VANITY PRESSES VS. SELF-PUBLISHING

 

The same word of caution applies to vanity or subsidy presses.  Whenever you see an ad saying, “We’re looking for writers!” hold on to you wallet.  These companies will publish your book, but require that you fund the printing costs.  The end result may look good–though it probably will be double the cost of your going to a local printer for the same thing.  The difficulty comes in distribution.  Bookstores don’t want to deal with individuals.  Even small press publishers are faced with this problem.  A modest size book store in Madison, for example, has 2,000 regular suppliers.  Also, a bookstores are leery of vanity publications, so the burden is on you to convince these businesses to take shelf space from something by a known writer, that is has been publicized by a recognized publisher with an editorial track record for sales results.  

 

On the other hand, if you are willing to promote yourself, consider self-publishing.  Here you act as the contractor and hire a printer, graphic designer/typesetter, editor to produce the book, yourself.  In these days of desk-top publishing this is both affordable and fun.  As opposed to vanity presses you can do small quantities economically (plan on enough copies for the two or three local bookstores who know you as a customer, and for friends, relatives, and future great grandchildren).  Years ago three other poets and myself did this.  We edited each others work, selected a woodcut for the cover, and typed, proofed and rearranged until we had a book.  I took a trunk load of them to book stores along the western side of Michigan one weekend in October.  People were cordial and said they would be glad to give the book a try.  I remember it was called Quick Blue Gathering.  A little over a month later I retraced my route.  When I went into the first store, I thought, “Darn, they’re not on the shelf, they probably are behind the counter or piled in the back room.”  Imagine my surprise to discover that the dozen or so I had left had sold out.  I couldn’t believe it.  I hurried to the next location.  The same thing had happened.  My speed between stores quickened.  We had an incredible success on our hands. 

 

Four months later we had produced a second book.  This time we had gone out and gotten a loan from a local manufacturer, had artistic photographs taken of each of us, went first class with a square binding that proudly proclaimed our title, The Second Cutting.  I received the same cordial greeting at book stores, with additional compliments on the quality of this more elaborate book.  A month later, I couldn’t wait.  For good luck, I first went to the same book store where the first collection of poems had sold out.  Imagine my surprise to discover…not a single issue had been purchased.  The same was true at the next stop, and the next.  I think I learned my greatest lesson in marketing that day.  At $1.50 people took a chance on Quick Blue Gathering.  It was a stocking stuffer, spare change at the cash register.  But, The Second Cutting cost them $3.50 and there were many more things competing for their purchase in this price range.  Eventually we did sell enough to pay back the loan, and in the process had a wonderful time doing readings at parties, libraries and retirement facilities as well as at bookstores and coffee houses.  Best sellers, such as What Color Is My Parachute and Creative Visualization began as self-published works.

 

EDITORS

 

When I started Rosebud as a magazine “For People Who Enjoy Writing” I wanted to break down barriers that separate writers, editorial staff and readers. In his trying to personalize responses to the three to four hundred submissions the magazine receives each month Rod Clark, the editor, and myself are realizing  why this isn’t usually done.  It also makes you aware as to why you are predisposed toward some manuscripts even before you read them.

  

If the work is cleanly presented–crisp type, good paper stock, no cross outs–you know this was done with care.  It is someone’s best effort and you want to read it with respect.  You hope they have sent you their three or four best poems–they are discriminating–not twenty-five in the hope that something somewhere will stick, though they don’t want to take the time themselves to choose–your selection or lack of it tells an editor to read in depth or skim.

 

Finally, as an editor, there is anticipation in reading a name you recognize, someone who perhaps you have published before.  What have they come up with this time?  On going submission creates

a sense of familiarity.

 

Should you send out the same material simultaneously to different publications?  Editors will say no; but literary agents do just that.  If your goal is recognition, it seems to me you have to try to reach more than one decision maker at a time.  I vividly remember receiving an extraordinary short story at Rosebud.  We contacted the writer immediately only to find she had sold it to another publication.  We offered to buy secondary rights (reprint it after it appeared initially).  Unfortunately, she had sold all rights to it.  I was heartbroken and angry.  Then two months later she sent a second piece that she was giving us first chance at.  I tried not to like it, but it also was so good that we published it, proudly. 

