Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Anachronisms & Other Ways to Make Readers Snicker

A popular post from November 2009

by Annette Lyon

Anachronisms are hysterical in fiction . . . and usually not in the way the author of a piece intended.

An anachronism is something stuck in a place where it doesn't fit in time. A really, really bad one would be giving a caveman a car. That's a bit too obvious, something no writer would ever accidentally do, but writers put in anachronisms all the time in more subtle ways.

While this is relevant to me as a historical writer, the overall concept is crucial for all writers to keep in mind, particularly in the revision stage, so read on.

For me, I constantly have to research bits and pieces to make sure that certain vocabulary, hair styles, household items, and so on were in use when I place them into a story.

Could Joe use a match to light a fire in this year? Can Sally eat a "cookie" in that year? Would David have access to envelopes in this location at this time? When did diamond rings become common symbols of engagements?

Those are the kinds of things writers pay attention to in their research. Where writers often lose focus is inadvertently throwing in common expressions that don't work for the time period of the book.

For example, a bad anachronism would be for a character from Shakespeare's time to say, "We're really off track."

The problem? "Off track" came from railroads. And yeah . . . railroads didn't exist in Shakespeare's time, so someone from that period wouldn't know what the phrase means.

So why is this important if you don't write historical fiction? Because this is one more way you can mess things up by imposing your mindset onto your characters.

The writer must always remember how the CHARACTER would really think and feel and relate to his or her world.

Luke Skywalker would never say he's "shell-shocked," even if what he's feeling would apply to our definition of that term. He'd use some other way to describe the feeling, because "shell-shocked" is World War II lingo.

When Lizzy from Pride and Prejudice discovers Darcy's involvement in saving her family's name, she'd never have said that he "stepped up to the plate." That's an American baseball term from the 20th century, for starters, one that didn't exist when the book was written. So granted, Jane Austen couldn't have used it, but someone trying to write a P&P sequel today could, and would really mess it up.

Another phrase I came across in a historical novel recently was, "We should give it a shot." I don't know for sure when that phrase came about, but the novel was set a long time ago, so the sentence jumped out as not belonging. It sounded way too modern for the context. I stopped believing the writer. These kinds of things just don't work.

Another warning: too much colloquial phrasing will date a contemporary book too; avoid anything too dated, even if it's dated as now.

In one book, the characters were from the early 1800s, and one referred to his mother as "pushing his buttons."

Um . . . which buttons would those be? The ones on his shirt? Because, yeah, well, hate to say this, but see, computers and other things with buttons that can be pushed . . . weren't invented when this guy supposedly lived.

What this writer needed was an idiom, term, or phrase from the early 1800s that would give the reader the same feel as "pushing my buttons" does today, but that came from the right period. They also needed something matching the character's personality. Instead, what we got was the writer's voice intruding on the story, the writer's point of view.

Sadly, it was hard to get immersed in the book when the author kept poking their nose into the story. I was painfully aware that they weren't fully into the characters' minds and hearts, let alone fully into the time period.

One of my favorite stories of this kind of revision (for the better!) is in Michele Paige Holmes's newest book, All the Stars in Heaven. She's used this example in a workshop herself when teaching how to get into characters' heads.

She originally wrote a scene where Jay, her hero, listens to the heroine, Sarah, sing a choir solo for the first time. He is blown away by her voice and says it's one of the most amazing things he's ever heard.

The rough draft had him compare her voice to an angel's. But then Michele realized that Jay wouldn't say that kind of thing. He's manly and tough. He wouldn't think in terms of angelic choirs. He loves and plays rock music.

Her final version says that Sarah's performance was the most amazing thing he'd ever heard with the possible exception of Hendrix playing "The Star Spangled Banner."

I love that change. It's true-blue Jay, precisely how he'd think. It's okay that Michele's rough draft had the angelic bit. We all have rough drafts that aren't perfect (that's why they're called rough). And frankly, the original wasn't bad. But the final version was perfect: just how Jay would think and express himself. Michele stepped aside as the author and let him speak.

Be sure that when you do those later passes over your manuscript for revision that you read each scene with an eye out for when you're really in your characters' heads. Is this really how they'd see each situation? Or is it your lens that we're looking through?

Ask yourself: Is there anything that I, as the writer, am putting in that doesn't belong?

