Thursday, November 7, 2013

The Magical Mystery Blog Post — A Time-Traveling Linkfest!!

Strange as it may seem, The SCBWI Westside Writer’s Schmooze Blog is back in business, ready to pick up where we left off. Unfortunately, we left off posting so long ago (the 40’s, it turns out) that neither Karol nor Charlie can recall the details of all the Schmoozes we missed. Fortunately, Karol is an extremely anal woman (and, in addition to that, she keeps good records) and was able to unearth these long hidden, never-posted (most likely due to the scarcity of reliable internet ISPs in those days), blogs from back in the day.

The first post she found does indeed come from the 40’s, when we held a Schmooze devoted to niche writing, asking the (as it turns out literally) age-old question, Is Niche Your Niche?  The topic was appropriate to the times as detective novels were all the rage back then, even in kids’ books. The information we exchanged, however, remains as useful as if the Schmooze were actually held on June 12th 2013:

Pony up to the typewriter, sister, and we’ll lay it all out.  Last Schmooze we talked niche markets and magazines.  You wanna get a little scratch for your troubles, don’t you?  Then you gotta learn about niche marketing. 

What’s the skinny on niche?  Well, according to the business dictionary, it’s “concentrating all marketing efforts on a small but specific and well defined segment of the population.  Niches do not ‘exist’ but are CREATED by identifying needs, wants, and requirements that are being addressed poorly or not at all by other (s)…” 

"Killin' Karol"
So what’s that look like in kid’s books? Our resident femme fatale "Killin' Karol"  took us literally under the covers of THE book on Kid Lit Markets (niche presses are only part of the tome, she claims), which coincidentally is known as “The Book” and is available for free from the SCBWI. 
Though Karol, of course, had murderous ulterior motives, (just ask her four former high school school principals — if you can find them), The Book was an icy G & T.  Take a sip and you’ll find, among other things, that it lays out all the niche presses churning out books right now. Any ink jockey worth his blotter would be a sap not to snatch up The Book toot sweet.

About this time “Weasel Charlie” coughed his way into the room and started singing like a canary, ratting out which tells you how to find the niche of what you’ve already written. He went on to squeal on Cynthia Leitich Smith, who has a blog on “how to niche market yourself!”  We thought he was done, but he musta gotten some bad hooch, ‘cause he started ranting about “Author’s Access,” which (he said) was some kinda thing called a “podcast,” featuring writer Ellen Feld gabbling on about her horse niche market. We never figured out if he was talkin’ about heroin or a heroine.

"Weasel Charlie"
Thankfully, it was just about then when Big Joe Taylor thundered into the room.  Charlie squealed out of there like a rat on the Titanic, but not before yelling from the doorway something about blog posts murderers Dr. Peggy Sissel-Phelan (Fiction Notes) and Jane R Wood (Children's Book Writers-Florida)  who apparently made some sort of killing (in niche marketing, that is) and lived to tell about it. Then the Weasel squealed off into the night.

All eyes were on Big Joe now as he slowly thumped across the room and planted himself in the chair at the front. “I’m here to wise up you saps to the rag trade,” he growled. Seeing everyone’s perplexed looks he clarified, “Magazines, you hacks!”

Everyone knew Big Joe was a monster in the mag world:  Winner of 2009 SCBWI Magazine Merit Award for a piece called Flying Balloons, The Story of the Montgolfier Brothers in Cricket Magazine, and more a bunch of stellar Cricket pieces since then.  We also knew that nobody was going anywhere until Big Joe had said his peace.

Right away Big Joe put us wise to the amount of work, determination, talent and luck it took to become “Mr. Cricket” (his uptown moniker). Seems his award winner started its life as a picture book. He liked it but thought it had too many words. He then tried turning it into a historical novel but felt he was “losing the essence.” Last time Big Joe felt like he was “losing the essence” of something, 23 characters ended up at the bottom of a shredder. Balloons mighta ended likewise but Joe then thought of Cricket Magazine. He submitted it there, found the editors copacetic, ended up winning the SCBWI Merit Award, and carving out a nice territory for himself. Call it a niche within a niche at the magazine – lightly fictionalized stories about scientists and artists who made amazing breakthroughs in their fields. (Word to the wise:  You wanna keep scribbling? Steer clear of Big Joe’s niche.)

He then handed out a flyer with the Carus Group's various magazines (of which Cricket is one). Here's a link with the 411:

Suddenly, Big Joe stood up.  Everyone ducked, ready to meet their makers, but it turned out Big Joe was just letting us know that the Schmooze was over and it was time to go.  Sobered, we filed out of the library, into the night.

