Friday, December 16, 2011

I really just used this sentence

"The egregious breaches of grammar protocol are fun!"

Happy Friday, gentle readers.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Dream a little dream

Or conversely, The Importance of Being Dreamist. I should warn you, this is a long rambling post with lots of parenthetical statements (as I am wont to do), so maybe grab a cup of coffee before you start in on it.

I get a little soft-eyed around the holidays, with the weather turning grayer and the fireplace more inviting, and the end of yet another year looming fast. You really only get six days to think about the impending new year after Christmas, which isn't much time to pack in those end of year specials the networks love. So I start my own personal JEMiniscing (see what I did there?) a little early.

This year, I've discovered that trying to be an author is HARD. Plotting a book is hard, finding the right words to convey your story is hard, sharing that story with others is hard, editing is hard, querying is hard, and I'm sure it's just as hard to try and get that book published and loved by the general audience. I hope to find out some day. But the hardest part of all of this, at least for me, is keeping my spirits up during this whole process. When taken as a whole it seems an insurmountable task to actually write and publish a book that people will love. And standing at the beginning of a new story, starting all over, is kind of like trying to love again after a failed marriage. You're not even sure you're ready to trust someone new, and SNIs have a funny way of luring you in and then betraying you after 60,000 words.

I've run up against this mountain of a molehill a lot this year. I finished a manuscript that I hoped was ready for querying, and have spent the better part of this year editing, writing queries, revising said queries, sending my work out to everyone I could trust/bother to tell me how to make it better, and sending out queries. I didn't have a spare moment for any new stories, and when I tried writing them they floundered after a couple hundred words. I needed all of my energy for the book I wanted to query.

But I found out soon enough that the energy wasn't there. Every query felt like a hundred ton weight around my neck. The research, the personalizing, the endless editing, only to get a form rejection after 30 minutes (or never hearing back again). I knew this was part of the process, and I haven't given up, but it took a lot of the fun out of the story, and I found myself questioning every decision I ever made (should she really have eaten chicken soup?!?). I consider myself a pretty strong person, but I started questioning why I thought writing was the path for me in the first place.

I took a step back from the whole process a couple of weeks ago to collect myself and my thoughts and devise a new game plan. And what I discovered is that I need dreams. All day, all night, staring out the window type dreams. I need stories that fill my head with people who seem more real to me than my own best friends. Stories that whisk me away from gloomy days to even gloomier days with dark and stormy nights and tall handsome strangers. I need to be a princess, a warrior, a gypsy, a thief, maybe even a tramp. My poor little grinch heart feeds on dreams, and I was starving myself.

I started writing again. I started at page one, word one, and let myself dream. And now, even though the querying is still hard and the plotting trips me up (but how do I get them OUT of the cave?), I'm happy. I'm entertained, and I'm renewed in my efforts to fight for these characters to share their story somehow, some way. I've unstoppered the bottle and let the genie out, and he's running amok with my imagination. I think they're planning a timeshare in the Poconos.

So my advice to you, no matter where you are in the journey, is to keep dreaming. Dream all day, dream all night, ignore your emails and celebrity gossip sites and laundry and just dream. And if that doesn't work, just dance.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Overprotecting your characters

I have a tendency to overprotect my MCs. They are my little cacti - I spend so much time nurturing them, pruning them into the perfect shape with just enough soil and a cute decorated pot, that I don't want to mess them up. I'm not going to put my delicate little cacti out in the desert, do you know what lives out there? Lizards and cow bones, if I believe every western movie I've ever seen. And it's hot, and animals eat their delicious buds. No no no, not for my little cacti.

The problem with that mentality is that cacti are supposed to live in the desert. They are supposed to survive the heat and get their little buds eaten and hang out with cow bones. And literary characters are supposed to get in trouble. They're supposed to struggle and fail and get threatened by evil villains. That's what makes them interesting to follow for 300+ pages.

But when we get so attached to our characters, we sometimes do them (and the story) a disservice by protecting them from bad things. My critique group recently discussed a YA piece in which the MC struggles with being in love with her best friend. She has such a history with the guy that it breaks her heart to see him go out with other girls. The problem with the story is that we didn't get any of that history, so as a reader I didn't understand how he was breaking her heart. I knew they had a history, but without seeing it I couldn't experience the MC's pain.

Turns out, my critique partner was so concerned with protecting her MC from that hurt that she didn't allow the MC to show us that pain. She shielded the MC from reliving the past hurts, which meant we as the readers didn't get to see them, either. The writer knew them perfectly, but didn't share. As a reader, I needed to live through those moments with the character, I needed to hurt with her. It was the only way I was going to feel as shaky and defensive against him in the present as the MC does.

I'm not innocent in this whole scenario, either. In one of my earlier manuscripts, a beta reader of mine gave me some of the most helpful feedback that I've ever received, and that I've tried to carry through my future work: he told me that he always knew my character was safe. Even when she was in the most dire of situations - and believe me, they were dire - he knew she would get free. Something about the way I wrote the scenes, the way I overempowered her, broke the tension of scene. Sure, she's trapped, but we know she's going to get free. There wasn't any urgency to it.

So now I fight that need to save my character. They're supposed to be in trouble, that's why I'm writing about them. And even if I am going to save them, it shouldn't be obvious how. And they might not escape without a few scrapes or a broken heart. Oooor, they might not escape at all...

Do you overprotect your characters? Or do you enjoy torturing them even more?

Monday, November 21, 2011

Confession session

Okay, I can't beat Usher's confessions (she's got a what on the way?!), but still. I've got some things to get off my chest.

1) I see peanuts at the grocery store in the unsalted and lightly salted varieties and I want to know where the heavily salted option is. I like my legumes with a flavor of high blood pressure.

2) I like to collect random skillsets. I've worked as a barista learning coffee craftsmanship, I'm preparing for a black belt test in Taekwondo, I've flown a plane, I'm handy with ProTools recording software, and I can find my way around any subway system in the world. Next I've got my eye on glass blowing and archery.

3) Thank you, Facebook, for allowing me to spy on high school acquaintances without the awkward name tags and fruit punch of a reunion. Also, thanks for giving me enough info about my high school crushes to know how much I don't regret the past.

4) I love Disney movies. And I'm not talking about the classics - although I love those - I'm talking about Disney Channel movies. Avalon High, High School Musical, The Even Stephens Movie, Cadet Kelly - I've seen them, and I love them. And I also think I could do a better job of writing them. Which is probably a lie.

5) A coworker of mine brought in some satsumas for the entire office and I've eaten at least 70% of them. I also took a bag home with me. I should feel shame, but I don't.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Sometimes we need a little backstory

My book club is reading The Time Traveler's Wife this month. I read the book a few years ago for a previous book club, but I was interested to come back to it as an aspiring writer. It is, after all, a very popular book that has done really well on the bestseller lists. Thanks to having the memory retention of a fruit fly, I only vaguely remembered the plot points of the book - he traveled through time, he had a wife - so I was coming to the story with a relatively fresh set of eyes.

Lo and behold, this book was breaking rules all OVER the place! There was a prologue, for one (I thought only J.R.R. Tolkien could get away with that). And what was the prologue about, you ask?


The insidious, not to be trusted, never to be included, BACKSTORY. Yeah, it's an all-caps kind of thing. The whole prologue basically establishes what happens when Henry, Mr. Time Traveler, time travels. Where he goes, how he ends up there, how he feels, what happens to him when he gets there, etc. It's not tied to a specific event in any way, it's really just to give the reader a basis for understanding what kind of time traveler he is. It's classic backstory info.

So why is it in there? How did it get past the keen eyes of beta readers, agents, and editors?

I obviously can't say for certain, but I can hazard a guess. Because while it is backstory, it's not an info dump. We're not getting his whole life history - in fact, we're not really getting a history at all - we're just getting enough information for us to understand the story that's coming up. They're details that are necessary to understand how the time travel affects his life, and rather than awkwardly integrating them into a scene, the author uses the opportunity to establish the character's personality and his relationship to the time travel. It's backstory, but it's character-building backstory, and it's intriguing enough to draw us into the rest of the story. It's an atypical time traveler scenario (she describes it as a disease), so the premise is set from the beginning, as is the conflict.

The lesson I took away from this book is that a little backstory never hurt anyone, SO LONG AS it helps the story. It should be accomplishing something else at the same time - establishing the conflict, introducing character personalities and habits, setting the hook of the story, etc. It's especially useful in cases like The Time Traveler's Wife, where we need to know the technical details of something but we don't want those details bogging down an actual scene.

