Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Hopeful or Hopeless?

A popular post from December 2007

by Annette Lyon

When it comes to the dream wagon, I'm one of the first on board. I held onto my dream of publishing for many years through a large number rejections, and even though I have some publications under my belt, I still dream big.

I love cheerleading fellow writers, especially those who haven't seen their name in print yet. It's exciting to encourage and inspire others to keep going even after another rejection, to never give up. It's one of my favorite parts about speaking at conferences.

But this week I read something that stopped me in my tracks. It was a letter to the editor of a writing magazine, wherein the aspiring writer discussed how many decades (I think it was four) he/she had been working on a book, revising, submitting, getting rejected, and trying again with the same (theoretically improved) manuscript. "I'll never give up my dream" was the point of the letter.

I had a two-fold reaction to this:

1) Good for them for keeping at it and never giving up.

was quickly followed by:

2) How pathetic that they've put all their eggs in one basket for forty some-odd years.

Had this writer been regularly coming up with new ideas, writing new books, and following publishing trends, for forty years, I wouldn't have had this reaction.

But they've been working on the same book for forty years? Where is the logic in that?

Almost every published author I know has several manuscripts gathering dust that will never see the light of day, books that they cut their writer's teeth on. You learn to write by doing it. Many times. On different projects. In different ways. It generally takes writing a few books, going through the entire process, before you're good enough to be published.

Revising the same book forever isn't going to do that for you.

Additionally, there's a good chance that this person's book will be horrifically unmarketable; assuming for a moment that their idea was hot back in, oh, 1967, I'd bet my birthday chocolate that it wouldn't sell today.

And then there's the element of productivity: A publisher doesn't usually make much money on a first novel. They hope to eventually make a name for you and sell more with each book. If you can't promise that you'll produce more than one decent idea in forty years, you won't be on their happy list.

Cling to your dreams. I'll never tell anyone to give up. But I will tell them to be a tad realistic. Write your way toward your dream. That means doing everything it takes to be cross the finish line.

Don't kid anyone; circling the practice track forever is not called "pursuing your dream."

Monday, March 27, 2017

Resolutions Writing Style

A popular post from January 2008

by Annette Lyon

As you begin a new year of writing, you might want to make making some writing-related resolutions.

First, take stock of what worked for you in 2007 and what didn't. Do daily word count goals fit your lifestyle? What about weekly ones? Do you work better by tracking chapters or pages rather than words? What system works best for you?

Second, set goals for yourself--goals that, while reachable do require you to stretch a little.

Last, decide on rewards for each goal you meet. It's amazing how a little incentive can help yourself plant your behind in the chair and your hands on the keyboard. Your inner writer is a child. Bribe it! (I find chocolate works well. And pedicures.)

Consider adding some of the following when making your list:
  • Read. A lot. It helps me to keep a running log of all the books I've read in the year. I've done this every year for over a decade, and I try to at least match if not beat the number of titles from one year to the next. A good writer is a good reader. Be sure to include writing books in your list. And don't forget to read works in the genre you write in. Add one or two books that stretch you.
  • Take regular outings to places that bring something new to your senses: try new foods, visit a museum, take long a walk through a strange neighborhood, go on vacation to a place you've never been before. Stimulation to the senses does marvels for creativity.
  • Proof every query, cover letter, and manuscript you send out. Many times.
  • To help you send out the cleanest material possible, learn your punctuation and grammar rules. (A funny and great place to start: Eats, Shoots, and Leaves, by Lynne Truss.)
  • Get up the guts to show your work to someone other than family and friends . . . someone who will give you the honest truth. Consider hiring a professional. It's worth the cost.
  • Make at least one big goal for yourself: I'll finally finish this book/I'll query 20 agents/I'll attend 2 writing conferences. And attach deadlines to each goal.
The biggest resolution? Don't give up in 2008. This may be your year.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Whose Point of View?

A popular post from January 2008

By Heather Moore

In a recent manuscript, I came to a dead stop at a particular scene. But it was not just an ordinary scene—it was the climax of the entire novel.

In this scene, a man is burned to death for his religious beliefs. He is given the chance to recount his teachings, but refuses. Therefore, the punishment is death by fire.

