Thursday, June 28, 2007
Should you start a blog even if you aren’t published yet? If you write, you are a writer. And blogging is just that: writing. Short answer: YES. Start a blog.
Here are some tips that will make the process easier.
1. Write down several names for your blog-to-be.
2. Log onto blogger.com and follow the easy set-up instructions.
3. Keep your blogs to three or four paragraphs. There’s nothing more boring than a very long-winded blog. You’ll be sure to lose readers fast.
4. Don’t name drop. This includes naming personal friends, children, spouses, or that agent who was a fool to reject you.
5. Write with a purpose. Blogging is not the same as journaling. We don’t need to know how many times you were up in the night.
6. Keep it varied and interesting. Chronicling your cat’s daily escapades will become too tedious for others to read.
7. Read other blogs by agents, editors, writers. You’ll be surprised how much you can learn.
8. Most of all be yourself. Let your personality shine through. Your blog doesn’t have to be perfectly edited, but take care to produce something intelligible.
Writing a blog probably won’t increase your chances of getting published, but it’s great writing practice and gives you a forum to voice your opinion on what matters to you.
Finally, have fun with it. Just don’t say something that you’ll regret later when you are a famous author.
Wednesday, June 27, 2007
The last time I blogged on dialogue, I mentioned keeping each of your characters true to themselves in relation to their age, gender, education, geographical differences, and so on.
This time, I'll expand on that idea and provide some examples:
The following is an actual quote. The basic age of the speaker is probably easy to determine:
“Mama, I can’t sleep without Teddy. You look for him everywhere you can think.”
I’m betting you could tell that the speaker isn’t a 60-year-old chemistry professor. It's my 4 1/2-year-old daughter the other night as I tucked her into bed.
How can you tell? Not only because of the topic (her teddy bear), but because of her word choice ("look for him" rather than something like "search for it," since we're talking an inanimate object) and her syntax ("everywhere you can think”).
Similarly, teenagers talk differently than preschoolers do. Twenty-somethings will sound different than seniors. And so on. Even all your adult characters shouldn't sound the same.
In my critique group, we’ve had some lively discussions about what is natural for men and women to say. It’s happened more often now that a couple of men have joined, and I welcome such discussions, because my male characters are much more masculine than they’ve ever been as the guys have called me on the carpet. (“A guy would never use that word; it’s too feminine.”)
Take a wild guess which is the female and which is the male in the following examples:
“The walls were golden—almost buttery.”
“The walls were yellow.”
Not hard. Generally speaking (no pun intended), men tend to not notice or care about the subtle differences in shades of color. For them, a sweater is just orange—not salmon, coral, or apricot.
But bring out a car engine, and the story changes. Suddenly it’s not just pistons that are firing. This time it’s the women who bow out of the conversation. To them, it’s just a hunk of metal.
Granted, these are whopping generalizations. You might have a female character who is a grease monkey, and a male character who is an artist and does know and care about all the subtle shades of white and can tell ecru from egg shell.
Great! Those differences are what make your characters stand apart, make them different in their speech and characterizations. But by and large, know the differences in large categories in speech such as gender. Know what your readers expect (and even what they don't know they expect). Knock their socks off which how specific you are.
How do men and women talk differently? Pay attention and try to duplicate it. Colors and engines are just one tiny example. One book that I've found eye-opening in discussing how men and women talk differently in the real world is socio-linguist Deborah Tannen's You Just Don't Understand. She didn't pen it for writers, but I couldn't help but read it as one.
The level of education a character has—or doesn’t have—will show up in how he or she speaks; it’s inevitable. When people don't know how to read or write and don't know basic grammar, it only makes sense that they’ll speak in one way, and if they grew up with a private education, they’ll speak in a different way.
Very often that education will go hand in hand with how well-off that character is. More money often means more education, which will likely play into your story.
Regardless, it should definitely play into your characters’ speech. Pretend we have two witnesses on the stand in court:
“I’m sure I seen her done it,"
will be spoken a witness by a very different educational background than someone who would testify,
“Goodness, I’m sure I would have noticed if the accused had crossed my path that day.”
Different areas of the country develop quirks of their own, and people from those areas use them. Even if they have a high-level education, move away, and don’t use those grammatical quirks in their jobs, they’ll often flip back into them (use those “registers”) when on vacation with the families they grew up with. It’s sort of a dialectal thing.
One example: “That pile of dishes needs washed.”
Technically, the sentence above needs something to be “correct” standard English (it should be that the dishes need “to be washed” or need “washing”) but this type of construction is common in some areas of the country.
The West, South, New England, and even the Northwest all have such quirks. Some ethnic groups have them within those geographical areas. Learning about them can help spice up your dialogue and make your characters feel that much more real.
All of this is not to say that you should make your characters stereotypes of any age, gender, or background. To the contrary, the more you know about any generic group, the more you can create new variations on an old theme (the female grease monkey, for example).
It’s the common adage about knowing the rules so you can break them. But learn those rules first. Learn what your reader will expect from your characters. If you have a ten-year-old boy in your book, know what your average ten-year-old boy behaves like, talks like, and enjoys doing. If your character is an eighty-year-old woman and lives in New York, find out how elderly female New Yorkers usually talk.
The more vivid you can make your dialogue, the more your characters will pop off the page and become alive in your readers’ minds.