I know BACKSTORY is a hotly debated topic, but it's still needed. Even if you only mention certain pieces of the story, we need that info before going into a scene so we as the reader are appropriately set up to understand the tension of the scene. The trick is knowing when to stop so you don't inundate your reader with unnecessary and tension-breaking info.

What about your thoughts on BACKSTORY? Do you agree, disagree, unagree, reagree? Weigh in!

Monday, November 7, 2011

Officially querying

Hello gentle readers, and a "sorry it's Monday but Friday's only four days away" to you as well. While most of you are deep in the NaNo trenches, I am deep in the querying trenches. I officially started sending out query letters for my latest project last week, and have been busily updating my spreadsheet of agents as I receive responses back. It's taken me this long to determine whether or not I actually wanted to talk about querying, but it's not fight club, so Tyler Durden probably won't show up at my house in the middle of the night if I post this.

First, and most importantly, it's a hell of a lot harder than I thought it would be. I knew there would be rejection, gentle readers (a word I'm growing to hate). I had prepared myself. I knew it was an uphill battle, that I would have to fight for agents to read my query, and fight harder for them to request additional materials, and fight even harder to find the agent who would be crazy enough willing to champion my work to an editor. And I knew the difficulties didn't end there, either. I had mentally prepared myself for all of this, to receive those form rejections, to obsess over a comma in an email, to read and read and re-read my work until I couldn't remember how to spell "the" anymore.

What I didn't anticipate - and what's been kicking me in the butt for the last week and half - is how it would feel to be rejected by agents on my carefully cultivated list of submissions. It wasn't just that an agent was passing on my material, it was that I'd spent hours/days/weeks pulling together a list of agents I thought were best suited to represent my work. They were the agents that work in my genre, that rep other authors with titles similar to mine, and if anyone was going to get my weird little story they would be the ones. So getting a pass from someone like that is almost like being rejected by the genre itself. It makes me question myself and my work, which is what I was trying to avoid all along.

But before you cry for me, Argentina, you should know I'm a fairly resilient person. Acknowledging the problem is the first step on the road to recovery, and my focus going forward is to keep honing my craft and keep cultivating my list. For the most part I don't know why they pass on my work, so I can't psych myself out with imagined reasons why they don't want to represent me. All I can control is my own effort, which is much better spent improving my writing and not crying over pints of Ben and Jerry's (who should totally make a Chardonnay flavor. Two birds, one stone).

Where are you in the writing process? Are you also querying your work? How do you handle your query journey?

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Even on vacay I'm working

Well, relatively speaking. I just got back from eight glorious days in New York where I ate too much Thai food, walked about a billion miles, smelled about a billion smells, and met a girl who met Anjelica Huston, which basically means I met Anjelica Huston. The weather was perfect, the coats were amazing, and Central Park was a dream.

But even amongst all this vacationing glory, gentle reader, my brain was working. How, you ask? Because my manuscript is set in New York, which means my trip wasn't just about vacation - it was reconnaissance. I stalked all the major locations, found nearby restaurants, made note of subway stops, and people watched the crap out of those places. I'd done my research beforehand - of course - but seeing it live in person was a whole new level of understanding. Instead of just imagining the jarring rides of the subway or the feel of a hundred miles of concrete under my boots, I was living those scenes. Now I have more than just Google street views of places, or second-hand knowledge from friends - I have my own memories to write against, which is a much richer experience.

Next book I write will be set in Greece. Or Italy. Oooo, or both. I'm off to plan.

Do you like to write about places you've never been, or do you stick close to home? Have you ever done your own reconnaissance on vacation?

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Austin Teen Book Festival - part deux

So, last I left you we had sat through a swoon-worthy I Heart Love Stories panel with Simone Elkeles, Jenny Han, Cristina Garcia, Stephanie Perkins, Jennifer Ziegler, and Christina Mandelski. After a quick stop by the book sellers tables to pick up my plundered goods, I moseyed over to the Alternaworlds panel for the final event of the day.

This crowd was ENORMOUS. It could have something to do with Scott Westerfeld's presence on the panel - the Festival had a steampunk theme in honor of Leviathan - but I think it was more that they consolidated panels for the last event so that we were the only panel on the first floor of the events center. I'm terrible with numbers, but I would guess there were at least two hundred people there, filling up the chairs and crowding the sides of the space for a chance to get closer to the stage. If I'd have been a teenager, I would have done the same thing. Authors rarely get the celebrity they deserve, so I was almost a bit giddy at the feeling of so many people (young people!) at a book event.

The Alternaworlds panel included Scott Westerfeld, Maureen Johnson, Jonathan Maberry, Brian Yansky, and Rosemary Clement-Moore. Whereas the Love Stories panel was focused on love stories as a genre, this panel was much more focused on the art and craft of writing, and the craft of world building. Once again there were a lot of young authors, so the audience asked great questions about the craft of writing and I shamelessly stole their answers to share with all of you:

  • Maureen Johnson talked about chasing down the "what ifs" and even threw out some Holly Black name dropping in the process. She said that Black was the queen of asking the right questions when developing a new story idea, and it basically consisted of a relentless string of questions. What if ghosts existed? How would they integrate with society? Could everyone see them? What could they physically do? What would the government do about them? The key to asking the right questions is to step back far enough to see the full scope of the picture, and then slowly drill down until you know all of the specifics.
  • Scott Westerfeld had the ultimate cure for writer's block: lock yourself in a room with nothing else to do for four hours. You'll get over that block real fast. For someone whose house suffers from enough shiny distractions to captivate a kitten, I can understand the advice.
  • Jonathan Maberry talked about being realistic within the fantastic. I've gone over the same concepts with my writing partners, so it was nice to get some backup from a successful published author. Even if your world includes zombies, like his, there still has to be a realistic structure to the world and how people function within it. The closer you stay to the real world - with fantastic twists - the more your readers can connect with the characters and believe the events that transpire.

Those were the highlights of the panel for me, mainly because I let two weeks go by without writing about it :). My overall feeling about the Festival, however, was that I've been missing out on prime opportunities to learn from these authors by not going to more author events in the past.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Austin Teen Book Festival - part un

I had a lovely book-filled Saturday this weekend, kicked off by a book release party for one of my critique partners at Book People here in Austin. She is the illustrator of a new children's book, and it was so fun to see all of the children reacting to the story when she read aloud. It was a Halloween-themed book, so of course they had a costume contest. There was a girl that didn't even come up to my waist dressed as a witch, and she accidentally swept my feet with her straw broom at least twice. All in all, a successful morning.

Then we headed over to the Austin Teen Book Festival for the afternoon. I've actually never been to a book event outside of BEA (and that was for work, so it almost doesn't count), so I was curious to see how this one would go. I only heard about it through my critique partner, who only heard about it through a book reviewer friend of hers, so I was worried there wouldn't be much of a crowd to support the authors who would be speaking there. Scott Westerfeld was the keynote speaker, but we got there late in the afternoon so we missed the keynote. I was most excited to hear from Simone Elkeles, since I have a mad agent crush on her agent, and Jackson Pearce because I have a mad crush on anything she does.

I was happy about how many names I recognized on the panels - Simone Elkeles, Scott Westerfeld, Melissa Walker, David Levithan, Jackson Pearce, Stephanie Perkins, and a host of other fantastic authors and speakers (see them all here). The Festival also had a great idea to host all four of the panels at the same time, four times over the course of the day, so you didn't miss a panel if you wanted to see them all. We had time enough for two panels, so I picked the I Heart Love Stories panel and the Alternaworlds panel. I originally wanted the Supernatural Suspense for my Jackson Pearce lady crush, but because of sound issues they couldn't host that panel at the end of the day.

I Heart Love Stories included Cristina Garcia, Simone Elkeles, Jenny Han, Stephanie Perkins, Jennifer Ziegler, and Christina Mandelski. Simone and Stephanie were definitely the big names on the panel, and most of the questions were directed at them. I had heard of Anna and the French Kiss, but that's not typically my type of book. However, after seeing Stephanie on the panel I definitely want to pick up her books. She was cute, fashionable, young, and funny. And Simone was exactly what I expected her to be - funny, sassy, irreverent, and charming. I'd like to think she and I had a moment when I pretended that I might want a vampire boyfriend in space (don't ask).