Would your character really say it this way, think this particular thought?

Are you expressing your opinion or your characters'? Your world view or theirs?

Worse, did you inadvertently throw in an anachronism?

Another gem I caught recently: "No, way."

In context, it sounded just like a Valley Girl from 1988. The problem? The story was set during the time of pirates.

I closed the book, tempted to walk around the house, flipping my hair, snapping gum, and going, "Like, totally argh, Matey."

Monday, October 24, 2016

The Mirror That is Our Writing

A popular post from January 2010

By Julie Wright

I eavesdrop. I've confessed this before, but I've been doing it a lot again lately so figured I was due for another confessional. I HAVE to eavesdrop when I'm working on a book because I have a problem I call speech reflection.

My writing is a direct reflection of my own language and speech patterns. I have to edit out a lot to change that, but first drafts are so transparently me. And so I resort to eavesdropping on other people's conversations to save myself from my own voice. If you listen to people--really listen, you'll find that no two people sound alike. Their word choices, their cadence and beat, their stutterings, ramblings, and hesitations all reflect on who they are. Like snowflakes, no two are alike.

In so many ways, my writing is like a mirror. It is a reflection on who I am even when I try hard for it not to be. My own persona sneaks into all the characters I write, whether they are the good guys or the evil guy. It's frustrating.

And in some ways, it's unavoidable. They tell us to write what we know and sometimes we just can't help but listen to them. But there are things we can do to find our own characters speech patterns and voices.

These are the things I try to do:

--Eavesdrop. You thought I was kidding, didn't you? No seriously--eavesdrop. Go and listen to other people's patterns of conversation.
--have a complete picture of what your character looks like. Some authors I know cut pictures out of magazines to identify their characters. This keeps them solidly in their head. If your character is always shifting in your mind on how they look, how can you pin down how they sound?
--remember your character's age. A two-year-old speaks differently from a ten-year-old, who will speak differently from a twenty-year-old. Don't forget to check the nuances of speech in different ages.
--know where your character comes from. New Englander who says "wicked?" Southerner who says "fixin?" Know their accents, and the vernacular of the culture they were raised in.
--take out phrases that anyone who's met you could pin point as something you'd say.

I have books in the past where the character sounds just like me and I cringe over it. But I've confessed the sin of speech reflection and am daily working on eradicating it from my writing life. So if you notice this in your own writing, feel free to go eavesdrop. People don't mind. They really don't. If they did, they wouldn't talk so loud.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Everyone Needs An Editor

A popular post from December 2009

By Julie Wright

I got a great question from one of my up and coming author friends the other day about professional editing. She made this comment to me:
I'm assuming you don't send your own work off to an editor since you are one.

In my fantasy world, this might be true, but in reality, I'd dash out my eyes before trusting them, and only them, to catch all my flaws. You know that old saying? Something about not seeing the forest because of all those trees? Writing is a lot like that. We get too close to our projects and lose all form of objectivity. Or sometimes, even when we know something's wrong with our manuscripts, we don't see how to fix it exactly.

I have several professional authors/editors (These editors all work for Precision Editing Group) who I trade manuscripts with. I trust these people completely. I trust them to be brutal, but brutal in a way that helps. I've known editors who slash manuscripts to pieces simply because it makes them feel smarter, or empowered, or whatever, but a good editor will not slash for their own benefit, but the benefit of the manuscript. You know who you can trust for honest-even-when-it-hurts critiques. Don't trust your manuscript to anything less. And no matter how published, or smart, or HUGE an author is--everyone needs an editor.

And just for kicks, here is how my writing, editing, submitting process works:
• Write the book
• Edit the book myself
• Go over it one more time (just in case)
• Then send it to three others
• Write something new while waiting for the results
• Get results
• Cry a little over the fact that I’m not all that brilliant
• Eat chocolate and get over myself
• Do final edit
• Submit
• Get edits back from my publisher
• Cry over the fact that I’m not all that brilliant
• Eat chocolate and get over myself
• Do final final edit
• Get galleys
• Curse myself for not being more thorough in final edit
• Do final final, I-mean-it-this-time edit
• Get author copies of my book and still think of ways I could have been better, while also thinking how cool I am for getting a new book published.
• Eat chocolate and get over myself.
• Finish writing new book

If you're being honest with yourself, you know you can always do better. This is not to say you should never let a manuscript go. We all have to finally shout, "Enough!" and move on to a new project. Sometimes more fiddling is just more fiddling.

