Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Dreaded Repetition Curse

by Annette Lyon

In recent discussions with writer and editor friends (and in recent editing myself), I keep running into the dreaded repetitive word and/or phrase phenomenon. If you can avoid the disease, your writing will be crisper and more professional, guaranteed.

Repetitive words are relatively easy to avoid and fix when you're doing short pieces, since you can read the entire work in one sitting (even aloud) and catch the repetitions. For that matter, you probably WROTE the entire article or short story over the course of a relatively short period, so there are fewer of them to begin with (how many times are you going to use the word, "gregarious" if you wrote the entire short story in three days? Once, maybe.)

On the other hand, book-length works are another matter altogether. Chances are you've worked on that 90,000 word (or longer) tome over the course of months and months. So it's easy to find yourself repeating words that you don't even remember using already in the same book.

You end up with something like this: the scene where you describe your heroine's heart thrumming against her chest was written six months after the one in which the hero's heart hammers against his chest. Yet your reader comes across both descriptions in the same afternoon and wonders why you don't have a shred of creativity.

Unfortunately, the only way I know of to get around this (aside from trying to be fresh all the time, but that's not foolproof, alas) is to wait until the thing is done and then read it all the way through, start to finish, QUICKLY. That way you'll catch things you've repeated again and again.

Trust me on this one; you WILL repeat things. You'll think you're using a great new word or phrase for the first time, only to discover that you already used it. Three times.

As you read over your whole manuscript, you'll also notice that wow, a lot slew of people's stomachs flip over themselves. And hmmm, a lot of characters are clenching their teeth! Maybe I do need to find another way to describe some of these emotions.

Aside from emotional descriptors, watch out for repetitive filler words like that, was, suddenly, little, then, and even directionals like up, over, and toward. Some body parts get a workout from some writers like eyes, hands, heart, and feet.

And of course, in every book, you'll end up finding a few words that are somehow your personal "favorites" to repeat over and over for that manuscript that you'll need to start cutting or find replacements for so you don't sound like Dr. Seuss.

Do a search in your word processor for these words and fix them for that clean, professional feel. And then you will sound creative to your readers, because you will have stretched yourself, forced yourself to come up with new ways to write. And that is creativity.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

The Techno World

by Julie Wright

This last weekend, I was a participating guest in a science fiction and fantasy writer's conference. We had a panel on things you could learn from the internet. I am (obviously) pro-internet, but I imparted a word of caution to the audience and I will now share that caution with you.

The world seems like a huge place, the internet makes it seem larger still, but the writing community is very small (and smaller still when you do something stupid and you're wishing everyone would forget).

I am a big believer in blogs and forums. I've made several fabulous acquaintances through these mediums; I've sharpened my own skills, and I've gained insight into the publishing world. But there have been times when I've commented on a blog, or responded to a post on a forum, and had second thoughts as my finger hovered over the left mouse button prior to hitting send.

I'm happy to report that most of the time, my greater senses kick in and I delete the message, or soften the tone. This has saved me from looking like a bitter hack, whose only joy is flaming other authors, publishers or agents.

Others haven't been so lucky.

Watch your words in public forums. Remember that emails can be forwarded. Remember that, even though you're commenting on an editor's website who you would never dream of publishing with, there is a good chance that editor will switch publishing houses and you just might need to be in their good graces. Am I saying I believe in censorship?
I'm saying I believe in self-censorship.

Do not commit career suicide just because the internet seems so anonymous. Just because you're in your office hiding behind a screen doesn't mean the arrow you loosed from your bow doesn't have a return address on it.

The internet offers many ways of networking, research opportunity, and self marketing. I believe those tools are important to survival for new authors. I encourage you to use those tools to further your career. But beware the knee-jerk reaction. Beware arrogance, gossip, and flamatory remarks. A comment made in a moment of self righteous anger will haunt the internet--and you--eternally.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Writing school of self-taught

By Josi S. Kilpack

I was recently interviewed for an article and the journalist asked how I learned to write. I hadn't thought about this for awhile, and even after the interview was over I found myself going back to this one question. I do not have a college degree, I wasn't on the newspaper or yearbook staff in high school, I never won a writing contest or took anything beyond 101 writing classes in the one year of college I attended. I don't say this to brag, it's rather deflating to see that I missed so many opportunities--but I did. In many ways it made my road a harder one, I started several layers lower than most would-be-writers, and yet, I have written seven novels and my ability to write has definitely improved. Somewhere, somehow, I learned how to write. But how?

In dissecting the answer to that question I have found three points that were true to me, and I believe they are true to other writers in varying degrees as well. Not only were they helpful in the beginning, but they continue to be powerful. My challenge to each of you, is to consider each point in your own experience and your own writing, see how it measures up and if your current ability could be enhanced by going back to one of these points that perhaps has weakened.

1--What others Write--After I started writing my reading changed. I found myself taking apart books I read, even going as far as to write down what I liked and didn't like. I would often end up with things like. "I thought the main character was shallow." Then ask myself "Why?" At that point, I had to figure out why I felt that way so as not to repeat the mistake. Or perhaps I would observe. "I really liked the way the romantic tension increased" and ask myself "Why?" and I would ponder on this and answer it, thinking of ways I could use this information in my own book. This was MY university--the School of Other Writers. It's not simply 'editing' as you write, it's focusing on specific points, researching, putting into words the impressions you get.

