Friday, May 27, 2016

The Journey

A popular post from July 2011

By Josi S. Kilpack

Attend a writer's conference or talk to another writer and, inevitably, you'll get to hear about that writer's journey. How they started. What their initial goals were. The failures and the successes.

For a long time, I would hear another writer talk about their successful signing and I would envy that--mine never felt like they were that great. I'd hear them talk about their two dozen rejections and I would find myself envying that too--I hadn't put myself out there enough to get rejected. I would covet this writer's schedule, this writer's life long goals, and wish I had a great story to tell too. For many years I directed attention away from how I got started or how I moved forward because it just felt ... lame compared to the other stories I'd heard.

Of course I did have a story all my own, but I had pretty much ignored it because everyone else's story sounded so much better. I hadn't dreamed of being a writer since I was young. I didn't get a college degree. I didn't get rejected by half a dozen houses before I was accepted, therefore fully appreciating the thrill of victory. Instead, I hated to read as a child. I finished a year of college and was glad to leave it behind me when I got married and became a mom/aunt to my husband's niece. My first book was written almost on a whim and it was eventually published. What a lousy to story to tell. Where were the inspiring moments? Where were the turning points?

I wish I could better remember the moment that my perspective changed (it would be a wonderful chapter in my story if I could) but I don't remember exactly how it happened. I do remember realizing during a presentation to one of my kid's classes that being a reluctant reader as a child could be inspiring to someone else who also struggled with the same thing. I realized that not having a college degree could be an example of both how I could have better prepared, but also that just because I didn't have that degree, I could still write. I then looked back and realized my mom's love of reading and my 7th grade English teacher's stupid book report worksheets made a significant impact on my writing, even though none of us realized it at the time. And as I started identifying these landmarks in my past, I started to see the journey I didn't know I had had been on unfolding behind me.

I had a 3rd grade teacher who gave us unlimited extra credit if we'd write a one page story about a picture from her box--that made an impact. My dad isn't a die hard reader, but is a passionate artist and influenced my perspective of how to pursue one's talents--impact. A college professor told me I was really good with words--impact again. That I expected nothing great from myself and yet I did something that amazed myself--impact on steroids!

All these details have come into sharper focus as I've kept moving forward and I can now look back on the journey I've taken and marvel at the view. I can take pride in MY story and MY journey, while better appreciating everyone else's. I find that I envy less the successes and sympathize better with the hardships of other writers. I find that I want to be someone who helps other people on their journey, rather than being the defeatist who discourages their goals. I find myself excited as I watch other people's journey's unfold and ache to convince them that the set backs they are facing are a necessary part of their development. Push through it, keep going, the vistas are worth it, I swear.

Wherever you are in your journey, and despite whatever road block seems to be in your way, think of it as a great part of the story you'll eventually tell. A sunset is made all the more breathtaking by the clouds lit up with color. A desert landscape is made beautiful by the patterns the wind draws in its sand. The perspective that hardship creates necessary texture will not save you the frustration and discouragement, but, when kept in your pocket and rubbed for good luck now and again, it can give you the reminder that by being a writer, you've taken on a world that you do not have whole control over. Writing gives you opportunities that are subjective to the moods and grooves of other people. It will not be easy. It is not easy for anyone, but that lack of ease is why it's rewarding when you accomplish what you set out to do. Double knot your shoes and pack that rain parka everyone thinks is a waste of space--the path is not paved that you embark on and the umbrellas are not free--but one day you'll look behind you and marvel at the distance you've come. You'll point to that mountain and say "That one nearly killed me," and that river "I didn't know how I'd ever get across it," and take well earned pride in your accomplishments. In the process, those people still on the far side of that mountain will take your journey as inspiration for their own.

If you need help seeing how far you've come:

  • Identify two people who have no idea they had an impact on your writing.
  • Recall a time when you couldn't imagine ever moving forward in your writing, why did you?
  • Look for a specific goal you set in the past and acknowledge your achievement of it.
  • Write these things down so you never forget the journey you've taken.

*The image I used on this post is actually linked to a poem called "The Journey" by Mary Oliver. It was very fitting for this post so if you'd like to take a look, follow this link

*Also, don't forget out live critiquing event on August 13th in American Fork. There are only a few spots left.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

The Future of Publishing

A popular post from July 2011

by Annette Lyon

The internet's filled with people rabidly taking sides on the debate about what the future holds for publishers and writers.

Will independent authors publishing e-books become the norm?

Will agents become obsolete?

Will publishers become obsolete?

Are agents and publishers quaking in their boots because people like J. A. Konrath, Amanda Hocking, and Victorine Lieske have made good (like, really good) money self-publishing e-books?