             

An editor can be an incredible asset to a writer, and, as a writer when I have achieved a good working relationship with an editor, I would never jeopardize this by submitting something simultaneously to another publication.  An editor, who is the most finely tuned of readers, might point out grammatical confusion in your work, suggest you develop a poetic image further or even recommend that you drop part of a piece.    Once an editor wrote back that she liked a long narrative poem I had submitted, but felt the last stanza was unnecessary.  She offered to return the piece so I could send it elsewhere or publish it without the final part.  I thought, it’s not like cutting off your hand, and told her to go ahead and use it.  Years later I came across the magazine and realized she was right.  I had been too close to it, and because they weren’t working had struggled too much with those final images to easily let them go.  Even the best of writers writes better with the feedback of a good editor.

           

An editor is so valuable that you might consider hiring your own.  Most free lance writers struggle to make a living, why not contact one who writes for a publication you want to be in and ask the writer if he or she would consider editing your work for twenty dollars an hour.  You not only get good feedback you learn how someone who is successful shapes a piece for a publication you want to impress.  You may even get a word of mouth recommendation within the organization.

 

CONNECTING

           

Marshall McLuhen stated that the copy machine has made us all into publishers overnight.  After you’ve had some pieces published you will ask yourself, what is more important: To be in print or to be read?  There are other ways in which you can share your writing that mean more than being in a national publication.  One instance of this happened to me twenty years ago.  I had been fortunate to have several dozen poems published over a period of a year and a half.  My nephew who was an adult living in Chicago heard about this and asked me to send him some of my poetry.  I xeroxed a number of them and sent them off to him.  A month later he wrote that he had enjoyed them well enough, but that he was very surprised when his mother (my sister) came over one night and spent a couple hours in an easy chair reading them…one in particular. I instantly knew which poem this was.  When I was about fourteen my sister and her husband were expecting their third child.  They had decided to name it “John” if it was a boy.  At that age I took this to mean they were naming the baby after me.   The baby was born, right before Christmas.  It was a boy.  Unfortunately it lived for only a few days, then died.   Everyone gathered at my parents home for Christmas Eve.   Ordinarily my sister who is sixteen years older than I am,  would have been in the middle of the celebration, she is very gregarious.  That night she didn’t feel like it so she sat in an easy chair in my room as I worked on the a model railroad building.  I didn’t know what to say.  I still wouldn’t; but years later when I wrote a poem called “Autobiography” it was this experience that was one of its central images.  And now years later, through writing my feelings expressed in that poem reached her.  No publication in a magazine could possibly compare to that.  Last year I invited my sister to participate in one of my writing seminars.  She had been a journalist and I thought it might get her writing again.  When it came to this point, where I talk about publishing, I thought to myself, should I include this anecdote.  We had never discussed her child’s death directly.  I decided to go ahead and recount the story.  When I finished all eyes turned to her, they knew she was my sister.  She said, “You know the trouble wasn’t that you didn’t say anything, the trouble was that no one said anything.”  I was so happy she had seen that poem.  That she knew we did care, even if we couldn’t say it.  Later in the year, at another seminar, a woman called out, “My God, I had a baby, named John, who died and no one would talk about it either.”   We’re all friends,…who just don’t know each other.  Writing is a way in which we do.

           

For further information on publishing, I highly recommend Judith Applebaum’s How to Get Happily Published.  It has more information per page than most similar books do throughout.    

    

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SOME GOOD NEWS

Many small press publications pay only in copies.  The good news is, since they aren’t paying anything, there’s no reason to please an editor more than yourself.  There are five or six thousand magazines.  A home does exist for your work if you take the time to find it.  You do want to be published.  We are social animals and part of our success is in the recognition of others.  Plus, it ads a little excitement to checking the mail–like that lottery ticket–if we don’t stake more than we should on it.