The audience asked some great questions, so I got a lot of takeaways from this panel:

  • One girl asked how she could make her love story less predictable. Simone countered that love stories are predictable - in fact, in a romance novel it's what you rely on. You know they're going to get together. The tension comes from the obstacles they have to overcome to be together. It's about how much crap can you throw at them, how insurmountable can you make the odds? If they're good enough and believable enough, then even the expected ending is still satisfying.
  • Cristina Garcia said that typically romance novels have happy endings and love stories have tragic endings (apparently this is a standard knowledge thing of which I'm only just now aware). The panel discussed at large what this meant in their writing, and most of the women agreed that a good story has a healthy blending of both. Apparently Romeo and Juliet are NOT the standard in storytelling today (and thank goodness for that).
  • Another audience member asked about the reality of these overwhelming love stories. Both Stephanie and Simone said they met their husbands when they were teenagers, and that they wrote from a place of experience. I think Simone said it best: "Falling in love as a teenager was the best thing that ever happened to me. And the worst." (Cue the lady crush)
  • The panel overwhelmingly agreed that you can't write to the market. You have to write the story that you want to write, and then make a market for yourself.
  • There were A. LOT. of young writers there. Most of the questions came from young people - boys and girls - and were about stories they're writing. It was amazing to see hundreds of kids willing to spend a Saturday talking about books and writing. Warmed the cold, dead cockles of my heart.
The overall feeling of this panel was sweet and encouraging, and made me want to get out there and write about cute boys and school dances. The Alternaworlds panel also had some great advice, but I'll save that for another day.

What did you do this weekend? Anything fun and/or writing related?

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Leaving a writing group

I've been in a great local writing group for almost a year now, and these fellow critters have been essential in improving my writing, calling out my faults and lazy shortcomings, and encouraging me to continue on with my writing even when it feels like I've just word vomited on the page. I am a better writer because of them, and I can't imagine my writing life without their continued support and input.

So imagine my surprise when our founding member, the critter who brought the group together in the first place, emailed over the weekend to let us know he would be stepping out of the group. (Yeah, you thought it was going to be me, didn't you?) As the person who was the driving force behind the group for so many months, it was a shock to see him bow out now. It was (what I suspect are) the usual reasons for leaving a group - balancing family time and writing time. And I can hardly blame him for his reasons, since the closest thing I have to a kid is the partner-in-crime and our trusty sidekick, The Dog.

Still, it was a big disappointment for me. He'd brought us all together, weathered the storms of our growing pains while we figured out meeting times and submission deadlines and new member rules. As the only male in the group he gave invaluable feedback on the male characters and male voices in our pieces, and helped us determine what would appeal to boys in our writing. His own writing had grown by leaps and bounds in the group, and the last piece he submitted was so many miles above the first draft that we saw that I experienced a profound sense of pride in how far he'd come, and how much the group had helped him.

While I hope he continues to write and finds other outlets for his creativity, I worry. I worry because I know how lost I would be without their feedback. I worry because I know how much I would let my self-imposed deadlines slip if there were no one else to hold me accountable. I worry because writing is a lonely enough endeavor that if you don't have an outlet to discuss it you might find yourself wondering why you're pursuing it at all. I worry because I know how much my own life gets in the way of writing, and I don't even have kids to keep up with.

I worry because I can't help but feel like we've lost another writer in the world.

It's a hard pursuit, I know that, but I think it's worth it. The stories we tell, the joy we bring, for me it's worth the late nights and the early mornings and the longing looks outside when it's beautiful and you're stuck inside with a synopsis to write. It's worth the rejection and the wait and the agonizing edits and the overwhelming fear that you might get it wrong (or you might get it right). Because I still remember what it felt like to stay up until four in the morning hiding in the bathroom finishing a book because I Just. Couldn't. Put. It. Down. And if I can inspire just one person to such nocturnal fevers, it will be worth it.

Have you ever lost a critique partner? How did you feel when they left? Was there ever a partner you wished you could have talked out of their exit?

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Movies vs. Books: the plot thickens

I saw the movie Drive this weekend, starring Ryan Gosling and some other people I didn't pay attention to (fine, it had a good cast, but come on. RYAN. F-ING. GOSLING. Pretty sure that's his middle name). It was a very different film from what I expected given the trailer, which made me think of the concepts of storytelling and backstory. As in, how much do you know/need to know about your characters and story, and how much do you reveal in the story itself?

I read a review of the movie after having seen it and the review pointed out one major point that I completely missed while watching the film: Ryan Gosling's character has no name. Even in the credits, they simply refer to him as "Driver." This one caught me off guard, because I've had this very conversation in many of my crit groups, and I've heard it from more than one source - you need to have character names. It's how readers identify a character, and if they can't name a character - even the narrator - they get antsy about it after a while. I know I do. But in the film, I never even noticed that his character was never named. How could they get away with such a thing under my trained nose?

Because I had a face. Ryan Gosling's face. I didn't need to know his name because his face was what identified him on the big screen. For me, it was the equivalent of giving me a name, because it was an instantly recognizable feature of that character. You can get away with it on screen, since it's a visual aspect, but giving a character description every time in lieu of a name doesn't really work. So for movies, we have faces. For books, we have names.

The second thing I noticed (which I actually did notice) was a complete absence of backstory. Gosling's character has a very specific side job (no spoilers, I promise) that is an offshoot of his day job but certainly not in the same legal category. He's a young guy with an old world feel, and being the writer-type I am, my first question was "How did he come to this line of work?" It's not something people fall into, and the backstory would have helped tremendously in my efforts to believe the character and what he knew. But we're never given a hint of backstory.

This movie is actually based on a book, so I'm curious if the book goes into his past in more detail. I would hope it does, because it drove me crazy throughout the movie. I kept expecting the explanation to trickle out along the way, to give us more depth to the character and build the anticipation of what he would do. But we never even got acknowledgement from any of the other characters that this might be a question to ask. No one, anywhere along the way, ever asked him "Where did you learn how to do that?" It left me feeling unsatisfied at the end of the film.

I would argue that this isn't something you can get away with in a book. You certainly HAVE TO KNOW your character's backstory - and not just the main character, either. Even if we never hear it, even if we never get to know all the nitty gritty details, you as the writer need to know it in order to fully realize your characters. It can be annoying and tiresome to think through it on that level, but it's essential. And for me personally, as a reader I like to know the backstory, especially if it's relevant to the details of the story you're telling. I don't need to know everything, but I like to see it sprinkled in here and there to give me context for the character I'm following. It's not an area often visited by movies - frankly they don't have the time - but it's necessary in any good story.

Have you seen any movies lately that have highlighted some conventions of storytelling specific to the written word? Have you read any books lately that felt like movies and left you wanting more?

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

It's all about perception

I had a funny encounter with one of my fellow critiquers last night that really brought home a big concept for me. One of the issues I struggle with during any critique is being able to look at the feedback objectively. Typically that involves setting my own biases aside to determine whether or not I think the feedback is valid.

We were discussing a character in my manuscript that had just gone through a scene of trying on clothes. In the scene, she complains because none of the clothes fit her right. The group debated what they thought she looked like - some people thought she was tall and lanky and wouldn't have felt fat, some thought she was heavier and would have, some people wanted more character description. All of that is fine and good, but as we continued the conversation one girl said something that shocked me.

"She could be curvy," she explained to the others. "Even if she were a size 8, she could still have nice curves."

Now, we're not supposed to talk during these things when we're being critiqued, but I couldn't help myself.

"I'm sorry," I interrrupted. "I have a question. Do you think size 8 is large?"

Her eyes got big. "Well, yeah."

This was a moment for me, gentle readers. Because I happen to be size 8, and I have never in my life heard anyone refer to size 8 as "large." It's pretty solidly average in my book, and I am pretty solidly average myself. I ran through all the logical scenarios I could think of in my head for a moment, and asked the first question that came to mind.

"How tall are you?"

"Five two."

Uh, yeah. Me? Not five two. Not even close to five foot two inches tall. And then it made sense, in a way. If I were about half a foot shorter and the same proportions, I would probably be considered a lot curvier than I am now. But having never been five foot two (well, at least not for a good fifteen years), it would have never occurred to me that my size could be considered large.

What's the lesson for me in this? That sometimes, no matter how much you edit or how many people weigh in on your manuscript, someone will have a bias that you'll  never even think of. So as much as I'll continue to worry about making myself as clear as possible, I've also relaxed about capturing all of those butterflies with my net.