The next un-posted blog Karol found was from a Schmooze we held on e-books, way back in the 60’s, the days of heady, communal DIY radicals. Appropriately, this gathering was a “Schmooze Collective” with a “panel of crackerjack hotshots, rapping on e-books and self-publishing.” Karol claimed to be under the weather and unable to attend, but Charlie had it on good authority that she was actually in Oregon, running naked with the Tree People. She did check in, though, virtually (through some hippie-futuristic thingamabob called Skype). Not surprisingly, her camera was off. This blog post is striking, both for its quant use of language and for the fact that the subject, e-books, did not even exist at the time the Schmooze occurred. You’d think it had actually happened on September 17, 2013, rather than back in the Decade of Love.

If you missed the e-book rapfest last night, man you missed a true happening. Greg (“the Fibber”) Pincus blew all our minds, making the scene in a man-miniskirt, Jeff (“the Webmaster”) Cox showed up in a bright orange Nehru Jacket, and Josh (“Brother#3”) Hauke wore his trusty torn jeans and “Keep on Truckin’” T-shirt.  The Tribe gathered to hear “The Three” pontificate on e-books and self-publishing — “the future, Mr. Gittes.”

Charlie (“Mr. Jones”) Cohen, looking clueless as ever in his Brooks Brother’s suit, questioned the gurus about the state of self-publishing.

Greg set the tone, laying down some TRUTH about expectations and goals – you gotta be honest about both. What do you want to get out of it? Why are you doing it? Greg rapped on how he released his amazing compilation of poems, The Late Bird, to learn how to release an e-book as well as to build on the audience he had grown online. Though he did not get rich off the e-book (yet!), he achieved both goals. “Know why you’re doing it, man,” he said, “and you’ll know what you need to do.”


Simple, but deep. 

Not unlike Greg himself.

"The Webmaster" on a bad day
Jeff must have gotten some of the brown acid, cause he bummed us all out, telling us how hard it still is to format a true e-picture book.  It’s got to cover all kinds of platforms and none of them are the same and each changes their protocols willy-nilly. He said you really gotta know how to program to do it. If not, you should steer clear of graphic-centric e-books, at least for now.

Propitiously, Josh emerged from his cloud of smoke just then to lead us all back into the groove. “It’s just transition, man,” he said, “like when we went from CD’s to MP3s. There’s always curves in the path; you just gotta learn to enjoy the view.” He went on to rap about the different path he took with his Tales Of The Brothers Three. He wanted to compile the first year of his amazing Web comic strip into a book. Rather than mess with e-books and all the formatting troubles that had so bummed out Jeff, Josh decided to release it digitally as a pdf (no formatting issues at all!) as well as in a (beautifully) printed book on Amazon. He said the two formats complemented each other: he sold more hard copies but made more scratch off the ebook.

‘Round this time Charlie started tripping: He ripped off his suit, stood on the table in just his “Friend of the Devil” BVDs and exulted: “FELLOW TRAVELERS! I GET IT NOW!! The Man says the worst reason to self-publish or e-publish is cause you can’t get your stuff published through the regular channels. I say, bullshit! That’s a great reason! The companies are narrow and getting narrower, and the percentage you make is small. So if your book appeals to a smaller, niche audience, it makes good economical sense for them to pass and for you to publish it! Both things are logical. SCREW THE MAN!!!

Everyone nodded. Except Jeff, who just growled, “First get your book into shape. Make sure you’ve vetted it, rewritten it and made it the best work you can do. And find better underwear.”

Then Greg, pupils dilated, started talking about the “world wide webs,” saying we should check out this book-designer Joel Friedlander’s blog about self-publishing and design, which had every possible thing you could want to know about how to design and release your book. 

“He’s awesome dude,” agreed Josh, “but if you really want your minds blown, check out this hombre, Matthew Herzberg.  He created this whole website about a fictional town and he writes all these stories about all the people in it.  The WEBSITE ITSELF is his e-book.  YOU GOTTA SEE THAT THING!!!”  

We had to restrain Josh at this point – in his excitement he was throttling Greg. 

Jeff shook his head and pointed accusatorily at the gathered tribe.  “These squares don’t care about that, man,” he sneered.  “They’re just looking to make money.  

All right Squares!  You want to make money off self-publishing?  Go to and satisfy your mercenary little hearts.  

And while you’re online you might visit where this chick, Joanna Penn, will give you a 51 page free download about marketing.

Josh chuckled the weird vibes away.  “That’s it, man.  I think we did it.”

And we had.  Everybody split to do their own things.

The final Schmooze we blogged about happened just last month on October 15, 2013. Of course in these modern days of social networks, e-readers and iPhones, “The Man “ has been renamed “The Cloud” and is back in control of the means of production. So as not to cross him/it we focused on more prosaic issues. Which is to say, this Schmooze was about plot - and promised (#notreally) to help Schmoozers learn How To Plot Like a Pro (trademark Charlie and Karol). (To appease the man further, please “like” our choice of topic on Twitface and Icarly.) #plotschmoozepander

Our plot Schmooze began like so many others, with Charlie trying to bring us all into his personal hell (#noncomposmentisleaders), laying bare his personal struggles with the very subject he helped choose (#whinyjew)

“I’ve always been suspicious of plot," whined Charlie.  "Always thought of it as lies rather than story.  A hard metallic infrastructure that wants to bend my characters into some predetermined and ultimately dishonest shape.  At the same time, I know that the only parts of anything that an audience can pay attention to are those that feel like they are integral to the story being told.  So where does that leave me?” 