Eventually your book has to stand on it's own, but dragging it through a few other sets of eyes, makes it stand a little taller.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Don't Rush It

A popular post from December 2009

by Annette Lyon

'Tis the season for many a writer to query and submit.

Many reasons about for this sudden rash of submissions, and some of them are great. I'm referring specifically to fiction here, not to non-fiction proposals, which are a different animal.

If you have done all of the following, submit away. If you have not, back away from the "send" key. You must have:
  • written an entire novel. Not 50 pages. Not 100 or 150. An entire book, start to finish. You've reached the end.
  • revised that novel.
  • revised it again.
  • let other people (who are not you mother or your best friend but people with writing and critiquing experience) read the manuscript and tear it apart, showing you its strengths and weaknesses.
  • not ignored those people's advice.
  • weighed that advice, decided what to apply, and have done more revisions.
  • possibly done several more revisions.
  • possibly given the manuscript out to even more readers.
  • done another round of revisions based on those suggestions.
  • researched agents.
  • taken your time writing an amazing query letter.
  • revised that query letter.
  • revised it again.
  • taken that query letter to similar readers as above to get feedback on it.
  • revised it again.
At this point and only at this point are you ready to query.

From what I've read on agent blogs, they experience a huge influx of queries this time of year, and most of them are, to put it gently, um, not ready to be accepted.

Some of that is a result of what happened last month. Remember that big event so many writers were part of? I'm talking about NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writer's Month), something thousands of writers participate in annually.

It's a tremendous accomplishment to have pounded out 50,000 words in 30 days (especially when Thanksgiving lands during those days).

But the point of NaNo isn't to produce a polished, publishable novel. It's not even to necessarily reach the end of your story. It's to produce a lot of words in a short period, to show that you can break through writer's block and get the words down.

Submitting what you wrote last month is a really, really BAAAAD idea. (Apparently, not everyone thinks so, based on how many agents get queries based on NaNo projects.)

Submitting anything that hasn't had time to sit, gather mental dust, and go through the peer review and revision process is a bad idea.

There's also the fact that New York pretty much shuts down the second half of December, so really, what's the point of querying then? You might as well spend that time working on those revisions, getting those peer reviews, and getting that query ready.

All of the same agents and editors will still be ready for you come January. (Or February. Or March. Or later, whenever it is your manuscript is ready.)

Just don't rush the process. The cleaner the manuscript you hand over, the better your chances of getting that golden contract.

Remember: you want the agent or editor to see the brilliance of your writing and your story. Anything that pulls them from that experience is to your detriment, and creating such a clean manuscript can't be rushed.

It takes time. But it's worth the wait.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Press Releases: Find Your Hook

A popular post from September 2011

by Annette Lyon

Whether you've published with a traditional press or are going the indie route, a lot of promotion for your book will be on your shoulders.

In an attempt to get featured on television, radio, magazines, and newspapers, writers generally put together press releases and send them out, hoping for the best.

Problem: The vast majority of press releases will end up in the circular file, never to be read or passed along . . . or acted upon to give you any attention in the media.

There are several reasons why. One is that media outlets are bombarded with press releases. They simply have too many to wade through.

Another reason is that hundreds (if not thousands or tens of thousands) of writers send out press releases, and they all look the same. If a release doesn't stand out (as in, really stand out), it'll be ignored completely.

REALITY: Being a novelist doesn't mean you automatically know how to write a good press release.

Study up on the standard press-release format, including things like the headline, date, contact information, and even where to put the little ### symbols.

Of course, read it aloud, proof it meticulously, and then seek out the best people to send it to.

But before you write it in the first place . . .

Find your media hook, or your press release is already dead in the water.

The news is just that: NEWS. It's interesting information that the media think their audiences will want to hear and learn about. Write your press release with news in mind.

On the wall of a local news station I was at once, I saw a poster that was a reminder to the correspondents. It listed the most common things viewers care about (I think it was something like the 50 top subjects). Reporters were encouraged to use those topics as launching points when coming up with ideas for the news stories.