What about you? Have you run into issues of perception with beta readers? How did you choose to handle it in your manuscript?

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Random thoughts on a...Wednesday? Really? Already?

1) I'm going to need pictures of me to start better aligning with how I see myself in my head. Read: Natalie Portman.

2) I've been stood up on three client calls this week. We don't have waiters in my office, but I imagine the same look of pity and shame when my coworkers come into the room.

3) I know it's been a rough Texas summer when I'm almost jealous of the East Coast for having a hurricane.

4) I don't usually write to music since I find it too distracting (yeah, maybe I act out music videos in my head, judgment-free zone). But I started a Pandora station for Film Scores and it's actually an awesome station to write to. Plus I've already got the movie all planned out now.

5) There are some new fall/spring shows on the big networks that look really good. Like I can already feel my productivity running down the drain good. I'll call it "character research" when I watch, but that will be a lie.

6) I can't decide if I should stop reading about the economy because it's freaking me out or if I should keep reading so I'm an informed citizen. Mostly I've resolved this by playing games on my phone and reading celebrity gossip blogs.

7) Oh, ten is so not happening today.

What's your random thought for the day?

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Picking and choosing

Not to be confused with picky or choosy. Although I can be those sometimes as well.

When I first started receiving feedback on my writing, I thought that if someone said something it must be true. Which meant it must be changed. So if someone said, "This scene is dumb, take it out," I took it out. And if someone said "I don't like this character, give her blue hair," I gave her blue hair. That's what feedback is for, right? At some point our editorial vision turns myopic and we can't see the forest for the trees, so we ask others to read our work and tell us when we've jumped the shark (maybe literally).

As you might imagine, this eventually put me in a really frustrating cycle. I'd change something for one critique partner and another would say they hated the change. I'd change it back and a third reviewer would say I should go in an entirely new direction. I had so many voices in my head that I couldn't hear my own, and my story fell apart in revisions. I actually walked away from a manuscript - probably the best thing I've written to date - because I didn't even know what I wanted it to be anymore. I'd put it through too many critiques by too many people in too many rounds. My beautiful jello mould had melted into a glob of hot mess.

I took a very different approach with critiques on my current manuscript. I restricted the number of reviewers and made sure they were a diverse enough group to catch 90% of the plotting or characterization mistakes I made. I took notes on each round of critiques (we critique a few chapters at a time) and then let them sit for several weeks. I didn't make changes, I didn't read through the notes, I went and distracted myself in other ways. Then, when the little critiques started to add up to big picture changes for me, I went back and made the changes I wanted to make.

Yeah, read that again. I'll even bold it for you. I made the changes I wanted to make.

If I didn't like the feedback? I didn't change it.
If I didn't agree with the feedback? I didn't change it.
If I got conflicting feedback? I chose the one I agreed with and made the changes.
If I could understand the point of the feedback but wanted to take the story in a different direction? I didn't change it.

This is your story at the end of the day. You have to tell the story you want to tell, which means you get to pick and choose the changes you make. You own the story, so you're responsible for the choices it makes. You ask for feedback to point out what you can't see, but that doesn't mean everything they see is right for the story you are trying to tell.

A point of clarification: I draw a distinction between feedback that you don't like but is true and feedback that you don't like because it doesn't tell the story the way you want to tell it. I've received plenty of critiques that, given enough time, I see the error of my ways. But I've also received plenty of critiques that don't jibe with the story/character for me. Sometimes I can even see where they're coming from, I just disagree. Don't give yourself permission to ignore ALL feedback - after all, you're trying to make this the best story it can be - but do give yourself permission to ignore the feedback that doesn't feel right.

So be picky. Be choosy.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

How do you know when you're overediting?

Roni Loren had a great post the other day about how to avoid killing yourself or your work over critiques. My favorite piece of advice was to edit until you love the story, not until you think it's perfect. You don't hear much about the dangers of overediting, and frankly I thought you were supposed to edit until the thought of opening the same Word doc one more time made you throw up in your mouth a little. It never occurred to me that editing could go the opposite way - that you could spend so much time with your piece that you actually start editing in the wrong direction, and damage your story.

Some edits are obvious - as soon as you read a scene a second time, or out loud, or your critique group comments on it, you have a "duh" moment. Of course the giant spider wouldn't be friends with Harry Potter; he'd want to eat him! Some non-edits are just as obvious - you can see how/why your beta reader suggested the change, but that's not what you want to happen. You respect their opinion, but you don't make the change. It's your right as a writer.

The harder edits to make are the ones you're not sure about. I run into these most with character decision-making and subsequent actions. I may think the character would react one way, but my beta readers may say something different. Ideally I know my character best, but they can be fickle creatures, our made up characters, and sometimes they're not good at revealing their motivations. Emotional reactions are not like math - there isn't always one correct response. I don't always react the same way to the same situation, so I don't expect my characters to be so consistent. When a critique partner comments on a character's reaction, I'm not always sure if I think they would behave that way or not. And if multiple readers give me the same feedback, I have to re-evaluate that character's behavior.

But the hardest parts to edit are the ones you've read so many times you're bored with them. I think this is where the danger of overediting comes in. Think of it like decorating a room - when you first decorated your room at 16 you probably LOVED it. Pink is awesome! Backstreet Boys will be cool forever! I love Teen Beat! (I was a sad, sad child). At the time you thought it was the greatest room ever. But after a few weeks/months/years in it, you started to get sick of it. Maybe Backstreet isn't so cool. Pink is so girly. They don't even make Teen Beat anymore. All of that awesomeness starts to look like crapness.

Here's the trouble - to a 16 year old, that room is awesome. But to an 18 year old, it's super lame. And to a first time reader, your scene is awesome. To you who have seen it so many times you hate every single word because you're so tired of them, it's awesomely bad. So you change it, because it's stale and overdone to you and where you used to think it was funny you now think it's stupid.

STOP. Don't touch that scene. Walk away, take a deep breath, date other manuscripts. Whatever you do, stop thinking about that manuscript. Because you're going to break it. You're going to break it and everything that comes after it, and suddenly a story that started about a sweet girl on a picnic is now about a werepanther at a rave (seriously, Charlaine Harris?). It's not your scene anymore, and you're not telling the story you wanted to tell. Now you're just dissecting a rotisserie chicken carcass because you can.

How do you know when you've hit this point? For me, it's when I start trying to edit scenes no one's read yet. Scenes that never used to bother me before, but because I've fixed all the big stuff I'm turning on the specifics. That's not to say you should rely on someone else's opinion as fact, but the odds are if you have enough people read it and they don't tell you it's broken and you never thought it was broken before, it ain't broke. Trust yourself and your storytelling, and trust that you don't need to change every single word or every single plot thread in revision because you must have written a crap first draft.

How do YOU know when you're overediting? What do you do when you realize that you are?

Monday, August 1, 2011

Mixing real world and fiction

I spent a large part of my weekend researching, gentle readers. My manuscript takes place in New York, a place I haven't visited (yet) or lived (maybe yet), so I was a bit vague on location descriptions and transportation methods in the first go round. This next pass at editing is focused on nailing down exact locations and weaving in the feel of neighborhoods and movements through the city. One of my fellow critters (who lived in NY for 15 years) was kind enough to give me the lowdown on neighborhoods and potential locations for the main settings in my story, and I've now got a concrete map of the story.

In my research this weekend, however, I ran up against an interesting dilemma - marrying the real world with a fictional world. Obviously New York exists, and pretty much every square inch of the city (at least Manhattan) is claimed, so inserting fictional locations into what is arguably the most well-known city in the world is tricky. Do you invent an address? Take over an existing building and make it your own? Modify the purpose of said existing building?

Yeah. Tricky.

I've run into this dilemma before with historical writing as well. As soon as you decide to write about a fictional character interacting with real people, you've got historical timeline to juggle. Do you make up a title for someone? Or choose a less well-known title and attach a made-up person to the title?

For me, it made the most sense to do a little bit of both. If I could get away with making up a location (like a warehouse or a coffee shop), I did. Where I couldn't (like dropping an entirely new building into a famous stretch of road), I used Google Street View to find the perfect building to "steal." And let me tell you, gentle readers, Google Maps and Google Street View were my best friends this weekend. I don't know how people wrote about places they'd never been before the internet. Or maybe they just didn't.

