Monday, December 5, 2016

Paper-Thin Conflicts

A popular post from April 2009

by Annette Lyon

Want to annoy your reader?

One of the best things you can do is to have a story that, structurally speaking, might as well be a sitcom: it's episodic. That means every chapter has its own new (shallow) problem that gets resolved by the end of the chapter (or so).

That kind of weak plot is enough to make this reader want to throw a book across the room.

While it's common to have chapters that have their own sub-conflicts and sub-plots getting resolved, you always need a bigger, over-arching problem that carries the book from beginning to end.

Yes, we want to know if Luke will get out of the trash compactor alive, but we also have that Death Star thing to destroy by the end of the movie.

Yes, we wonder what Harry will do with Norbert the dragon, but if he doesn't save the Sorcerer's Stone and face Voldemort at the end of the book, we have no story.

And sure, it's nice that Belle and the Beast have a beautiful date in the ballroom, but if the spell isn't eventually broken, who really cares?

If you don't have a big conflict, one that's complex and, well, BIG, I'm sorry, but you aren't writing a novel. Or at least you're not writing a good one that readers will care about.

Conflict is the engine that drives the plot. You need enough of it to push the story from page one to the very end. That means the problems must be deeper than, "Dang. We had a misunderstanding."

At a workshop several years ago taught by Janette Rallison, she made a point that's stuck with me: If your conflict could be resolved by a single conversation, it isn't big enough.

Of course, stories with these kinds of paper-thin conflicts never do have the two characters talking it out, even if they could solve the problem in about fifteen seconds by doing so.

A common place for these kinds of thin conflicts is in romance. The basic romance formula requires the boy to get the girl and then lose the girl before getting her back again for good. Too many would-be writers use a thin excuse for getting the hero and heroine apart: a simple misunderstanding.

So the story has a series of misadventures that drag the story on, one minor blip at a time, for a couple hundred pages or so, until the sad little misunderstanding is fixed.

Misadventures and misunderstandings work for episodes of Hannah Montana, but they aren't going to work for your book.

With a thin conflict or series of thin conflicts, you'll lose your reader, because there's nothing driving them to keep reading. They lack the, "Oh, no! What's going to happen next?" or, "How will they ever fix that?"

As our own Josi likes to put it: Get your character up in a tree. Throw rocks at them. Throw bigger rocks. And even bigger rocks. Now set the tree on fire. Then make your character find a way down.

Ask yourself:
Is my character simply up in a tree?
Or have I set the tree on fire?

Get your conflict blazing. Keep us wondering whether (and how!) your character will find a way down. Intense conflicts don't have to be of the James Bond action variety. A solid internal conflict can do the job just as well.

No matter what it is, the conflict must be big enough to carry the story and keep readers interested so they won't chuck your book against the wall.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Flawed (but Redeemable) Characters

A popular post from April 2009

by Annette Lyon

I consider myself lucky that I learned this lesson relatively early on: Make your characters likable.

The lesson for me was shortly after I joined my critique group. I read a chapter of my work in progress, and everyone around the table agreed on one thing:

My heroine was really unlikeable.

She was in a somewhat embarrassing situation, so I had her a bit defensive and trying to explain herself. She came across as rude and nasty.

I had no idea until they pointed it out, but after that meeting, I was able to stand back and see that they were right. I changed several scenes to make sure that she was sympathetic and that the reader was compassionate toward her, not annoyed or turned off.

With a few exceptions where anti-heroes actually work (think: Artemis Fowl), your hero and heroine need to be good, likable, people whom your readers can relate to and root for.

Let's use the romance genre as an example. In the classic format, boy gets girl, loses girl, and then gets girl. Ideally, the reader roots for them to get together, is dismayed when they're separated, and then rejoices when they finally commit and live happily ever after.

Your reader won't engage in that way if your heroine is whiny and snobbish or your hero is so arrogant he deserves to be left at the altar.

On the other hand, your characters can't be perfect, or we won't care about them. They need to be human. They need flaws.

But make them too flawed, and the reader hates them. So in a sense, you as the writer have to walk a narrow tightrope: How much of a flaw is too much?

