Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Tips for Writing a Profile

by Kelley Lindberg

Recently, I was asked for some tips on writing a profile. When it comes to writing for magazines, profiles are my favorite projects. A profile is a story about a particular person and their life, their passions, their inspirations, and their contributions.

It can be a little intimidating to interview someone for a profile, though. After all, a human being’s life is a pretty broad topic. Where do you start?

To begin, think about the goals of your profile – are you going to focus mostly on their body of work, their personality, their inspiration, a particular project, an interesting hobby, or a unique angle (such as overcoming a disability, or someone with a different ethnic background)? A good profile might have a sprinkling of all those types of information, but will devote the bulk of the story to your top-priority goal.

Profiles in magazines tend to focus on a particular aspect, like “here’s Joe, a great gardener, who is going to tell us about heirloom tomatoes.” The article might profile Joe, describing why he’s a great gardener (his background, credentials, experience, particular gardening loves), and then it will transition into his specific how-to tips for heirloom tomatoes. It may mention his family, where he lives, and how he learned about gardening, but it probably won’t mention his other hobby of fantasy football (unless he gets clients from his league – that’s a fun fact that relates directly to the article’s goal!).

Earlier this year, a newspaper ran a series of political profiles of candidates. To me, some of the profiles seemed a little off. They focused entirely on making each candidate seem like a super-nice, regular ol’ guy or gal. That’s great, but I also wanted the article to tell me what their political viewpoints were, since I’m not voting for them because they volunteer at their kids’ dance performances or soccer games. I’m voting for them because of what they plan to do while in office. So while the writer spent a lot of time with each candidate and did a bang-up job of giving us an idea of how nice this candidate would be as a neighbor, it left me clueless as to how he or she would perform as my representative in Washington D.C. So I think the editors should have thought a little more about the goal of that series.

After you’ve established your profile’s main goal and narrowed the focus, do a little research on your subject. Don’t waste time for both of you by asking questions that are easily answered elsewhere, such as in online biographies or resumes. You can get a ton of information about a lot of people on their Facebook pages, blogs, company websites, or wiki pages. If they are influential in their field, they may have published articles or been the subject of other profiles. Look them up and get their background information ahead of time, so that you can concentrate your limited time together on the unique and interesting aspects that will go into your article. Then write a list of questions that you couldn’t find answers to online, questions that interest you, and questions that you think will get to the heart of your profile’s main goal.

Then, when you’re finally interviewing the person, try to find the story they want to tell. Anecdotes tell us so much about a person – how they handle problems, how they celebrate successes, how they become inspired or frustrated. Encourage them to give you specific examples, such as a specific example of how they helped mentor a younger person, or how they got interested in their career or hobby, or what they did when faced with a huge obstacle.

And finally, write down or record everything they say. Try not to paraphrase, because their direct quotes are so important and will breathe life into your story. Ask about everything, take copious notes, then know that as you begin to write, you will pare away the less-important and unrelated info and bring up the more-interesting stuff. Sometimes I don’t know what will bubble to the surface until I do the interview. For example, I had no idea singer Klea Blackhurst would be so funny until I interviewed her, so I tried to show a little of that in her profile when I wrote it (“Saying Yes,” Continuum, Fall 2011). I couldn’t plan for that ahead of time, obviously. But it was a happy discovery.

If you’re writing a profile of someone, whether it’s for publication or for a school assignment, the number one thing to remember is that it should be fun! Everyone, and I mean everyone, loves to talk about their passions. The person you’re interviewing will be excited to know someone else is interested in learning about whatever it is that defines and energizes them, whether it’s collecting stamps, raising children, curing infectious diseases, or volunteering for a charity. They can’t wait to share, and you can’t wait to learn. With that combination, how can you go wrong?

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Visions and Revisions, with Cheryl Klein

by Kelley Lindberg

Revision. The mere word can strike fear into the hearts of writers. Or hope.

It's where the magic happens. Or the pain.

It’s when everything that isn’t David is chipped away. Or when the whole thing crumbles to dust.

Okay, melodrama aside, revision is a necessary, unavoidable part of writing anything that you want to be good enough to wow editors, charm readers, and stand the test of time.

Cheryl Klein at SCBWI in Salt Lake City, Nov 2012
I know writers who hate revision with a loathing usually reserved for politics, and I know other writers who think the first draft is the ugly, painful part, and who look forward to the revision process as the truly creative act. I think I fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. When I was younger, I thought my first drafts were near-perfect, of course, and once my words were committed to paper, they felt set in concrete. I couldn’t see how to crack open the concrete to make any changes. But with age, comes… well, if not wisdom, then a certain resignation, followed by realization, and finally topped off with epiphany: my writing really does get better with each revision! Hey, who knew?

Last Saturday, I had the pleasure of helping out at the annual SCBWI (Society for Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators) conference in Salt Lake City, which this year was a “Plot Intensive Workshop” presented by Cheryl Klein, of Arthur A. Levine Books (an imprint of Scholastic). You know Cheryl’s work. She was one of the American editors of the Harry Potter books, to name just one of the feathers in her cap.

Cheryl’s workshop turned out to be one of the most intense, info-packed workshops I’ve probably ever been to. If you ever—EVER—get a chance to see her speak, go. You won’t be disappointed.

In Saturday’s talk, she covered miles of territory, from three separate methods for looking at your novel’s structure and flow, to ways of strengthening your characters, to how to identify your story’s Emotional Point, Thematic Point, and Experiential Point.

Cheryl also had us go through our novels scene by scene, identifying the driving purpose behind each scene, justifying its existence. Seems so simple; felt so hard.