2--Books on Writing. My first writing books were purchased without any recommendation. I simply went to and looked up writing books. They showed me the most popular ones and I bought three of them. To this day they are three of my favorite books, I go back to them again and again. Since then I have met many more writers, I've joined writing book groups, and I have a shelf of writing books to reference. No matter how many books on writing I have read, I find something I didn't know before. Rather than read them straight through, I often study a specific element such as "dialogue" and look it up in several resources to see what each author has to say about it so as to get a universal view.

3--Rejection Letters. The best thing that ever happened to my writing career was a lengthy rejection letter on my first book. Yes, I was hurt and emotionally wounded for a day or two. But when I got over my self-pity I realized it was like getting the answer sheet for a test in school. They rejected me, but they told me WHY. I was able to take different points of that letter and research them. Those weaknesses in my first book often show up over and over again. When I get a new rejection I get this "buzz" as I scan it looking for what I need to work on--it's like that friend who really will tell you if that dress makes you look fat. Are the editors always right? No--but they do read a whole lot of manuscripts and they didn't like mine. Knowing why helps me fix that one part rather than doing a complete overhaul.

All three of these things take effort and time--what have any of us accomplished without investing these two things? All three of these things are available to everyone, there is no discrimination, no entrance exams, no ACT scores required. And each of them will strengthen your writing--I guarantee it.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Beware of Agents

By Heather Moore

Are bad agents for real?

You’ve probably submitted to them, you may have even been “accepted” and received a contract. Oh, the excitement. You are on the verge of all your dreams coming true? Right?

Wrong. Four years ago, I got an agent. I called my husband, I called my mom, and I called my sister. I had hit the big time. I signed the contract. But just before I mailed it, I decided to query a couple of the authors whom the agent represented. Just in case.

I googled like a private investigator and found four authors and their email addresses. In the next couple of days I received replies from all four. Unanimously, they said, “Don’t go with this agent.”

I was stunned. So I started doing more research. In the depths of the internet I found some complaints filed. One website (Preditors & Editors) listed them as: Not Recommended. After I recovered from my dreams being dashed by a few emails, I composed a letter back to the agency and politely declined their representation.

Most agents are part of fine, upstanding, accredited agencies. But how is it that the bad guys still creep through cracks? Miss Snark (anonymous NY agent) lists the 20 worst agents on her blog:

Please pay attention to this list. But they aren’t the only ones. There are close to 400 questionable agencies operating. Before you query ANY agent, please, please, please check them out on Preditors & Editors:

What makes an agency gain a spot on the Beware list? Here are just a few things:

1. Fee-charging: including reading fees, marketing or administrative fees, or any fee required for representation.

2. Paid editing or publishing referrals: some agencies are just fronts for editing services. If they tell you to get a professional edit before they can represent you, then they give you a referral to an editing company—be very suspicious. Some of these agencies are actually the editors, but use a front. An editor should always be independent of an agent.

3. Minimal track records (or none): Does the agency have a significant track record? Ask for a list of recent sales. This is common in the industry and should be no problem if the agency is valid. Sales to vanity presses are not legitimate.

4. Nonstandard contracts: If the agency asks for commissions on future work even if the agency doesn’t sell it, or bills you authors for normal business overhead such as travel and entertainment, etc., beware.

5. Unprofessional practices: If the agent bundles queries from several authors to one publisher, simultaneously submits, or adds unnecessary fluff with your submission such as photos, cover mockups or illustrations . . . it's a red flag.

Please do your research before submitting. Check out the agent’s website. Does anything look strange? Check out Preditors & Editors. Are they recommended or highly recommended? If an agency requests a partial or full and you’ve done your research, you still need to email some of their clients. Just to be sure.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Generating Articles

by Annette Lyon

I've had a lot of success in recent months selling articles to magazines. In addition to hearing, "Congratulations," and "I'm jealous," I'm also hearing, "How do you get your article ideas?"

You can learn about ideas, finding angles, and writing what you know in writing magazines and books. I did all that for years and still couldn't seem to manage to come up with many concrete, specfic ideas.

But below, I'm about to spill what I finally learned about getting article ideas.

1) Read the ads, not the articles.
Contrary to what you might think, magazines make the bulk of their money from selling ad space, not from selling subscriptions. If you pitch an article that might sell them more ad space, you have a better chance of getting your foot in the door.

Several months ago I noticed that a magazine I subscribe to had a lot of ads from companies specializing in modest clothing like extra-long t-shirts and formal dresses with sleeves and low hemlines. I pitched an article on how to dress fashionably and while fully covered, complete with side bars that had resources for companies that carried such clothing. The magazine snatched it up. (And can you guess where they turned to for selling ads that month? Yep. My side bar contact information.)

2) Look months ahead.
Several magazines actually post their upcoming topics online. Such listings are a freelancer's goldmine. If an editor is looking for something about easy Halloween costumes for the October issue, by all means, send one in! Just be sure to read deadlines and note lead times. Magazines don't go by the typical calendar. When the rest of the population is thinking summer, editors are thinking winter or even spring.

3) Follow trends and twist them.
If you've followed a magazine for a while, you know what topics they've covered and what they like. Capitalize on that. Find a similar but untapped topic. If they recently ran an article about sending a child off to college, pitch one about how parents can keep in touch with that child once they're AT college.

4) Find what you know that's abnormal.
I recently threw together an article last minute that I thought was rather obvious and lame. The editor took it, I thought, because she needed to fill a space and was desperate. But I've had lots of people tell me they thought it was wonderful, and the editor has used me several times since then. Turns out that not everyone knows this stuff after all, and I can capitalize on that fact.