Tuesday, June 26, 2007
Cons are writer's conferences or conventions. They usually cost money. Some cost a lot of money. Many a leery writer looks at these conferences askance as though they don't need it.
Au Contraire my scribbling friend. We all need writer's conferences. It is a time to recharge creative batteries, a time to learn the craft, and a time to network. It's mostly a time to network. I wouldn't be anywhere in my career without my fellow writers.
By making the friendships I have at writer's conferences throughout the state (and several, I've traveled the country to attend), I have learned what an ellipses is and how to use it accurately. I've been introduced to agents and publishers; I've learned about the pitfalls of crummy contracts, and I've learned that James Dashner has terrible riddle making skills. All of the above are vastly important (well, James' lack of skills aren't important, but you get what I mean.)
I know we all imagine writers to be solitary folks who labor in sweat intensive creativity while holed up in some room that has a window overlooking a mountain, or an ocean, or some other large imposing bit of nature. But the truth remains that you need other writers if you're going to be a writer.
I remember once when a friend pointed out to me how odd and coincidental she thought it was for CS Lewis, JRR Tolkein, and Charles Williams to be friends. Then she said that now that she was a writer and traveling in circles of other writers, she understood how easily it would be for them to be such good friends. They were in a writer's group called Inklings (which is a cute as heck name). They networked and changed the face of literature by helping eachother edit manuscripts like the Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings.
The people I have helping me edit my manuscripts are people I've met from attending writer's workshops and those pesky sometimes inconvenient, sometimes expensive Cons. Even the one conference that was a total absurdity because the presenters knew less than I did was worth going to if only to prove to me I was more competent than I'd ever imagined. If those clowns could be successful, I was going to rock the literary foundations of the world.
It's a great place to meet agents and editors and to hear first hand what they have to say.
What I'm saying here is that you should make a goal to attend a writer's conference at least twice a year. I go to about six a year. I don't really go to hone the craft anymore. Oh sure . . . I'll take in the occasional class and workshop. But mostly, I go to network--to shake hands, exchange cards, and make friends.
And when people call it coincidence that some of my best friends are some of the greatest literary minds of our day, I smile and know that it was no coincidence at all. I just knew that the pros were found at cons and I went where they were.
Monday, June 25, 2007
Ask any writer that has learned to properly back up their work the hard way and be sure to bring Kleenex. Having your words be sucked into the cyber abyss is an experience I wouldn't wish on my best competition (Okay, maybe on my BEST competition). And it's happened to me, more than once. The first time was on my first book and the only reason I lost it was because I didn't know about the 'undo' option in Word. Yes, that's embarassing to admit. I would lose entire paragraphs nearly every day, because I typed so fast that I would block out a passage and keep typing before I could realize what happens. When I found the 'undo' option I was releived, and completely ticked off. Fast forward a few years, and I dropped my laptop and fried the mother board. Miraculously I could get the machine to turn on for two minute increments and was able to save the three manuscripts I had on it before it died for good. When I got a new one and had my hard drive transfered, to save all my other documents, the computer store made a mistake and didn't save it right. By the time I figured it out, my old hard drive had been reformatted.
And yet, a high percentage of writer's don't back up on a regular basis and some just don't know how. So, here are a few options for you to consider.
Hard copy--This means you print it out so that you have a physical copy. Not advisable unless it's a short work like an article, essay etc. because you'll use up a lot of paper. And, hard copy isn't very efficient due to the fact that should you need to 'restore' your file, you have to retype it in by hand, for a 900 word article, this isn't a huge deal, but for 60,000 words of a novel . . .
Extra Hard Drive--You can get a second hard drive installed in your computer, or network another computer to your system, and get programs that will back up to it automatically on a regular basis. Should something happen to your main hard drive, you have the second one on the same machine and your back up copy is easily accessible. The drawback is that it can still be vulnerable to viruses that might affect your main drive and if your computer is stolen (which rarely happens, but ya know...) you've lost your back up too.
External Hard Drive--this connects through a USB and you manually save your work to this drive on a regular basis. To protect it from viruses, you won't want to keep it hooked up all the time, only when you're backing up. This can be a pain, and it's in the same location as your main computer, but it can be transported and put into storage if necessary as well.
Jump Drive--These are USB port devices that are small enough to fit on a key chain and yet go up to more than 1 G of memory. These are very convenient and prices start at around $20. Many writers love this option, not only for backing up, but if they are using multiple computers for their writing. Some writers even keep their works only on the jump drive, not saving it to the hard drive of any computer. However, with a jump drive you risk making changes on one machine, and improperly saving it on another. Pay strict attention to how you use your jump drive. They are also very small and easily lost.
CDs--If your computer has a CD or DVD burner, you can burn a copy of your work onto a disk and should you need to restore it it's easy to open the file from the disk. Of course, it's not perfect either. If you were to back up to a CD every day, for instance, you'd go through a lot of CDs since generally you can only save to it to a CD only once. CD's can also be lost or improperly saved to.
Email server--Many writers I know back up by e-mailing the ms to themselves at the end of each writing session. The attachment is then saved on your e-mail server and should you need to restore, you can go into your server and replace it. This is one of the easier ways to back up, but you'd have to be consistent (as with every other option). And keep in mind that some e-mail programs delete messages from the server on a regular basis.