           

I can’t tell you what makes you unique to an editor, but I can tell you it doesn’t have to necessarily tie in with what you’re presenting.  Years ago I made my living as a cartoonist.  People got a kick out of this at social gatherings, all except my wife at that time who thought it was the equivalent to being married to Bozzo the Clown.  On my 3 x 5 card I wrote: “I am a cartoonist, here are some poems I’ve written.  Tell me what you think.”  At least two good quality magazines thought that was unique enough to give my poetry a good read.  I always suspected they just wanted to put “cartoonist” in the biographical introduction to my published pieces.  Certainly they had not received poetry form 75 other cartoonists that week.  On another occasion I sent some poems to a West Coast publication.  They returned them with a letter saying they liked the work well enough, but favored poets from their own region.  “Good for you,” I thought and looked up all the likely magazines in Wisconsin, Illinois, Minneapolis and Michigan.  On my 3 x 5 card this time I wrote how the publication (and I named it) favored writers from their West Coast region. I concluded, “I’m from the Midwest and I think Midwest magazines should do the same.” Again I had several successes.  While looking up addresses I noticed one publication was about five blocks from where I lived in Madison.  On the 3 x 5, I wrote, “Dear Neighbor.”  The editor called me.  She had a question about one of the poems which involved a dream told to me by a former student who was a distant descendant of Edgar Allen Poe.  I satisfied her concern and the poem was the first piece in the next issue.  A similar thing happened when a friend mentioned that John Updike, not only wrote for The New Yorker, but was a reader for poetry there also.  I wrote, “Dear Mr. Updike, I understand you’re a reader for poetry submitted to The New Yorker, here is my best work, tell me what you think.”  I didn’t get published in that magazine, but I did receive a nice note from John Updike, saying he was not a reader for The New Yorker, but he had read the poems and they were worth re-submitting.  When I later applied for a college teaching position I mentioned, truthfully: “John Updike liked my work.”

           

Networking takes this one step further.  While free lancing as a cartoonist I worked part time in a restaurant.  One day the manager asked me at what I was concentrating on so hard. I  told him I was finishing a children’s story that gave middle school students an introduction to literary analysis.  It was called The Novel Tree.  He asked me for a copy and offered to have his ex-girl friend send it to her father, a famous New York children’s author.  I didn’t get excited about this until I went to the library and saw that this man had eight or nine titles in the card catalogue.  The manager was good on his promise and I received a long critique of my piece from the father.  I was disappointed he didn’t like it. But, he was conservative in his approach and my story was not very  traditional.  Had he liked it, this would have been my introduction to his publisher–because I seized an opportunity, but more importantly because I shared what I was doing with someone who passed the word.

 

CHAIN REACTION

 

I was more successful with a series of articles on a new construction technique.  I was paid by the manufacturer to develop the pieces and sent them to many major newspapers, consumer and trade magazines listed in the public library’s copy of Standard Rates & Data.  Ten days later I received a call from an editor of The Christian Science Monitor who said they were going to run the article full page, complete with photographs I had taken.  This created a chain reaction that literally went around the world.

  

The Christian Science Monitor has a wire service used by magazines as far away as what was then Soviet Russia.  They reprinted the article even giving the manufacture’s mailing address.  Bags of mail came in daily, as well as phone calls, including one from Popular Science who came in to visit the site.  In the car I mentioned to the Popular Science editor that the story had already appeared nationally in The Christian Science Monitor.  She said that she knew this (it’s what got her to make her visit) and that didn’t matter.  “In fact,” she said, “it showed the subject had a good audience.”   On my 3 x 5 card to Popular Mechanics I mentioned that this had been featured in The Christian Science Monitor and Popular Science (where it was highlighted on the cover).  On the next round when I sent it to Omni, I was able to ad that it had appeared in Popular Mechanics.  Omni published it, and then it was on to Life, to Paul Harvey (radio) and to several national TV programs.  I’ve since concluded that this approach works for non-fiction.  The editorial staffs of most magazines are surprisingly small.  They are looking for subjects of proven interest to readers and will trust the judgment of other periodicals to point the way.  You help them with this by identifying past successes, though you need to make it clear that what you are sending is a fresh slant.  An editor goes through a decision making process in selecting material.  If you can help him or her through some of the steps of this process, that editor will feel you really understand their market. 