“In need of my wise counsel,” snapped Karol (#obnoxiousknowitall), as she, wisely, opened the floor up to the Schmoozers for comments.  It turned out Charlie wasn’t entirely alone as most Schmoozers there confessed they were more vexed by plot than not, many wishing they could find a way to make do with less of it (#writershatewriting). We were lucky enough to have a teacher in attendance, though, who quickly set us straight.  She told us that kids in her classes were often “plot junkies” who read only for the plot.  She had to work to get them to slow down and actually pay attention to details. 

We came to the conclusion that plot was but one of many doors you can open to get into your story.  Still, once you were inside your story, you needed a plot to make it work. This led to a spirited debate between “Pantsers” (writers who write by the seats of their pants) and “Plotsers” (those who map out a course).  This, of course, brought to mind the great, overlooked fable by Aesop, “The Pantser and The Plotser” which centered on the struggles of a blathering butterfly and a boring ass to tell their mother her yarn was broken. The fable, of course, went on to inspire the famous vaudeville team of “Pantser and Plotser” whose career exploits were legendary, as well as their fall when Pantser pantsed Plotser and revealed Plotsers plotz (#whatthehellwasthat??, #imnotreallysurethisbitworkscharlie, #atleastiwrotethepost, #yeahforonce, #wherewerewe?). 

The Schmooze then settled down to some information that one can actually use to help you get through plotting (#finally):

Matt Stone and Trey Parker, creators of South Park and The Book of Mormon had some great tips on discerning plot from “stuff” in an impromptu writing class they taught at NYU which you can watch HERE.

Screenwriter Blake Snyder created a 15 beat story structure that he immortalized in his “Save The Cat” writing guides.  Rita Crayon Huang #hernewbabysbabymama said that she found it too daunting to start her story with but used it as a diagnostic tool after she finished her drafts.  You can check out ol’ Blake’s ideas at his posthumous website:

Still very much alive is Bruce Coville who gave one of his amazing plot talks at the 2011 SCBWI conference (read a recap HERE). Bruce has so much great stuff to say, there’s no way to do it justice here,  But one of the big takeaways was to complicate, complicate, complicate.  Use the senses.  Complicate not only your character’s overall goal, but the individual scenes too.

Linda Sue Park says to look at your character’s internal and external quests, and focus on the tension between the two.  She has a great explanation of it on her site:

Charlie found a surprisingly useful entry on how to plot a story—in wikihow!  (Hint: It’s character and conflict!)

More traditionally, there was Freytag’s Story Pyramid (exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, denouement).

Martha Alderson, the Plot Whisperer can take you through her plotting steps on her youtube channel.  She’s all about finding your characters’ flaws and she speaks sweetly from a garden with lots of dappled sunlight and chirping birds! (#makeyouwannabarfandlovelifeatthesametime) 

And of course, Charlie’s favorite plotting device, Joseph Campbell’s amazing Monomyth – an assessment arrived at by studying myths and stories of every hero’s journey throughout time and from all around the globe.  Charlie loves it because it’s so inspiring and yet so vague and open to interpretation.  

Here are two versions of it to peruse:

Campbell's Monomyth

And one that's at least slightly easier on the eyes #sheeshsmallprintwhydonha:

Finally, (SOME SCHMOOZER) brought up Randy Ingermanson’s (#evilvilliannamesMarvelneverused) notorious “Snowflake method” of plotting, a method so detailed and anal and terrifying that it made Charlie want to kill himself and even gave Karol some pause.  

For those of you who dare, though, here is a link to his page:

And that was it (#againfinallynoreallythistime).  Fully flayed by the long evening we all plotsed out of there just in time before the library closed, escaping by the seat of our pants. (#seewhatwedidthere?)

Now that we're all super-caught-up-to-date, we hope you'll join us for any or all of our awesome upcoming Westside Writer's Schmoozes:
Mad About Middle Grade, Wednesday November 13th
Fabulous Guest Speaker (We Promise), Wednesday December 11th
Happy New Year!  The Failure Schmooze, Wednesday January 8th
I Know What Boys Like, Wednesday February 12th
Livin' In A Blogster's Paradise, Wednesday March 12th
Picture Book Critique Night, Wednesday April 9th
Novel Critique Night, Wednesday May 14th
Perfecting the Art of the Elevator pitch (Just in Time for the Summer Conference!), Wednesday June 11th

Until we see you again (like next week), keep passing the open windows!
Charlie & Karol