Regardless of which option you choose, the key is to be consistent. Some writers back up every time they write, other's back up once a month, some don't back up at all because it's a pain or they don't think of it. However, it will only take losing your work one time to convince you that the few extra seconds are well worth your while.
Back up copies should ONLY be used to BACK UP because they will replace your current version. Label them as back-ups so that you don't accidentally open it as your current version.
This type of story, called an anecdote, can be found in magazines, newspapers, and even in popular series such as Chicken Soup for the Soul. Online Dictionary.com defines the anecdote as: “A short account of an interesting or humorous incident.” A search on Google.com results in 5,710,000 hits for anecdotes, and Reader’s Digest Magazine has long known that their humor departments—All in a Day’s Work, Humor in Uniform, and Life in These United States—almost always finish one, two, and three in popularity.
Anyone can learn to write an anecdote if they know how to mine their own lives for the moment of humor or poignancy that will tickle the funny bone or touch the hearts of others. Ideas come from personal stories, those favorite tales we tell about our families, friends, workplace, vacations, and so on. Think about your childhood, school years, or tales your family tells about long-dead relatives. Perhaps these stories deserve to be heard by a bigger audience.
When you write your anecdote, begin by thinking about the ending. Does your story have a punch line? Every anecdote needs a powerful ending, something that will either make your audience laugh or allow them to feel the emotion of the moment. Once you have the end, find the beginning. Keep the anecdote short and on track. Tangents, even funny ones, will detract from your ending.
Most anecdotes run 300 words or less and markets often pay well for them. Reader’s Digest gives the following information on their website: “Everyone's got a funny story. What's yours? Believe it or not, we actually pay our readers to make us chuckle. Just send us your hilarious story, and if we publish it in Reader's Digest, you'll be laughing all the way to the bank. Here's how it works: We pay $300 for true, never-before-published stories we print in Life in These United States, All in a Day's Work, Humor in Uniform or Virtual Hilarity.” A simple online form allows readers to submit stories electronically.
So, think about your life stories. Is there something there that you might be able to write into an anecdote? As you read newspapers and magazines this week, pay attention to the different kinds of anecdotes they use, then write one to submit. Maybe you’ll find yourself $300 richer when they buy your little slice-of-life.
Thursday, June 21, 2007
Sometimes when all the writing and editing have been done, you finally get that publishing contract. But then what?
Do you sit back and add up royalty checks? The more effort an author makes to promotes his/her work, the more successful a book will be.
Even if you aren't published yet, you need to establish an internet presence. In today's techno world, the internet is a major catalyst for marketing. One way to do this is start a blog or become a contributor to a blog.
If your first book is about to be released or you've just received your first book contract, you need to create a website right away. Readers today are web savvy and they like to connect with their favorite authors.
If you have a book (or two) already published and your sales have been lackadaisical, consider the following self-promotion ideas:
1. Drive-by signings. Call the store manager in advance and tell him you'll be "dropping by". Bring bookmarks to leave in the store, sign the stock they carry of your book, and chat with store employees. J.A. Konrath gave some great tips in the June 2007 Writer's Digest.
2. Hold contests on your website or blog. This can range from youth writing contests to answering trivia questions about a character in your book. The prize? A free copy of your book, of course.
3. Volunteer to speak at writer's groups or conferences. You may find that by sharing your experience or knowledge you are gaining lifetime readers in the process.
4. Post flyers around your community about book group speaking engagements. Make yourself available for conference calls to book groups farther away.
5. Compile a newsletter/e-letter list. At every booksigning or author event, ask people to sign up for your newsletter.
These are just a few things you can do. Gone are the days of the reclusive author. You need to be just as much of a salesman as a good writer in order to make your book a success.
Wednesday, June 20, 2007
How do you structure your writing group? How many people are in it? Do you ever take new people? How do you break up the time? How often do you meet, for how long, and where are the meetings held? What tricks have you picked up over the years?
I'm glad you asked, because in my opinion, a writing/critique group can be the most valuable thing you can do for your work.
One big caveat: A BAD group can be the worst thing you can do for your writing. You need a GOOD group, one where the other members can challenge you but don't make you feel small. Where you can contribute, but where you can benefit from the other members as well.
I've heard of groups where they're not much more than chatting fun-fests. I've heard of groups where no one really knows what they're doing—they're all clueless. I've heard of groups where, after a couple of years, they all start writing like each other. In such cases, move on!
I'm lucky in that I've been with my group for seven and a half years, and we're still going strong. We all write differently, we stay on track, and while we're great friends, we certainly aren't easy on one another. We all have our strengths, and if someone hasn't attended in a few weeks, I feel like my work might be slipping in one area. We'll be together for years to come, I'm quite sure.
The way our group works is just one of many ways to run a writing group. Some groups meet less frequently but meet for much longer chunks. Others take home entire manuscripts and then meet to give commentary on them and never read aloud in front of each other. Others read one another's works aloud instead of reading their own. I'm sure there are as many ways to run groups as their are writers. Below is the way ours works.
Customize your own group to fit your needs.
How do you structure your group?
The basic way we work is to meet approximately weekly. Each person brings enough copies of their piece (usually 6-8 pages, perhaps a scene) for every person to read off of. When it's my turn, I'll hand out my copies to each person, then read my piece aloud while they all make notes on their own hard copy. Then they'll each take 2-3 minutes giving a verbal critique. Sometimes we set a timer to be sure we don't go long, because it's the oral commentary that can take too much time if we aren't careful. Once we've gone around the table and everyone has said what they think, the next person passes out their work.