Some people take the side of the traditional publishing route, saying that while there are some random successes out there in the indie e-book world, that really the only good way to publish is still the mainstream way, and writers should shun the indie e-book path altogether.

Some on the opposite side of the spectrum insist that traditional publishing is somehow an evil plot and the gatekeepers (agents and editors) preventing great writers from breaking out are finally out of our way.

These last people are the ones who sort of wigged when Amanda Hocking signed a traditional publishing contract.

The others cheered when Barry Eisler turned down a contract to go indie.

From what I've seen online, it appears that neither writer is choosing one side or the other. They're pursuing both paths.

Which goes to show that there is no single right answer. It's a complicated issue.

Seth Godin (famous for Purple Cow, Tribes, and other books), insists that he'll no longer publish traditionally because he doesn't need anything the publishing houses offer. He can do it all on his own.

Well, sure he can. Now. His former publishers helped him get to the point he's at, with an eager audience just waiting to buy his next (self-pubbed) e-book. But he wouldn't be in that position without having had a traditional publisher first.

E-books are definitely going to be a big part of the future in publishing. I doubt anyone will argue that. How big a part and in what way is the question. More and more people own e-readers and devices that can read books (iPads, smart phones) than ever. Last Christmas reportedly had the biggest spike in e-book sales ever thanks to all the people who'd opened up Kindles that morning.

What's a writer to do? Should you embrace the indie e-book world? Shun that world and cling to traditional publishing?

How about shunning neither?

Educate yourself on what your goals are for your writing and what it takes to reach that goal. What does success look like to you?

Be realistic. Don't use Amanda Hocking as reason to self-publish e-books (that's just as silly as using JK Rowling as an excuse to go the traditional route).

I've done both: I've traditionally published seven novels and a cookbook. I've self-published a grammar guide (originally in hard copy, but now also in e-book form). After my first two novels went out of print and I got the rights back, I spit-polished them and made them available as e-books. Very soon I'll have a totally different e-book up too, one that's never been published (and one that's not in my usual genre: it's a YA fantasy).

I have every intention of publishing more e-books, because it's been as successful as I intended it to be.

But I also have every intention of pursuing traditional publishing as well, for different reasons.

When forecasting the future of publishing, the only thing we really know right now is that we don't know.

Bob Mayer is a hugely successful writer who straddles both worlds. (And he's got a great blog. Here and here are two posts to read if you're at all interested in this issue, but he's got lots more.)

By pretty much any definition, he's a success in both. First he published something like 40 books the regular route over the course of 20 years before dipping his toes in indie waters. He's been there for two, and now sells over 1500 books a day.

At the end of THIS POST, he says:

No one really knows what is going on. All the industry experts can predict all they want, but the reality is they’ve underestimated digital and the effects ebooks would have on authors and readers—the people who drive this business. It really is an exciting time to be an author. The key is to educate yourself, know and understand your options and make the right decision for yourself.
So write the best book you possibly can. Learn your options. Learn what to expect. Know what you're getting into. Define "success" for yourself and know the likelihood of reaching that through either path.

And then review that path (and your definition of "success") as the industry changes and grows, because what's true about publishing and e-books today very well may not be true in a year or two.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Tips on the First Draft

A popular post from June 2010

I stumbled across this fantastic vlog made by Joanna Penn, writer, speaker, and aspiring novelist, as she chronicles her progress and lessons learned as she writes the first draft of her novel.

It's about 5 minutes long and definitely worth the time.

A few things to note as you watch:
  • You may not need a strict outline, but some kind of outline or idea of where you're headed helps.
  • You may get an "aha" moment that changes your outline. That's OKAY. (And probably fantastic.)
  • Set specific goals for yourself. Personal deadlines are awesome.
  • Be realistic. Even though she's thousands of words from crossing the first-draft finish line, Joanna is fully aware that it's a first draft and that after crossing one finish line, there are more ahead: revisions and editing. Lots of both.
  • Push yourself to write. Don't wait for the muse. The muse may well show up in the middle of a session you forced yourself into.
  • Research can not only make your story more accurate, but it can make it come alive and even spark plot and character ideas.

Friday, May 20, 2016

I am a Writer

A popular post from September 2010

By Julie Wright

I watched a movie the other day—Eat Pray Love with Julia Roberts. It wasn’t a great movie, but aside from the slow pacing and lack of real plot or character growth—there was a line in there that completely bugged me. To be fair, there were a lot of great lines, but this one has overshadowed all the others. It was a scene where Julia’s character was at a dinner table with a bunch of other people and she was asked to share something about herself. She said, “I’m a writer . . .”
And the guy interrupted her and said, “That’s what you do—not who you are.”

Are you kidding me?

