Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Resolutions: Procastination, Writing Style

By Annette Lyon

A recent article in Newsweek discussed the psychology behind procrastination. Go ahead and read the piece later, but here's the upshot (or a least what I got out of it):

When an activity or goal is stated in nebulous terms, people are more likely to procrastinate doing it.

But, when an activity or goal is broken up into concrete steps, people are more likely to get the thing done.

The example the piece gives is with exercising (a common resolution this time of year). If you think, "I really need to exercise," that's too vague. It's easy to ignore.

But if you turn the thought into, "I need to put on my exercise clothes, tie on my shoes, and get on the treadmill for 30 minutes," you're more likely to do all of the above and get in the workout you know you should.

Reading the piece, I had a light bulb moment regarding writing, which is quite possibly one of the most procrastinated activities ever. I constantly hear aspiring writers say, "I want to write a book," or, "This year I'm going to finish the book I started," or something similar.

And . . . they procrastinate and procrastinate. Even published writers get caught in the trap.

"I'm going to write a book" is too vague . . . and too BIG . . . of an activity. Something of that magnitude is easy to put off until later. It's just too intimidating to sit down and face the beast.

I've seen that with my writing, the more I break down a writing goal, the more likely I am to achieve it. Just like breaking down exercise into getting dressed and getting onto the machine, I'm more likely to get the job done if I can imagine the concrete steps involved.

The trouble with writing is that there really are few concrete steps. Much of what we do is nebulous already.

How about breaking it up anyway? In addition to a big goal like, "I'm going to finish this draft by April," add those little steps such as, "I'm going to write 1,000 words a day" or "I will edit ten pages of this draft every day."

Focusing on nothing but the next small step makes the entire project less intimidating.

"All I have to do today is one thousand words, and then I've succeeded." That thought is freeing, isn't it?

For that matter, it's much harder to justify procrastinating 1,000 measly words (or whatever your smaller goal is) than it is to put off an entire book.

This year as you make your New Year's resolutions, try to cut them up into small, concrete pieces. How many words per day will you write? How many queries will you send out?

Make each step concrete, and, more importantly, make each one doable. Allow yourself small successes, because added all together, they lead to the big ones.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Sculpting to Perfection

By Julie Wright

A friend of mine, Matthew Buckley, posed a thought to a writing group we belong to.

When you carve something, you are basically taking away what doesn't need to be there. First you start with a block and you take things away until they are just right. At that point, if you take off more, you are damaging the product. If you keep working, eventually you just have a pile of sawdust or marble shavings.

So at what point do you stop tweaking your writing? Is it easy for all of you to think, "Yep, that's done. It's perfect. If I change it anymore, it will be a weaker book."

I am one of those authors who could "tweak until it's weak." I could, but I don't. I'd love to say it's because I'm brilliant enough to know when to say, "when," but really I think it is my lack of patience that is to blame. I want to see my book on a bookstore shelf NOW, never later.

So the fine line we walk is knowing when to stop tweaking and whittling away, and when to start putting it out for public consumption. For every person I daresay the answer is different. But for me, after several years of stupid manuscripts, I came up with a five reader rule. If my book hasn't been workshopped through five readers, then it isn't ready to hit the desk of someone with buying power. And I don't mean five readers who like you and are afraid of hurting your feelings. And typically, I don't recommend your mother ever being one of your five. Pick five readers who you trust to be straight shooters.

How many drafts should you write?

I write two initially, rework the manuscript several more times as reader reports come in and once more for the publisher. My attention span isn't long enough to do more than that. What's right for you? I could not say. Maybe more, maybe less.

But I know people who have been working on their masterpiece for years, tweaking, adding commas, changing modifiers, removing adverbs and dead words. I wonder if they are tweaking because they are perfectionists, or are they tweaking because they are afraid of submitting?

It is a fine line, because you must turn in your best work--you MUST. The competition is fierce. But you also must actually get to a point where you let go and TURN IT IN, because if you don't, you will forever be a dabbler and never really an author.

This thought of sculpting to perfection, of whittling away until you are truly done is subjective. Every writer needs the luxury of having his own way of doing things. The freedom to create offers limitless possibilities. But if you're worried your whittling your manuscript to a pile of sawdust, you might just be guilty of being afraid to move on. Only you know the answer to that. But in my household we have a saying, "Courage is being afraid, but doing it anyway."

Friday, December 26, 2008

Survival Tips for the Parent Slash Writer

By Heather Moore

“How do you write novels with four kids?” I’ve been asked that question many times at book signings and author events. Sometimes I coyly answer, “When I wrote my first novel, I only had three kids.”