How many people are in it?
We currently have eight members, and I don't recommend having any more than that. However, with schedules being as insane as they are, we rarely have more than five or six at any meeting, and that is about perfect. We never meet with fewer than four, because you need at least three people outside of yourself to get enough feedback to make it worthwhile.
Do you ever take new people?
Periodically, but rarely. Usually it's when someone moves.
How do you break up the time?
See above. The biggest trick is not letting friendship chatter get in the way, because we have been together so long that we really are great friends. That's when we break out the timer and have to hold ourselves to it.
How often do you meet, for how long, and where are the meetings held?
Weekly most of the time, but sometimes we end up missing weeks. And when the holidays come, we don't even bother. Often we'll meet two weeks into November, have a holiday dinner with spouses, and then call it quits until the new year. We meet at members' homes, sitting around their kitchen tables, red pens in hand. It helps if there are chips and salsa or chocolate chip cookies on the table. We generally start around 7:00 pm and go until we're done, around 10:30 pm if we haven't gotten overly chatty.
What tricks have you picked up over the years?
Pay attention to what other members say to each other. This helps in two ways. First, you'll save time in not repeating a criticism someone already said, which wastes time, but (more importantly) often you'll learn just as much about writing by listening to others' critiques of each other as you will about what they say to you.
Another tip in saving time is only mentioning things that really need explanation. A lot of comments are self-explanatory from the notes you write down. You may not have to explain that a sentence felt awkward if you wrote, "awk" in the margin next to it, but if there was a part where the protagonist's motivation was unclear, you'll likely need to expound on that.
Also, be sure to write you name on the first page of your copy. That way, when the person gets home, they know right away that YOU made all the notes, and if they need clarification, they know who to ask.
Sometimes we disagree. If one person thought my description cliche and another person thought it was brilliant, I'll ask for hands to go up. How many people thought it cliche? How many thought it was brilliant? That'll give me a rough idea of how close I got. Often it's just one person who thinks one direction, and everyone else thinks the other way. That tells me overwhelmingly that it maybe it really was cliche (or brilliant). Or if it's split in half, maybe I need to rework the passage a different way altogether.
One other thing I've learned is that I don't have to take their advice. It's still my work. I'm the author, so I have the final say. I also know that my group is composed of darn talented people. There's a good chance if they've diagnosed a problem, it really is a problem. But sometimes I've found a better way of solving it than they've suggested.
Once I whined to a relative about a big fix I had ahead that they had suggested for my work in progress. She said, "Blow them off. You don't have to listen to them."
"You don't understand," I told her. "They're right."
The biggest tip? Give it time. Critiquing is something you learn. We've had people come to their first meeting and flip out because they feel completely inadequate. "How can you pick up so much so fast—while you're just listening to it?" they say. Well, we've had years of practice. It's an acquired skill. You learn.
I love my critique group and can't live without them. I don't dare publish a novel without their eyes going over it first. Find a good group and cling to them for dear life. They're worth their weight in gold.
Tuesday, June 19, 2007
"People often ask me how I stay responsive to wonderful new manuscripts when
I read so many every week, every day. The good news and the bad news is that
really special ones stand out as distinctly as real flowers in a shop
plastic imitations. And it's just like that really. The actual,
has a smell. It isn't perfect, it's colors can be off a bit.
But it's REAL and
you know it. On the other hand, those plastic flowers
represent a syndrome that
results in nine out ten of the rejections I write
every week: let's call it
channeling. Channeling is a common problem to
writers of any sort of piece be it
poetry, fiction, or journalism, but it's
a particular hazard of the various
literary forms that make up the broad
category of children's books: picture
books, chapter books, middle grade
novels, Young Adult novels and nonfiction of
all levels. In most cases, I
believe channeling is not done intentionally. A
writer simply sits down at
his or her computer and sets out to write, let's say,
a picture book story.
Suddenly, that person is possessed by the spirit of Dr.
comes out in rhymed, metered verse, with a plethora of made-up
words to help
make the lines work.”
I really like what he said and I really hate what he said. I like it because
I agree. I hate it because I am sometimes guilty of the "channeling" crime. I'm
going to be argumentative just because I'm about ten hours late posting this
blog and feel argumentative.
Channeling is not necessarily a bad thing if you do it well . I've thought about it a lot since
I read Arthur's article. I've pondered it because he deals in
children's literature and I write for a YA market--most of the time. I've
concluded that to a child nothing is cliche if it is well written. Think on how many retellings with new twists there have been with Cinderella. Though these author's have had to channel a little to get their stories out, they added their own flair and made the stories new again.
But I loved what he said about the real flowers versus the plastic ones. In every contest I've ever judged, the real flowers stood out among the plastic ones and I knew. I knew the winners, because they were the ones who'd taken the time to learn to write.
Saturday, June 16, 2007
Most good writers are avid readers. Look at the types of stories you read. Do you prefer fiction, non-fiction, poetry, magazines, or newspapers? Maybe you focus on a particular genre: biography, romance, mystery, thrillers, fantasy, or science fiction. Perhaps you like a specific target audience: picture books, adolescent novels, mainstream novels. No matter what your preferences, if you want to be any kind of a decent writer, you will first be a reader.