What real writer could have written that little nugget of untruth? I cannot agree with that statement—at least not for myself. And I pity the writer for whom this statement is true. I am a writer. Yes, it is what I do, but it is also very much who I am. It defines me in a lot of ways.

And I’m not talking about publishing and book contracts—those things are awesome and life changing, but they are merely a natural result of me being who I am.

I’m talking about being a writer. That is who I am. My life entirely revolves around words. I write in my personal journal, in the secret journals I keep for my children, letters to people I love, rants when I’m angry, poems when I feel sappy, novels when I feel creative, songs when I feel sad. I’m a writer. It is something I can’t NOT do. My life is wrapped up in the little moments that make up stories and I can’t help but see it that way.

In a class I had in high school, one of my writing teachers plopped a boot up onto her desk and said, "There's a poem in there somewhere."

And there was. There is. Every time. There's a poem in everything, a story in a glance, words wound up tight in every step I take in life.

Being a writer, I have a secret fear. I am terrified I’m going to die and have nothing but lame and embarrassing rough drafts on my computer. I’m terrified that someone will actually go looking through this stuff, and read my absurd drivel, and then think that all that garbage they find on my hard drive defines the person I am. I’m afraid they’ll judge me on the actual content instead of realizing that the fact that everything is there--written down is what defines me. It defines me as a writer.

I would like to say that I avoid the problem of what they'll find on my computer by only writing brilliant things. My prose will reduce you to tears, my metaphors are profound, my adverbs are scarce. And if I said all that, I would be lying.

Everyone has train wreck writing on their hard drives. The point is not what's in it, but that it's there.

Do we always succeed as writers? Will we all get the contracts, the big book deals, the New York Times best seller badge? No.

But we do get the relief of expelling all the jumbled messes weighing heavy on our brains onto paper. We give ourselves permission to create something from nothing. We get the joy of expression.

We try for the other stuff--the badges, accolades, and awards, even when the little green jedi master tells us we don’t get the luxury of trying.

In my kitchen there hangs a plaque that I got from Josi Kilpack. It reads: I will not live the life of a normal person. I am a writer.

It's not just what I do. It's who I am.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Dialog Exercise

A popular post from July 2010

by Annette Lyon

In the very first creative writing class I took, one assignment was to write a sitcom-length screenplay.

We learned about basic screenplay formatting and all that, but for me (an aspiring novelist), the most powerful thing I learned from that unit was how to write powerful dialog.

Screenplays by their nature are pretty much nothing but dialog. You're allowed to say where and when the scene is taking place (Interior, Day, Sherrie's kitchen) and maybe a few camera instructions (pan right).

But for the most part, the script relies on spoken words. Usually, the writer isn't allowed to even put in directions for the actor, because they like to decide how to act and deliver their own lines, thank-you-very-much.

Since you can't add actions (he folded his arms and stomped his foot), internal monologue (she wondered what he meant by that), or even adverbs or other descriptors (she said in a whining tone), you're forced to make emotions, characterization, conflict--pretty much everything--come through with nothing but the words your characters say aloud.

(The flip side of this lesson is that I had to later learn to put back in the internal monologue, the emotions, the actions, the setting and contextual details and how to show all that. But that's another post.)

So if you're struggling with making your dialog snappy, alive, full of conflict, and captivating, try writing it first as a script.

Test yourself: How can you change your characters' speech to reflect what they're feeling/thinking/doing?

If you can succeed in making those things clear with just the spoken word, without relying on crutches like adverbs and actions, your story will be much stronger. It's a challenge, for sure. You'll yearn to add just one stage direction or action or adverb. Resist. Tell the story with pure conversation.

If you succeed, the scene won't be done, but you'll have some fantastic dialog.

Then you have to go back and insert the other good stuff, all those things that make a novel, a novel. When you do that (and well, by showing instead of telling), your story will come that much more alive.

Of course, you can't rely entirely on dialog (and we don't want "talking heads"), but working a specific scene this way can help you find a specific character's voice, motivation, and more.

Have fun!