I wondered if the scene would be stronger in the man’s point of view . . . or in the man’s wife’s point of view.

Would it be more compelling for us to know the thoughts of a man who’s taking his last breath and knowing he’s going to die? Is it more compelling to “feel” the pain of fire with him as he’s consumed?

OR is it more compelling to watch with his wife as her husband is brutally tortured? Do we want to know her intimate emotions, experience her undoubted grief and horror? To hear her thoughts of loss and anguish?

The way I answered this question was: Who has the most to lose?

Then I posted it on a blog and received excellent feedback. Everyone agreed. The wife had the most to lose. So the death scene should be in her POV.

When you are writing in multiple view points (3rd person in my case), the rule of thumb for selecting POV is to take a look at the character who experiences the most change, or is highly affected, or who has the most to lose in the scene.

Then you'll have your answer.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

This Year, Go Big or Go Home

A popular post from January 2014

by Annette Lyon

Last month, as I have for well over a decade, I attended another Christmas dance recital to watch my daughter light up on stage. As usual, her grace performing (this time ballet) didn't disappoint.

A different dance number jumped out at me for a different reason, however. Most likely, it jumped out at every member of the audience: a hip-hop piece. The number was well choreographed, and the star dancer, a sixth grade black boy, stayed front and center, and for good reason. He was nothing short of jaw-droppingly amazing.

Every move he made was powerful and precise. He exuded joy and energy and attitude and got the audience excited, returning his energy a thousand-fold.

The few times my eyes strayed from him, I regretted it.

Why? The other hip-hop dancers on stage with him weren't anywhere in the realm of his league, for starters. But that in and of itself wasn't the problem. The real problem was that the other dancers didn't seem to be trying at all

In dance speak, they were marking the routine rather than dancing full out, as if they were afraid of looking stupid doing the moves, so, hey, I'll do them small and weak, and maybe no one will notice.

To be honest, the other dancers looked almost embarrassed to be up there. Surely they knew they weren't as good as the star, but by not doing their best, by not going full out, they looked even worse. Their movements looked sloppy and weak. They looked unsure and had so little energy that as an audience member, I found watching them to be total yawn fest. At least, when I wasn't cringing.

Worst of all, I made the discovery that when hip hop is performed halfway, it does look really, really silly, which I can almost guarantee was the dancers' (and, I'd wager, every artist's) worst fear. Do it halfway, and you'll look ridiculous. Do it full-out, and you're on to something.

As I sat in the audience, it dawned on me that writing is somewhat the same way.

Writing and putting your work out for an audience can be downright terrifying. But you can't play into that fear. If a writer backs away from being as strong and powerful and in control of their work as they can and should be, that is the moment when the work looks sloppy, weak, and chaotic. It's as if the writer wasn't at the helm, had no idea what to do next, and simply hoped no one noticed the missteps.

And yes, there will be times a writer is unsure. We have all taken risks in our work (or we should have). We all have grown, so we've all had our weaker moments, and will continue as we (hopefully) keep growing. The risks that have the best shot of working are the ones we commit to: the ones we write full-out. The minute we start marking a risk or a new technique, hoping no one will notice we're unsure and scared? That is the moment our work looks sloppy and weak.

Watching that hip-hop routine, I thought back to times where I've seen writers who have poured their souls into their work, even into a first draft, when maybe they weren't entirely at the skill level they wanted to be at. But they were trying with everything in their souls. The result: riveting and exciting writing anyway. As a reader, I find myself forgiving errors or weak spots because I see the passion and power that lies behind the writing. On the flip side, I'm far more likely to give up on prose that happens to be free of typos but lacks any heart.

So however you write, whether it's sitting at the keyboard or curling up with a notebook and pen, don't hold back. Yes, you may have some missteps along the way; that's to be expected. Maybe you aren't (yet) as good as other writers you're "on stage" with.

But chances are, if you hold back, your work will only draw negative attention to itself, and you won't grow. You'll never reach that glorious point where the eyes are all on you, where people's jaws drop in awe and admiration at the feats you just pulled off.

And remember: Every time a writer steps on stage, he or she is writing all by themselves. We must write full out, every single time.