Everyone has knowledge that no one else does. The trick is finding out what you know that others don't. You might be surprised how much you know that you can share.

Use a few of these tips, and you could be selling some articles of your own. It's easier than you might think!

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Getting Ideas

by Lu Ann Brobst Staheli

I attend a lot of conferences where published authors speak. Without fail, the most often asked question from the audience is: Where do your ideas come from? Although writers often have specific events that trigger a scene or an entire story, the most reliable answer to this question is everywhere!

Writers are people who pay attention. They watch for the small detail, snatch segments of interesting conversations, see how life itself fits neatly into the outline of a plot, get inspiration from their own life, the lives of others, things they see on television, in the movies, read in books, and on and on.

The difference between the author and anyone else is that the writer actually writes. Most people who say they would like to write just never take the time to do so, letting their ideas stagnate until they just fade away.

If you’d like to write, but think you don’t have any ideas, here are a few techniques that might get you started. Keep a journal to record your ideas.

  • Free-writing is to write whatever pops into your head. Start with a word or topic like Christmas. Don’t worry about complete sentences or proper punctuation. Set a timer for ten minutes and don’t stop writing until the buzzer sounds, even if you have to keep writing the same word over and over.
  • Brainstorming uses free association. Write a subject at the top of your paper, then list every idea that comes to your mind relating to that idea.
  • Clustering, also known as webbing, uses this same principle, only you make word bubbles which connect ideas across your page.
  • Asking questions is a technique used by news reporters. Ask: Who, What, Where, When, How, and Why. Although not every topic can answer every question, you’ll have plenty of raw material to write a rough draft.
  • Use your senses. Most people rely on the sense of sight, but every second you’re awake your brain is taking in information from all five of your senses: sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch. Even the most common places overflow with sensory detail if you just stop to notice them.
  • What if questioning is a creative thinking technique which allows the writer to use cause and effect thinking. Author Stephen King sometimes uses this method. "What if you could bury something dead and it came back to life? What if a car had a personality and learned to love its owner? What if you could start a fire just by thinking about it?" If you’re a King fan, you will recognize the questions as some of his famous books.
As you go about your business this week, start acting like a writer. Look for ideas at home, at work, or during recreational activities. Jot these ideas in your writer’s notebook, then use one of these ideas to help you put together a story, essay, or a poem.

You’ll be amazed by how many new ideas will come into your head, and when a reader asks where your ideas come from, you’ll have the answer.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

The Back Story: Take it or Leave it

by Heather Moore

How much back story should you give when you introduce a character? Does the reader need to know your heroine’s date of birth, list of allergies, and favorite teacher in third grade? ONLY if it’s essential to the story. In my critique group we call this info dump. Novelists who are just getting their feet wet often make the common mistake of characterizing by writing back story—lots of it. Your reader really doesn’t need to know whether a character prefers one aspirin or two. This is not characterization.

There’s plenty of time to catch the reader up with the essentials, so don’t do it on the first page, or in the first chapter.

Recently I attended the URWA conference in Salt Lake City. Two agents attended.

Their pet peeves on submissions were:
1. Too much back story
2. Too much internalization
3. Lack of place
4. Adverbs in dialog tags
5. Over written 1st page—too much description
6. Actions not consistent with characters
7. Villain who is not motivated, but insane

At the same conference, Karen Robards, author of multiple NY Times Bestsellers, said this about chapter one:
1. Start your book at the moment where something major happens
2. No background in first page
3. No scenic description
4. You can put some back story in the middle of the first chapter: make it short and vivid
5. End your chapters with a cliffhanger—no conclusion, or you are giving the reader a reason to put the book down.

Take another look at your first chapter. See if you have overdone the back story. Hook the reader then drop in nuggets of back story along the way, but only what is necessary.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Show Don't Tell

by Annette Lyon

Recently I herded (uh, I mean chaperoned) a group of rather energetic second graders on a field trip to a farm. Not long after, I was asked by the teacher to come speak to the class about writing. More specifically, after she explained what she had in mind, I realized what she really wanted was the class to learn was showing instead of telling.

"Show Don't Tell" tends to be the bane of the beginning writer's existence. I remember so often in my early years when I submitted to contests and publishers that I'd get that infernal phrase scrawled across my work. And I kept thinking, "But I thought I was showing!"

So what does showing mean, really? It can mean lots and lots of things, and entire books have been written about it.

In a nutshell, telling is often plain old narrative. It's when the story is simply explained to the reader. "Joe went to the store," instead of showing what he's doing every step of the way. (He picks up his car keys, he gets into the car, starts the car, drives out of the driveway then down the road, plus how he thinks and feels about every step of the way.)

At times we need narrative to get the story clipping along to the next scene. We don't want or need to show every tiny thing. But there are times we need to show what's going on, and we need to know how to do that.

Back to my class presentation: I asked the students to tell me what we did on the field trip, and I wrote down what they said on the board. I knew what they'd give me would be the "telling" or narrative version. It looked something like this:

We got on the bus. We went to the park. We played at the park. We had lunch. We got back on the bus and went to the farm. We went to 12 stations where we learned a bunch of farm stuff. One cool thing was seeing a sheep get sheared. Oh, and a chicken squished its egg. Then we went back to the school.

Okay, so we did get one showing item: the chicken squishing its egg was a pretty good detail. The sheep wasn't too bad, but it wasn't very specific, either.