           

A year and some 20,000 letters after the article appeared in The Christian Science Monitor  I had breakfast with the editor, who was passing through Wisconsin.  I said that I was surprised the article had been printed without much verification.  He admitted that they had had a story that they decided to kill at the last minute.  My piece had just come in and was ready to go, so they used it.  Despite all the credit I’d like to take, it was still being at the right place, at the right time.

 

LITERARY AGENTS

 

Submitting to literary agents is different than sending a manuscript to a periodical.  They’re interested in longer works (there’s not much commission on the sale of the average poem or short story), therefore they will want to see three chapters and an outline.  Literary agents want to see for themselves what you have; they are not interested in hype.  Publishing houses have greatly decreased in personnel over the last twenty years; literary agents now fulfill much of the initial screening process for them.  Most agents reside on the east or west coasts.  My advice is to first make sure that you really need one.  A physician in Milwaukee told me about writing a book on golf injuries.  He went to a book store and found a publisher who had several titles that connected sports and health.  He called the publisher, only to be told that they did not accept manuscripts directly, he had to have an agent.  He didn’t give up though.  He returned to the book store and wrote down the name of the author of a book on jogging injuries.  He called the publisher again, told the man answering the phone that he was a doctor and needed to contact the writer of the jogging book.  They gave him his phone number in California.  The doctor called this author and briefly told him about his work.  He asked the author with whom he worked at the publisher.         This led to the doctor’s third call to the publisher.  He asked for the particular editor who said he should forward him the golf-injury material to him.  The doctor said he didn’t have and agent.  The editor told him it didn’t really matter.  The book was published.  Initial sales were slow and there was consequently little marketing push behind it.  The doctor wound up with about $2,500 (7% of the cover price).  Sometimes getting a book published is only the first of several hurdles.

           

Several good directories can help you select the most appropriate literary agent for what you have to offer.  There are two types of agents: those who make their money from a commission on the sale of your piece and those who charge editing and reading fees–in other words they make their money from you.  You want the non-fee charging agent.  He or she will only be interested in work that is marketable, but that is your goal in going to an agent.  The others may offer advice that is helpful, but that does not guarantee publication.  A woman in a seminar in St Louis showed me a critique of a novel she had written.  Over time this had cost her $7,000.  The comments were valid, but at much too high of a price (and not only financially, the writer was so disheartened that she had spent this kind of money that she gave up writing for ten years).  She could have learned more by applying our six principles to one of the chapters of her book. 

MARKETING YOURSELF

How do you get noticed as a writer?  What are the dangers and rewards of trying to be published?  Is there a way of going about it that gets results? 

 

Most states have a lottery.  If you submit work to a magazine. literary agent or publisher, think of it as buying a lottery ticket.  The more tickets you buy the better your chances, at least by a little.  On the other hand if you don’t win at the lottery, you don’t say, “What’s the matter with me, I must not be any good,” you say, “Hey, I didn’t win this time.”  That’s the same attitude you need when you get a piece of writing rejected, “Hey, I didn’t win this time.” 

 

If we were rich or famous we would have someone else take care of marketing our work.  It’s not impossibly difficult–in fact it’s 90% persistence–but rejection is discouraging.  Especially if it’s of something personal, like our writing.  Sure, pieces are rejected because they aren’t as good as others being considered.  But, they’re also rejected because someone didn’t have time to read them, wouldn’t think of publishing an unknown writer, or because something similar appeared in the magazine a year ago.  The sad thing is we seldom know the real reason, and it’s easy to imagine the worst.

 

We also have this American dream about being discovered.  We fantasize about sitting in the equivalent of a Schwab’s Soda Fountain and having an agent gasp, “You’re just what we’ve been looking for!”  People who make it feed this myth.  They create the impression it’s that indefinable “something” you either have or you don’t have that is being acclaimed.  A closer look reveals years of work and self-promotion; but that doesn’t sound magical, doesn’t make them seem special.