So my question goes out to all of you fiction writers today: How do you insert your characters and locations into the real world? Do you hijack existing locations for your own purposes? Or do you prefer to create new locations that don't exist on a map?

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

You might be a writer if:

1) You harbor a love of caffeine that you've assured your family you can quit any time.
2) You list "blank pages" and "no autosave" as your mortal enemies.
3) You know seventeen different ways to say "He walked."
4) While other little boys and girls imagine their Oscar acceptance speeches, you formulate your blog post response to being named the Pulitzer Prize winner ("It was an honor just to be nominated.")
5) You can list taking a walk, hogging the shower for two hours, and reading as "work activities."
6) Your email account warns you that you've used your maximum number of page refreshes for the day.
7) Time is but a convention to defy.
8) You spend more time with imaginary people than you do with real people.
9) You measure days in word count.
10) You've been caught having imaginary conversations in your car, public bathrooms, the shower, and once in the break room at work when you didn't realize the next office over could hear you.

Share your "you might be a writer if" truth today!

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Writing a query letter makes me cry blood

Okay, fine, it's not that bad. But it's surprisingly hard. Different agents have different standards and preferences, and the purpose of the query is completely different from the manuscript itself. When you're writing a manuscript, you're telling the story. But when you're writing a query letter, you're selling the story. And yes, I do find myself quite clever.

So what are the differences?

I'm no query expert, but I think the biggest difference between the query letter and the actual manuscript is what trips up most writers. The query letter is a marketing piece for your book - it's like the back cover copy. It's meant to boil the plot down to the most essential and exciting elements, and leave just enough of a hook that the agent wants to know more. I think it's hard sometimes for us to separate ourselves from the story enough to step back and look at it in a business context, but if you're querying that's exactly what you have to do. It's not pleasure anymore, it's not personal fun, it's a business proposition. Your book will help people pay their mortgages, and not just your own, so you've got to learn how to sell the experience.

I've perused the archives of Query Shark, read sample queries of authors who have landed agents, read  sample structured query letters, and I see the same things over and over. Writers giving too much backstory, writers trying to include too many storylines, writers not recognizing the hook in their own story. The query is not just about "here's the plot of my book." It's "here's enough interesting stuff about my book with good voice that you want to request more."

Think of it like a date - do you tell someone on a first date where you went to middle school and high school and how you have an uncle with diabetes and you once had an addiction to caffeine pills and here's every favorite album you've ever had? (Please say no) No, you tell them the interesting bits, just enough of the story to get to date number two. Once you're on date number two they're bought in and you can roll out the caffeine addiction.

What about you? Have you written a query letter? Did you also feel like you needed a cookie after the first (second, third, nine-hundredth) draft? Do you have a different take on queries?

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

My thought for the day

The bottom of a Starbucks coffee cup is the saddest place in the world.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

In the meantime, the in-between time

So...I'm feeling a bit restless. I finished my current WIP and am currently putting it through its paces with the critique group, and while I have ideas swirling about my head none of them are strong enough to warrant spending the next six months and countless hours molding them into a passable shape. I've written a query letter, done some editing on it, identified some revisions I'll make when I do my next major revision, and dabbled around with the various story ideas.

Over the holiday weekend I made the mistake of picking up City of Bones, which had been on my bookshelf for a couple of months while I was deep in the throes of writing, and lost the rest of the weekend to City of Ashes and City of Glass. Clare is an incredible world-builder, and I was just another helpless victim who fell for Jace's charms. I know better than to pick up City of Fallen Angels right now (but don't think I won't soon, I can't resist such a pretty face for too long).

I'm so used to driving forward that I feel a little lost without any specific forward momentum. So I'd like to know: what do you do between major writings and revisions?

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

In which I deliver a little slice of reality

I guess I should live up to my own blog name, huh? Last night I had a fabulous meeting with my critique group where we talked about our fears and concerns with writing, what we're struggling with currently, and our thoughts on pursuing publication. One of our group members began talking about her current experiences with querying agents (1 book to one agent, a different book to 2 agents). She recently heard back from the first agent on book 1 with a rejection. The agent's reason? She loved the book, though it was well-written and cute and funny, but she said rhyming picture books aren't selling. Because of this, my crit partner thought she shouldn't query anymore agents with that book.

Yeah. You read that right.

Let me be crystal clear: I don't know the agent she submitted to and I don't harbor any ill will toward her. She did exactly what a good business person should do - she evaluated the prospect and determined it wasn't a good one for her. It wasn't a personal attack, it wasn't mean-spirited or disrespectful, it was actually a very friendly rejection letter. And if you're reading this, you know the reality - we get rejected. A lot. It's like a speed dating exercise - you get one letter's worth of clever to convince someone to spend their time with you. It's difficult, and it's personal opinion, and it hurts.

But I was surprised that she would take one agent's opinion as fact. I've read about the tenacity of querying so many times that it's already ingrained in me, but watching my crit partner explain her reasonings I realized why all of those blog posts exist. I imparted all the wisdom I've gleaned from you, my wonderful bloggy readers - I told her she had to have enough faith in her work to feel confident that she would find the right agent for it. Only she can really know if she's ready - if her story is the best it will ever be - and a single agent's opinion of her odds in the marketplace can't be her reason for never sending out another query letter. She's a very talented writer - and I'm not just saying that to be nice, or because she's my crit partner and I don't have a choice, or because she bribed me to (although I do accept bribes, if you're offering). I say that because I would be heartbroken to see her give up the dream without putting everything she had into it.

So my slice of reality is this: you'll get rejected in life. Whether it's writing, dating, job interviews, a court case, your kid's concept of how cool you are, people will reject you. Life will reject you. Your own cells will sometimes reject you. That doesn't mean you stop loving what you do, or who you are, or where you're going. It means you learn that not everyone likes the same thing, and that's okay. Because someone will like what you do, just as much as you do, and that's the person you were meant to find all along.

That's my nice way of saying get over it and move on.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

When the story tells itself

I'm kind of a planner. I don't go so far as to outline (usually), but I like to know my story roadmap along the way. I imagine scenes, make notes of upcoming scenes, and plan out the order of events to know when and where to reveal key details that will be needed later. This usually sets me in good stead for developing the story arc of an entire piece, but every once in a while a story element sneaks up on me.

I've got two pivotal scenes remaining in my current WIP, and while "planning" out (read: daydreaming in my car on the way to work) who would be in the first of those two remaining scenes, an idea popped up. An idea to plant a character in that scene that had previously been referenced but had yet to make an appearance. And of course, my first thought was:


Why is this character here? What happens if this character is here?

And then it all unfurled like a great majestic cloak to finish out my story. Because as soon as I placed that character in the scene, I knew why they were there and, more importantly, what their presence would do to the rest of the story. It gave my villain motive, it set up future story ideas, and it closed out the story in a way that I never saw coming. As a planner, I was floored.

My story just told me what to do.

I've seen other writers reference the whole concept of letting your characters tell you where the story is going, but I'd honestly never put a lot of stock in it. To me, if I just let my characters roam across the page without any direction I'd end up with a few thousand words of witty banter, random descriptions, and not a whole lot of plot movement. My approach has always been to make things happen to my characters and see how they react. This is the first time I've ever really had a character tell me what they were going to do, and why. It was an amazing, bizarre experience that I hope to encounter again very soon.

How do you plot? Do you let the characters tell you what's going to happen, or do you make things happen and wait to see how they react? Do you grow your stories organically or are you a plotter? Have you experienced this moment yourself?

Monday, May 16, 2011

In which I admit an addiction

I have a problem. I can admit this now, and I'm working on it.

I'm addicted to word count.

Yeah, I know, a pithy addiction amongst all the other possibilities, but it's kind of wrecking my writing life right now. Because I'm addicted to massive bumps in word count. I keep thinking "oh, if I can just get to 30K words I'll be happy." But then 30K becomes 40K becomes 50K becomes 60K and suddenly I've amassed 15K words in one day because I can't stop. In fairness, I'm pulling large chunks of this WIP from the previous version I wrote, so I'm able to pull together 15K words in one day without actually writing every single one of those words, but you'd think I'd be happy. You think I'd be amazed.

But I wanted more.

I've gotten to 52K words in two weeks, which is INSANE for me. I'm a slow writer, a slow plotter, and I don't always write every day. That many words would usually take me a couple of months, and a complete manuscript usually takes me about 6 months. But because I can pull entire scenes from the previous version of the WIP, I have seen massive bumps in my word count in just a couple of days. And I'm hooked now. Previously I would have been happy with 2K words in one day, but now I'm looking at 6K-8K each time I sit down and it feels. So. Good.