Now for showing:
I told the class to do two things—
1) add details that a movie camera would see and
2) add things that all 5 of their senses caught at the farm

The results? The second graders added showing details like this:

-Jennifer chased me at the park because she has a crush on me.
-I swung on the blue tire swing until I almost threw up.
-For lunch, my orange juice was still frozen.
-The farm smelled like cow poop.
-We ate wheat, beef jerkey, and cheese at one station.
-A big horn blew after each station so we knew when to switch.
-The mink furs were all kinds of pretty colors—and it was really soft.
-I was so cold I had goosebumps the whole time.
-I learned that my mom's makeup is made from pig guts.
-I can't get that stupid hand washing song out of my head!

And there were lots more. The students' hands were flying into the air as they got the spirit of showing instead of telling. Some told me about trying to juggle with their lunch apples. Others wanted to be sure I knew that they had smelled cow feed and how it stunk. That they liked the silly tomato puppet lady and her voice, or the sound of the humming space heater. How cool it was to see bees and honeycombs.

Suddenly the field trip that consisted of nothing but a generic park, bus, and farm had come to life with vivid, showing details.

The trick is not to beat yourself up in the rough draft stage. Let yourself tell there. Then go back and ask yourself where you can add new, specific details and where you can add more of the five senses. Sight is pretty obvious, but don't forget about hearing, taste, touch, and smell.

These were second graders, children who are seven and eight years old.

If THEY can figure out how to show and not tell, so you can you.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

A Writer's Life

The Myth

For reasons I don’t quite understand there are some myths floating around about being a writer. People imagine that writers live in houses so big, they can play hide and go seek with the whole neighborhood and take months to actually find everyone. People believe that writers have to write under pseudonym to keep the paparazzi at bay. People believe that writers never have to apologize for a messy house because people assume all writers have maids, chefs, and yard care guys on staff. People assume writers don’t panic when the bills come every month. People imagine writers pound words out in a violent frenzy of muse inspired creativity as they overlook either an ocean or mountain meadow.

The Reality

My house is adequate for my needs. My kids can play hide and seek, but they have to get ingenious about where they hide and the game is over in mere minutes. Writers apologize more for our messy houses, because we didn’t have time to wash last night’s dinner dishes or put away all the garbage in the living room because we were busy writing. Most of us don’t write under pseudonyms, and when we do, it’s for a marketing reason or because some other author has your name and you don’t want to be associated with someone else’s work.

I’ve never seen my muse. I think he's hiding out somewhere snickering into his hand about how lame I am to keep thinking he’ll show up. Or maybe he’s at the bar and is too drunk to get his backside over to my house. Either way . . . I’ve never met the guy. I think if I did, I’d sock him in the nose and end up in a lawsuit with the pretend-beings-police.

And I’ve only written while overlooking oceans and mountain meadows a few times. Most of the time, I’m writing while waiting for doctor’s appointments, parent teacher conferences, and during times when I should be making dinner (guess what kids, we’re doing hot dogs again tonight).

This is not to say my reality is bad. I get to eavesdrop and call it research. When I buy a new outfit for a booksigning, it’s tax deductible. When someone’s mean to me I get to kill them off in a novel. When someone is nice I can make them a hero and they think I’m cool. My kids’ friends think I’m cool (my kids know better). Children write book reports on stuff I write and try to philosophize my intentions. People automatically imagine I’m intelligent because I put all those words together. I can work in my pajamas. When my kids misbehave, at least I get writing material out of it. And last but not least, it’s cool to be a writer because when I’m moody I can blame it on my characters.

Monday, May 14, 2007

But Fear itself

Josi S. Kilpack

Fear is what stops most of us from writing or finishing our book--fear of rejection, mediocrity, and regret. The fear will paralyze us if we let it. So don't let it. Here's how:

1--Learn your craft; if you've never taken a writing class, read a writing book, or attended a writing conference--do you know how to write? If you don't know how to write, you will either a) Have no confidence in your writing and avoid finishing it because you know it's not very good b) Have too much confidence in your writing that has no basis in reality what so ever.

2--Set yourself up for criticism; join a writing group, submit articles, enter contests. You WILL need a thick skin to be a published author. There is no way around it. Once you get some criticism, some rejections, some failures, you'll realize it didn't make your head explode and that you survived it, which means your head likely won't explode if a publisher rejects your work down the road.

3--Keep going; when I hit a road block (which I do OFTEN) I set my timer for 30 minutes and make myself write. When the timer is up I breathe a sigh of relief and do something different, with the knowledge that I did my 30 minutes that day, and by doing so I am still moving forward a little bit at a time.

Regardless of whether you take this advice, I will make you these promises:

You will be rejected
You will be criticized
You will always question yourself
You will never overcome your fears completely

So, if you will experience these things anyway (and remember, I promised that you will) why not take my advice and face it as head on as you can. Learn to write, take rejection, and keep going. It's the only way to get to 'The End'. Writing is hard, fear and self-doubt sucks, so...write anyway :-)

Saturday, May 12, 2007

When a Period is More Than a Dot

by Lu Ann Staheli

We live in a world, and the punctuation mark that was once known simply as a period is now more important than ever.

Unfortunately, many writers still don’t understand the importance of this little punctuation mark, often forgetting to use it at all, or misusing it like crazy in its other forms.

Here’s a simple review of the period and how to use it.

Without a doubt, the most common use of the period is to end a sentence that makes a statement.

Example: This is a statement.

Periods may also be used as an end mark for an imperative sentence, one that has a sense of urgency.

Example: Read this short story for tomorrow.

