Agent Monday: Inspiration – Follow Your Goosebumps

Flying birdsHappy Agent Monday, everyone!  Today, as we move from bleak January through chilly February, it’s a perfect time for some inspiration.  I’m so pleased to feature here a guest post by my client, the extremely talented Harmony Verna.  Harmony’s manuscript FROM ROOTS TO WINGS caught my eye the moment I started reading it.  Her writing is luminescent. So vivid. And her characters grab you with their reality and their longing and heart.  FROM ROOTS TO WINGS is a sweeping and passionate adult historical novel set in turn-of-the-century Australia and America. It’s about a boy and girl orphaned in the harsh Australian desert. They form a young innocent love, but must take separate harrowing journeys in their own search for home and for each other. This manuscript was a final round selection for the James Jones First Novel Contest.

And here Harmony shares with us her insight about inspiration:

 

INSPIRATION – FOLLOW YOUR GOOSEBUMPS

Guest post by Harmony Verna

As writers, we sift through an infinite jumble of words, sorting and arranging them like puzzle pieces until they sit just right and tell our story. At times, these words will soar, fly to the moon, and at others, fall flat to Earth with a thud. So what makes the difference? Inspiration.

For me, goosebumps have always been a barometer of inspiration. When I can FEEL a character’s surprise or pain or elation to the point that it raises the hairs on my arms, I know I’ve nailed it. It’s the same way a certain song can enter your very pores, or a soft, scented breeze can warm from the inside out, or an act of kindness can break your heart with its purity – it becomes a visceral experience. Your body becomes like an incandescent bulb cranked up from a dimmer switch, bright and open to creative energy. Anytime you can transfer that level of feeling through the written word, that is inspiration.

But let’s face facts, it’s easy to be open to the flow of inspiration when a sunset branches across a quiet evening sky or when we have time to stare at ripples dancing upon a lake. That’s all great until reality smashes in and wrecks that lovely scene – an unexpected bill comes in the mailbox, the kids are home sick for a week, the laundry is piling up and gosh darn it, we’re out of coffee! But c’est la vie, writers. It’s up to us to pull inspiration into life even when life seems to be kicking and screaming against it.

Truth

Earnest Hemingway once said, “All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.” What makes a sentence true? When you can feel the words radiate from under your skin, down to the marrow. When dialogue becomes so real that it enters and converses in your dreams until you ask the voices politely to stop; when you enter a landscape or time or place so fully that when the phone rings, it takes a moment to remember that you are here, writing, sitting at home; when you write words that squeeze your throat or make you giggle like a naughty child or wipe your streaming tears on your sweater. And when your story finally ends, you grieve your characters as passing friends. This is truth.

Simplicity

As wordsmiths we cling to vocabulary, espousing our bag of fancy words when in fact, sometimes the simplest words pack the most punch. Look up the word “old” in the thesaurus and you’ll have a ball field of synonyms to use. But like a sundae piled with too many toppings, it might look appetizing but you can’t taste the ice cream anymore. There can be a certain power to simple sentences, simple thoughts – “He was an old man. A man with old teeth, old breath and lingering old smells.” Say what it IS first. You can always elaborate later.

Don’t self edit…yet

It’s easy to judge the words that get put down first. Are they perfect? Are they smart?  Maybe or maybe not. All that matters is that they’re REAL. We all have an urge to self-edit, but tell that voice to hush. Let the words come out easily, accept them without criticism. And don’t worry, the day for editing will come. Let me rephrase that, the days and months and sometimes years of editing will come. Enjoy those first words, the freshness of them. Then later, you can plant around them, knowing that your first seedlings are pure.

Ban the ego

Daisies on whiteNothing kills inspiration like a pesky beast called the ego, a creative leech that attaches itself to your writing and sucks the life out of it, leaving the words hollow and depleted of soul. How do you know if the ego has snuck into your creation? When your focus is on how good and smart and lush the words are rather than the smell, taste and feel of the words; when you’re more concerned about getting on Oprah than getting behind the computer keyboard. Anytime you feel the need to stand out or to impress – that is ego.  And how do you know if your writing is free of ego? You KNOW! It sits right in the gut. There’s an internal sigh and half-smile that’s calm and says…that’s it. I got it. You know.

You got this

Your story wants to be born into this world. It’s all there, already written, already changing lives and inspiring people. You are the vehicle for this story, open yourself and ALLOW the story to unfold. When we put aside deadlines, the need for approval and the stress of writing something “perfect,” resistance is lifted and inspiration has room to enter and flourish. Then it’s just your job to ride the wave and hope your pen can keep up.

So, before you start writing, take a moment. Be still. Silence the mind chatter and focus your attention on that warm, quiet place in your chest with the calming beat. Look at the fine lines of your hands. Feel the threads of the pillow. Listen to the tick tock of the clock down the hall. Smell the subtle spice of your tea. And now…slowly…let the words of your story come into existence. Welcome them as you would a child, with open arms, with unconditional love and gratitude, and then…

Follow your goosebumps.