It doesn't help that I can see the word count right in the bottom of the screen. It's a constant reminder, a constant check, and even if I write a great scene I sometimes get ticked that it's only 200 words. In a way it's a good impetus to keep writing and finish out the first draft faster, but it sometimes overtakes the creativity of the process. In school we learned about two types of business models - quantity and quality. As writers we walk a line between shoveling out crap and polishing up the diamonds in that crap. Different writers take different approaches to that first shoveling out of crap. Me, I like to polish as I go along, which is why my word counts tend to be lower per day than some first draft writers. Upping the volume of words I produce can have a dangerous effect on this type of writing.

What about you? Are you addicted to checking word count? Does it drive you crazy like it drives me crazy (say yes and make me feel better)?

Monday, May 9, 2011

A tale of two journeys

Ignoring the fact that I have been hiding out in a cave with Robin Hood for months now...I have an actual post today!

Sometimes I hate it when my critique partners are right. And by "hate" I mean "I can't believe I have to go back and think about this." In my pre-writerly days, storytelling just seemed so natural. Like events and characters and plots all just flowed together into one nice big river, and I was just flowing along with the current. The stories would magically unfurl in my head and flow out onto the page with the ease and grace of a ballerina. Surely if I just sat down and gave myself enough time, the story would tell itself, right?

I think we all know the answer to that one.

So when I met up with my fellow critters last week, the first thing one of them said about my latest chapter submission hit home with a dooming certainty. It was a simple question, really, but one with a great amount of import behind it. I'm finding that to be the case with most simple questions in adulthood.

What is the emotional journey of your character in this chapter?

There are two journeys that every story takes: the plot journey, and the emotional journey. These two journeys often intersect and affect each other, but they need to be considered separately to make sure you're moving both forward at all times. For me, sometimes the plot journey takes over my brain and I forget that my characters need to grow. They should be reacting to the action taking place, and making choices that define their character at every turn. Janet Fitch (who wrote the emotionally wrenching White Oleander) wrote a fantastic post about 10 rules that any writer can benefit from employing. Number nine on the list gets to the heart of the two journeys - write in scenes. As in, something needs to happen in a scene, both to advance the plot and advance the character. Each scene in your story must ratchet up the tension, or reveal a new piece of vital information. And emotionally, each scene should lead your character to a place from which they can't turn back. A tall order, for sure, but it makes for the best writing any of us can aspire to.

So for every chapter/scene you write, ask yourself these questions:
1) What new information have I learned from this scene?
2) How does this new information drive the story forward?
3) What has my character learned?
4) How does my character feel about this information?
5) How does this information change my character emotionally?

That's not to say that every scene you write needs to have some big soap opera reveal, or that your character is suddenly changed forever by each scene. That would be too unbelievable. But you should make sure that every scene you write, every piece of dialog, every description, is driving the story and the characters along the journey. It can be a little hop or a big leap, but you've got to keep the reader moving toward the (no doubt gripping) conclusion.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Wow, is it April?

Time flies, my little honeybees, and with it flies the days between blog postings. I swear when I went to sleep last night it was March. Maybe even February.

I've had my head down and nose to the grindstone on many things lately, but I promise I haven't abandoned you. I'll be back soon (hopefully), but for now I want to know what YOU are up to. How are things? How's writing? How's spring (not so) cleaning? Any fun things to share?

Monday, March 14, 2011

In which I clean things (sort of)

I've got a post planned on journeys later this week based on some revelations brought about in my critique group meeting last night, but today I've got a question for all my blogging buddies. I've been doing some "it's almost spring" cleaning and have accumulated an impressive stack of paper critiques from various stages of chapters on my current WIP. I'm torn on what to do with these critiques - do I keep them as reference points or mementos, or do I recycle them like a good little non-pack rat?

What do you do with your hard copies of critiques after you've addressed them?

Also, I squeed (sounds a lot grosser than it did in my head but I'm leaving it) when I saw this and this. Suffice it so say these were both on my list of bloggy accomplishments and I feel big and important now. Thanks, ladies :). (Yes, I'm a huge dork).

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

In defense of dialog tags

I'm going to throw a couple of caveats out there before I even get into my discussion/diatribe (yes, it's THAT incendiary):

1) I am not an editor
2) I am not an agent
3) Despite two years slogging through the slush pile at a local independent publisher, I am not a publishing professional
4) I am a great lover of the word

Okies, now that we've gotten those out of the way I can begin. I read a lot of advice on writing - blogs, articles, blog links to articles, article links to blogs, sometimes words printed on paper (I'm surprised they still exist), etc. I know all about show don't tell, adverb abuse, dialog tags, how to choose a tense, passive voice, and the sneaky over adjectivization. I have, at one point or another, flagrantly broken all of those rules and been reprimanded in one way or another by critique partners. I've done my time, learned my lessons, and moved on to what I hope is a cleaner, leaner, meaner way of writing (this present post aside). But there's a thought niggling at the back of my mind that I'd like to give voice to today, gentle readers, and I hope you'll hear me out in the spirit of a love of the word.

I. Like. Dialog tags. THERE. I said it. It's out there, or at least it will be when I hit Publish Post. I like the diversity of descriptions and the adverbs and the accompanying actions on dialog. I know the rule - only ever use he said she said they said we said I said and never never NEVER say how they said it - but I don't like it. Because as a lover of the word, I enjoy a good adverb here and there. I enjoy knowing if a character whispered or shouted or grunted their lines.

Yes, I know the reason for the rule. There was widespread abuse among the greener of us, and every single line of dialog was weighted down with adverbs galore and a bizarre mesh of descriptive verbs ("Festivus is totally the best holiday," he proselytized.). I know it was a push toward cleaner writing that didn't fog up the window with unnecessary words and instead polished the glass to a high shine so the reader could look through the words without looking at them. It's about the actual dialog, not the description of how it's being said. I get it. Really.

But I've had it drilled into my head from so many places and people that my fingers tremble every time they they reach for the l and y keys. I gnaw my lip whenever I decide to let a character growl something instead of just saying it. And the truth is, I do it because I'm used to seeing it in other writing. I'm used to a more flowery approach to prose that may or may not come from years of reading romance novels. My fear is that this incessant push toward abolishing adverbs from published works will mean I'll never get to read about someone saying something quietly or politely. Like all things, I believe there's a time and a place for such descriptions.

So every once in a while, I let my characters say something glibly, or shoot back a witty remark. But only every once in a while. I promise.

What about you? How do you feel about excess description in dialog tags? Are you an abuser or a law upholder when it comes to dialog tags?

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Tell me where I am

Pretty sure I've written about this before, but I kind of hate writing scenery. I can either see the location in my head and don't want to waste time thinking up how to describe it, or I don't care about the location because it doesn't impact the scene at hand (especially in dialogue-heavy scenes). So I can't say I was surprised when a big part of the feedback I received in my class last semester was that people didn't know what time period they were in (it's a period piece) or what places looked like. They wanted more grounding in the scene. At the time I wanted to throw up at the thought of taking time away from the plot to describe things, but my professor gave me what has come to be an invaluable piece of advice:

Diagram the scene.

As in, draw it out. Where are the chairs, what does the carpet look like, how many levels does the house/building/spaceship have, what kind of doors are there, does it have a kitchen, are there windows, etc. Don't just think about it, draw it out. This might seem like overkill for some stories, but it was essential for mine, and a handy tip for anyone telling a story that exists in a physical location (yeah, I'm talking to you).

In diagramming you'll find yourself asking questions you never thought of before - now that I know where everything lives, what about decorations? Colors? Does it make sense to put a chair right in the middle of this room? Is the bed too large for the room? Could the character really open the window from there? It's also a lot easier to describe a room when you're looking at a physical picture of it, not just trying to hold images in your head. You'll have a blueprint that you can hold yourself accountable for in all the scenes in your book, and you won't have to bother trying to remember where you put that pesky bookshelf.

You don't need to diagram all the locations, just the most essential ones. Think about it like an episode of Saved By The Bell - how many places do they really go? There's the school hallway lined with lockers, usually a classroom or two that look mysterious alike, and The Max. If you've watched the show, you can clearly see these locations in your mind when thinking of pivotal scenes of the show. You want your readers to have the same instant recall about your own scenes. If you don't ground your readers in the scene they'll feel lost about where they are and what they're watching.