Romances often have the hero and heroine despise one another at the outset. It usually works, but in that case, neither can be so despicable that the reader won't ever overcome their own dislike. The reader needs to see their flaws to understand why they hate each other, yet at the same time be able to see past the same flaws and want them to be together.

The classic example of a writer who pulled off this type of character arc is, of course, Jane Austen with Pride and Prejudice. We pretty much sympathize with Lizzy for the entire book, while Darcy comes across as pretty darn arrogant and irredeemable. Yet Austen made him human, and oh-so-redeemable when we see him in his own element at Pemberly.

Suddenly we know he's not only a good man, but a likable one. We start to think that maybe Lizzy was a bit off in her initial judgment. From there, of course, the more we learn about Darcy and the more we see his noble actions, the more we like him, so that by the end of the book, we're thrilled that he and Lizzy finally get together.

If we hadn't seen Darcy at home, if we hadn't learned about his relationship with his sister and how kind he is to his staff, and if weren't given good reasons for his earlier stiff behavior and prejudices, or learned about how he secretly saved the Bennett family honor, the story wouldn't be the classic it is today, two hundred years after its publication.

A romance I read recently, however, narrowly missed being chucked against my wall because of this very issue: the characters were unlikeable, not only toward each other (which, as we've discussed can work well), but to the reader. For the entire book.

By the end, I figured they were both so annoying that they deserved each other.

On the flip side, I read a remarkably well-written self-published romance that handled the hero and heroine perfectly. In the beginning, they had a dislike for one another, and for good reasons. They both had flaws (quite big ones) and issues they each needed to overcome. But none of the flaws were irredeemable, and none were too big. They were both very sympathetic characters, so well-drawn, layered, and human that they became quite real to me, and I believed the story.

Here's one of the biggest compliments I can give a book: there were times I got so engrossed in the story that I almost forgot there was a writer behind the scenes pulling the strings.

The other book, however, never let me forget for one minute that a writer had put the words together. One big reason was that the characters were so annoying that they never became real to me. They were caricatures, cardboard cutouts.

I won't publicly say what the first book was, but since the second one was so good (in spite of some minor line-editing issues) I want to give it some props.

For a good, flawed, very redeemable, and likable hero/heroine pair, read Seeking Persephone, by Sarah M. Eden. (It's a Whitney Award finalist for Best Romance, and in my opinion, it deserves the honor.)

It's definitely worth your time.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

I Want the HOT NEW THING

A popular post from November 2008

They all say it. Agents, editors, librarians, even readers. They chant it like a mantra, "I want the hot new thing."

Sadly, no one knows what the hot new thing is. Hot and new are totally subjective. This will be a short post today because I am working on a manuscript that has a deadline and I'm doing an edit. Throw in a Thanksgiving holiday where family members expect me to be present and pleasant and I'm rendered incapable of writing a long brilliant post about anything.

But short doesn't always equate to bad information, so bear with me. I've been to several conferences over the last several months. I've met lots of people who represent all ends of the literary spectrum, and my message today is to Write What Your Passionate About.

Forget the hot new thing. Forget the trends, and write what gives you the greatest pleasure. I sat in on a librarian panel where they talked about what they were currently stocking on their shelves. They talked about Gothic stuff, vampires, werewolves, fairies, witches, etc. They talked about books they wish they had on their shelves, from non fiction stories on Native Americans to stories that delve into various sciences.

The writers in the room scribbled furiously, taking notes on all the new possibilities of books they could write about.

But let's look at this logically: If you write a vampire story now in order to "catch that wave" it might take you six months to finish the book, another six (being moderate here) to find an agent and or publisher, and then another year (again, being moderate) to finally see it being stocked on bookstore shelves. Two years . . . . That's a long time. Will that wave still be here?

Maybe. Vampires were big for Anne Rice too. But here's the question you have to ask yourself, do you really like vampire stories? Are you writing it because it's the hot new thing? Or are you writing it because you want to be published and you're catering to a market want?

I have no problem with pandering to the public. I'm just shallow like that, but I do have a problem with writing what I'm not really excited about. I found I can pander and be excited over what I'm writing at the same time. So I choose wisely where I will pander. There are things I know I could write and get published, but I won't go anywhere near those topics because they aren't my thing. If I don't love my topic, characters, plot . . . every word I write will feel like I'm digging slivers out of my skin.

