, the gloomy surroundings of the small Washington town (a perfect habitat for vampires), and feels the connection between the unconventional couple.
  • In ELEANOR & PARK, the book begins when Park meets Eleanor on the bus. The story is a love story. It begins when the characters meet. Simple. (In fact, everything about that book is simple and utilitarian. It is almost all dialogue, and its stripped-down nature enhances the power of the story).

If you’re having trouble figuring out where your story begins, don’t feel bad. We’ve all been there. Heck, I was there recently. In my new advanced middle grade book, LISSA BLACK PRESENTS: MONSTERVILLE, I rewrote the beginning about five times.

In my book, the story begins where my main character (Lissa) moves to dinky little Freeburg and finds a monster skulking in the woods behind her creek. In the first iteration, Lissa’s still in her old town, upset about the move. In the second iteration, Lissa’s en route to Freeburg. And in the third iteration, she’s looking around her new house and thinking, What a dump. That is where the story begins. And sure, it was annoying to kill my darlings by hacking away at my first chapter, but that’s what you have to do sometimes.

Good luck! And don’t miss out on the third and final installment of this blog series. If you follow me on Twitter, I’ll post the blog when it becomes available.

Bang! Writing a Killer First Chapter (Part One – Preparation)

It’s so important that a book starts with a bang. After all, in the world of slush piles, listings swollen by self-published books, and alternative publishing, it’s important that a book stands out. If not, since folks have (many) better things to read, a book might be dead on arrival.

To write a killer first chapter, first focus on writing an entire draft of your manuscript. By doing that, you’ll have a better understanding of your characters, your story, and what that first chapter should say based on what the rest of the book delivers. Then go back and rewrite that first chapter. (Heck, you know you’re going to rewrite it four or five times anyway – might as well just accept it in the beginning).

If you are a writer trying to get an agent, this might benefit you because of spaghetti-ing. I recall this as a term coined in one of my creative writing books in college, and I’ve never forgotten it. It’s a real thing because I say it is, and I look forward to the day it is added to the Scrabble Dictionary.

Spaghetti-ing is the act of beginning to write a novel, and having everything go smoothly, and then in the middle having it all fall apart because you ultimately don’t know how to execute the plot arc and tie up the loose ends. You “spaghetti.”

The problem is that when agents read your book, they start with the first chapter. You might have a good first few chapters, and lo and behold – you spaghetti in the middle and the agent ultimately passes. Accordingly, when you feel like you’ve nailed the first chapter, take a step back and consider whether the rest of the book lives up to it. Is it as strong? Or is it like a quart of strawberries at the grocery store, where they ones on display at the top are red and juicy and perfect while the ones at the middle and the bottom are squashed and molding?

The middle and the bottom strawberries are your plot arc and conclusion. When you’re ready to send out your first chapter, also think about the rest. What is the central struggle in the novel? Are the stakes high enough for the reader to care about them? Does a character’s mission make sense? When does the climax happen, and does it resolve the main plot sufficiently to give the reader closure? How about the ending? Does it answer every question it should? If there is ambiguity, is it appropriate? (For a wonderfully done ambiguous ending, check out John Corey Whaley’s Where Things Come Back).

While writers will disagree on what makes a killer first chapter, I stand by this advice of finishing the entire book before worrying about the first chapter. This is based on personal experience. An agent called me (my first agent phone call!), incredibly excited about my manuscript which he had half-finished…and then he didn’t even want a revise and resubmit once he was done. Ouch.

Although that experience was unfortunate, I’ve learned from it. When I queried my new book, Lissa Black Presents: Monsterville, I made absolutely certain it was ready before doing so. I secured representation in well less than three months, and this never would have happened if I hadn’t been kicked around first. When I shot off that first chapter of Lissa, the book as a whole was ready, too.

It’s been a colorful journey for me, and I have two additional tidbits of advice on the first chapter to share, which I will present in the next three blogs.

That’s right – this one’s a trilogy! Stay tuned for the next installment…

Do Your Worst! The Value of Criticism

When I first started writing, I never shared my work with anyone. It felt too personal. And not only that, but what if it wasn’t any good? It would be devastating to put my heart and soul into hundreds of pages, only to have someone tell me my time is better spent on other endeavors. Like, finishing those ten seasons of FRIENDS they just put on Netflix. Or rearranging my closet.

I’m not sure when my attitude changed. Probably in college, when I won my first writing award. And when I took Creative Writing from the lovely Richard Burgin, who forced me to share my short stories. Then, when I graduated from law school, I put myself on query, where I met several amazing critique partners. They tore my work apart, and by them doing so, I was able to build it up into something much more.

No matter the source, I have found as a writer that the most important means to improving is the willingness to share my work. There are issues I have not seen in my writing because I’m simply too close to it. Others do not have those blinders. And writing is a never-ending process of getting better, which is accomplished in part by accepting and growing from criticism.

There are stories out there about debut writers who were grabbed with an idea, got on their computer, and pounded out words until their brilliant creation was finished and then submitted to an agent who immediately sold it to Random in a three-book deal. Those are writers who win the writing lottery. Much more common are the writers who go through six books and six revisions apiece before they finally, finally score that book deal. And how do they do that? They write, and read, and – relevant here –  learn from input.

With LISSA BLACK, my advanced middle grade book that will be subbed this month, I have run with the input I have been lucky to receive. My critique partners have read it and commented, my poor husband has sloughed through it (he’s very intelligent, but he isn’t a reader), and I’ve read dozens of other middle grade books to get a feel for my industry. I’ve done my homework.