 

If we can’t hire someone to promote us, we have to do the job ourselves.  But, just as changing from being a writer (Principle #1) to being an editor (Principle #3) involves changing hats, so now you are taking off both those other hats and putt on a third one–titled, “agent.”            What’s going to make you a successful agent of your own work?  The same thing that makes someone a success in marketing real estate or building a law practice.  Having a plan, doing some quick research, understanding factors that weigh on the decision of the buyer (that is, the editor or publisher), networking if possible, looking for opportunities, and positioning yourself to stand out from others offering the same thing you are.  I haven’t said anything about the quality of what you’re trying to get published.  This, of course, is key to your getting the final nod, but now we’re only considering how you can be noticed enough to reach that point.     

 

 

PLAYING THE NUMBERS

 

There’s something called “the rule of twelve.”  It states: Send one piece out twelve times and it will be published.  The idea is to in crease your success by increasing your exposure.  (In business to business sales, some eighty percent of the people making cold calls give up after three tries.  Most decisions to consider seeing a sales person are made after five contacts.)  Now, you might start out sending pieces to The New Yorker and The Atlantic Monthly and have settle for publication in your local weekly newspaper as twelfth choice–but you’ll be published.  The rule also states: If you send out two pieces, six times one of them will be accepted, or if you send out twelve pieces to twelve different places, one will make it.

           

To begin with select three or four pieces you are pretty happy with (they don’t have to be masterpieces; remember the editor may suggest some changes, anyway, you don’t want it to be carved in granite).  Now make a flow chart.  Work A goes to magazine #1, work B goes to magazine #2, and so on.  If you receive work A back with a rejection slip, read the notice and throw it away (do not save these unless there’s a personal comment on them) and ship work A to magazine #2.  If it goes to twelve publications without success, consider changing it, but don’t even trouble about this until the piece has made the complete cycle.

           

Perhaps the most tragic story of rejection, was that of John Kennedy u.  He sent his book, A Confederacy of Dunces, to every publisher.  It was rejected by everyone.  He became so despondent he killed himself.  After his death his mother forced the manuscript on the famous Southern writer, Walker Percy, who used his connections to eventually get it read, and published.  It went on to win the Pulitzer Prize.  The New Republic called it one of the funniest books ever written and it is still selling well fifteen years after it first appeared in bookstores.  So, don’t give up before you win the Pulitzer Prize.

           

What magazines should you target.  There are two ways to research that.  The best is to go to a large bookstore with a note pad and look through publications that seem to be publishing the kind of writing you are doing.  Ask yourself, how are they making their money?  The answer can be through advertising, through subscriptions or by some affiliation, as in the case of some literary magazines with a university. If the answer is advertising, check the kinds of ads they are running.  For example, if they have airline ads, and travel destination ads, their sales staff might like to be able to tell advertisers they have an article about Caribbean cooking or a story of a couple rekindling their lost love in Florence.  A guest at our bed and breakfast told me about her mother’s breaking her leg on a trip to France, only to find her insurance would not cover the accident because it was overseas. When she returned to the United States she wrote an article about being injured abroad and sold it to a major magazine for three times the cost of her trip (including the expenses of her hospitalization). Realize that magazines themselves are business and need to generate income to exist.   

           

If a publication has little advertising, it probably makes its money on subscribers (bookstores and distributors take up to 55% of the cover price for individual newsstand sales; 50% of the number of issues of the average periodical “on a rack” don’t sell and are destroyed.  That means a magazine selling for $3 is worth only 75 cents to a publisher in terms of single copy sales).  Can you tell a magazine anything about their readers that provide this financial base?  If you can they will pay attention.  One woman in a seminar in Chicago told me that her area of expertise was in the area of special sexual needs of people who are physically impaired.  She asked me what percentage of the population I thought this was.  I had no idea.  But, including the elderly, it turned out to be nearly 20%   Attached to her article should be a sentence telling an editor, here is information of particular interest to 20% of your readers, and they won’t find this information elsewhere.

           

I recommend you attach a 3 x 5 card to the upper left hand corner of your manuscript.  Unless your manuscript is going to a literary agent or book publisher, a few sentences on this card are all an editor is going to read.  Tell the editor, by name, something about the magazine’s readers, why this would appeal to advertisers or something that makes you stand out from the other seventy five to one hundred unsolicited manuscripts that have come in “over the transom” that week.