Use the period when using initials.

Example: George W. Bush

The period is also essential to the abbreviation, letting readers know that the series of letters actually refers to additional letters which help them pronounce the abbreviation.

Example: Dr. actually stands for doctor.

Without a doubt, the biggest misuse of the period from novice writers is in the ellipsis, a way to indicate you are omitting words during a quote. The ellipsis consists of three evenly spaced periods with spaces between the ellipsis and surrounding letters or other marks.

Example: “We the people . . . , in order to form a more perfect union . . .”

An ellipsis can also be used to indicate a pause in the flow of a sentence and is especially useful in dialogue.

Example: Abraham Lincoln, in his Gettysburg address, said, “. . . our fathers brought forth . . . a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that 'all men are created equal.'”

In math, Americans use the period as a decimal point for partial amounts of a whole, such as in money.

Example: 3.14159 or $100.00

In computing, the period—called a dot in this case—is often used as a boundary indicator when looking up domain names and file names.


The next time you use a period, give the mark the respect it deserves because that little spot of ink can make all the difference when it comes to understanding text, math, and code.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Hooks Aren't Just For Fishing

By Heather Moore

Have you been tempted to send an agent or publisher your third chapter—because that's where your story gets really good? If there isn’t a Hook on page one of your book, the agent has no reason to read page two.

But a Hook isn’t just a one-time event. There should be essentially three Hooks in your book and four if you count your query.

1. Hook—1st sentence/page
2. Hook—why you read the next chapter
3. Hook—why you are reading to the end of the book
4. Hook—in query letter, why the agent will start reading your sample chapters

Hook One:
Read these opening Hooks:

Unsung Lullaby
by Josi Kilpack
Maddie took a sip of lemonade while looking at the circle of women surrounding her. They talked and laughed, enjoying the chance to get out of their homes, away from their families, and to bask in the company of women for the evening—even if it was just a baby shower.
Maddie was not one of them.

*Do you want to know why Maddie isn’t “one of them”? I do. What sets her apart from the others? What trial is she facing or what fear is she trying to overcome?

Drowning Ruth by Christina Schwarz
Ruth remembered drowning.
“That’s impossible,” Aunt Amanda said. “It must have been a dream.”
But Ruth maintained that she had drowned, insisted on it for years, even after she should have known better.

*This piques my interest immediately. People die when they drown. That’s what it means. So how is Ruth different? And how can she remember drowning and still be alive?

Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier
My mother did not tell me they were coming. Afterwards she said she did not want me to appear nervous. I was surprised, for I thought she knew me well. Strangers would think I was calm. I did not cry as a baby. Only my mother would note the tightness along my jaw, the widening of my already wide eyes.

*Something terrible is happening to the character. She refuses to cry, but we know she is afraid. I want to find out what’s going on.

Hook Two:
Does your first chapter end in a tidy bow? Or does it end in the middle of a scene—just when your character hears footsteps in the basement, or the good-looking man she was attracted to minutes before pulls out a gun?

End your chapter/s in the middle of a scene. Do not give the agent a reason to put your manuscript down.

Hook Three:
There needs to be a main Hook that carries through the entire book. If you are writing a mystery, the main hook is finding out “who dunnit”. If you are writing a romance, the main hook is how the hero and heroine finally resolve their differences and come together.

Hook Four:
Recently Fangs Fur & Fey—Urban Fantasy Novelists held a Hook contest. The writers were asked to introduce their book in 300 words or less. Over 200 hooks were submitted for judging. You can read them all on-line:

Your query must contain a hook that introduces your book to the agent while at the same time captivates her interest. Most agents don’t have time to read your query and sample chapters. If she isn't impressed with the query, don't count on her reading your chapters.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Crank It up a Notch

by Annette Lyon

I've read countless manuscripts from beginning writers that go something like this:

Mary and Steve sit around talking and talking and talking. Maybe they're eating something and they talk about the food. (Great cookies, he says. Thanks, she replies. I tried a new recipe.)

They might be walking around the streets of some city (often New York, maybe San Francisco), and we get the surroundings described a lot. (Honking cars, smog, whatever.)

We have background information on the characters' lives dropped in from the sky (what I call info dump.)


I yawn. At this point I keep reading only if I'm judging a contest where I'm forced to give specific feedback on a form.

Where is the plot, folks?!

Let's back up and define what we think we already know but sometimes forget:

Plot is a series of connected events that tell a story. More importantly, plot is a series of connected events driven by conflict.

Conflict is the essence of every story. It's why we keep reading.

Will Woody ever be the favorite toy again? We want to know. Otherwise, why bother watching? That one big question is broken up into smaller, bite-sized questions that are answered at the end of each scene, which propels us into the next one.

That scene-ending answer is always one of three things:

1) NO
2) NO. And furthermore . . .
3) Yes, BUT

Using Disney's Toy Story, let's look at a few examples:

-Once at Pizza Planet, will Woody manage to get him and Buzz into the stroller? No. And furthermore, Buzz runs off into what he thinks is a spaceship, so Woody has to save him.

-Does Woody manage to pull Buzz out of said spaceship/game before the claw does? No. And furthermore, it's the evil kid Sid that gets them, shoves them into his backpack, and takes them home to do scary things to them.

-Does Woody manage to escape from Sid's mutant toys? Yes, BUT now his own friends at the house next door turn on him, thwarting their escape because they think he's betrayed Buzz.