The types of things on the poster were all things that impact viewers' lives. I don't remember them all, but they included things like nutrition, safety, little-known hazards, heroes, health studies, recalls, environment, politics, warnings, and so on.

In other words: what will the viewers want to hear about because they already care?

I can guarantee you that "Local Author Publishes Novel" isn't going to cut it. Sure, your neighbors might care. But they probably already know your news. But who else will bother reading that?

Non-fiction is typically easier to sell for press releases than fiction, because often the hook is in the topic itself. A how-to book on finances, for example, could launch a spotlight on the author with a few of the tips from the book. But even then, the press release isn't about "expert on finances publishes book" so much as "expert reveals 25 sure-fire ways to get out of debt." And those ways happen to be in the book.

In other words, your hook should be something you could imagine on that poster. (Who out there isn't impacted on some level by money? Right.)

To get any kind of media attention with a novel, you need a news hook that is something people already care about.

Several years ago, Precision Editing's own Josi Kilpack was on a local morning talk show with her novel Sheep's Clothing. Her hook was the underlying concept behind the plot: the dangers of internet predators and how to keep our children safe. (And then as a post script: "Oh, and the book is about an internet predator. It's a great suspenseful read. Check it out.")

Are internet predators a current topic? Does it (or at least, the worry of it) affect a lot of viewers?

Let's see . . . it impacts any viewer with an internet connection and a child somewhere in their lives. Pretty much everyone.

Note that Josi's appearance was more about the issue and less about the book.

The same thing applied when I made it onto two local television shows and two radio interviews, plus some newspapers, while promoting my novel Band of Sisters.

The focus of the press release and the spots was on a charity that helps military families, something I learned about while researching the book and then joined forces with. The novel is about deployment. I included a page in the back about the charity, the Flat Daddy organization. I raised money for military families through my blog. On radio and television, I talked mostly about the charity and what people can do to help military families. The hosts mentioned the novel on the side.

We snagged one TV spot with a press release about the Flat Daddy charity, but when I got there, all the hosts asked me about was the book. Which was nice, although totally unexpected.

When writing your press release, find a new hook that reporters can latch onto. Make it something viewers or readers will want to find more about. It must be relevant to the viewer, not just to you because you love your book.

Sometimes that could mean writing a guest editorial about a topic (like finances) instead of doing a press release, then mentioning your book in the bio line.

But whatever you do, remember to never, ever use a headline that mentions just you, your book, and that gee, wow, you published one. That isn't news, and it won't get covered except, perhaps, in tiny local papers with a brief mention (which won't sell you any books).

Why should the media care? Why will their viewers and readers care? Hook them with a news story about something that matters.

Then make sure it's a crisp, clean press release, and you just upped the chances that they'll bite.

Friday, October 14, 2016

In Writing, Nothing Is Black and White

A popular post from December 2011

by Annette Lyon

Recently at a meeting with my critique group, we got to talking about giving advice to other writers. All of the members of my group have spoken at writing conferences, at workshops, in classrooms. And we've all had aspiring writers come to us with specific questions.

We all try to help as best we can. But there's a little secret behind all our advice:

In writing, there are no black and white answers.
  • The craft and industry has some general rules, yes. But you can find exceptions to just about every rule.
  • You can find plenty of successful writers who violate rules all over the place.
  • What works for me may not work for you.
  • And while it pains me to say this: this includes grammar and punctuation, to a point.

Whether it's outlining, point of view, character development, world building, finding time to write, getting over writer's block, or a hundred other things, no one has the ultimate answer.


That said, figuring out what works most of the time and for most people is useful.

Learning the acceptable rules of grammar and punctuation will be in your favor . . . so that when you need to violate them, you can do so effectively and purposefully.

Following industry expectations usually plays in your favor when seeking publication, so you can come across as a professional.

You may be the exception. Or not.

So . . . How do you know if you are?

Um, yeah. Another tricky question. You can't really know, at least, at first. Figuring it out takes time and practice. And a lot of both.

My advice: learn the rules. Learn to use them well. Figure out why they're rules in the first place. That could mean years of practice.

You can't know what works for you until you do. So try outlining. If that just isn't you, try pantsing it. Chances are you're somewhere between the two extremes. Play around until you find the place on the continuum that fits you best.

You'll have far more success finding your own way than trying to duplicate someone else's journey to publication.