           

I mentioned two ways of doing research.  The second is to visit your library and, with notebook in hand, look through the directories of magazines and small presses.  Put the reference librarian to work for you to select the best for your purposes.  These directories give you a description of thousands of places who accept submissions.  Important data includes editor names, what if anything the magazine pays for work, and examples of the kinds of pieces it has published lately.  Often there are also cross indexes by subject and geographic area that are useful in the back.  Never send a piece without addressing the envelope and note to a specific person, even if it means a telephone call. 

 

A BIG LESSON

Do you feel you’ve rolled up your sleeves and are really forming something through your writing.  I hope so.  If you don’t, remember how the introduction of a partner in the first exercise shook you out of your predicted direction, perhaps tricked you into a real reaction instead of an expected one.  Use a similar tactic here.  Instead of going to the scene you think next follows it best, alter the order in which you work on these scenes, just for the hell of it.  It’s a mistake to start writing without a story idea, it’s equally disastrous to have everything thought out before you begin.  Throw yourself a challenge, let yourself be surprised at the results.                 

Here’s some encouraging news if you’re struggling with these first three principles.  They’re all you need to be a good writer. Discover, Dramatize, Involve. That’s it!  The rest is only practice and appreciating others who do these three things well.  However, there is a difference between good writing and great writing.  Principles #4, #5 and #6 consider this difference by going back over “writer,” “subject,” and “audience”–the communication elements already addressed respectively by Principle #1, Principle #2 and Principle #3.           

Let’s say you were going to write an essay on loyalty. Because there just isn’t enough loyalty in the world today.  On the top of the paper you put “Loyalty.”  You begin, “Loyalty is really an important quality.”   Tick, tick, tick, the clock ticks away.  “There just isn’t enough loyalty in the world today.”  Tick, tick tick.  You get up, get a cup of coffee, look over what you’ve written so far.  “Let’s see how Webster defines loyalty…”  Don’t write this way.  If loyalty is important to you it will come out in the writing, no matter what the subject.  If loyalty isn’t important to you, but you think it should be, that also will  come out through your writing.  You can’t stop it.                 

Start with something or someone you’re intrigued by, a subject you want to explore and through the writing make discoveries about the subject and yourself.  Twenty years ago when I taught high school, the equivalent of writing about loyalty, was a first assignment for the year—to write about what you did over the summer vacation.   No one was interested in this.  The kids had lived it, any rehash on paper was superfluous.  The teacher assigning the topic wasn’t interested, he or she wished it still were summer.  Consequently the results would be vague, ungrammatical, boring.  On the other hand I remember finding crumpled notes on the floor at the end of the hour that read something like this: “Cindy, meet me at your locker, 12:15, today.  Chris knows what happened last night.  We have to talk.”  Writing that was urgent, dramatic, precise, connects with a reader and uses language with terrifying efficiency.  These notes could’ve been examples out of Strunk and White’s Elements of Style.                 

There’s something else I learned from the students that’s an important lesson to apply to your writing.  It was the late sixties.  I had just completed my masters degree at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, which was a hotbed of anti-war political activity.  I was to teach American Literature at a very poor high school on the western side of the state.  Perhaps twelve percent of the students went on to higher education–beauticians school, electronics in the Army or the local community college.  This was at the height of the Watergate hearings and I was all fired up with anti-Nixon rhetoric.  Together, the students and I were going to rediscover the meaning of America through America’s literature.  Monday morning at 8, the bell would ring and I would launch into an inspired lecture.  No matter how profound, at 8:55 the bell would ring again and the forty-five students would file past my desk and out the door as another forty five would file in.  As these two groups passed one another, the departing students would give the arriving students an instant review of what they could expect.  All within my earshot.  They’d say: “Boring.” “Bring your lunch.”  “He’s off in the clouds again.” “Gag!”  And I’d think: I need a drink.  By the end of the week, I was worn out, so on Friday we did group work.  I’d divide the class into four or five groups, appoint spokespersons, and give each some question their group was to discuss with the idea that they would later report their conclusions to the entire class.  Then I’d sit and stare out the window.  But, I’ll never forget the first time I did this.  The bell rang ending class.  And as the departing students met the incoming ones, they said, “Wait till you see what we do today.  It was so much fun, and we really learned a lot too.”             