Have you ever diagrammed a location in your story before? Did it help?

Monday, February 28, 2011


Unless you've been living under a writing rock (which, for the record, I have), you've heard about Borders filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. I worked at a local publisher a few years ago and Borders was on the verge of bankruptcy back then, so I wasn't surprised when I heard the news. I was saddened, as I always am, about another blow to the publishing industry, but I think most professionals in the industry saw the writing on the wall long ago.

I found myself near a Borders this weekend as I was out shopping and decided to stop in and see if they had any good deals. To be honest I haven't shopped at a brick and mortar store for years because of the competitive prices on sites like Amazon, but I was right there. The discounts were still fairly low - 20-30% - so I didn't expect much movement at that point. Boy was I wrong. The store was like a madhouse, books strewn about and laying on the floor and unalphabetized (I take my alphabetization VERY seriously). I found sports books in the middle grade section, DVDs in Science Fiction/Fantasy, and random merchandise all over the shelves. I wandered up to the YA section for research purposes and was at first delighted to see so many books of blogs that I've been following for months now. It was almost like meeting up with new friends.

Which is why I think it hit me so emotionally to see the books so mistreated. I mean, don't get me wrong, no one was ripping out pages with their teeth or anything. It was just that everything was in such disarray, it was like seeing my friends disrespected. Having been on this journey for two years now, I know the time and energy and passion and long nights that go into every single book on those shelves, and to see them treated like bits of shiny paper at a cat convention was hard for me. I actually ended up leaving the store without buying anything because I was so upset. It was, in a way, heartbreaking for me to see the physicality of the decline.

How do you feel about Borders' announcement and the shifting landscape of the book market?

Friday, February 18, 2011

In which I get to the root of the problem

My advanced creative writing class started last night (yes, I loved the first round so much I decided to indulge myself for another semester), and with it came crashing home a certain reality that I've been avoiding for a while. It's a niggling thought that had occurred to me on a previous WIP (R.I.P. WIP), but I had thought it was singular to that writing endeavor. I'd made all kinds of excuses for myself - it was too much story driven without enough character, I don't do the angst thing well (which is true), etc. etc. Surely this disease wouldn't infect the others.

Turns out, the bitch is airborne.

It wasn't new information to me. In fact, last night was mainly a review of the techniques we'd discussed last semester. The instructor passed out review copies of things we'd already been over - character background worksheets, plot pyramid dissections, and guidelines for different levels of children's books and their associated content. But it was the last sheet, cut into thirds for each class member to save paper, that dropped the bombshell. It only had five lines of text, and no more than 10 words per line. Some of the lines had less than 3. And they were all questions.

Wants what?
From whom?
Who/what stands in their way?
What are they willing to do to get it?

You should be able to answer these questions for ALL of your main characters. Really, you should be able to answer them for all of your characters, but certainly the main protags and antags. Why? Because it's the action that drives the story. Who wants what is the end goal you're trying to reach, and from whom and what stands in their way establishes the tension. What are they willing to do to get it is the fun part.

So what's wrong with my story? What can't I answer?

What does my main character want?

Please, childrens, don't judge. Don't point at the silly wannabe writer making rookie mistakes. It's unkind. The funny thing is, the story is still a good one. I've managed to fluff up the other parts of the story enough that it's enjoyable, and I distract people with flashy words and funny dialog, but the truth is there in black and white and bold. And as soon as I realized I couldn't answer the most basic of questions about my MAIN CHARACTER, the veil came off. I started analyzing other things I'd written (or tried to write) and found the same problem over and over. I had good, strong characters, but they weren't making their own decisions. They were being led around by the story and everyone else's whims. This is, as the kids like to say, a problem.

But a known problem is a solvable problem, and that's why I'm taking the class. I knew the problem existed, could feel it in my plotting and revising, but I didn't know what it was. And because I didn't know what it was, I didn't know how to solve it. I know it will be hard work to figure out the answers to this question and work it into the WIP, but it's like GI Joe says: knowing is half the battle.

What about you? What are your glaring (or not so glaring) issues? Can you answer these questions for your own characters (say no and make me feel better)?

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

I'm all out of words for you, chitlins

I've used them up while trying to finish the first (second? third? I've lost track) draft of the current WIP. I've set myself a deadline of completing the manuscript before my second semester of creative writing starts (yay!), which is next week. So I have some self-butt-kicking to do, and let me tell you, that's not pretty.

So while I finish up this draft and try to form more cohesive sentences here than "me like coffee" or "how I type so good?" why don't you tell me where you're at with your writing.

How's it going? Are you in first draft finish out like me, or just starting a new idea? Are you polishing up for queries or already sending them out? Are you languishing away in the middle of the plot land like I was a few weeks ago, no light at the end of the tunnel? Are you in the flurried first few chapters stage where the world is yours and there's no possible way you could burn out on this story?

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Come on, snow, why you gotta hate?

So apparently the whole rest of the country is buried under mounds of snow, including the top half of my fair Lone Star state. And what do we get down here in Austin? All the blah of cold temperatures without the whee! of iced precipitation. Call it a holdover from my younger years but snow (we call it snow, don't judge) means skipping school and sliding around on the back deck and using a cardboard box as a temporary sled until it tears in half because your butt is too big. Fun!

But no. Snow sent out its Valentine's Day cards and turns out it doesn't choo-choo-choose us. We're the kids who are bundled up warm inside with our faces pressed against the glass watching everybody else make snow monsters and igloos and all the other fun stuff I assume people who get snow do. Like make snow cones and write their names in the snow with pee (maybe don't make snow cones out of the pee snow).

And don't try to talk me out of my fantasy snow day by saying cars and houses are damaged and businesses are losing money because people can't work or buy stuff and it's one of the worst storms anyone's ever seen. And I don't want to hear about how we had rolling blackouts all yesterday because the power grid couldn't handle all the electricity people in Dallas were sucking up because it's cold there or something. And don't complain to me that flights are grounded all over the country and people have been stuck in airports for hours without access to their luggage because it's been in a cargo hold for three days. You're only trying to make me feel better about snow not inviting us to its basement party while its parents are out of town.

All I'm asking, snow, is to show a little love. You don't even have to last all day, just long enough that I can't get out of my driveway because it's iced over so I have to stay home with a mug of hot cocoa and lament the fact that I'm not working. Is that too much to ask?

Did you get the invite to the snow party? Are you loving it (say no to make me feel better)? Does this weather inspire you to write?

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Some truths on a Thursday

What? It's a day that starts with T, give me a break. So I was all set to write about one of my new year's resolutions but instead I think I'll distract you with the shiny keys of randomness today. I'm busy, but I don't want to neglect my lovelies.

1) So this whole zodiac sign thing? Actually tripping me out. I mean, I don't read horoscopes, I don't follow the signs or anything like that, but apparently I still very much identify myself as a Taurus because I'm all weirded out that I'm supposed to be an Aries now. I kept this feeling to myself until I told the partner-in-crime (also a Taurus) about the changed signs. His reply? "Taurus for life!" I echo the sentiment.

2) Okay, Vampire Diaries has some cheesy acting and some cheesier dialogue, but I'm a squee bit addicted to it. Blame it on Ian Somerhalder's face.

3) I think The LiLa is on to something with this whole shiny new idea thing. You strike a balance between pushing yourself and beating a dead horse. Although I guess the trick is knowing when to put the defib paddles to the horse...

4) I'm not impressed by the iPad. THERE I SAID IT DON'T SEND THE APPLE MOB AFTER ME. I just think it's a giant iPhone. I was impressed with the touch screen awesomeness of the iPhone when it first came out, but now like any good technology follower it's already invoking a sense of ennui in my book. Give me five minutes to get used to it and I'll tell you I'm already bored. Le sigh.

5) I keep thinking I'm waiting to hit that magical moment when my "life" starts, but I'm starting to get worried that this is it and I'm missing it because I haven't had enough coffee. I also conveniently use this excuse when I want another cup of coffee.

What are your thoughts for today? And I promise I will post something useful one of these days? Oh, wait...look over here! Shiny!

Monday, January 24, 2011

Roni's got an awesome contest you should let me win

So Roni over at Fiction Groupie is throwing a Mega-Awesome Query Contest in which she's giving away a whopping SEVEN query critiques this week. One of them even happens to be from Anita Mumm at Nelson Literary, and since I cyber-love Kristin Nelson that kind of has me fangirling out a bit.