Is baring your soul, pouring your all into your work, easy? No. Unequivocally no. But I'm convinced that doing so is the only way to ever be great.

So for this new year, here's my challenge for a resolution:

Get in the game, all the way. Write full-out every time. Leave the fear on the wings of the stage.

When you write, be that amazing kid in the front who made the dance look cool and amazing and awesome instead of the ones in the back who made it look, well, silly.

In other words, go all the way. Go big, or go home.

(I don't really want you to go home. Just decide to go big!)

Monday, March 20, 2017

Writing Schedules

A popular post from March 2009

by Annette Lyon

Sometimes I listen to a great podcast called Writing Excuses, produced with writers Brandon Sanderson, Howard Taylor, and Dan Wells. It's a very helpful podcast with lots of good information, and I recommend listening to it. Some of what they discuss refers specifically to fantasy and science fiction, but most of it is applicable to any genre.

One of the episodes, however, had me snickering and giggling: the one about a writer's schedule.

All three of the guys who are part of the podcast are full-time writers. I suppose they've forgotten what being a part-time writer was like, because they said things like (paraphrasing here):

"If I'm going to get any writing done, I need at least a four-hour block."

I burst out laughing.

Most of my writing career has been spent as a stay-at-home mom with several small children. Finding a four-hour block for writing was something that existed only in the realm of fantasy. Heck, for years, a TWO-hour block was pretty much an impossibility.

I had to find a way to make time, to use small snippets here and there. I learned to think ahead so that when I did have 30 minutes to write, I could type fast and make the most of the short session I had. I got really good at finding pockets of time and using them efficiently.

I wrote several books and sold lots of articles this way.

I imagine the vast majority of writers are in the same boat. They don't have large swaths of time to warm up and get into the mood and wait for the muse to strike. Not if they want to produce anything, anyway.

And that's fine.

Rumor has it that John Grisham worked as a lawyer while writing his first book, a page or so at a time during his 30-minute lunch break. Other now-famous blockbuster writers did the same before they could quit their day jobs.

If writing is a priority, you can find the time, even when a four-block is totally unrealistic.

Some ways:

What can you cut out of your life? Something will have to go, because there are only 24 hours in a day. Maybe it's a hobby. Or TV time (can you skip a sitcom six nights a week? That's THREE hours of writing!). Or it might be something else.

What can you consolidate or do faster? For example, if you ran all your errands on one day instead of spreading them out all week, you might be able to find a little time on a day or two to hit the computer. Maybe you can take the bus to work and write during the commute.

Plan ahead. That means both with finding time and with planning your writing. One small example: if I plan dinner well ahead of schedule (even doing something in the crock pot) then I can save myself half an hour or more that can be spent writing.

Then, if during the day, I thought ahead to what scene I'll write during that half-hour period, I can get right to work and be productive.

When are you sitting around doing nothing? I've written entire scenes in the doctor's office, the dance class lobby, and more. Time otherwise lost to the ether was made productive.

"I want to write, but I just don't have the time," is like nails on a chalkboard to me. Writers don't have time dropped handily into their laps. They MAKE time. They carve it out. They hunt it down, tie it up, and suck out every drop.

One irony: now that my youngest child is in kindergarten and I actually have a regular two-hour block, I find that I'm less productive in small snatches. It's as if my brain has realized it doesn't have to focus and work so hard--it's got two whole hours! Let's relax!

Next year when she's in school all day, I'd better not end up saying I need a four-hour block to get anything done.

If I do, smack me back to reality.

Friday, March 17, 2017

The Art of Dialogue: Building Relationships

A popular post July 2013

By Julie Wright
part four of four

It's time for the fourth tip of writing good dialogue. Remember that dialogue can do all of the four things I am going to mention here, but it has to do at least one of them in order to be of any use to your story.

