Thursday, February 23, 2012

I'm looking for a Llama by Terry Burns


I just finished working the Writing for the Soul conference put on by Jerry B Jenkins in Denver. Great conference, and I enjoyed it.

Working the agent panel I responded to a question by saying that I get over 300 submissions a month. Obviously I can't take that many, nor can editors publish that many. And don't buy into the idea that it's okay because most of them are not very good anyway. A significant portion of them are good books.

That means a good book is just not good enough. Agents and editors are all looking for exceptional books, books that stand out from the crowd and are unique and compelling. I saw what that looked like on this trip, driving to Denver. Out in a field was the huge flock of sheep, and among them, two llamas. Their tall, graceful necks stood high and proud above the sea of white fleece.

Now sheep are great, Jesus often used them as a comparable to his flock, and to himself as the "Lamb of God." The old cowboy vs sheepherder war is long over. It was the visual that spoke to me, and I said, "That's what I'm looking for, I'm looking for a llama." One girl got it. Apparently it had been talked about around the conference some because came and sat down and when I asked her what we were there to talk about she said "I have a llama for you."

I talked about this good versus exceptional think at the Oklahoma Writers Conference a while back. Afterwards I had a ton of appointments and one girl came in and said, "I'm not here to pitch my book, tell me how to make it exceptional."

Good question, and wonder why nobody else asked it? I told her about a unique story and unique voice but then I added the big one. I told her a movie is shot in scenes where everything that will happen at a certain place is shot at once, no matter where it may fall in the movie. The movie is born when the director goes into the cutting room and assembles these scenes the way he wants.

A writer does a good job of writing a story and then a good job of editing it or having it edited. That's a good book. The exceptional writer takes off the author hat and the editor hat and puts on the director hat to direct their story. When I was having the opportunity to write I tended to wrap all my scenes up nice and neat like a short story. Each and every one of them was a convenient place to put the book down. There should not be such convenient places to put the book down, but I left them for the director to fix.

The director insures the story opens and gets the reader down into the story and committed to read as quickly as possible by forcing them off the first page and having them committed to the storyline by page ten. He or she insures that each scene and each chapter does not tie up with a nice red bow but pushes the reader on to the next scene and next chapter. The director ensures there are no dead spots or places where the story bogs down with exhaustive narrative or complicated sentences where it may be put down. It isn't about story at this point, it is about flow. A compelling story and flow that drives the reader through to me is the mark of the exceptional book.

Yes, that's what I'm looking for, a llama . . . no, actually . . . what I'd really like to have is a giraffe!


Rita Garcia said...

I love this post! I'm going to find a picture of a llama and put it next to my computer--possibly even a giraffe. Makes me think of the song, High Hopes!!

Timothy Fish said...

Okay, so if doing the cutting room work will get us a llama, how how do we get to a giraffe? I look at what you say about doing the same to a story that a director does to a movie and I'm thinking that many of us are already doing that.

Linda Glaz said...

Tim, sometimes a person can only wear so many hats. Eventually, you have to hire or bring in the director. And sometimes it's just a matter of a storyline being so doggone good it stands out.

Terry Burns said...

Getting the flow of the story right can take a good story to an excellent one, but a giraffe? A giraffe is all about the story and the writing. Linda is right, it just stands out.

Linda Glaz said...

Hmm,wonder who taught me that in the first place?

Diana said...

I love the word pic here Terry and Linda. Preparing a workshop now on Making the Most of Rejections. This is a great compliment to that. A writer must be willing to do all they can to rise to the top. Yet as Tim says, it can be difficult to know when enough is enough and sometimes it is timing. Plain timing. God's and all connected to the project.

Andy Scheer said...

A sheep plays it safe. A giraffe really sticks its neck out.

Terry Burns said...

Great comment, Andy, that really says it

Patty Wysong said...

Great post that makes so much sense.

My family has been enjoying an older tv series (since we only have dvd/vcr capabilities at our house--and love it that way!) and I've been really noticing how they weave the main plot and subplots together through each episode. They do NOT break to the other scenes in tidy, convenient places! They make us groan when they switch scenes because we want to know what happens next. THAT's what we need to do. Weave it all together to keep the pages turning. That makes it a llama in my book.

Thanks for this, Terry. =] It pulled many things together for me.

Cheryl said...

I love this post. As I was reading, I remembered a pitch I did at a conference last year. The agent was helpful in telling me why the book wouldn't work and how I could improve it. Her insight, like yours is invaluable.

Thanks for sharing.