Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Pitching with a Twist

As most of you know I'm a giant space nut. So when I heard about SyFy's new space drama Ascension, I got pretty excited.

But upon finishing episode one I felt a bit cheated by that description. You see, there's a twist at the end of the first episode. (Really stop reading if you don't want to be spoiled.) Viewers discover in the last five minutes that the people who were launched into space in the sixties for a 100 year space mission, are really just part of a government experiment that never left Earth.

I did a double take. How could that ship shown in space not actually be there? And while I suspected earlier on in the episode this might be the case because there was little to no explanation as to how sixties technology would support this kind of long range space mission, I was still really shocked. But not in a good way. And that wasn't the only emotion surrounding me. I honestly felt extremely let down. Here SyFy was pitching this epic space drama (which they haven't done in quite some time), and in reality... there was zero space involved.
So all this got me thinking. How do you pitch a grand idea that has a giant twist, and not piss off your audience?
The pitch
The first thing you focus on is the pitch. Pitches are meant as a tease. They are also meant to entice the audience. In this case, I was teased by the space end of things, and I was definitely reeled in by the idea of a murder mystery on a space mission. But because the pitch is only meant to tease and not to spoil, the pitch should only focus on the initial part of the story, the inciting incident if you will. As far as Ascension goes, SyFy did everything right with their pitch. They teased me (maybe a little too much), and they definitely got my attention. So pitch well done! If you are pitching something with a twist, it's best to leave the twist out of the pitch.
The twist
The second thing to work on is the execution of the twist. This is where things can go south really quickly. You have to build up to the twist in such a way that when you do inevitably deceive your audience, they don't feel cheated, but feel enlightened and excited about the result. The clues and the story need to work together seamlessly, so that when the big reveal is dropped, it makes sense to the audience rather than leaving them rolling their eyes and/or feeling hoodwinked.
This, I think, is where SyFy didn't execute as well as they could have. In episode one, there weren't many, if any clues that supported the giant twist. While it's a really cool idea, there wasn't enough lead up to the twist. There was a lot of focus on the main plot, a girl who is murdered, and how one of the crew members managed to get a gun on board the ship. Which if this is the main plot of the story, that's fine to focus there, but the twist of not being in space needed to be tied into the main plot somehow. Thus far, it hasn't been (stay tuned for episodes two and three Tuesday and Wednesday).

Instead toward the end of the episode, we got a hint that the government was watching the Ascension's every move; which if they are on a long range space mission they should be. But unfortunately there wasn't a hint that this was some grand experiment that never even went into space, other than my deductive reasoning that developing this kind of technology in 1963 would have been extremely difficult.
The few breadcrumbs unfortunately didn't lead to the twist. This was a problem because when the bomb was dropped, we weren't even in the vicinity to take on the full blast. Instead, we were watching from afar shaking our heads at the devastation it caused. Which is not where you want to be when you reveal something huge. You want your audience so reeled in, they go how did I miss that? That's awesome, but... yeah, you want them speechless.
So if you want to plot out a grand sweeping twist for you story, great. Just make sure you build it so that's it entirely believable. Otherwise you risk upsetting your audience. On the flip side, a great twist will set off a series of emotions from your audience, but if you do everything right, they will be the right kind, not the feeling that someone cheated you out of something really cool.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Barrowmen's School of Immortality

John Barrowman's school of immortality



Step 1: Gain their trust

Step 2: Up the suspense

Step 3: Have an exit strategy

Step 4: Tear their hearts out

Step 5: Return with a vengeance

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Only Girl in the Room

This week I spent time in two all day meetings that were long and exhausting. But on the first day it didn’t take me more than five minutes to realize something significant about the group. I was the only female engineer in the room. Not just engineer, the only female. Sure we had a female office administrator setup the meeting (and that’s a discussion for a whole other day), but when she left, I was the lone female. The only girl in the room.

Now I have to say in general the divide in engineering is getting much better. In the last couple years my group alone has more than doubled its number of female engineers from two to five. And this past summer we had two female interns. Sounds awesome right? Not quite. In a growing group of thirty five plus engineers, this is not an accurate representation of the world. When you go to the grocery store or the mall or the gas station you don’t look up and say hey I’m the only female here. So why is that the case in a large engineering corporation? And what message does this send to up and coming females seeking out technical fields?

Without a single person opening their mouth, the room says, women aren’t welcome. Now I’m not saying that’s actually the case. Every person in the room respects me as an engineer—a respect that I unfortunately had to work long and hard to earn. And on the surface, they don’t treat me any differently than anyone else. But there are comments that sometimes inadvertently alienate me as a female. And as the saying goes, “a picture is worth a thousand words”. So in a room full of men, how do we show women that they are welcome? Because when I’m the sole female representative, I don’t even have to notice that I’m alone to feel that pressure to prove myself. To prove that I know what I’m talking about, to prove that I’m good enough, to prove that I belong. And that is exhausting.