No writer follows the same path as any other. You'll find obstacles unique to you, things you need to figure out on your own. Things that, frustrating as that is, may not have a clear black and white answer.

None of this is to say to ignore the instruction of writing teachers, to stop going to conferences, to stop reading blogs like this one, or to abandon writing books, podcasts, and the rest.

Rather, it means to expose yourself to as many different ways of viewing the writing process and the rules behind it so that you can find your personal niche.

If something a writing teacher passes along doesn't resonate with you, that's okay. Maybe another writer's way of viewing the same issue will work better for you.

Along the way, you'll stumble upon situations where you'll want to do something out of the lines. If you've put in the work, you'll know if you can do that. You'll be able to do it better than if you tried going into it blind. And coming out the other end, you'll know why it worked.

So: Learn as much as you can. Read lots. Practice writing even more than that. Figure out which rules work best for you.

You'll eventually discover what is your black, your white

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

School Assemblies for Authors 101

A popular post from October 2012

By Julie Wright

I’ve been doing a lot of school assemblies lately throughout the state of Utah. And I’ve learned some seriously important things. I won’t give you the wretched details of how I came to know all these things, but take my word for it.
The top ten most important things I’ve learned are as follows:
  1. Use the restroom first. It's a wee bit embarrassing (pun intended) to be doing the potty dance in the middle of your own presentation.
  2. Wash your hands (duh). And dry them THOROUGHLY. You will want to shake the hands of the principle and the librarian. Nothing worse than soggy palms because you have an aversion to those hand dryers or because you were too hasty in your use of the paper towels.
  3. Make sure you do up all zippers, buttons, etc. Make sure things that are supposed to be tucked in are tucked and those that aren’t stay out.
  4. Keep a kleenix in your pocket in case you need to sneeze. A thousand kids saying, “ewwwwww!” in your presentation when you weren’t purposely trying to be gross . . . well, that’s bad.
  5. Keep a water bottle handy in case your throat gets dry. A hacking cough really throws off a rhythm.
  6. Do a power point. Kids are trained to look at the big screen in front of them
  7. Don’t put lame stuff in your power point. Snoring children isn’t your goal.
  8. Be funny where possible, but don’t try too hard. Funny should be natural. If you don’t do funny, then know it can’t be forced.
  9. Do not make your presentation nothing but an hour long infomercial of “buy-my-book”
  10. Make the presentation about THE KIDS NOT YOU!
The last one is the most important thing I can advise. A really awesome author, James A Owen, said something that rang so true to me. He said, “If I am given the attention of five hundred middle-school students for an hour, and only that hour, I’m not going to talk about my books – I’m going to talk about the things that I believe are most important in this life; about things I believe are True, and meaningful, and worth sharing.”
Amen James.
There is very little in my presentation about my books. Seriously. I spend about 2 minutes on my books. My presentations are about literacy, believing in our own potential, believing that each individual human being has something magical and amazing to offer the world. Because I agree with James. If I’ve got an hour, and only that hour, there are way more important messages to give than, “Hey, kid, buy my book.” My presentation is about living without limits on your own awesomeness. Why should it be anything else? What if my presentation is the only place some of those kids ever hear that they can achieve great things? Wouldn’t it be tragic if instead of selling those kids on themselves I was instead trying to sell them on my books?
I had a few assemblies last week where I spoke to over 2000 kids. They were great. The kids were amazing in every way. I love doing assemblies and feeling that rush afterward. At my book signing at the library later that night, I ran into one of my friends who happened to work there. She was blinking in shock at the two hour long parade of kids tramping through her library. She asked me one simple question, “What did you do to make them all come out tonight?”
My answer?
I told them the truth.
I told them they were amazing. That they were brilliant. That they had the right to shine on the world in the same way that the star Antares shines from over a thousand light years away. I told them they had no limits to the great things they could accomplish.
The truth is powerful.
Youth are powerful if they only dare let themselves believe it.
And as writers, we have the power to tell them.
So I guess this post is really a bit of an admonition. I’ve heard many principles sigh and tell me of how disappointed they were in other authors because they felt like they’d yanked the kids out of useful class time just to hear a commercial. They were relieved my presentation was different. It makes me sad that I hear this comment over and over again. Truly consider authors. You have an hour with several hundred kids.
What message do you want to give them?