The lesson is: I valued my lectures because I did them.  The students valued their group work because they did it.  The same is true of readers.  They value a book, not because the author is brilliant, but because it gives them something to feel, to think about, to discuss.  Give your readers that role.  Create scenes they can imagine.  Let them anticipate what is going to happen,  and give them enough detail so they can react along with your characters your characters.  Finally, let your readers draw their own conclusions from what they experience. Relinquish your soap box. 

It could be that the classics of literature are works that generate the most discussion, and it’s the opportunity to think and talk about them that we value.  You know what I mean if you’ve studied Shakespeare, T.S. Eliot, or James Joyce.                

There’s one more important chapter on the dynamics between characters in scenes that will make the action seem to be happening in “the here and now.”   It will help you generate tension right before your readers’ eyes, yet it uses some techniques with which many professionals outside of theater directors and screenwriters are not familiar.  If you have done the exercise up to this point you are ready to use them for yourself. If you haven’t done the exercises, go back and complete them now before you go ahead.

 

HOW TO USE A STORYBOARD

STRANDED IN PUERTO RICO  

You have several story ideas, some of mine and some of your own. Let’s move on to the next section  of the Storyboard Exercise (Part II).  

Here we are marshaling forth our resources.  Under “situation” write your story idea.  Under “people” put the characters you’ll use, as far as you know now, to dramatize the piece.  Under locations, think about the various options where you can stage the scenes presenting your situation.  Write in your choices.  In my example based on the cook and his girlfriend who is expecting, under “people” I put; “frightened young man,” “pregnant wife,” “restaurant manager,” “waitress.”  I may want to add “customers” later, but for now I’m trying to limit the characters.  From the reader’s standpoint the more I can do with fewer characters the better.  For “locations” I have: “their apartment,” “the restaurant,” and the “employment office.”  Now fill in these categories for your story idea.  When you are done move on to Part III. 

For the sake of this exercise I arbitrarily decide to tell this story in five major scenes.  Now I’m going to spread the people and locations out over these scenes.  I’m going to first fill in the scenes for my example, then ask you to do the same for one of your story ideas.  When you do this ask yourself:  Why am I picking one possibility over another?  What will be the primary thing the characters will be reacting to in each scene?  What can I do within the scene to heighten its dramatic “opposites.”  And finally, what shifts in vantage point could I make within the 3rd person point of view and how would I affect the reader by reordering the sequence of these scenes.

I start my visualizing with Scene B.  The man is working as a waiter in a Puerto Rican restaurant (remember a restaurant was the inspiration for my choice of story idea. I’ve changed him to a waiter since I don’t know anything about cooking Puerto Rican food).  His presence irritates a table of customers because good paying jobs are scarce–why should this outsider have one?  The waiter makes some mistake.  The customers insist that the manager fire him.  In Scene B I write “restaurant,” “customer,” “manager,” “young man,” “fired.”  I could see using 3rd person point of view– showing the waiter’s thoughts only–and quite a bit of dialogue, plus characters reacting to one another. 

Now, I have to convey why his losing his job is serious.  I’ll do this in Scene A, by showing that his pregnant wife is counting on his getting some money for her care.  If she is alone in their apartment, how can I accomplish this?  Perhaps she has just received a letter from a friend back in Wisconsin who doesn’t know the woman is pregnant.  The friend is expecting a child, herself, and talking about how excited she and her husband are.  They live in the suburbs and have a good hospital nearby.  I’d play up the differences in their circumstances to heighten the drama.  Again, this would be 3rd person, but with the woman’s thoughts.  She is reacting to the things in the letter.  Under Scene A, I write, “apartment,” “pregnant woman,” “letter–contrasting situations.”  I have some reservations about this scene.  It seems static, with little chance for action or dialogue. But, on to Scene C. 