And now, to add to it, I am in the middle of the revisions proposed by my fabulous agent Lauren Galit, who is a stickler! Lauren has painstakingly gone through all 242 pages of my novel to point out every place where a change would make my manuscript better. While I don’t think I was ever a diva when it came to revisions, my evolution from my college-age self enables me to make the most of these comments. I can run with them because I can see what she means from a creative and critical standpoint. If this had been five years ago, I might have cried, but the fact of the matter is an agent won’t take you on unless they love your book and believe in you, and I know that criticism serves a purpose.

My message to you, writers out there who shield your writing from view – don’t. Criticism is, for the most part, valuable. The moment you learn to discern the good criticism from the worthless criticism, and to make the educated decision as to which criticism to use and which to leave behind, is when you become a serious writer.

And that second part is so important. You are the writer. Do your job. Run with criticism, don’t lean on it. You can’t revise based on criticism because you’re afraid the criticism means your writing isn’t any good. You need to revise because the input resonates. After all, you’re the one who wrote the book in the first place, and you’re the one who knows what the finished product should look like.

My manuscript with the initial flagging for revisions (based on Lauren's and my crit partners' input)

My manuscript with the initial flagging for revisions (based on Lauren’s and my crit partners’ input)


My progress this weekend...

My progress this weekend…

Progress as of  Wednesday morning

Progress as of Wednesday morning

The Line Between Middle Grade and Young Adult

Young adult books have it easy. Grownups (i.e., the ones who have to pay the bills, battle public transit to get to work, sit in boring meetings) have no qualms about reading young adult books. Given how stressed and busy they are, a young adult book is an “easier” read than almost all of the adult fiction out there. That’s partly why certain franchises have made so much money – both young adults and adults buy them.

Recently, however, I’ve been thinking about books that cross other genre lines. Specifically, what about middle grade books (intended for readers approximately ages 10 to 12) which could also conceivably appeal to a slightly older age group because of the age of the protagonist/length/subject matter? It’s tricky, because almost-teenagers don’t want to be reading books that appear to be written for “little kids.” And you’re also dealing with the issue of maturity levels – an eleven year-old has different priorities and concerns and interests than a 13 year-old. Accordingly, what appeals to the 11 year-old might not appeal to the 13-year old.

So how, pray tell, do you write something that can straddle the line between middle grade and young adult and be successful? It’s not impossible; geez, just look at Harry Potter (although Book One was pretty much straight middle grade). Still, you need to know certain tricks:

The story line has to be something that can appeal to both age groups. Adventure, treasure-hunting, and heist are all viable options because almost anyone can be interested in them. (Even adults like National Treasure and Night at the Museum). So long as it’s not something that is inherently too babyish for the older demographic, you can work with it.

Also, if the character is going through something that the other age group can’t understand/identify with, that’s a no-go. For instance, if a reader is 11 and the character is 13 and spends the whole book whining about getting fat/a boy not liking her/stressing about popularity, it will distance the reader. Sure, a 13 year-old character can think about these things, and a book can touch on them in order to develop the character, but it can’t be an essential plot point.

Age is another thing. A 13 year-old doesn’t want to read about a 10 year-old. Kids feel smarter and cooler by reading about older kids.  So if you’re balancing between young adult and middle grade, err on the side of making your character older.

Last, be cognizant of length. Most middle grade books are shorter nowadays – 40,000 words or less, while YA books range between 55,000 words and 90,000 words. That’s a really big difference, and it means that if you expect a younger kid to read your whole book, you need to write something that is length-appropriate for the action that keeps their attention and has strong pacing the entire way through (Honestly, that’s true for anything, but it’s especially important here given that a MG/YA blend is probably going to be longer by definition).

As a writer who is soon going on submission with her MG/YA blend with her new agent (yay!), this is a topic of extreme interest to me. What are the essential elements to a book that appeals to both demographics? Please feel free to share below.

Spoiling a Good Thing

We all have things we loved as children that have lost their magic. Admit it – it’s true. There’s the movie you remember being full of mystery and wonder, and you locate the old VHS, pop it in, and are sorely disappointed with the reality compared with what you remember.

Recently, I undertook the “study” of about twenty-five books and movies – all of them well-treasured – before I embarked on writing my next book. Well, I’ve checked off all of them from my list except for one, and I know why I’m avoiding it.

I’m afraid. This book is among the top contenders for books that inspired me to become a writer, and I’m worried it won’t be what I remember. And maybe, just maybe, the mystery of it and the memory is worth more than my experience in re-reading it as an adult.

In case you’re curious, the book is THE WICKED PIGEON LADIES OF THE GARDEN by Mary Chase, which you haven’t read because of its awful title and the fact that it’s been out of print for a good thirty years. I found it at a church library sale back when I was about ten years old (a whole bag of books for two bucks!), read it, and have loved it ever since. It’s a story of a loud-mouthed, lying little brat who finds herself trapped in a mansion on her street that has been abandoned ever since the beautiful daughters of the house went missing decades ago. Only somehow, she’s trapped in the mansion at a time before the daughters went missing. She might be able to spare the parents the pain of losing their daughters, but how? And how does she get back?

After law school, I went on a mad hunt for this book at my parents’ house, only to find it missing. Recently, however, my mother found it tucked away in a box in our lower basement, and I can’t begin to express how happy I was to see that ugly, hard-backed cover. Seriously, I couldn’t even find this sucker on eBay.

But something in me still hesitates. A few years ago, when I re-read WAIT TIL HELEN COMES by Mary Downing Hahn, which I read at least twenty times as a kid, it had lost its magic. The voice didn’t connect with me, and it didn’t have the same mysterious, ghostly quality I remembered sending shivers down my spine. And I hate that that’s the last memory I have of HELEN. I can’t bear for that to happen with WICKED, too.

So maybe it’ll stay on the shelf a while longer…