See how this works? I've actually skipped over some of the smaller scene questions and could have broken it down even further. But the idea is that one scene's question leads directly into the next scene's.

No scene question will never be answered as a happy, "YES!" until the very end, where the question is essentially, "Will they be happy now?"

I first got this way of looking at scenes from a book by Jack M. Bickham,who has written a number of volumes about writing. This one is Scene and Structure. When I first read it, the thing had my brain swirling in about a hundred directions.

I won't try to encapsulate it here--go read it yourself. There's a lot more to it than I've explained, and while the entire method won't necessarily work for every book (maybe an action/suspense that's plot-driven, but not a historical romance that's more character-driven, for example), it's a great technique for seeing where you can ratchet up your conflict and tension.

At the very least, if you use more scene-ending questions, your characters won't be sitting around shooting the breeze and chewing on hot dogs for no reason anymore.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Put your pen where your mouth is

by Julie Wright

Have you ever wondered what exactly “writing” means? I say it all the time to my family—“Ssh! Not now kids, can’t you see I’m writing? Make yourself a bowl of cold cereal for dinner if you’re hungry.” Or, “Sorry, Ma. No can talk, I’m writing.” Or, “Sorry about the fact that I didn’t hear a word you just said, honey . . . I was imagining what the hero in the book I’m writing would have said . . .”

It’s a verb . . . It’s what I do, but what is it? Wikipedia says: Writing, in its most common sense, is the preservation and the preserved text on a medium, with the use of signs or symbols. In that regard, it is to be distinguished from illustrating such as cave drawings and paintings on the one hand, and authoring such as tape recordings, and film or movies, on the other. says it is to express thoughts or ideas through a written medium.

I say it's sitting your backside in a chair and getting it done.

I write. I’ve written, and, if you ask my family, I will always be writing. That is the key.

Just today I had a friend call. She wants to be a writer. She wants it bad. She froths at the mouth when I get a new book out or talk to her about book deals other writers make.

But she never sits down and writes. Seriously, never. She hasn’t written so much as two words together for over ten years.

I’m a member of a group called Codex. This group is comprised of neo-pro/pro science fiction and fantasy writers who have proven they are actively involved in that verb called writing. Most of them are winners of Writers of the Future award. I’ve read their work . . . they really are the writers of the future.

Recently they had a discussion about finding time to write. Anyone who knows me knows I am passionate about this since “finding” time is something that never happens to me. My life is busy. If you want to know how busy, go read my website under “aspire to write” and you’ll know what I’m talking about. After a lengthy discussion with my fellow codexians, I determined that all of them write at least 1000 words a week. Most of them write that per day, but all of them get at least that much in during a week time frame.

So now I’m curious about the rest of the world. Are you serious about writing? If you are . . . are you putting your pen where your mouth is? How many words a day/week/whatever do you write? Personally, I write about 500 words a day. Some days I do 2000; some days I do ten (not thousand--ten total, yeah I know, that bites). It all averages out to 500 a day. At that rate I write about 180,000 words a year. For me that is the equivalent of two (sometimes two and a half if I'm doing YA or middle grade) books. It takes me about a half hour a day to do that.

You could cut one sitcom out of your TV life and produce two books a year. I'd call that a worthy investment.

Monday, May 7, 2007

Synopis Part 2

by Josi S. Kilpack

Last week I posted about synopsis—what it is, what format to use, why it’s important. This week, will be how to write it.

The first thing I do is finish the book. There are those that write the synopsis first, or midway, or whatever—more like an outline—I don’t. My books change too much during the writing process and I need the whole thing in front of me.

Once the book is finished, and revised, I go back to page one. I read through Chapter One, doing my final proofreading, and when I finish I open a new document and I summarize chapter one into one, maybe two, paragraphs. It will read something like this.

Chapter One
Garrett is looking for an identity, and the seller has several to select from. After reviewing the candidates information, he wants Chressaidia Josefina Salazar, a Mexican American women with no criminal record, US citizenship, and who lives in Idaho Falls. She’ll be perfect and he’s willing to pay ten thousand dollars to own her name.

Then I move on to Chapter Two, proofread, then go into my new document and summarize chapter two.

Chapter Two
The real Chressaidia Josefina Salazar, Chrissy, shows up for her most recent blind date with a chip on her shoulder and a stat sheet in her pocket. At thirty-five, she’s tired of meeting whatever men her best friend Amanda thinks will be perfect for her. This guy is white, wears jeans and a baseball cap, and has a penetrating stare that throws her off guard. However, it’s his quick wit and willingness to spar with words that captures her interest and when all her attempts to put him off are parried right back to her, she wonders if perhaps there is something special about him. After finally coming to terms with the fact that she will likely be single forever, could this guy be THE guy?

And so it goes for every chapter in the book. When you’re finished, you have what’s called a Chapter Outline and typically I end up with one page of outline for every twenty pages of the manuscript. You want to keep this, as it can come in handy later on. Once saved; copy and paste it into a new document—this is the one that will become your synopsis.

The next step is to condense the Chapter Outline down to about five pages. This is the longest synopsis length I have seen requested by editors and agents so it’s the longest one I bother with.

Start by putting the author/book information in the upper left hand corner, single spaced.

Eye of the Beholder
LDS Romantic Suspense—85,000 words
1200 word synopsis
Josi S. Kilpack

Then, change the rest of the spacing to double and start condensing each chapter paragraph into one sentence, maybe two. The first two chapters end up reading like this.