If you were at the workshop on Saturday, you are probably staring at your pages of notes in wonder right now, already picturing how you can implement some of her ideas into your revision. I know I am.

If you couldn’t make it to her workshop, you’re still in luck—she’s written a book compiling many of her talks that she’s given over the years. It’s called Second Sight: An Editor’s Talks on Writing, Revising, & Publishing Books for Children and Young Adults, but the info in it applies equally well to adult writing. The chapter called “Twenty-Five Revision Techniques” alone is worth the price of the book. You can purchase the book via her website (and while you’re there, be sure you check out her blog and other goodies):

Want more? How about podcasts? Cheryl and screenwriter/filmmaker James Monohan produce podcasts about just about every aspect of writing you can think of on their site The Narrative Breakdown (also available on iTunes):

As we head into the Thanksgiving holiday, I’d like to thank Cheryl Klein for planting lots of new ideas and thought-provoking insights into my head (and SCBWI for bringing her to us). Suddenly I’m ready to tackle my revision.

Bring it on!

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Writing a Better Sentence

by Kelley Lindberg

When it comes right down to it, writing only involves two things: a good story, and the ability to tell it well.

Well, that’s simple enough.

Okay, maybe not.

Obviously, the most fundamental building block of being able to “tell it well” is the sentence. A benign-looking little thing, really. A subject (noun), a predicate (verb), and perhaps a bit of descriptive stuff (adjectives, adverbs, prepositions, etc.). Hang them all together and voila: a sentence!

But clearly it’s in the way you hang them all together that the magic happens. So how do you elevate a basic sentence into an extraordinary one? It goes beyond simple word choice. You must consider meaning, flavor, intention, accuracy, tautness, personality, and rhythm, just for starters. Even experienced writers (or maybe especially experienced writers) spend hours crafting, shaping, and molding sentences to not just accurately express the emotions and images they are trying to convey, but to maximize their impact.

In a guest blog post called “How to Write a Sentence” (on the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America website), Scottish writer Hal Duncan has written one of the best descriptions of sentence-building I’ve ever read. In it, he takes a dreadful sentence from a 1970 novel and proceeds to deconstruct it, then reconstruct it, in an effort to “…see if we can’t perform a little alchemy, transform it… well, if not into gold then at least into a serviceable steel.”

Here is the original, painful sentence:

“A sweeping blade of flashing steel riveted from the massive barbarians hide enameled shield as his rippling right arm thrust forth, sending a steel shod blade to the hilt into the soldiers vital organs.”

Duncan’s article isn’t Sentence-Building 101. It’s definitely an advanced take on a deceptively simple idea. His breakdown of the sentence is truly enlightening, so for a crash course in sentence-rehab, be sure to read “How to Write a Sentence.” (Tender sensibilities warning: Duncan is quite fond of—and proficient in—salty language. Don’t let that stop you from reading it, though.)

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Reacting to Good Luck

by Kelley Lindberg

I just got back from a visit to Reality Town, where I got to be random and dole out chance happenings, good or bad, to every resident of Reality Town.

I only bankrupted a couple of them, so I call it a good day.

It was the annual Reality Town program at my son’s junior high school, where each of them is assigned a career (based on their GPA), a life situation (married, divorced, number of kids, etc.), and a salary. Then they are given a fake checkbook and a list of booths they must visit. Somehow, they have to stretch their monthly salaries to pay for everything they need at the booths, such as child care, health insurance, housing, utilities, clothing, and medical care. If they have anything left over, they can visit the entertainment booth, the home improvement booth, and so on.

I was working the “Just My Luck” booth, where kids had to select a card from my stack of Life’s Random Events. Some drew cards like “Buy soccer cleats for your child; pay $40” or “You have to buy new tires for $100.” Others drew cards that said “You hold a garage sale and make $50” or “You cleaned the couch and found $5.”

Each kid approached my booth with trepidation. As they drew a card, almost all would wince, as if the very motion of pulling a card from the fanned-out stack were painful. Many kids said things like, “With my luck, my house will burn down.” Sure enough, as most of them read their cards, their shoulders would droop and they’d moan or sigh, because many of the cards were unfortunate. (Although none of them suffered from house fires, I’m happy to say.)

The funniest reactions were the kids whose cards were positive, however. They didn’t trust the good cards. They would show the cards to me, puzzled, as if they couldn’t believe they were actually supposed to add money to their checking ledger, instead of subtracting it. After all, they’d been subtracting money all morning for all the things they were learning they needed in “the real world.”

How quickly they’d become jaded, disillusioned, and discouraged. How quickly they’d succumbed to adulthood. More than one kid lamented, “Reality sucks.”

Yeah, kid, it does sometimes.

But then, every once in a while, it doesn’t. And just like those kids in the program today, sometimes we adults nearly miss the good stuff. We’re so busy digging ourselves in and out of holes that we mistrust the good things that sometimes fall our way.

Reality Town got me thinking about characters. When we’re writing characters, we’re often told to pile misfortune onto them, to ratchet up the stakes, to shove them out of their comfort zone. Get ’em up a tree, then throw rocks at ’em. Then surround the tree with wolves. Then light the tree on fire. That sort of thing.

But when was the last time you handed something good to your character, and how did he or she react? Did he/she mistrust it? Did she question it? Did he feel guilty about it and try to hide it?

These kids today got a taste of reality and didn’t much care for it. If a half-hour of reality can disillusion a hundred eighth graders, imagine what a decade or two (or five) of it can do to your protagonist.

And how much sweeter a victory must be if it has to overcome all that disillusionment.

So the next time you’re doing one of those personality quizzes for your character or sketching out their backstory, add one more question to your analysis (this week's writing prompt):

How does your character react when something good comes their way?