Monday, February 20, 2017

To begin is human . . .

A popular post from September 2009

By Heather Moore

I’ve been to many writers conference over the past eight years, and listened to maybe close to 100 presenters. I’m at the point where I’ve heard pretty much everything, so I rarely take notes anymore. Mostly I’m interested in publishing stories—as in how did this bestselling author get his/her start?

At the Book Academy conference held at Utah Valley University this past week, Brandon Sanderson was the keynote speaker. If you are a fantasy writer, for children, YA, or adult, his books are a must-read. He writes the Alcatraz series for middle-grade readers (they are hilarious for adults as well. Also, for you omniscient pov writers, this series is a classic example). He also writes epic fantasy. Elantris is his first published, and the Mistborn trilogy has propelled him to pretty much stardom. I'm dying to read Warbreaker, his newest release, but I'm trying to get my WIP progress drafted first.

Brandon talked about how he wrote novel after novel (I think it was 12-13) before he finally got his #6 book a publishing contract. When he heard from the editor who wanted to buy his book, he contacted an agent who he’d gotten to know over the years through various writers conferences. The agent signed him.

Brandon gave some advice on things he wished he would have known before he tried to follow market trends (which wasn’t successful for him). I won’t reiterate it here since I don’t want to plagiarize, although I did ask him if it was okay to blog about it. And I think he said yes. Or maybe I just told him I was going to, and he looked at me funny. I’m not sure (since when I'm around famous people I'm lucky to remember my name), so to be on the safe side, I’ll just tell you about one of the things he emphasized.

“Write what you like to READ.”

This sounds so simple, but when you really think about it, it makes a whole lot of sense. This can solve some of our writer’s angst when we are trying to think of a new genre to break into. Say you are published in historical fiction (like me!) and you see all of your friends getting huge advances in children’s lit. Hmmm. Should I switch genres? Catch the tide? Do I love children’s lit or am I just trying to copycat?

So I pause and ask myself: “What do I READ?” That’s the answer. If I don’t like to read what I’m writing, then guess what? The passion will fizzle out all too soon.

So, like Brandon, who decided to not follow the tide and write what he was passionate about (Epic Fantasy), I think I’ll do the same—not the same genre, but you know what I mean.

One last quote from Mr. Sanderson, which I thought about putting on my whiteboard in my office, but then didn’t want to be reminded of a big revision in my near future:

“To begin is human.
To finish is divine.
To revise is hell.”

Friday, February 17, 2017

Spinning Wheels

A popular post from October 2009

By Julie Wright

Madeleine L'Engle quoted someone who'd said her success hadn't affected her, and then said, "Hasn't it? Of course it has. It's made me free to go out and meet people without tangling in the pride which is an inevitable part of the sense of failure."

I get tangled in pride every now and again, but not the way you'd imagine. I don't sit there thinking of how amazing I am, or better than anyone else I am, simply because I have a few books published. My pride entangles me when I'm not accomplishing what I want--when I am failing.

I see other people accomplishing, achieving, reaching, and feel that inevitable bruising of pride--that sense of failure because I am mired in my own mediocrity. I don't feel like I'm moving forward.

Things sit too long, freezing under me and I start spinning my wheels on the ice; I sometimes take a step or two back instead of forward. Those steps back affect me a great deal more than any success. I withdraw into myself--feeling less worthy. I find myself unable to cheer anyone else on their journey because I am so centered on my own self--which makes me selfish.

This is what happens when I spin my wheels. I become selfish.

The only way to end the cycle is to find some traction, create enough friction, and start moving again. This doesn't always mean getting the agent, the contract, the movie deal. Sometimes finding traction just means to submit another manuscript, to write another word, to DO something--anything that moves you forward.

When moving forward, I find myself better able to step *outside* myself and encourage others to reach for their dreams as well. It allows me to be a better friend, a better mentor--a better person. When I feel like I am succeeding in even the smallest measure, that measure allows me to dream bigger, climb higher, take another step forward--which leads to another step . . . which leads . . .

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Nothing But Trouble

A popular post from September 2009

By Julie Wright

I read a book several years ago where the characters did a great job of avoiding trouble. They skirted around it in all sorts of creative ways, but never actually confronted trouble head on. I never finished the book. I gave it a good shot--way more than it deserved and read 200 pages before frustration took over and I gave up.

Nothing was happening. YAWN.

Your characters have to get into trouble because that's what creates conflict. Conflict is interesting. Trouble is interesting. Trouble can also be . . . well . . . trouble.