Monday, May 16, 2016

Creating Magic Systems

A popular post from June 2011

by Heather Moore
This week I’m attending the Writing & Illustrating for Young Readers conference. A lot of big named authors are there, including Carol Lynch Williams, Allyson Condie, Brandon Mull, Kathleen Duey, Holly Black, and Kristyn Crow, just to name a FEW.
So for someone like me, who has several historical novels published, but is looking to get my first YA science fiction series contracted, it’s a guessing game—which workshop to go to. I know the craft of writing, but every genre has its particulars (Picture Book writing is in its own class).
Since Holly Black wrote the Spiderwick Cronicles, I decided to listen to her presentation. Last week I’d “tweeted” and asked her which book I should read of hers as a new reader. (Some of my kids have read her Spiderwick books, and might have even seen the movie, but not me). She recommended that I read White Cat, first in her new Curse Makers series.
White Cat is an intricately plotted book based on a fascinating magic system. In this world, magic is considered bad and is run by the underground community, mainly mobsters. I don’t know if I’ll ever write a fantasy novel, but I did a ton of world-building for my WIP.
I found myself doing something that I rarely do in workshops these days—madly taking notes.
Holly Black described her world-building process as “6 crazy blue circles”. Each of her “circles” are the springboard for answering the important world-building questions.
According to Holly, coming up with a magic system that works, you must ask yourself these 6 questions:
1. Who has it?
2. What does it do?
3. How do you make it happen?
4. How is user affected?
5. How is world affected?
6. How are magic users grouped & perceived?
Holly then proceeded to answer these questions in reference to White Cat. (If you haven’t read it, this next part might not be as fulfilling. So go read it!)
1. Who has it? 1/1000 have it; it’s genetic
2. What does it do? It’s curse magic, and it can either bring luck, create dreams, change memories, affect emotions, bring physical death, cause transformation
3. How do you make it happen? Magic is transferred by bare hands touching someone’s skin (everyone wears gloves in this world)
4. How is user affected? Blow back (part of the magic blows back into the curse maker)
5. How is world affected? Magic is illegal and underground magic is controlled by the mobsters.
6. How are magic users grouped & perceived? Magic is not good and is perceived as a crime to use it.
Holly added some other great things to ask yourself during the world-building process, then concluded that it’s great to test your magic system on people who game or role play—since they are always trying to break the rules.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Format Standards: They're A-Changin'

A popular post from August 2011

by Annette Lyon

As an editor, I used to be able to use a broad brush with certain formatting and punctuation rules.

With the rise of e-books, some of those rules have undergone shifts. While the market there is still too new to have concrete standards, here are a few things to keep in mind if you plan to format your manuscript as an e-book.

Em Dashes
It used to be that an em dash never had spaces before or after. Ever.

E-reading devices, however, make that a problem. They interpret the words on either side of an em dash as one word. If that lump of words and a dash land at the end of a line, the whole things wraps to the next line. This leaves an unsightly gap in the text.

There are coding solutions for that, but the most common fix is simply to add a space before and after each em dash to avoid any odd breaks. The one exception would be if the em dash is at the end of a quote where someone is interrupted, such as:
"What are you—"
In that case, you don't want the word, the dash, or the closing quotes separated. They need to be together. (So no spaces.)

Chapter Breaks
The standard rules is to always start on a new page with a hard-page break. Hitting the ENTER key a bunch of times to get to the next page didn't count, because that messes up codes and whatnot. You needed a hard-page break, made with control+enter.

I personally still prefer e-books to begin new chapters on a new "page" (at the top of the screen). There is no strict standard here, but many e-book writers and readers don't bother doing that, and instead just add a number of returns before starting with the next chapter.

If you're going with gaps instead of new pages, be sure the gaps are all the same size, such as five carriage returns each. It's also a good idea to give the reader a visual break if you aren't giving them a solid page break, so add several asterisks before the new chapter.

It's wise to create a clear difference between a section break and a chapter break, so use a smaller number of returns (say, three) between section breaks and a smaller number of asterisks (such as three for sections instead of five, used for chapter breaks).

Front Matter & Back Matter
Keep in mind how e-books are generally read: e-devices begin with Chapter One (or maybe a prologue or preface). The cover, title page, acknowledgments, dedication, contents, and more, are skipped over unless the reader clicks the BACK button to manually read them.

If it's really important to you for the reader to see something (the acknowledgments, for example), put it at the end of the file.

Coding and Files
You can find several books online about how to format and code a file in e-book form. You can find businesses and individuals you offer conversion services as well. Whatever you do, try to make the text and the file as clean as possible.

That means sending a copy to your Kindle or other e-reading device and reading it there. Check for funky formatting problems. Read through it and catch typos you didn't in any other way. Click through the whole thing to make sure it looks and feels right.

The vast majority of e-books sold are still through Amazon on the Kindle, but more and more people are buying other e-readers, so it's wise to get your books onto Smashwords, which supports virtually any file type. If you follow all their instructions, Smashwords will also put your book up for sale through Barnes & Noble (for the Nook), onto the Sony readers, and even the Apple iStore. But note that formatting for Smashwords is far more complicated than for the Kindle.

Your E-book Editor
Whether it's a beta reader or a hired freelance editor, tell the person reading your manuscript that you plan to publish the piece in e-book form.

That way they won't add hard page breaks, delete the spaces next to the em dashes, or otherwise change the format to what used to be the rule.