Read the kinds of works you wish to write. Read the best. Read the worst. Determine what makes the difference between the two. Don’t just read to get the story. Read to learn your craft. How does the author make the story work?
Learn the value of rereading. Watch for foreshadowing, characterization, voice, theme, etc.—all those things your English teacher taught you are there to make the story better, to add a richer meaning, and to give the story depth. Most authors consciously develop these story elements in the rewrite stage. You may not notice them until the second time you read a book, once the initial suspense of the book has passed.
Knowing how successful authors write successful stories is part of learning to be a better writer.
Thursday, June 14, 2007
Whether you’re writing a historical novel, a contemporary novel, or a non-fiction how-to book, you need to do your research. You don’t need to be the expert, but you need to be as careful and as thorough as possible. Let someone else be the expert, and you can use their decades of research in your book.
Keep a list of sources, then cite them in your author notes. Some authors include resources in their acknowledgments. If you are writing historical fiction, you may need to include a bibliography. If you are writing non-fiction, you must include a bibliography. More and more contemporary novels have included resources in the author notes or the acknowledgments.
When I write historical fiction, I use a footnote system. Eventually I delete the footnotes and turn some of them into chapter notes. But I always keep the original version with the footnotes, so if I ever have to backtrack, or an editor questions the validity of a point, I can immediately locate my research. When I’m writing, I’ll highlight a word or a sentence that I need to follow-up with more research. That way, my writing isn’t slowed when I’m in the middle of a scene.
Some authors do all the research before they start to write the first sentence. And some might do just enough to get the story going. Researching can be two-fold. It can bog you down and eat up your writing time. Or it can inspire a plot, sub-plot or formulation of a scene. Find a balance. If you spend an hour on research, plan to spend the same amount of time on writing.
(Josi is a techno dumwad and messed this up--it wasn't supposed to show up until Monday, but apparently she . . . messed it up. My apologies--Josi)
CM you ask? What is CM? Well, CM is the most important aspect of writing fiction because first and foremost, every novel is about characters. Be it a cow or an assassin, it's the characters to which the plot happens but in order for it to make sense, to feel real, the reader has to know the Character Motivation. Think of Character Motivation as the spinal cord of any good story. It's the aspect that controls everything else in the book, the method to their madness, the canvas upon which the plot is painted.
Yesterday, Meredith L. Dias posted a great blog about the difference between good and great novels. I had already been very much focused on the character motivations of my current WIP and so her thoughts were perfectly timed for me and so I chose it as the topic of my blog this week, both as a reminder to myself and a tool for you as well.
Character motivation is the "why" your character does what he does. You can have the quirkiest, funniest, and most unique character fall completely flat if you don't develop her to the point where the reader understands why she is making the choices she makes. If you find yourself using phrases like "She threw water in his face because she hated him" it usually means that you haven't developed your character to the point that we the reader would know why she threw water in his face. The way you convey these motivations to your reader is through three steps.
1) Know your character. If you don't know how to make a cake, how do you teach someone else to do it? If you don't know how to speak French, how can you help someone else achieve fluency? You wouldn't attempt either of those things, and should be just as hesitant to write about a character you don't know. I often find myself interviewing my characters as I'm driving, or in the shower. I'm not necessarily writing scenes, but just asking questions, then figuring out how this character would answer it. Spending this kind of time together helps me to really get into their heads. Yes, this sounds psychotic, what's your point? I am a writer after all.
2) Have a clear view of their goals. What is your character trying to resolve in this book? Where will the growth of your character take place? How will they be better at the end of the book than they were in the beginning? If your character doesn't know what she wants, then you the author don't know the character well enough. You should ask yourself at the beginning of your book "What does my character want?" And at the start of each chapter you ask again "What does she want now that things have changed?"
3) Really? When I edit other people's books I will often write out to the side "Really?". It means that the scenario they wrote made me pull my eyebrows together and question the realness of the act. Would he really hide in the shadows when he'd been waiting for hours to meet her? Would she really take the garbage out with nothing but a T-shirt on? Would they really drink eighteen martinis in one sitting? If I'm questioning this, then you need to see where you need to strengthen your characters motivations. Of course there is a chance I just missed something, but if that's the case then why wasn't it made clearer. For every action there is an opposite reaction. Make sure I understand the actions and reactions well enough to not be confused. So ask yourself "Would he really?" and make sure you've laid a characterizational foundation that supports that.
I'm a firm believer that you can write about anyone doing anything--so long as the right motivations are in place. There are reasons some women lie about their age and there are reasons why some men hate power tools. Firm up your characters motivations so that we understand. Show us her fear that, like her mother, she'll be diagnosed with breast cancer before she reaches the age of forty. She's terrified of getting older, of finding out that she too might have to face the end of her life forty years too soon and yet in the process her fear keeps her from really living at all. Show us that his father spent every free minute building something, instead of being with his son. He's determined not to do the same thing, not to let something as simple as a hobby take away from the father his children will have, and yet when something breaks he doesn't know how to fix it. If you know your character, understand his goals, and evaluate each of their reactions, you can have the solid character motivations that really are the difference between good fiction that entertains and great fiction that makes your reader say "Yeah, I totally get why she did that."
Wednesday, June 13, 2007
It's the simple things that shoot you in the foot, knock you off the slush pile, and get a rejection flying to your mail box.