I don't know about you, but sometimes my characters are great at getting into major trouble, but not so great at getting out again. They can wind up in all sorts of huge calamities, the entire world can be falling to piece around them and I agonize over how to piece that world back together again.

Over time I've learned that if my characters can get into a fine mess, they'd better just get themselves out.

Convenience is a writer's enemy. It's tempting to help your characters out and throw them the olive branch of convenience, but you aren't doing them (or yourself) any favors. Convenience looks just like it is--too convenient. You lose your reader's trust when you start making your characters do things that don't make sense to the character you've developed. You can't betray the persona's you've created simply because you NEED the character to get up in the middle of the night and go downstairs for leftover cheesecake so they can overhear a conversation that will lead them to the murderer when your character is a deep sleeper and they're allergic to cheesecake.

Stay away from convenience.

And your character got into their own trouble . . . make them smart enough and resourceful enough to get out of it. We like characters who can think on their feet. The damsel in distress who always needs to be taken care of by the hunky hero is really not compelling. A butt-kickin' chick who can break out of her own prisons? She's someone we want to read about, even if it is her own fault she landed herself in prison.

Also stay away from false conflicts.

The kind where the character thinks they are in all kinds of life threatening peril but in reality the character's best friend is in control the whole time. It's the difference between the tummy tickle of a roller coaster while you're strapped into the train car and the tummy tickle you get when jumping out of an airplane dependant only on a parachute that you packed yourself. Did you pack it right? Do you know how soon to pull the cord? That is the parachute on your back, right? You didn't grab your backpack by mistake?

That real peril--way more interesting.

At least in books. I don't personally make habits out of jumping out of perfectly good airplanes. I don't care who packed the chute.

Monday, February 13, 2017

When in Doubt: Kill Someone Off

A popular post from March 2009

By Josi S. Kilpack

They year is 1999.

The Place is my dining room in my house in Draper, Utah.

The book I'm working on is my first one, Earning Eternity

It happened like this.

I had never written a book before, but had spent the last two months creating this story. I was having a dang good time and loving what I was created, but I'd hit an impasse. I didn't know what came next. I had built conflict, but it wasn't enough. I had great characters, but they weren't enough either. I was faced with that 2/3 sag, where you're not quite ready to end the story, but you're running out of steam. I thought about some of my favorite books, trying to figure out what those authors did. That's when it came to me.

I broke into tears, pushed away from the table and stopped writing for the day. The next day I sat back down, let my fingers hover over the keys and burst into tears again. I couldn't do it. I was a mother, I had a son of my own. I couldn't do it.

Another day passed and I just knew--I just knew that if I didn't do this the book would suffer. To be true to the entire structure of a novel, I had to let my character suffer--REALLY suffer. So I did it. I wrote the car accident that led to the head trauma that led to the death of Kim's son. I cried the whole time.

My husband came home from work and my eyes were red and swollen.

"What happened?"

"Jackson died."

"WHAT?" (Jackson was also the name of a boy in our neighborhood)

"Jackson, in my book, he died."

Husband freezes and looks at me like I'm an alien life form (no worries, I've gotten used to it since then--happens all the time these days) "Huh?"

So I explain it to him; how Jackson's death was necessary, but it broke my heart, and it's just so sad and I'd been really upset about it. I start crying again as I try to explain. He thinks I've truly lost my mind (who's to say I haven't?)

It was my first fictional death, and it hurt to know that I'd done it. And yet, when the book was done I knew that I'd been right--the story did need it. The sacrifice had paid off, never mind the heart ache.

Since then I've become a regular serial killer of characters. Some are important characters, some are just 'props' we don't need anymore. They've died in a myriad of ways, and while I don't usually cry anymore, that's not because it's easy. I don't like random acts of violence any more than the next person, however, in the case of writing a good book-well, there are just times when somebody has to die. Here's why.

Death challenges the deepest fears that we, as humans have. Even those of us with a religious bent worry about death--the mess, the other side, the people left behind. Death is painful on many levels, and that being the case it's a powerful tool of manipulation. That's what we do, you know, we manipulate people into thinking and feeling what we want them to think and feel. Don't try and deny it--you know it's true. And while there are hundreds of ways to create this manipulation of our readers (kissing scenes, rain, tearful goodbyes, vampires that glisten in the sunlight) there are few quite as powerful as death--be it the bad guy getting shot in the head, the hero's lover falling victim to small pox, or, as in my first book, an only child dying as a result of a bad idea gone horribly wrong.