All it takes is the realization that I’m alone, for a minority to go to that place where they feel isolated in a room full of people. To feel like they don’t belong. Like they aren’t qualified. And as a society I think we can send a better message just by changing the dynamics of a room. I’m not saying hire someone or bring them into a room to fill a quota. We should be hiring the best and the brightest no question. But just being aware of there’s a problem is a huge first step. Realizing that sometimes the uneven dynamics create isolation that may not be visible on the surface. And showing the future of STEM fields that this is the reality right now, but it doesn’t have to continue to be this way.

Women are strong enough, smart enough, and are qualified enough to fill the room. We belong. We shouldn’t let the look of a room tell us otherwise. We shouldn’t give up just because we are alone. One day we can change the look of the room. One day I will look up and realize, I’m not the only girl in the room.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Writing Contests Aren't Everything

I know we all get excited when we see writing contests that give us the opportunity to get our work in front of agents. I mean how cool would it be to get an agent through a contest? But I've got news for you. As great as contests are, they aren't the end all be all. They aren't the only path to finding an agent.

Contests are great learning experiences don't get me wrong. And you can meet loads of awesome writers, so by all means enter away. But make sure when you do, you don't agonize over them too much. Put all that energy into shining up your query, polishing your pages, absorbing all the writing tips you can, and building an awesome network of writers and critique partners.

Cause here's the thing, even if you make it into a contest and get in front of the agents, you might still come up empty. I've been there, all excited someone saw promise in my work only to get zero requests from the agents in the contest. It sucks, but rejection if part of the business.

So how is it possible that you busted your butt to get into a contest and then you get no requests? I have a theory, certainly subjectivity and marketability come into play here and what one person loves someone else might not, but sometimes it's a matter of who's involved. Sure you should be thoroughly researching the agents in contest before you enter to make sure a good chunk of the agents are looking for what you have. That said, when you're in a contest you're stuck with that limited set of agents.

On the other hand, when you query, you take control over who you submit to. You have the opportunity to show you've done your homework and to personalize your submission to each agent you send to. Many agents request pages in their submission guidelines and do read them which can also be to your benefit to submit more than just 250 words. (Yes, you should be able to hook someone in 250 words, but some agents are more forgiving than others if they see something there.) And you definitely get to submit your query, whereas in many contests you are limited to a short pitch. Sure, there's merit in being able to boil your book down to a sentence, but sometimes you need more real estate to really let your voice, and the unique aspects of your book shine.

The other advantage querying gives you is time. You can send them out in batches see how things go and reevaluate if needed. In contests it's a one shot deal. The submission windows are short, the contests don't usually last long, and you are often stuck showing agents what you sent in (although some contests have a rework/resubmit period it usually is on a tight deadline.) But when you query, you get rejections, and sometimes personalized feedback, and then you can take as much time as you need to perfect your submission package for the next round. Finding an agent is a marathon not a sprint so take every opportunity you can to perfect your work.

Another thing to consider about contests is there's a limited number of people selected. It's a firm number and a lot more people are going to enter than will actually get in. But if you query, an agent (or qualified intern) will see your work. And while they can only take on a limited number of clients, if they are open to queries, they are open to new clients. There's little limit to the number of requests they can make (other than reading time), and they can take on as many clients as they think they can adequately handle. So querying in many ways gives you a much larger window of opportunity.

So all that said, try not to stress too much about contests. I know easier said than done, we all stress over them, myself included, but take a minute and breathe. If you make it into a contest great! Congrats, someone saw something awesome in your work. If you get requests, even better you rock! But if you don't get requests or don't make it in, that doesn't mean your stuff isn't awesome or that someone didn't think your writing is good. Sure we all need to work on our craft, no one is perfect. But shine that sucker up and get into the query trenches. When the world shuts a door on you, go find a window to open. Cause let's face it, climbing out of windows is way more fun anyway. ;)

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

When Life Gets in the Way

Some of you may have noticed my lack of blogging and even lack of social media use recently. And that is in large part because of the crazy going on in my life right now. If you read my post on Inflection Points, you know I’m selling two condos, house hunting, and planning a wedding. Well the last two weeks have added to the fun. In the matter of a week I’ve been in eight, yes EIGHT different airports. And that doesn’t count the multiple trips to the St. Louis airport (there were four of those).

In addition to all the crazy life has thrown me, I visited the future in-laws in Florida, followed immediately by a weeklong work trip to Connecticut. To say I am unsure what day it is, is an extreme understatement. I think by about the third trip to the St. Louis airport I didn’t know which end was up. There’s something about all the up and down, and not sleeping in your own bed that really messes with your head and your sleep patterns.

And while all the exhaustion was a lot to handle, the thing buzzing through my head the most was the fact that I wasn’t writing and didn’t have time for it. Even worse if I was writing, I’m not sure which of the many projects I’ve started I’d actually be working on. I’m at a crossroads in all senses of the word. The only thing I’m managing to work on at the moment is edits on the manuscript I’m getting ready to query and enter into pitchwars. At least I’m being a little bit productive.

But all this craziness has me wondering how in the world I’m going to get back into a writing a grove after having it disrupted for the last few months. What project do I work on?  How do I make myself sit in the chair and write when all I want to do is collapse in my bed and sleep? How do I shut my million mile per hour brain down long enough to focus on writing? How do I get excited about writing again? And where do I even start?

