Birthday wishies and literary dishies

June 23, 2010

So what makes a black-hearted, soulless editor happy on her birthday? Oh sure, the usual things apply – query letters that have a clear plot, authors who actually read the submission guidelines [which for some reason has been in very short supply the entire month of June], cover designs that come together easily, fabulous projects.

But there are other things, too.

Selling 5,000 units of Jan’s Story in three days is certainly a good way to drunk-punch an editor clean into Giddy Land.

Another good way to put the jam in my jelly doughnut is to see a nice huzzah in Daily Business Review for a really damn good book – The Writer’s Guide to the Courtroom – Let’s Quill All the Lawyers. Go, Donna!

And with that, I must go. The beagle has made reservations at the local pub/health spa/taco-ria. She even got the Rottweiler down the way to cover the phones. I’m wondering whether to be worried…

Jan’s Story by Barry Petersen

June 6, 2010

June 15 is Release Day for Barry Petersen’s heart-wrenching book Jan’s Story. It’s no doubt that Alzheimer’s is a cruel disease that robs us of our loved ones in the sunset of their lives. They slip into a netherworld that keeps the body deliciously intact while stealing the best parts – their minds and their memories.

Now, imagine this happening to your wife or husband, brother or sister when they’re in their thirties, forties, or fifties. This is the fate of Early Onset Alzheimer sufferers. It steals earlier, hits harder, and destroys faster.

Barry Petersen’s Jan’s Story is a beautiful, emotional tribute to his darling wife Jan – the lives they shared, the fun and fascinating things they crammed in before he lost her forever. This book is a “gotta have it” for anyone whose life has been touched by Alzheimer’s because Barry offers a safe haven to those who have thrust their fists into the air and questioned God for allowing their loves to be torn away from them.

Jan’s decent into Early Onset highlights the particular cruelty of this disease. Since Jan was only in her fifties, this made it nearly impossible for Barry, who held a high power career as CBS News’ Asian correspondent and was known to have to travel with very little notice.  This stands in sharp contrast to Alzheimer’s, where its sufferers are older people and their caretakers are retired and can offer the full time care they need. As Barry notes, Early Onset hits in the prime of life, those who have full careers, possibly young children. Those left behind are often financially and personally ill-prepared to balance their busy lives with sudden ’round the clock care. How do they cope mentally and financially?

Barry also brings up a taboo subject that really must be brought into the light of day due to the growing prevalence of Early Onset – and that is the idea of love.  We are a people not meant to be islands, so what becomes of the one left behind? Is it their fate to live their lives without love and affection, or are they allowed to find love? This is a controversial notion that, to date, no one is talking about, and Barry is the first to tackle this tough issue. How does one watch the love of his life become little more than a beautiful shell of her former self and remain sane?

The Alzheimer Association was equally touched by Barry’s story and has given their permission to put their logo on his book. We see this as the bible for Early Onset Alzheimer’s for it’s personal journey down a long dark road, and the subsequent reference notes at the back.

For a taste of Barry, I recommend you read his blog post. Then go out and buy his wonderful book.

And don’t forget to keep a box of Kleenex nearby.

The tale of two stories: character vs. plot

January 21, 2010

It goes without saying that the biggest sphincter pucker in a writer’s life is the query letter. “Argh!! I  have a fabo story, but how do I get that across to the agent/editor?”

You pucker because you know that we decide whether to ask for pages based  on the strength of that query. So it has to rock. Far be it for me to tell anyone what the quintessential query letter looks like because there is no one right answer. There guidelines that have been discussed here and a gajillion other places. And yet, I’ve seen query letters that I loved and broke all the rules. What was the difference?

The authors knew how to pitch their stories. They had a great voice and understood that their stories were either character driven or plot driven, and closed in for the kill.

Plot driven

A plot driven story is about the movement of events within a story and how the characters influence those events. Obviously one still needs engaging characters, but the story doesn’t center solely on their emotions, desires, and personalities.

If you have a plot driven story, then make sure that you focus on that plot. But be mindful; plot driven queries have a tendency to get lost in trying to tell too much detail. A query is supposed to be short – 1 page. So keep it to the big picture. We understand there will be plot twists and such, but we need to see the main story.

There’s a great example of a plot driven query over on Kristin Nelson’s blog.