One of those writers said, "I could write a book on Native Americans. If the market needs it, then it'll be easier to get it published."

"Do you know anything about Native Americans?" I asked.

"Well no, but I saw the movie Last of the Mohicans."

Oy.

Another woman had actually minored in Native American studies and was delighted that she might be able to write on a topic she loved. It had never occurred to her to write on this topic before and she was so excited to get started, she looked like a puppy who just figured out he had a tail to wag.

That's the difference. Are you writing because it's the hot new thing? Or are you writing because you love it?

You gotta love it, baby. Your readers will know the difference. If you don't love what you're writing about, if it does not fill you with fascination and joy, it won't matter if it is the hot new thing, it'll be fraudulent. Don't cheat yourselves by following the trends. Write the books you love, the ones you want to read, become your own hot new thing.

Monday, November 28, 2016

When is my MS ready to be edited

A popular post from October 2008

By Josi S. Kilpack

I received this question from a fellow writer completing her first novel. Even though I gave an answer different from what she actually asked, I decided to use it for my blog post this week because a lot of people get to the end of their initial writing and are eager to have someone do the editing for them now that they are done. While this is completely understandable and a very important psychological fear (willing to get feedback) there is a right time and a wrong time to have someone else edit your book regardless on whether you get a professional editor or just ask a freind. Hopefully this will clarify a little bit:

Hi Josi,
I've been making pretty good progress. I'm at about 60,000 words, and if I just didn't have to do things like sleep, I could be done on Monday. So as I'm getting nearer to completion, I'm trying to figure out who I can have edit this for me. I wanted a good friend of mine to do it for me, but she's slammed with work right now and can't. She gave me a suggestion, but the other woman is reviewing another book right now and wouldn't be able to get to mine for a while. Do you have any suggestions of who I can ask or where I could look to find someone?

Josi said:
Way to go, that's awesome that you're making such good headway and are ready for another set of eyes to see your baby. Before you look for an editor, however, be sure to go over your complete project yourself, looking for things on your own that need to be clarified, things that are redundant, etc. Getting an editor to read over your book is a BIG deal and they can help you a lot, but if you give them a rough draft their advice won't be as helpful because they won’t be fine tuning, they will be helping with the building process. It’s also very frustrating for an editor to wade through things that should have been caught by you, the author. Especially when you use a friend that is doing you a favor, you don't want to waste their time (which is hours and hours of work if they are good at what they do) by handing them something you know isn't ready or you haven't revised at least once (more than once is even better). Should you send them a rough draft, they may be much more hesitant to offer their help next time. If you use a professional editor, they can do their best work when you have already caught all the little things you can catch, this allows them to do the nitty gritty things you can't see yourself. If you don't look (i.e. revise your completed book) you'll undoubtably end up paying them to point out things you could have seen on your own, often times those are things that will require such substantial changes in the story that their line edit will be irrelevant by the time you make the changes they suggest.
In a nutshell, you need to get it polished and ready to go in your mind before you ask anyone to put their time and experience into it. Good luck and congratulations! Most people never finish their book, you're ahead of the pack!

Friday, November 25, 2016

Time

A popular post from November 2008

By Julie Wright

One of our commenters, Curtis Moser, made an excellent point the other day. He said he was, "working a full time job, struggling through full time school, and trying to balance that out with being a good husband and father."

Stephanie Humphreys said, "I feel I should spend my time doing things that will actually help pay for the groceries. Writing doesn't fall under that category, so then I feel guilty for even taking the time."

Life is insanely busy. Today even more so (get out and vote!!!!). Most men and women are in the workforce. there are children to raise, marriages to keep alive, house payments to make, things to fix, things to wash, things that must be done. There are days when I shout to my children, "I am only one person!" This is my lame excuse for not being able to be ten places at once, to accomplish all the things sitting on my "must be done right now" list.

Insanely busy.

I completely understand. I am no different. Though many might say Julie Wright is merely insane and the busy part is a side note, I maintain that my insanity is a direct result of being busy.