I have a lot of anxiety about jumping back in when I should be enthusiastic about shiny new ideas. I know I have some painful writing sessions ahead of me, and I’m honestly dreading them. But I will get back into it if it kills me. And for the moment, I have a shiny shiny manuscript I’m ready to send out into the world, that I’m super and I mean SUPER excited about it. For now that is what is keeping me going.

Monday, July 14, 2014


Hi! My friend Jamie has invited me onto her blog to talk about how the city of St. Louis influenced my first YA contemporary novel, THE ART OF LAINEY.

Let me start with a confession—I did not adhere strictly to the geography and layout of the city when writing the book. Many of the places Lainey and her friends go are fictionalized, though several are based on real places. Why did I do this?

First, setting your book in a real place is very limiting. I wanted scenes at the airport, scenes at a concert hall, scenes at a coffee shop, scenes at a dance club, etc. To make all of these real places might have meant accounting for a lot of driving between current real locations. Driving (or even taking MetroLink) makes for some boring reading. Instead, I created a fictional suburb, Hazelton, based loosely off Hazelwood and Bridgeton, where I grew up.

Second, adhering strictly to reality can quickly date your book. The rock club where Lainey and Micah go to see some of his favorite bands (also made up) play is based off Mississippi Nights, a club where I used to go to shows. That club is now closed. Even if I used a current club, like The Pageant, there’s nothing to say five years from now it won’t be closed or moved or renamed or redesigned to look completely different. I didn’t want readers a couple of years from now to read and go “but wait, that’s not what the Pageant looks like” so I made the decision to create fictional places for my fictional suburb.

Third, sometimes reality just isn’t as fun as make-believe. Mizz Creants House of Torture doesn’t exist, but I had a blast designing my own super-creepy restaurant for Micah to take Lainey to. There’s just no real life place that would have substituted in for that.

But other than the restaurant, I tried to keep it real when Micah and Lainey actually go to St. Louis. For example:

They take the MetroLink to a Cardinals game at new Busch Stadium. Not just a Cards game, a Cards-Cubs game…and of course we win :-)

They go to the sports fields at Forest Park, passing Art Hill and Washington University (my alma mater!) in the process. Barnes-Jewish, my former place of employment, is referenced without being named.

They see the Arch while they’re driving on Market Street, passing Union Station and cutting across town on one-way streets. Micah invites Lainey to a free concert at Fair St. Louis.

Denali, the coffee shop where the main characters work, is based off Kayaks on Skinker and Forest Park Parkway. This is actually where I wrote most of the book. (No worries, the coffee shop employees are all fictionalized. There is no crazy guy named C-4 making your food, I promise).

There was a scene at the City Museum that I unfortunately had to cut because it wasn’t advancing the story, but I did include part of that scene in my Canada blog tour so I could share it with readers. I LOVE the City Museum. (If you’ve never been there, quit wrinkling up your nose. It’s not your ordinary museum!)

And finally, St. Louis is much more than its places. I worked hard to capture the FEEL of the area, incorporating urban sprawl and traffic and humidity, etc. This book takes place in June and July and you’ll find lots and lots of hot weather and frizzing hair and rainstorms that blow up out of nowhere.

So although part of The Art of Lainey is fictionalized, I hope St. Louis readers feel like I did a good job of capturing the essence of the city. I spent over thirty years in the STL area, and even though I don’t live there anymore, growing up in “the Lou” was fabulous and will continue to impact the person I am for the rest of my life. Part of the dedication is actually to the city itself, and the book is absolutely a love story to the place that did such a good job of raising me.

Can’t make the event? Paula’s got you covered with a giveaway of THE ART OF LAINEY in honor of the #MMBB tour. This one is U.S. only. Just fill out the rafflecopter below.

About The Art of Lainey:
Soccer-star Lainey Mitchell is gearing up to spend an epic summer with her amazing boyfriend, Jason, when he suddenly breaks up with her—no reasons, no warning, and in public no less! Lainey is more than crushed, but with help from her friend Bianca, she resolves to do whatever it takes to get Jason back.

And that’s when the girls stumble across a copy of The Art of War. With just one glance, they're sure they can use the book to lure Jason back into Lainey’s arms. So Lainey channels her inner warlord, recruiting spies to gather intel and persuading her coworker Micah to pose as her new boyfriend to make Jason jealous. After a few "dates", it looks like her plan is going to work!  But now her relationship with Micah is starting to feel like more than just a game. 

What's a girl to do when what she wants is totally different from what she needs? How do you figure out the person you're meant to be with, if you're still figuring out the person you're meant to be? 

About Paula:
Paula Stokes is half writer, half RN, and totally thrilled to be part of the world of YA literature. She grew up in St. Louis, Missouri where she graduated from Washington University and the Goldfarb School of Nursing. When she's not writing, she's kayaking, hiking, reading, or seeking out new adventures in faraway lands. Paula loves interacting with readers! Find her online at www.authorpaulastokes.com or on twitter as @pstokesbooks.

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