There is also a sense of relief about death that you can't get through other means of character torture--with death you know that that character's life is over, and then the remaining characters need to rebuild without that person. It's a huge 'change' that can then grow new conflicts and direction for your story. Even the bad guy getting what he deserves provides opportunities of reflection and growth. Because death is so difficult, your readers are hungry to see the remaining characters cope and grow because of this adversity, giving you a whole new tool belt of tactics to use for the rest of your story. Bad guys are made worse when they kill someone, and good guys are made gooder when they triumph over such tragedy.

You are likely reading this with one of two reactions--you're either nodding, thinking about some great death scenes you've read or written, or you're thinking I'm a little tipped in the head. Don't feel bad, I'm the last one to say I'm not tipped, but I will say that when I reach those parts of my books where I'm feeling it sag, or I need to get the story started but not sure how to get those first pages in there with enough action to hold my reader, the first thing I do is look around at my characters and see who is dispensable. That's not to say I don't shed a tear now and again--I'm not completely heartless--but you never know when death might be the very thing to save your story.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Keep the Doors Wide Open

A popular post from September 2009

by Annette Lyon

I imagine if you talk to virtually any published writer, they'd tell you straight out that their publishing life hasn't turned out exactly like they expected. Twists and turns and unexpected bumps happen along the way.

And so do massive shifts . . . like taking on a new genre. Or changing publishers. Or parting ways with an agent. Or finding success where you least expected it.

For example, when I first began seeking publication, it was with a YA fantasy. But I first got published with a contemporary romance. The shift happened after chatting with a friend at a conference and realizing that I had stories to tell that her publisher might be interested in. Several rejections (and one acceptance!) later, I was one of their writers.

Another shift happened when, two books later, **SURPRISE!** I found myself writing historical fiction. At the time, it was a shock to me. Now, that genre is what I'm best known for, and people laugh when they hear I didn't always plan on writing it.

And now? My next book is contemporary women's fiction (not a romance), and, on my publisher's request, I'm working on a (get this!) a COOKBOOK.

Sure didn't see that one coming.

I recently thought through the stable of PEG editors. Each and every one of us has had major shifts in our careers.

Lu Ann slaved for years on YA manuscripts and suddenly found her big break ghost-writing a memoir for the Herrin Twins' mother. She has since been hired to write a second and then a third memoir. Not what she initially planned on, but she's published and continuing to be published. I still think she'll get her own novel out there some day, but what if she'd said no to that first memoir? She'd have missed out on several fantastic opportunities (and the royalty checks that go with them!).

Heather began writing a bunch of different kinds of stories, not sure what genre what she wanted to focus on. I remember one book set in the Puritan era and another that was more of a mystery/suspense. She's since found huge success targeting the historical/religious fiction market. She didn't plan that right out of the gate.

Julie's first two books were with one publisher. She changed publishers midstream and suddenly vaulted into the spotlight with an amazing novel that got her massive acclaim. And then she had to switch publishers again. Talk about a roller coaster ride. Now she's got a new book out (yay!) plus an agent for her YA fantasy work, and we may well see her her science fiction books on shelves in the near future.

Josi got a name for herself writing books with "meat" dealing with serious issues like molestation, prescription drug abuse, and Internet predators. By a giant quirk of fate (that maybe she'll tell here sometime), she ended up writing the beginning of what turned into a culinary mystery, which has now turned into a culinary mystery series, and now she's got two novels for that series out with more to come. Again, didn't see that coming.

I could go on with more examples showing several of our other writer friends who aren't part of this blog and how they've had to morph and change with the industry, their publisher/s, their editor's demands, their audience, and so forth. Things change.

The point is that as a writer, if you 1) hope to be published and 2) hope to keep being published, you have to be willing to bend. Granted, you don't want to write just for the market, just what "will sell."

Don't sell out. Of course not. But be flexible. I couldn't write what Heather or Julie or the others do, but I can write a variety of different things that I am personally good at, in my own way.

I need to be willing to put my toes into different waters and try them out. I shouldn't be afraid of something just because it's different and I might be scared of it. (I was terrified of historical fiction the first time!)

Try it out anyway. Because guess what? See that new puddle of water? That might just be your big break. You never know.

As for me, aside from the contemporary women's title coming out next spring and the cookbook, take a wild guess what my next novel will be?

Nope, not another historical.

My editor suggested I pull out an old murder mystery I wrote years ago and revise it.

Bet you didn't see that coming. Frankly, neither did I.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Annie on What You Know

A popular post from March 2009

by Annette Lyon

I've talked about this before: how the old rule, "write what you know" is highly over-rated. (Read my rant about that here.)

In the last week, I got a great laugh when someone else wrote about the same thing in connection with my new release.