Garrett is in the market for a new Identity, Chressaidia Josefina Salazar is exactly the Identity he needs. At thirty-five, Chrissy is finally making peace with the fact that she might be single forever, until the blind date with Micah topples her defenses and leads her down roads of expectation she thought she’d given up on a long time ago. Amanda has been setting her up for years, and Chrissy’s enthusiasm for these dates is definitely waning, that’s why she does everything she can to put Micah off, convince him she’s not the girl he’s looking for. But Micah doesn’t seem dissuaded and by the end of the evening Chrissy wonders if maybe he is different. Maybe she won’t be alone forever.

Follow this pattern through the entire chapter outline, you’ll end up with close to five to seven pages of information. At which time it’s necessary to polish it, transition the sentences into one another and make sure that the flow is there.

Chressaidia Josefina Salazar is the exact profile Garret is looking for. At the moment her identity is being sold, Chrissy is meeting yet another man on yet another blind date that she is sure will be yet another dead end. However, Micah is nothing like the other poor saps Chrissy’s best friend Amanda has set her up with. In fact, he’s the first man in a very long time that Chrissy hopes will ask her out on a second date.

Keep in as many details as you can, introduce as many sub-plots as possible, but be sure the focus is on the main character and the main conflicts. After you’ve polished your five pages, save it, copy it, and paste it into another new document. It’s now time to cut it down to two pages. You do this by basically taking two sentences and turning them into one.

At the moment Chrissy’s identity is being stolen, she is meeting yet another man on yet another blind date that she is sure will be yet another dead end. However, Micah is nothing like those other dates. Until he doesn’t call her.

The last sentence is what comes about in chapter three. So, I just summarized three chapters into three sentences. I’ve lost details in each phase of the synopsis, but the story is still there. Once you finish your two pages, save, copy, paste into a new document and change the spacing to single. You’ll likely have to cut out a couple sentences to make it fit, but once you finish this one you have a Chapter Outline, a Five Page Synopsis, a Two Page Synopsis and a One Page Synopsis. You’ve also completed boot camp for tight writing, as you had to weigh each word, each sub plot, each character against the book and see what was imperative and what could be cut.

Happy writing!

Sunday, May 6, 2007

Facing Rejection

by Lu Ann Staheli

Spiders, snakes, public speaking, and being laughed at—all of these items were listed when I asked a group of students what they most feared. But when I asked the same question to a group of writers, the number one answer was REJECTION. Having an editor turn down your writing has been compared to being told your baby is ugly, and no loving parent wants to hear that news.

Once you have decided to submit your writing, you stand the possibility of being rejected. To minimize rejection, try the following:

1. Choose carefully where you plan to submit. Read the writer’s guidelines that can be found online or in Writer’s Market, or send for copies directly from the publisher.

2. Decide the right audience for your writing. Is this piece for a local or national market? Does the format fit with the previous work the publisher has done?

3. Read copies of the magazine where you plan to submit, or read recent books published by the same house to get a feel for what they publish.

4. Polish your manuscript. If you need to learn more about the writing process, then do so. Use the comments from your writer’s group or peer editor to help you know how to revise and finish the piece.

But what if you do your homework, study the publisher, polish your writing, and you still receive a rejection letter? Does that mean you should give up, accepting your fate of never becoming a published author? Absolutely not.

Although there are many reasons why an editor may reject your writing, their rejection may not mean that the writing is substandard in any way. Sometimes editors reject a manuscript because they have run something similar in a recent issue. Other times their sales staff doesn’t feel the company will make a large enough profit on your work. Maybe they just had a bad day, or their slush pile had grown too large, or they weren’t in the mood to read about dragons. The reasons may seem unfair, and perhaps they are, but being judged in this way is part of life. Just remember, it is not YOU as a person who is being judged; it is the value of your writing to this particular editor at this particular time.

If you get a rejection, take a moment to breathe--keeping your self-esteem intact--then take another fresh look at the writing. If something needs to be reworked, then by all means do it. But if you feel the writing is your best, send that manuscript out again right away to a new publisher. Remember that you’ll never be a successful author if all of your writing is sitting in a computer file or in an envelope at the bottom of the file cabinet drawer.

Thursday, May 3, 2007

Tagging Your Dialog

by Heather Moore

Can you laugh a sentence? No.

You can’t chuckle or guffaw a sentence either. Dialog tags will signal to an editor or agent whether or not you're a novice writer. For example:

“You're asking for it,” she laughed.

“You're asking for it.” She laughed.

Yes Again:
“You're asking for it,” she said, laughing.

Have you heard of the adverb faux pas? What’s really wrong with them? Nothing, unless you are using a weak adverb in place of a strong verb. Oh yeah, and don’t use adverbs in dialog tags. It might get past your editor, but not past the reviewers. If you feel there is no other way around it, use them very sparingly.

Instead of:
“I need you,” she said softly.

She stared at him then spoke in a low, urgent voice. “I need you.”

She blinked back her tears. "I need you."

Using Said
Use “said” 95% of the time. Readers will gloss over it. Adding tags such as he repeated, she reiterated, he teased, she promised, etc. slows down the reader. These tags should all be evident in the dialog itself.

Using Asked
When your character asks a question, you don’t necessarily need to say she asked. It’s becoming more common to use she said.

If you choose to use asked, treat a question mark at the end of a sentence the same way you would any other punctuation. Watch out for this beginner’s mistake:

“Where are you going?” She asked.

“Where are you going?” she asked.

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Dash it All!

by Annette Lyon

Question: What’s the difference between a hyphen, an en dash, and an em dash? How do I use them and (more importantly) how do I make each of them with my word processor?