Now I'm going to tell you to go over there and enter because this is an amazing opportunity and Roni's pretty much a staple of the writer's blogging community, but what I really mean is let me hoard all the contest entries and win them for myself because I probably need a critique worse than you (they can be three pages long and have at least two paragraphs about how much my mom loves it, right?)

So...go check it out. And tell them your name is JEM :).

Friday, January 21, 2011

Quantifying the suck

It's easy as writers to get caught in the "this is so terrible, I'll never write like Suzanne Collins/Stephen King/Nora Ephron/Dr. Seuss" mindset. It's also easy to forget that you're reading the final spit-polished version of a story that everyone and their brother has weighed in on to make it the best book it can possibly be. We're emotional people, the creatives of the world, and it's as easy to send us into a tailspin of self-hating depression as saying two words: I suck.

And you know what? You do. I do. We all do. Are babies awesome at walking from the get go? Have you ever watched a baby giraffe (called a calf, which made me giggle) try to walk for the first time? Hijinks ensue, let me tell you. Every person and every thing in the world sucks when they first try something. Michael Phelps doesn't swim a gold medal run every time he trains; he trains to be able to swim that gold medal run when he needs to. We can't look at the final version of years of effort and assume our first draft WIP that's only half-way done sucks in comparison. Of course it sucks. It's supposed to suck. Our job as writers is to identify how it sucks.

Enter the quantification of the suck. It's not enough to say "this is terrible." You have to know why it's terrible. Are your characters falling flat? Are you not grounded in the scenery? Is the dialogue stilted or does it contain too much realistic speak that trips up the flow of the story? Have you shamefully abused your adjectives and adverbs? Does your piece not keep a consistent voice throughout? These are all questions you should be asking yourself during the revision process. If you hear a beeping sound in your house you don't stand around going "man that's annoying. I wish it would stop beeping." NO. You go FIND the source of the beeping. So go find the source of your suck.

Me? I le SUCK at setting descriptions. I can do them, sure, but it's like pulling teeth to get me to think of it and then give an interesting description of a building. It's a building, people. Can't you visualize that? Apparently not, according to my writing class, my crit group, the P-i-C, and anyone who's ever read my writing. Does it annoy me to holy heck that I have to go back in and describe all these things I don't care about? Yes. Will I ever be as good at it as L.M. Montgomery (that woman could go on about trees six ways till Sunday)? No. But will I eventually put in enough practice to make it good enough that it doesn't trip other people up while they get to the good parts of the story? I'd better.

Despair not, friends. Or at least know that I despair with you.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Tell the truth Tuesday

1) I envy Lila and their cheating ways. Lately my creative brain (and, let's face it, the rest of it) feels like a piece of toast that's been left on the counter for three days. You can slather that baby with strawberry jam but it won't change the fact that it is DRIED. OUT. I'd love to be led astray by a shiny new idea.

2) I have Animal by Neon Trees stuck in my head on a definite loop. It's so flipping catchy. I didn't want to like it because the lead singer has crazy hair and I have strict rules about how my favorite bands should look, but it's infected my brain.

3) Somewhere along the way I've now allowed myself to have more than one cup of coffee a day and it is A SLIPPERY JITTERY SLOPE PEOPLES.

4) I am sorely tempted to drive past my exit for work and keep going just to see where I end up. It's the dreamer in me.

5) The actual desert is disappointing when compared to the Hollywood personification of it.

6) Yes, this list is random.

7) I'm disappointed in Shakira. She rocked in Spanish, and Donde Estan Los Ladrones is one of my favorite albums, but now she dances around in gold bikinis and animal cages and pretends like blonde hair doesn't make her look like every other singer in pop culture. For shames.

8) The partner-in-crime has gotten me into unnecessary and excessive pluralizations.

What's your truth todays?

Friday, January 14, 2011

Down the rabbit hole

Okay, confession: I don't really know what that title means. And I'm not going to look it up. However, in the context of this blog post it means: imagination.

I find that adulthood has really put a crimp in my imaginative ways. I was a child lost in a dream world of my own making, so many stories and characters cropping up that I never minded being alone; in fact, I relished the opportunity to carry on with my stories. There was a lack of imagination (at least to my level) in most of my playmates, so I preferred to share my stories with the characters themselves. It helped that we lived on a street that dead-ended into a wild wood, and that my mom didn't seem to mind if I disappeared into the trees for a few hours. To this day I find myself lost in nostalgia when I pass a wooded area. I also used to lay at the end of my driveway for hours - at least until the ants got me (it is Texas, after all) - watching the stars and telling all my secrets to them. I thought if I could just live among them, dance their sparkling dance, I would discover my true self.

Now, outside of writing, I don't find much room for creativity. It seems to me the older I get and the more I interact with other adults, the passion for creativity has died out of a large part of our population. Things we indulged in so freely as children are now ridiculed or looked down on. What if I want to wear hot pink leggings under a flowery skirt? What if I want to break out in random dance on the street? What if I want to sing at the top of my lungs in my car? What if I want to make a living telling stories about stars and lost princesses and supernatural powers? Sure, I can do these things, but let's not pretend they won't earn me strange glances from the people around me. What's cute in children is considered crazy in adults.

But here's my question today: Why? Why why why? Why does being an adult mean putting away childish things? Why are children the only ones allowed to wander the world in wonder? Why can't I giggle and clap my hands with excitement when I watch a show at a planetarium? Why can't I be fascinated that volcanic stone floats on water (which I STILL am)? Why can't I pretend, if only for a moment, that I secretly hope I'm a fallen star or intergalactic battle hero? Why does imagination as an adult make us weird?

As an unpublished (but hoping to be some day) writer, I have this feeling that people consider you crazy until you reach success with your writing. Then you're a visionary; until then you're a little touched in the head. But the truth is, you've done all the hard work by the time you actually reach success. All of the work that went into your story, all of the imagination and playing that you (if you're like me right now) kept hidden from the rest of your "real world" peoples, all of that happened before the agent. Before the publisher. Before the sales. Before the success. Giving in to imagination has to happen before you can find that success.

So I don't know about you today, but I think I'll dance when I feel like it. Even if it's in the middle of an Outback Steakhouse bathroom (if you don't follow Lisa and Laura Write, you should).

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Tell the truth Tuesday

1) It took me a good hour this morning to figure out it was Tuesday. Yesterday was my anniversary with the P-i-C, which meant champagne, which meant I fell asleep on champagne's schedule and not my own, which meant I blissfully thought it was Saturday for a good hour this morning. Damn.

2) I am fast learning that I am a writer who needs ABSOLUTE SILENCE to write most effectively. Music? No way. The static hum of the television? Nope. the P-i-C lumbering about the house? Drives me crazy. Must work on this...

3) I'm getting dangerously addicted to multiple cups of coffee and eating out for lunch. It's not a habit, guys. I can quit any time. But you touch my coffee and suffer the consequences.

4) I think I'm good at multitasking. I'm not.

5) I am craving Long John Silver's right now. CRAVING it. I should not eat fried things. I probably will. And then regret it, but not after the sweet oily fried goodness of fast food quality fish (judgment free zone, people).

What's your truth today?

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Just a thought...

Gentle readers, I had a thought this morning as I looked in the mirror and found a slight crease in my forehead from excessive eyebrow raising:

A well preserved body is a sign of a life not lived.

What are your thoughts this happy hump day? (I normally eschew the term hump day, but it was too alliterative to resist).

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

2011: The Year of Realizing Dreams

If you'll allow me to be cheesy for a moment (and you'll have to, since it's my blog), I find myself waxing philosophical at this time of year. I've had lots of conversations with the partner-in-crime about what I want 2011 to be; much of this comes out of a general feeling of frustration with 2010, but it also comes from a place of fresh beginnings and hope for a new year (however arbitrary the demarcation may be). Being the lover of words that I am, I've been compiling two and three word phrases to characterize my hopes for the new year, and I thought I would share. Because sharing is caring. Except when it comes to herpes.

I've organized it like a poem because it makes me feel better (what up, Shakespeare?).

2011: The Year
The year of chasing dreams
The year of taking risks
The year of daydreaming
The year of random dancing
The year of better eating
The year of more smiling
The year of appreciation
The year of realizing dreams

Your turn!
The year of ________ (this is where you fill in the blanks)

Happy New Year, gentle readers!