 

Harmony Verna

Harmony Verna has worked with all media facets: radio, television, magazines, newspapers, public relations, advertising and marketing, and has been involved in articles that appeared in top-tier publications across the country and guest segments on news programs including Today, CBS This Morning and Good Morning America. As a freelance writer, she has written scripts for the Food Network and articles for Modern Bride Magazine, Connecticut Woman Magazine and more. Harmony is a graduate of Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, and she is represented by Marie Lamba of The Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency.

Agent Monday: Getting Historical

Antique pocket watch - closeup on very old pocket watchHappy Agent Monday, gang!  With this weekend involving turning back clocks, I thought this would be a great time to talk a bit about historical novels (clever, huh?).  So here are some thoughts about getting historical.

I spent last weekend at the wonderful SCBWI Eastern PA Critique Fest, where I sat down with many authors critiquing manuscripts ranging from picture book through YA.  What a great experience! I did have a number of historical manuscripts to crit there, and I’ve also gotten many queries and sample chapters in my agent inbox recently that were historical middle grade, YA or adult.  Some intriguing stories, and fascinating time periods!  But also I found some familiar issues popping up, too. Things that held the story back or got in the way of the plot.

The biggest problem? The author felt challenged about providing historical context and facts – all having to do with world-building, really.  So we ended up with spending a lot of time in those opening pages explaining what was going on in the world at that time – something the characters would never do if they lived way back then.  Imagine you the writer lived 100 years from now and were writing a story about 2013.  Would you have your character thinking, wow, here I am taking off my shoes at an airport because a few years back this horrific act of terrorism happened…and let me just go over all that happened on that horrible day politically and terror-wise so you know why I’m taking off my shoes now?

Yeah, that wouldn’t happen. It would be clunky and unrealistic. Instead, in a story set in a world of hyper-security and scrutiny, the character in our current time would just move forward with the story, and details would present themselves as things progressed, providing context for the reader as relevant. They would notice the cameras trained on them in the parking lot perhaps as they rushed toward the airport, dealing with their own issues, goals, conflicts. The airport PA system would make those “watch out for stuff” announcements, and officers would stand by with bomb sniffing dogs. Our character would remove his shoes, even as he’s thinking about the personal plot challenge that is set in front of him…perhaps he needs to get something from point A to point B without being seen by authorities for something that has nothing to do with terrorism, but everything to do with his family’s well-being.  And voila! The reader will understand the context and the history of that time AS IT RELATES TO THE STORY.

It’s all in the details and how history actually intersects at that moment with the character’s world. Give us what’s relevant. When characters spend paragraphs at the outset detailing for the reader all that research the writer’s done about that time, I check out of the story, honestly. But give me a character I believe in and care about, give me an obstacle with high stakes that they must face, and I’ll follow you for pages and pages as you take them through their world. And I’ll absorb the details of the time and figure out how the era really is and impacts the characters. And yes, here and there as you move along, you could drop in some facts as they become relevant to that character’s world. It’s not about giving the reader a lecture, though. It’s about serving the story and plot. In the end, the reader will have learned a ton about that time and its history. That’s one of the joys of reading historical novels, right?  But it’s all in how you do it.

I’m extremely proud to represent some truly kick-ass historical authors, including Harmony Verna and M.P. Barker. Harmony’s debut manuscript is an adult historical titled FROM ROOTS TO WINGS. She has us immediately worry and care about an orphan abandoned in the Australian desert in the late 1800s, and about a crippled miner who discovers her and saves her. And over the course of this engrossing novel we need to know that somehow they will end up okay. That’s the heart of the story.  But we learn so much as we follow the tale. About harsh living. About the mines. About farming in the Australian wheat belt. About WWI, about Australia’s sacrifices during the war. And about the wealthy Pittsburgh elite. About the Aborigines. Oh, the knowledge we gain feels endless. Yet not once do we feel lectured to.

M.P. Barker’s novels A DIFFICULT BOY (Holiday House 2008) and MENDING HORSES (Holiday House, coming out this spring!) are fabulous examples of historical novels done right for the upper middle grade and YA audiences, and I highly recommend you grab one of these and see how deftly she creates that character, makes us love him, and then throws him into peril so that we simply must know he’ll survive and thrive some day. And the lush details of New England life in the 1800s are simply stunning. Again, she never loads the readers with facts and figures — just has her characters live their lives in this time. And we learn a ton about rural life back then, bigotry against the Irish, the horrors of indentured servitude, the world of both the privileged and the poor.  It truly is an education. But first of all, these are fabulous novels, and the story always holds center stage.

So if you are interested in querying me about your historical novel, I’d love to see it! But be sure that you don’t fall into the trap of historical info dumping and killing the reality you want to build. Take me into another time in a believable way with a character I’ll care about. I’m looking forward to the trip!

 

*Marie is an Associate Agent at the Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency in New York City.  To keep up with all her posts, subscribe to her site by clicking on the “Subscribe to Marie’s site here” link located on her page on the upper left margin.