So when do I write? When should you write? How many words a day is enough to accomplish your dream, because you MUST reach for that dream. If you don't, you will die always wondering what you might have done. So not doing it is not an option. Let me see if I can help a little.

I've said it before and I will say it again (probably many times) Time is made, not found! I've never found time like I would spare change in the dryer while doing laundry. If you need to write, then you need to make time. It's amazing how a few minutes of writing every day adds up at the end of a year.

And I'm not talking about making huge chunks of time in three hour blocks or anything absurd like that. I know your lives--know MY life. I'm talking fifteen minutes. In fifteen minutes (when I'm focused) I can write 500 words. When I'm not focused, I'm closer to 250. I just took an average of ten pages of my latest work in progress and found that the average page has 302 words on it. This is roughly 15-20 minutes a day. One page a day equates to 365 pages a year . . . hey! That's a respectable book length! Let's say you take one day off a week, that's still 313 pages at the end of the year. So at fifteen to twenty minutes a day, you can write one book a year.

Let's think of where you might make fifteen minutes. If you have a job, your employer will give you two fifteen minute break (it's the law; if this is the first you've heard about the fifteen minute break deal, you need to call your HR manager). Work breaks are awesome writing times because there are so few distractions. You can go to your car where you are all alone, and there are no kids begging for attention, no phones ringing, no one dropping by the house to say hello. Now Curtis said he was going to school full time. This means he likely uses his fifteen minutes for studying, finishing term papers that got put off . . . etc. I totally get that. Grades are important when you're going to school with the purpose of exiting with a piece of paper.

But even students who are employees who are dads need a few minutes to themselves. Find a few minutes that belong to you every day, even if it's only three words you get written.

Stay at home moms have a different set of worries. We all know there is no way to steal a few minutes to yourself. Even the bathroom proves impossible as little fingers reach under the door saying, "Mom? Are you in there, Mom?" Lately I've been driving kids all over the state for lessons, practices, recitals . . . oy! But I usually end up with a few minutes during practice or at the doctor's office. I take my manuscript with me everywhere! I used to write on a spiral notebook with a pen. I finished three manuscripts that way. As a gift to myself when my third book came out, I bought myself an Alphasmart. It's lightweight, portable and doesn't have the distractions of email. I love my Alphasmart. Keep your writing with you (but don't forget to backup!) and take advantage of idle time presented to you throughout the day.

I'm not telling you to neglect your life, I'm telling you to enhance it--make it better by reaching for the dream. A few minutes every day goes a long way towards 'the end.'

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Why Am I Doing This?

A popular post from October 2008

I came close to ruining some hopeful author's dreams a few months ago while I was running my little store. She was a customer and saw my laptop sitting on the counter (I own the store, so no one is going to fire me for writing on the job). We talked about writing, and the whys and hows, and she said something that indicated I should feel *so* accomplished by being a published author. She very nearly gushed.

Feeling grumpy over the stock market, the fact that I *hadn't* been writing, and the fact that dirty dishes were piled up in my sink at home, I said, "Yeah right. If you ever want to have a wretched self esteem, be a writer."

Her face fell--almost like the light went out.

Curse my unthinking tongue! Sarcasm in light of someone's dreams is never a good idea. I backpedaled and talked about my positive experiences writing. I talked about the youth groups and schools I've spoken to, and how incredible it was to be able to connect with the youth on such an intimate level. I tried really hard to recall my words by covering them over with others. That's the biggest problem with the spoken language over the written. There is no delete button, no time for editing . . .

And the thing is . . . it's not totally true. I mean--yes, rejection letters, writer's block, and bad reviews are part of the writing world, but so are accolades and applause. It is an amazing trip to be a published author and I do not have the right to dampen someone's dream just because I didn't get my dishes (or my writing for the day) done.

I went through almost a complete year without writing anything new. It's a horrible thing to confess here, but I was in a weird place and couldn't seem to pull myself out. I started all sorts of things, but couldn't finish anything. I'd get to page twenty and think, "Meh. This is lame." Then I'd walk away.

While speaking to one of my best writer buds, J Scott Savage, I spent a good deal of time whining about my inability to create. He asked me what I was working on. "Nothing," I replied.