It's also the simple things that make you look more polished and professional: things like knowing when to italicize a title versus when to put quote marks around it.
Here is a basic primer on the quote marks vs. italics rules:
First and foremost, never ever use quote marks or italics when a title is ACTING as a title. In other words, on your own title page or at the top of your manuscript, DON'T italicize or put quote marks on your own title.
(Have you EVER seen a title ON a book italicized? Ever seen a magazine article with quotes around it? Don't think so.)
On the other hand, when you're referring to your own work, THEN you'll either italicize or quote mark it, such as in a cover letter or query. (Enclosed is my fantasy short story, "Please Publish Me.")
The basic rule of thumb:
Use QUOTE MARKS for things that are SHORT.
Use ITALICS for things that are LONG.
I had an editor once suggest a way to remember this by going back to the days of typewriters, when they used the underline key for the italics. A long line reminded her of a bookshelf, or something LONG, while quote marks looked like nails or hooks, something that would hold up something little.
Okay, so what constitutes SHORT and LONG?
Quote marks go around short works such as:
Poems: "Prometheus" by Lord Byron
Songs: "The Star Spangled Banner," by Francis Scott Key
Magazine Articles: "Learning from Lincoln's Wisdom" by William Kristol
Short Stories: "A Rose for Emily," by William Faulkner
Episodes within a TV series: "The Trouble with Tribbles" in Star Trek
Chapters within a book: "The Boy Who Lived" in Harry Potter
Italics set apart larger works such as:
Novels: Harry Potter, by J.K. Rowling
Magazines: Time Magazine
Television Series: Star Trek
Ships: The Monitor
Another hint: If something can be broken down further, the smaller piece goes into quote marks, and the larger work will be in italics (ie, the magazine will be italics, while the articles inside it will be in quote marks. The TV series will be italics and the individual episodes will be quote marks).
And I have no clue why ships are in italics. That's just the rule. :)
Other items that aren't listed above, such as a brand of soda or jeans, a big mansion (think Tara in Gone with the Wind) or a store, are just names, not titles, and therefore don't need to have quotes or italics. Simply capitalize them.
These things may seem nit-picky, but they're the types of things editors do watch out for. Yes, editors try to overlook little mistakes, but why give them one more thing against you?
Tuck one more thing into your arsenal and be prepared, because the writer who comes out ahead is the one who is forearmed.
Edited to add: I've added a new post (find it HERE) with updated italics and quotations mark rules, as well as answers to questions I've received since this post first went live.
Tuesday, June 12, 2007
As mentioned in last week’s blog, I had to learn to deal with readings and signings and selling myself in general. Things only grew worse with time. People called me to ask me to speak at schools, to speak at church functions, to speak at writer’s conferences. People asked ME to speak.
I guess I’m fussing over this because I’m speaking next month to a thousand teenagers ranging from fourteen to eighteen in age, and I’m flat-out terrified. I think the largest group I’ve ever spoken to is 300. One thousand people. That’s a lot more than 300 for those of you (like me) who don’t do math.
The number terrifies even if the talks are the same.
I share all of this with you, not because I enjoy pointing out my own lack of courage, and the possibility that I will vomit in front of one thousand teenage witnesses, but because if you really want to be an author, you need to prepare yourself for being in the public eye.
Not in the public eye like JK Rowling. It’s unlikely you’ll need a pseudonym to keep the paparazzi at bay, but you will be asked to speak on panels, to teach classes and to give entire motivational seminars for aspiring writers. This means if you’re a victim of chronic stage fright, you might want to take a few speaking classes.
Toastmasters is a great place for beginner speakers. They’ll help polish out your rough edges. They’ll eliminate, or at least diminish, your um’s, er’s, and ah’s. I’d encourage you to give a few evenings to toastmasters to help you out. You can learn about the program and locate the chapter nearest you here:
I heard once that the anxiety caused from having to speak in public actually sets off healthy endorphins in your brain. I have no idea if that’s true or not . . . I likely read it on the internet and you know you can’t trust anything you read on the internet . . . (hey, wait a minute . . .)
Speaking in public really is a great tool. It allows you to connect with your readers and allows you to connect with people who are potential readers. If you fear it--get over it.
And don't forget: it’s all about the staff at bookstores when you do signings.
Saturday, June 9, 2007
Let me point you to a few free research tools that might prove more fruitful, or at least help your find information from the deep web that a surface website like Google or Yahoo won’t know.
The state of Utah, in an effort to make deep web sources readily available to teachers and students, sponsors an organization called the Utah Education Network. One of the perks of using that site is free access to Pioneer, a multi-level research tool. http://pioneer.uen.org/k12/index.jsp
Pioneer takes you to a variety of resources in the General Reference Collection. These incude:
CultureGrams - Information on countries, the 50 United States and their cultures.
EBSCO - General reference and books, journals, magazines, newspapers, and encyclopedia resources.
eMedia - Search, preview and download educational videos and supporting media.
SIRS Discoverer Deluxe - General reference for elementary and middle schools.
SIRS Knowledge Source - General reference for high school and college researchers.
Visual Thesaurus - A 3-D interactive thesaurus and dictionary.
World Book Encyclopedia - Articles, pictures, maps, audio and video clips.