Tip number four:

Alter relationships—either building or tearing down-- You can tell if people are falling in love or getting a divorce by the kind of conversation they’re having. Most of the time anyway.  One of my favorite lines in the movie Life as We Know It is right after the two main characters have a major fight. One of the secondary characters made a comment that, "If my ex-wife and I fought like that . . . we'd still be married." So although they were fighting, it was a fight filled with passion, one that led the viewing audience to believe that the couple was in love in spite of the cruelty they hurled at each other in the form of words.
What are your characters saying to one another? Are they shredding each other verbally? Is the popular girl standing out from the crowd by telling one of the unpopular girls that she looks cute? Is the soldier refusing an order from his commanding officer which will likely result in disciplinary action?
You can tell if your characters are becoming friends or determined enemies by their conversations.  The things we say to each other alters our relationships even when we aren’t meaning them to. An offhanded compliment may save one person's life while a random verbal dig at that same person might be what throws them over the edge and makes them overdose. Conversations are important.

In real life, people kind of shamble through their own sentences. They um and er a lot, they digress, interrupt themselves, and start over again with the ums and ers. It's hard to build a believable relationship in print with all that going on, so refine the dialogue to include only the important things.

Dialogue can do all of these things we've discussed over the month—reveal character, move the plot, set the tone, and alter relationships in one conversation, but it, at least, has to have one, otherwise the dialogue isn’t necessary.

 –It can also do one more thing. Dialogue can provide exposition and backstory…and you want to use this judiciously. Nothing will bore a reader faster than you using dialogue to tell your main character’s entire life story or telling the entire history of the world you’ve built through the character’s conversations. That being said, dialogue is a tool in which you can quickly (quickly being the key word here) give some additional information, such as back story so that you won’t end up with long, tedious passages of exposition.

Building relationships means the dialogue is necessary. It has earned it's right to be in your story. Like I said the last few weeks, if you have scenes of dialogue that aren't paying their rent by contributing to the book as a whole, then they need to be evicted. Squatters have no place in a good story. Make certain your dialogue is paying its rent. Make sure it is:
  • Moving the plot forward.
  • Setting the Tone
  • Revealing the character
  • Building relationships

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

The Art of Dialogue: Reveal the Character

A popular post from July 2013

By Julie Wright
part three of four

It's time for the third tip of writing good dialogue. Remember that dialogue can do all of the four things I am going to mention here, but it has to do at least one of them in order to be of any use to your story.

Tip number three:

Reveal the Character

We don’t learn about characters simply by what they do, or the exposition that is written; we can learn about them through what they say and just as important, how they say it. Some characters are quiet and reserved so every word they actually utter is like a gift. Think Phineas and Ferb. If Ferb ever says anything, you always pay more attention to it, because it hardly ever happens. You expect something profound and awesome to exit that guy's mouth.
Other characters say whatever pops into their heads. They're the non-filtered characters.  These people are annoying to most of the world. These are the people that you sometimes want to push off a cliff because you just need them to stop talking. I am a non-filtered conversationalist. Please don't push me off a cliff. I truly don't mean to be offensive. We are who we are . . .
Some people are opinionated. Some are conservative. Some people turn everything into a joke. Some people don’t even get jokes let alone tell them.

By using dialogue properly, we can SHOW a character who is a submissive kiss-up in the way he offers to do the Starbucks run when the boss mentions he needs a coffee. Or in the way the kiss-up walks in on his co-workers talking in the break room instead of working and insists he's going to tell the boss on all of them.  The author doesn't just tell the reader that Simon was a whiny, sniveling kiss-up. The dialogue shows it.

Revealing the character through dialogue is an ultimate SHOW don't TELL kind of move. Don't tell us she hates her mom. Drop us in the middle of the fight and show her yelling at her mom--saying the sorts of things that prove her feelings. Don't tell us it hurt him to say goodbye. Show his voice cracking as he stumbles over the one word that changes everything for him.
We learn a lot about people during the course of conversation. Use this tool to help your reader better know your characters, and for your characters to better know each other. The more your reader knows your character, the more your reader can empathize and love that character which means they will stay with your character until the very end.

Revealing the character means the dialogue is necessary. It has earned it's right to be in your story. Like I said the last two weeks, if you have scenes of dialogue that aren't paying their rent by contributing to the book as a whole, then they need to be evicted. Squatters have no place in a good story. Make certain your dialogue is paying its rent. Make sure it is:
  • Moving the plot forward.
  • Setting the Tone
  • Revealing the character