And it was mostly true. Twenty pages of this and that every now and again hardly equated to writing. It was more like dabbling. "You're not having fun anymore, are you?" he asked.

I wasn't. I was worried about the market, and the publishing industry, and what my publisher wanted, versus what my audience wanted. I was simply worried. Writing became a job, rather than something I did for the sheer joy of it. It was like drowning in the ocean, the weight of water crushing everything worthwhile out of me, the inability to draw a breath.

This conversation spurned some introspection on my part. I stepped away from the novel I'd been tinkering with, and wrote something I WANTED to write. I wrote for me. The heavens opened; the angels sang. I could breathe again. Oh, that's right . . . writing is fun! How could I have forgotten something so simple, so amazing, so worthwhile.

My work in progress is a joy to open up in the morning. Does it have a place in the market? Is my publisher going to want it? Will it do well? I don't know. And I'm not that concerned. I'm having fun, falling in love with my characters, feeling their pain, discovering what makes them tick. I'm writing . . . just because it's fun.

When I told that hopeful author that being a writer is a great way to get a low self esteem, I was lying. Being a writer who doesn't write--THAT'S the way to get a wretched self esteem.

Remember why you're doing this, guys. Keep it fun. Fill your well with wonder and dive in.

Monday, November 21, 2016

How to Get Lucky

A popular post from October 2008

By Josi S. Kilpack

First, get out there.

Second, learn to smile

Third, wear perfume or cologne

Forth, act interested in other people and get their contact information

Fifth, find out what they want and help them with it

Sixth, be patient, it's a number game but you gotta play if you wanna score.

Now, wait, you weren't thinking I was talking about--oh you bad, bad, blog-reader! I'm not talking about that kind of lucky, the STD type of lucky, I'm talking about getting your lucky writing/publishing break. Shame on you!

This blog is all about creating your lucky moment, your big break, your connection that then leads to another connection that down the road puts you exactly where you want to be. Lot's up and coming writers justify the success of other writers by their being in the right place at the right time, or knowing the right person, or being at the right conference. Usually, they say this in a whiny tone of voice, consoling themselves with the misconception that because they weren't as 'lucky' as someone else, they missed their chance. Lame! And I'm gunna tell you why.

Right now, Julie Wright, a writer on this blog, is living it up in New York and hopefully not annoyed that I'm telling people that. Oh well, I'll choose repentance over permission this time. Julie is in New York because she is attending a highly-respected and very hard to get into writer's conference where she will be surrounded by editors and agents of some of the largest agencies and publishing houses in the country. They are very particular about who they allow to attend, she had to submit writing samples and wait a very long to time to hear that she was able to go. Then she had to plan a trip in 3 weeks and get everything ready to present. You can look at her current situation and think "Dang, she's lucky." You can think that, but you'd be wrong.

Julie isn't lucky (go to this post from a couple weeks ago for confirmation), she is brilliant. Brilliant because most writers have never heard of this conference and therefore wouldn't know to apply. Brilliant because most writers would be scared to death to submit a writing sample to be evaluated because they could very well be told they aren't good enough by some highly-respected judges. Brilliant because in the years I've known Julie, she's attended five times the writing conferences I have, knows hundreds of people in the national writing market, and despite having a hundred or more rejection letters in her file, she still goes to conferences, submits writing samples, and hob knobs with the mucky mucks of her market. Brilliant because instead of justifying other people's success with the idea that they were in the right place at the right time, Julie has consistently put herself in as many of the right places as she possibly could so that when the right time came, she knew what it looked like and got it's name and number.

If you want to achieve your writing goals and have ever said that someone else succeeded because of luck, or being the right place, or knowing someone, or simply by chance--then consider the following factors that can up your chances exponentially (I don't actually know what exponentially means, but it's a very, very cool word and makes me sound smart until I explain that I don't know what it means)

First--Get out there. Attend conferences, send queries, go to critique group, leave comments on blogs, have cards made up with your contact information. If you stay home and do none of these things, you'll never meet people, you'll never learn to network, you'll never gain confidence in who you are, you'll never perfect your elevator talk or learn to interact with all kinds of writers and publishing professionals. It's the law of the harvest--you reap what you sow. If you plant nothing--meet no one, go no where, comment on no-blogs--then you reap nothing--no Friends in the business, no name recognition, no card file, no inside knowledge. It has nothing to do with writing skill and technique (though they are important) but getting out there is about becoming part of the club. People talk about an 'old boys network' in pretty much every industry. And they do exist, however, in writing, it's an open invitation. Anyone can join, you just have to meet the rest of the people in the group. Writer's moan about being in the slush pile, but they put themselves there by doing nothing. Many writer's avoid the slush pile through having connections--but that doesn't happen in their kitchen.