The reader is probably wondering how they got into this predicament.  So am I.  A great place to uncover this would be in the employment office.  Here’s a chance for the young man to explain how they got there, why they have no money and why they can’t get help from family back home.  I write: “employment office,” “clerk,” “young man,” “background.”  But this is more than background. These obstacles or “complications” push the basic conflict of the plot to extremes. The great thing about this scene isn’t so much what’s happening, but that it builds the intensity of the plot.  We have an expectant mother who needs security and her boyfriend who has just lost his job, but she doesn’t know it yet.  It’s like the bomb in the mailroom of my earlier example.  Plant the bomb where the audience is aware of it, then build the tension as they wait for it to go off.  Inexperienced writers want to place everything on the table right away.  But good writing is like fishing.  You could get more fish throwing a stick of dynamite into the water, however the idea is to have a lure that can be ignored and a size line that can break to make it sport (at least from the human’s standpoint).  The same is true with flirting between a man and a woman.  An outright proposition sends a person in jail; but some give and take, some sense of mystery or hint of things unexpressed… this is tantalizing.  Let your writing flirt with the reader.

Scene D is the climax.  The man and the woman, their worst fears realized, now let out their resentments.  The conflict, which we’ve seen from each side as a problem to be solved, now has its full emotional impact.  It shakes the foundations of their relationship.  She feels betrayed.  He feels trapped. They both are drowning.  I note: “apartment,” “woman,” “man,” “confrontation.”  Using the 3rd person, should I pull back now and not show the thoughts of each?  That might be interesting, especially if their words contradict those thoughts we’ve already been privy to.  The tension of their circumstances is fully released on each other.  A new tension between what they say and what they feel (but don’t express) drives each further inward.             

Scene E shows the manager and a waitress talking.  The manager realizes he’s been unfair and calls to re-hire the young man.  The economic problem has been solved, but the love between the couple has been lost in the process (as dramatized in the scene before).  Under Scene E, I write: “manager,” “waitress,” “telephone,” “resolution,” “too late.”  I’m not interested in the internal thoughts of these two minor characters, but it would be interesting in the last paragraph to get the thoughts of the man, the woman or both. 

I feel confident in considering the sequence of the scenes, but am still bothered by the inactivity of Scene A.  Underneath A and B I draw some arrows switching their order.  I’m also toying with the idea of an extended symbol which I could introduce in Scene B that would suggest an added level of meaning.  To be honest I don’t know much about Puerto Rico.  But since conceiving this story I’ve read anything about that country that I find in newspapers and magazines.  One of the political issues is whether Puerto Rico should remain independent or become a state.  There’s strong feelings and, at heart, some economic issues.  To be joined or be separate?  Could the dilemma of this couple be played out against this larger political and economic background?  It would be interesting to try.

Storyboard Exercise (Part III)

1. It’s time for you to go through the same process we just did on this example for your story idea.  This piece doesn’t necessarily have to be a short story, it can be a play, poem, non-fiction article, chapter from a novel…the choice is up to you.  Take as much time as you need to complete your storyboard.  Do this now! 

2. Now that you have your storyboard completed, I want you to jump in and write one of the scenes near the beginning, but not the first one.  Don’t plan any more, but sit down and write.  Let reactions to earlier events, to people’s words, to the setting, etc. develop the story idea.  Let the writing do the writing. If you get stuck, ask yourself: What is the real subject here? 

Take some risks, let the characters say and do things without being sure where they will lead.  Tell your characters, “Show emotion, listen to other characters, respond with honesty.”   If you don’t have a subject you want to work with after all, go back and select a better one. At this point it’s more important that you write to understand your characters in their situations and the conflicts they face than it is to edit for an audience–that will come.  The first step is to write, you can always go back to cut and paste later.  This will be a first draft.  You are going to do many revisions before you are satisfied, but not now.  Don’t worry about rough edges the first time through.  Write fast!  If a word doesn’t come to you, leave a space.  If something isn’t going right, skip ahead, but keep writing without taking your pen from the paper or your fingers from the keyboard.

And only write one or two scenes.  There are some important elements from Principle #4 and particularly from Principle #5 you need to incorporate into the other scenes.  Get ready to write for fifty to sixty minutes.  Now dig in.