The special Utah Collection includes:
Deseret News Archives - Search articles from 1988. Also see today's Deseret News.
The Salt Lake Tribune (Today's Online Version.)
SURWEB - Search thousands of images from Utah as well as a media basket to build online presentations.
State of Utah Archives - A repository for Utah's government historical business records.
Utah Collections Multimedia Encyclopedia - Explore Utah video, audio, pictures, maps, text, charts, and graphs.
Utah Digital Newspaper Search old newspapers from various Utah communities.
Utah's Local Newspapers
Counties of Utah
Additional Library Resources available from this site include:
Spanish Resources/Recursos Españoles
MarcoPolo - National curriculum for teachers. Arts, Economics, Geography, Humanities, Mathematics, Reading and Language Arts, and Science.
ThinkQuest - Utah is a state partner for this student-centered, International project.
American Library Association Internet Resources
Library of Congress
So whether you’re in the middle of doing research or not, the Pioneer Library might be a fun place to go and look around. You never know what information you find there that might lead you to your next article, novel, or poetry.
If you have trouble accessing the library from home, the following information may be valuable to you: To access the K-12 Pioneer Library from home, go to: http://pioneer.uen.org.
Username: pioneer Password: cake
Thursday, June 7, 2007
Do you have to be published to deduct writing expenses from your taxes? Yes. And you have to be receiving some type of payment for your work.
But if you aren’t published, you still need to keep track of your expenses. Once you receive that first magazine article payment or royalty check, you can claim “operating at a loss” for previous years of writing expenses. For more details ask your tax consultant.
What type of expenses count as writing expenses?
1. Purchase of any books. You're a writer and everything you read is educational. Keep track of the receipts for any books you purchase and jot down the mileage to and from that store.
2. Mileage in pursuit of writing or promoting. Keep track of your trips to the library, book signings, critique group, writer’s conferences, post office, copy store, etc.
3. Meals fall under a unique category. If you eat while on the road, going about your writing business, you can only claim 50% of the bill as an expense.
4. Business use of your home. In a nutshell, you divide the square footage of your office by the total square footage of your home, and you come up with a percentage. Then you take all of your utility bills and times them by this percentage. The amount becomes what you can claim a deduction.
5. Writing equipment and supplies. Keep receipts for purchases such as paper, ink, pens, computer, printer, website hosting fees, and promotional materials.
Every cent adds up when the final tally is totaled. If you are methodical, you’ll be surprised that often you are able to expense more than what you are making. Taxes for your writing career will be a nice zero.
Wednesday, June 6, 2007
I can probably thank Miss Winn, my high school creative writing teacher, for making dialogue one of my passions. She's the one who assigned the screenplay that forced me to write nothing BUT dialogue for pages on end and made me fall in love with what I am now convinced is one of the best ways to show and not tell.
Dialogue almost feels like cheating, it's such an easy tool to use for showing and not telling. Just throw your characters into a scene and get them talking, and their characteristics pop off the page.
Want to show that a boy friend is a jerk? Don't say it. Throw him in a scene with his girl friend and have him TALK like a jerk. If a young woman is shy, don't say so. Put her in a scene where she's forced to speak shyly.
Below are three of many keys to great dialogue.
#1: Keep the dialogue true to your character.
In other words, don't have your characters talking in a manner that doesn't fit who they are. I recently read a book where a character who was supposedly an elderly, uneducated, rural immigrant started spouting off in eloquent English.
Hmmm. Try again.
Each of your characters should sound a little different from one another, if not because of their background (gender, age, education, geography, etc.), then just because of their personality.
My upcoming novel has three brothers and two sisters who hang out together quite a bit, and I had to make sure that each had enough different personality traits that they stood out so that readers wouldn't be confused.
#2: Watch out for motivation and progression issues.
Sometimes you know where a scene needs to end up. It's easy to force the dialogue to go that direction even when it's unnatural for the conversation to go that way. Or maybe you, the author, don't realize that one character's response isn't really a natural reply to the previous character's statement/question.
It helps to go back and reread your dialogue, ignoring for the moment anything you wrote in between and keeping an eye out for whether it has a logical, realistic flow. (Sometimes that's because there's a good chunk of description or thought between the two sections of dialogue, but sometimes not.)
An example I read in a book recently: A character says, "I am so sorry."
The response? "No. I don't know."
Huh? I had to reread the passage, including what came before and after several times to figure out what the author meant. (I'm still not sure.)
#3: Avoid "Info Dump."
There is a time and a place to give reader vital information, but try not to do it very often in dialogue, and never in large, obnoxious chunks or in the, "As you know, Bob," way, where characters tell each other information they already possess. People don't talk like that. If Jane already knows that Betty's husband is John, then Betty would never talk to her referring to him as, "My husband John." She'd just say, "John."
My favorite example of telling the audience crucial information in a non-info-dumpy way came from an episode of M*A*S*H, when a wounded soldier has some bloodwork done. Hawkeye has seen the slide in the microscope and knows the result. BJ comes in and sees it too. Now both doctors know what the patient has. They're both visibly upset about it. The audience doesn't know the diagnosis.
How do the writers tell us without it being an info dump? Brilliantly.
Depressed, BJ looks at the microscope again, and Hawkeye says, "It doesn't matter how long you keep looking at it. It's still going to be leukemia."