Second--Learn to smile. Smiling isn't just about pulling up the corners of your mouth and showing your teeth, it's about attitude. It shows you're happy, it makes you inviting to others, it invites a good mood around you. When you're 'out there', having a smile on your face will increase your ability to meet other people to an incredible degree. It's the first step to being nice--smiling. And you should be nice.

Third--Wear perfume or cologne. This goes along with the smile, you want to be inviting. You don't want to smell like a cheeseburger or yesterday's shirt. You want to be confident in your presentation and that means not offending anyone's senses. You can take this a step further and brush your hair, stand up straight, choose a colored shirt that sets off your eyes. You're not going for super model here, but details are the difference between good and great--work toward great. Now, I know there are people out there that are allergic to perfume and Cologne--don't give me excuses. The point is, you want to be inviting. Stink is not inviting.

Fourth--Act interested in other people and get their contact information. Do not--DO NOT--simply advise, talk about your own book, tout yourself. Ask questions, find out what other people are doing, ask about their goals, how they got started, where they see themselves in ten years. Not only does this make them connect with you better, but you could learn a thing of five. Instead of being set on inspiring them, look to be inspired BY them. After meeting them and learning what they do, get their contact information and store it in a card file. You never know when that information might become very valuable to you.
And by people, I mean beginning writers, advanced writers, published authors, editors, agents, conference coordinators, spouses of all these people, marketers, the guy at the registration table. EVERYONE is someone worthy of your time. Julie knows, literally, hundreds of published authors and hundreds of writers who have yet to finish their first book. She could name three dozen agents off the top of her head and tell you what they publish. She goes to national conferences and goes to lunch with top authors in her market. She has their phone numbers and e-mail addresses and she knows if they are married, single, with kids, love dogs, are vegetarian, or vote republican. She knows these things because she's met them and she pays attention to them. Not every one of them have been responsible for a positive turn, but several of them have, and many are yet to play their hand, but they will. One thing she said about this conference she's attending now is that it's the first conference she's ever been to where she didn't know anyone, let alone forty people. But I can guarantee that when she gets home, she'll have fifty new contacts to add to her Rolodex.


Fifth--Find out what they want and help them with it. If you know someone that would be helpful for the situation of someone else, refer them there. If you know a book or a resource that would help them, share it. Some writers hold onto their advice as if by sharing it they will suddenly lose their place. That's silly. Be open and helpful and encouraging to other writers any way you can. Notice, this came after the advice to listening to the people you meet tell about themselves. That is not a coincidence.

Sixth--Be patient. Don't look at the people you meet as your ticket. They are people, not printed slips of paper, and be genuine, but realize that it can take time to develop a network and to feel comfortable in certain settings. This goes back to putting yourself in lots of 'right' places. Go to conferences over and over again, go to blogs over and over again, look and listen over and over again. Give it time and be sincere, be open to learning new things and generous in sharing what you know, but don't rush through it--rushing will negate the genuine pursuit and you'll miss out on so many things you need to learn through this phase of your career. Once your published, don't stop. You'll still need those resources, those networks, and they will need you now and again to help them along.

It's my belief, based on watching many other writers use this formula and succeed, that following these six steps, coupled with good writing, will not only help you, but actually allow you to accomplish your publication dreams. You don't have to go to a dozen conferences a year, but you do have to go to at least one, and more if you can find those that fit your genre and your schedule. You will have to make networking a priority if you want to benefit from it, and if you do, one day someone will tap you on the shoulder and say "Hey there, my name's Opportunity. I heard about you from so-and-so who was introduced to you by what's-his-name--in fact, it seems that a lot of people know who you are. Wanna get lucky?"