Regarding Annie is a blog written by a woman who is a fun writer in her own right. She's got a newspaper column of the same name that you can click over to on her sidebar.

Her blog post from last Friday was a bit of tongue-in-cheek journalism looking at my supposed in-depth experiences that helped shape the book: things like mine explosions, theft, rattlesnakes, 19th century printing presses, and horse training.

None of which I possess any firsthand knowledge of whatsoever.

All of which play important roles in the book.

If I'd clung to the adage of, "Write what you know," I couldn't have written it. Or any of my other books. In this case, I had a fun storyline and great characters, and I knew I could look up what I needed to and ask for additional help from experts. And that's exactly what I did.

Once and for all, toss out, "Write what you know."

Replace it with, "Write what you're willing to learn about," and (as a commenter said in my earlier post on the topic), "Write what you can imagine."

Then look up the rest.

Read Annie's post here.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Questions: Paragraph Length

A popular post from March 2009

Josi S. Kilpack

I'm in the middle of the first draft of a book and I was wondering if there were any general norms to paragraph length. All I can find is "don't make them too long" and "vary the length". Is there any more I should know?


*Typically a single paragraph should be committed to a single idea, when the idea transitions to another idea, end the paragraph and start another one. The single idea is relayed to readers by collecting sentences together, thus making the 'paragraph'.

*Paragraphs can be anywhere from one sentence, to infinite sentences (or what feels that way anyhow--chances are the reader won't finish anyway, so it will always be without end).

*Typically paragraphs are between four and eight sentences.

*Varying the length of sentences keeps your writing flowing easily, especially in regard to prose. Be careful about using the same type of sentence (complex, three word, beginning with a pronoun) over and over again, this often bores your reader and sounds repetitive.

*Signal the start of a new paragraph by indenting the first line (in the formatting menu of your Word processing program you should be able to choose this as a default so that whenever you manually return, the next line indents)

*When writing dialogue, each character gets a new paragraph when it's their turn to participate.

( I had an example, but I can't get the formatting to work in blogger, thus I put a # in the following block that shows where a hard return should be. The line following the hard return would then be indented 5 spaces. Notice how hard it is to follow the conversation when it is not broken into paragraphs)


"Don't eat the cheese!" she yelled.# He looked at the cheese, picked it up and stuffed it in his mouth. "I an ef I ant!" he said with his mouth full, giving her a challenging look. #"It was spiked with botulism, you'll be dead within twenty four hours, you idiot," she retorted. If he would just once listen to her, he'd have a long and happy life. But, well, as she'd just told him, he was an idiot. Idiots tended to die young whether or not they ate botulism tainted cheeses. #He swallowed and looked back at the cheese tray, fear in his eyes and beads of sweat forming on his forehead. "Botulism?" he asked, looking a little green. "Why is the cheese tainted with botulism?" # "I don't think the why matters any more, does it?" She hoped his funeral wouldn't take place on Saturday, she had a hair appointment that day and didn't want to miss it.

And all of this brings me to my personal opinion on paragraphs; paragraphs are good. Use them. I rarely have more than 9 sentences in a paragraph specifically because when a reader opens a book, seeing a solid block of text is daunting. I'm a reader and I can verify that this is true for me. I get lost when I move from the end of one line to the start of another line and the paragraph often SHOULD be broken into more paragraphs because it is rarely a single idea when it goes on that long. I have been known to put a book down when entire pages are taken up by one or two paragraphs. They remind me of a drawbridge of a castle, pulled up to prohibit entry. I often can't see past them and determine that the book is not worth my time.

I also love single line paragraphs, they are a great resource when trying to emphasize something. Such as:

. . . blah, blah, blah, blah, blah you better take out the garbage.
I didn't take it out.
The next morning I found the kitchen garbage poured into the front seat of my car. Apparently, she'd cracked a few eggs into it for good measure. Dang, I hate that woman. Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. . . .

However, single sentence paragraphs only work if you use them the right way and don't over do it. Typically, your paragraphs should be 4-6 sentences long, using both complex and simple sentences, even a single word sentence works from time to time. Varying your sentences keeps your words flowing and your momentum up.

It's my belief that paragraphs are as much visual as they are semantic. The words need power, but the visual absorption of them also need to be pleasing to the eye.

For a little self-exercise go to your current WIP, go to 'edit' and 'select all' this will highlight your text. Back up from your screen--what do you see? What kind of white-space do you see (meaning non-written on paper)? Are the edges jagged at both sides? Or is it blocky and solid looking. (hint: you want airy and jagged)

Happy writing people!