Good question! I’ve heard it many times—often from writers who are in a near panic state.

The answer is actually pretty simple, and while I had a lengthy way of explaining it at a class I taught at a conference a couple of months ago, another editor gave me a simpler way of explaining it that I’ll use now. (Thanks, Lisa!)

Here we go:

Each of these is a dash that gets progressively longer and connects progressively more important pieces of information.

Hyphens connect words.

En dashes connect numbers.

Em dashes connect thoughts.

That's pretty much it.

But I'll explain a bit further:

Hyphens connect words.

For example, compound adjectives.

"That was the best chocolate-dipped strawberry ever!"

Hyphens are easy to make, since they have a key all their own, right next to the zero on your keyboard.

En dashes connect numbers:

"I’ve been a chocoholic all my life, but had a really bad bout from 2004–2006 when I wandered Hershey, Pennsylvania in a theobromine drunken blur."

The dash you see between the years is an EN dash.

How to create in en dash:

In Word: Type a space, then one hyphen. Continue typing another word, then a space.

The hyphen will turn into an en dash.

A caveat: You’ll need to delete the first space. You should never have a space on either side of an en dash.

In Word Perfect: Type two hyphens and then a space. The hyphens turn into an en dash.

Em dashes connect thoughts. In fiction, em dashes can also act as parenthetical interrupters.

"Hand over the chocolate—even the white chocolate crap—and no one gets hurt."

I love using em dashes—they allow for pauses not quite as long as a period, but longer than a comma. (See? I just used another one!)

One trick, however, is to make sure that if you use an em dash as a parenthetical that you don’t open with an em dash and close with a comma or vice versa, such as:

"Hand over the chocolate—even the white chocolate crap, and no one gets hurt."

You could use commas or em dashes for both interrupters. It’s really the length of pause you like. But be consistent whichever you choose.

As for how you make the em dash:

In Word: Type two hyphens, another word, then a space. The hyphens turn into an em dash.

This usually works just fine. If you have something unusual in your sentence (like you need the em dash to be followed by quotation marks when a character is being interrupted), you may have to trick the program by just typing a regular word and then a space to get the em dash, then deleting whatever you need to and typing the quote marks. (If you use Word, you’re used to having to trick it periodically, right?)

In Word Perfect: Type three hyphens, then a space or the next word.

In Word and Word Perfect, en and em dashes are also part of the IBM character sets. You can search for them if you want to just insert the right character.

And just as with en dashes, you never, ever, want a space on either side of an em dash.

By and large, if you're a fiction writer, you can likely ignore the EN dash completely, since you're unlikely to be quoting statistics and page numbers. You may need the hyphen here and there for compound adjectives.

And the em dash is definitely your friend.

If you have further questions on any of these dashes, send them in!

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

The Query-go-round

By Julie Wright

Question: How do I keep from looking stupid when submitting queries, chapters, and full manuscripts?
Answer: By acting intelligent.

I went to the World Fantasy Convention in Madison Wisconsin a few years ago. I was new to the national market, having published three books in a very niche market, and I wanted to stretch out a little. So I contacted all the agents that were in the fantasy genre by querying them, and asked if they would be at the Con too. A few replied that they would and so I told them I looked forward to meeting them. Then I made what Miss Snark would call a nitwittery mistake. I took in a synopsis and the first three chapters of my book and hand delivered it to the agent of my choice at the Con. I didn’t know I wasn’t supposed to do that, and I still cringe when I think of the agent-who-must-not-be-named’s face. Nitwittery does indeed abound. I still wake up in the middle of the night, shuddering at my own stupidity.

Since then, I’ve done some homework. I research editors and agents before I ever submit and I read books on good behavior for starving authors. I did my homework before in that I knew the agents and their agencies, but I failed to learn the social etiquette of handing over portions of a manuscript.

I’m telling you to do your homework as well. There are thousands of manuscripts in the pile. You want yours to stand out . . . but not because the agent or editor has determined forever to hate you.

Find out what the editor/agent you are submitting to wants. Don’t submit fantasy to someone who has already declared NEVER to publish or represent fantasy. Let your story speak for itself. Be willing to work on requested changes. Learn what you can do to make the editor's job easier.

Pay attention to the following:
Do not bind or staple your manuscript. Do not use ring binders, clamp binders, comb binders, brads, string, or any other thing that cannot be easily removed. Paper clips or rubberbands are ok.

Always include a SASE (self-addressed, stamped envelope) that is large enough and has enough postage. And remember that postage costs are going up. I wrote a top ten reasons why you should never include a SASE. It was tongue in cheek, of course, but was dang funny. I'd post it here, but fear someone would take me seriously and actually NOT include a SASE.

Do not attempt to draw attention to your manuscript by using colored paper. Do not use specialty typefaces. Do not try to save yourself on paper by using an 8 pt font. Do not put each page of the manuscript in sheet protectors. Do not write in fake blood (or real blood) if you’re manuscript is a murder mystery or a member of the horror genre. Do not try to write a "memorable" submission letter that embarrasses the editor or agent and should embarrass you. Don't be cute. Don’t be cute. Don’t be cute.

Remember that editors and agents care about the writing, not the packaging. Remember that agents and editors are people too. Remember that they have personal lives and don’t appreciate phone calls asking about your manuscript. Be personable. Be friendly. Be professional. Be literate enough to read each agency's submission instructions and take a chance on actually following them. Be intelligent.