We'll address other tools for dialogue in another blog later. Until then, dust off that dialogue tool box and bring your characters to life!
Tuesday, June 5, 2007
By Julie Wright
When I was in high school, the entire world scared me. Standing in front of others made me physically sick. My voice squeaked and turned into violent hacking fits whenever an oral report came due. And even when I imagined myself coming off as some super funny amazing presenter, I could barely make my voice rise louder than the rasp of a terrified little girl who was more likely than not to throw up as soon as I finished the presentation.
Naturally being an author appealed to me. I could still share my thoughts and ideas with the world –only I’d never have to look any of them in the eye.
I’d type feverishly from the safety of my chair in front of my computer and change society with my every written (NOT spoken) word.
These are the pretty dreams of new and naïve writers.
Imagine my surprise when my publisher scheduled me for my first reading.
“You want me to what? In front of who?”
They wanted me to read my book out loud to people. Then they wanted me to peddle myself to the public and do a book signing. My first readings and signings were torture. I stuttered and blushed, spent hours beforehand being sick—until I did something brilliant, something that could forever change (in a good way) book signings for authors.
I got over myself.
Book signings aren’t about me. They are about the people who come in needing a gift, the people coming in who don’t want to buy a book from you ever, but want to know if you could help them locate JK Rowling’s new book. They are about the people who don’t want to buy your book, but want to tell you all about their secret dream to become an author. They are about the person who needs something new to read to get over a bad day at the office. They are about the staff.
They are MOSTLY about the staff. Get to know the employees of the bookstore. Bring them a treat, even a small one. Some authors bring treats for the customers. That's nice too, but I bring mine for the staff. After all, you’ve got to be with them for several hours; you might as well start it off friendly.
Ask them questions about their lives. Find out how many kids they have, what kind of dog they have, what their favorite movies are, what their major in college is.
Don’t you dare sit down and thumb-twiddle at a signing. This is your book . . . your baby. No one but you cares whether or not you reach the goals you’ve set for yourself.
The bookstore employees are your frontline salespeople. Even if they never read your book, they will remember that you were kind to them and easy to talk to. They will remember and recommend you when you’re gone.
Monday, June 4, 2007
"We were just talking."
"Can you wait just a little while?"
"I just don't understand where you're coming from."
And I just use it all the time. When you don't want the whole thing, just a piece, when you were just about to throw that apple, when you just wish things were different. However, it's a repetative word that gets noticed. It doesn't disappear like some words to, hence it must be weeded out! Do a find for the word 'Just' in your current manuscript. You should only use one, maybe two per chapter. Yes, chapter. For me this is like digging a ten foot hole with my finger nails. I just like that word, is it a crime? Well, it might be. If it becomes a crutch, and is said over and over and over, you are being a lazy writer and lazy writers are not good writers. So look and ye shall find that you are either like me, and need fixing, or you just don't have a problem and can feel good about your success!
Just do it!
Friday, June 1, 2007
Are you dizzy yet?
If you’re like me, your head spins when you’re trying to keep track of the publishing and editing lingo. When you get that first book accepted, you aren't handed a vocabulary list, but suddenly you are speaking a new language.
With my publisher, a manuscript that has reached the final approval stage is sent to three readers. Each reader is gives the manuscript an evaluation. The three evaluations are assessed by the editor, and she pulls out rewrites that need to be done on the manuscript.
Evaluations: a lengthy critique given by a reader hired by your publisher.
So the author reviews the evaluations and does any editing or rewriting. The author also reviews the comments made by the editor and makes sure she focuses on those comments.
Rewrites: editing or rewriting from the comments made on the reader evaluation
Once you turn in your rewrite, the editor you have been assigned to will start his/her job. You may be assigned a contract editor, which is a person who works part-time, most likely out of his/her home.
Then the edits begin. The edit stage is content and line editing combined. For example, with a content edit, your editor might want you to flesh out a character, or address a pacing issue with the plot. The line editing is changes made to grammar, sentence structure, etc.
Once you and your editor have come to an agreement on content changes and line changes, your manuscript will be sent to one or two copyeditors. They will read through the manuscript and mostly make line changes, and sometimes content suggestions.
This stage is also called a redline. It’s basically another word for tracking changes in a document. When the working document is emailed to you, you’ll see the changes the editor or copyeditor has made in a different color. It can be red, blue, or green. And if you make additional changes, your tracked changes show up in color too.
Once the copyedit stage is completed, the manuscript is typeset. This means that it’s formatted to look exactly like it will in book form. I love this stage because it shows you what the pages of the book will look like (minus the cover). The author is given a final chance to read through the typeset version—also called the galley.
This is very important because errors can be found on the typeset that the author didn’t originally put there. Errors can come from the copyediting or disk changer. So be sure to take the time to proof the final galley. In the past, I’ve even divided my books into 100-page sections and passed it out to readers.
The galley stage is also when the publisher will print up ARCs—Advanced Reader Copies. This can be done earlier than the galley stage if the cover is ready. Sometimes if the cover isn’t ready, but the reviewers are on a deadline, the ARC will be printed without the final cover. The cover will contain just the title.
If you are sending a review copy, or an ARC, to a reviewer or journalist, make sure they don’t quote from it. Changes can still be made before the press deadline.
On my last book, I deleted an entire scene between the galley stage and the press stage. So it’s important the reviewer waits until the final book is out to quote anything.