Character driven

Unlike plot driven stories, character driven stories are all about the characters. It is they who are the main dish in your personal banquet. Their personalities, motives, and desires are the yin and yang to the plot, and their actions are a driving force to influencing the story. The plot can be on the thin side because it’s secondary to the character(s).

So if you have a character driven story, that is where you must put your focus in your query letter. This is where voice plays a big role because you need to make them come to life and make us care about them.

Here’s an example that I lifted from one of our authors, CBS journalist Barry Petersen, author of the upcoming book Jan’s Story:

Even today, if you met her, you would be struck by her charm and beauty. Is it any wonder I am so in love with her?

And that is why this is a story not just about Early Onset Alzheimer’s Disease, but also of our love for each other. People said we were an unusual couple. I only knew that we were lucky to find and to have each other.

And because of this disease there came the day when truly loving Jan meant saying goodbye and leaving her behind at an assisted care facility. I wasn’t sure I could do it, but I had to — for her.

There is no medicine and certainly no book that can help Jan as she drifts deeper into her Alzheimer’s Disease. And no book can help me as I lose her. That time has passed.

But this book will help others beginning or in the midst of this horrifying journey.

That is the heart of Jan’s Story…when we came together, celebrating how we lived and what we did. And then together battling this disease and, as it moves towards its end, how I fight on alone, without her but for her.

I couldn’t call his agent fast enough to order pages – through a used Kleenex. Barry instantly sucked me  into his world, his heart. And even though this is nonfiction, the same rules apply. This could have just as easily been a fictional query.

Just for giggles, let’s pretend that Barry had missed the mark and focused on the plot. It boils down to, “TV newsie goes through the agony of watching his wife sink into the depths of Early Onset Alzheimer’s.” This is a good tag line, but it’s not really much of a hook for an editor because there are a gajillion Alzheimer’s books crowding the shelves.

What is going to suck me in? What makes this unique? Ok, there are precious few books on Early Onset Alzeheimer’s, which really is a totally different set of books compared to Alzheimer’s. So there’s that. But what else?

I have no emotional link to the characters involved in the story, and the plot is too thin. Since I have no character references, I’ll be looking for the twists, the tension, the conflict, the choices that the character is given and what happens depending upon those choices. In short, you can’t sell this story based on plot. It must come from the heart.

It’s Barry’s personality, his motives, and desires that are the cause and effect to the plot, and his actions are a driving force to influencing the story.

I see too many queries that miss the mark between character vs. plot, and all I usually see is an incredibly thin plot populated with flat, dry characters. Little wonder I send out a rejection letter.

In short, define your story. Is it plot or character driven?

If it’s plot driven, concentrate on the movement of events that drive and define the story, and be mindful of sticking to the big picture.

If it’s character driven, let me see, feel, empathize, and understand your characters because it’s the difference between “send me pages,” and “no thanks.”

Spreading out the Welcome Mat

February 25, 2009

As seen on Publisher’s Marketplace:

February 24, 2009
CBS News correspondent Barry Petersen’s JAN’S STORY: LOVE LOST TO THE LONG GOODBYE OF ALZHEIMER’S, the moving story of his beloved wife’s descent into Early Onset Alzheimer’s, to Lynn Price at Behler, in a nice deal, by Paul Fedorko at Trident Media Group.

Are there any sweeter words? I’m beyond giggly excited. When Paul sent me the proposal, I shoved everything off my desk and grabbed for the Kleenex box.

CBS correspondent Barry Petersen is in the midst of writing a moving story about his lovely wife Jan, and I’m utterly hooked.

I had never heard of early onset Alzheimer’s before, and Barry’s story melted my heart and scared the hell out of me because of how it attacks a much younger population. Jan wasn’t that much older than I am when she suffered her first symptoms.This is an issue that isn’t widely discussed, and I couldn’t help but feel Barry’s platform and contacts make him the perfect person to bring this terrible affliction to the forefront.

I know what it’s like to be madly in love with someone, and the idea of suddenly having an expiration date on “forever” is the stuff nightmares are made of. Barry writes with a great voice that is free of maudlin and sugarcane prose but, nonetheless, made me feel every emotion that he has for Jan – a marvelous case of show vs. tell.

Sniff…so, Barry, after meeting and entertaining so many of the biggest names in the world, we hope you enjoy your stay at our happy little house. We’ll take very good care of you. If we don’t, I’m sure Paul will kill us.

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