The truth is . . . I’ve only seen one entire episode of American Idol. None of Lost and only the first episode of 24, but now that the seasons are out on DVD, maybe I’ll try to watch a couple . . . at midnight . . . or not. My laundry takes three days to do, and then it’s time to start over again.

Dinner is, well . . . lacking on most days, but I wasn’t that great of a cook before I became so obsessed.

But really, I am lucky. I don’t have to write to earn money. So why do I write when my kids are ages four through fourteen? Why don’t I use my down time to relax and watch a favorite program or catch up on several years of scrapbooking, or even my ultimate desire—read a novel without worrying about research, editing, or my daily writing goal?

Well, because I breathe easier when I write. It rounds out my identity even when I’m writing this blog and have no idea if it will ever be read by another person. I reap joy and fulfillment . . . and incredible busyness so that by ten in the morning I am left literally breathless with all the things I want to accomplish.

One day at a time. That’s survival tip number one.

2. Laptop. When you can afford this luxury (or necessity, says I), invest in a laptop. You can sit on your couch or at your kitchen table and tap a few paragraphs here and there. At the same time you are keeping a watchful eye on your preschooler. (Note: when she starts to hit the computer screen, it’s time for a break.)

3. Wireless internet. Another luxury, but it makes the laptop all that more accessible when you want to check your email every so often, or every five minutes . . . just in case that NY agent is just dying to see the remainder of your manuscript and must have it within the hour.

4. Carpet Cleaner. What? Recently while I was in the shower (not writing, so there is no guilt associated with this mishap) my four year old dumped the orange juice onto the carpet. Now, I can wipe up a mess on the tile faster than the Bounty hunk, but carpet? That could take a good twenty minutes of blotting, rinsing, blotting, spraying, scrubbing, rinsing . . . A carpet cleaner, maybe five minutes. And it’s really clean. Did I mention I have a do-it-all-herself four year old?

5. Peanut M&M’s. Now I don’t recommend buying the five pound bags at Costco, but if you are trying to save shopping trips maybe it’s all right. Pick your poison, and you’ll be surprised at how a yummy treat can help to motivate you as you write. “If I keep writing, I get to keep snacking.” Or if you are concerned about the calories, don’t read the ingredients. Worse case scenario, pop some butter-free popcorn. I thought about dedicating my next book to Peanut M&M’s . . . I still might . . . Just remember to rotate your hiding place in case your spouse gets a hankering for them too.

Oh, I just thought of number six. A good friend. Even better—a good friend with kids who are similar ages to yours. You can pick a day or two during the week and switch. This gives the kids play time and when it’s your friend’s turn . . . sacred writing time . . .

I hope this helps at least one parent in his/her writing quest. As for me, I’m taking one day at a time and keeping a bag of Peanut M&M’s in my desk drawer.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Trust Your Gut

by Annette Lyon

In light of the holiday, this will be a brief post, but it's something I've been thinking about ever since a recent edit job.

The manuscript was non-fiction. I spent quite a lot of time working with the author over several months. Then she sent me a chapter that didn't feel like the rest of the book. The flow was gone. The topic felt off target. The entire chapter just rang untrue.

I was hesitant in how to approach my comments, so I tried to be as gentle as I could when I told her that, in my opinion, she should cut the entire chapter. It didn't work, and the book didn't need the information in it.

Her reply surprised me. She basically said, "Actually, I was wondering about that. And I agree."

Her gut was already telling her the chapter wasn't working. Why didn't she just pull it out on her own? She needed an outside confirmation that she was right.

Writers need that. The longer we write, the better we get at feeling those gut instincts and acting on them. But no matter how long we write, we still need outside feedback. While not all feedback will be something you agree with, it's all valuable.

And quite often, it'll be something that'll make you think, "Yeah, I knew that." The commentary resonates, and you just know they're right.

As you move on with your next writing project, try to trust your gut. That means having trust whether it's telling you positive or negative things.

A caveat: Your gut isn't your internal editor. Don't confuse the two. Get rid of the editor/censor (it's the loud voice yelling at you) and listen to what the work is telling you, what your instinct whispers.

Then, after you get outside reviews, you just might realize your gut knows what it's talking about.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Revise for Impact

by Heather Moore

News Flash: Registration is open for the 2009 Storymaker Conference.

This fall I attended the League of Utah Writers conference and took a 6 hour editing seminar. I think it took me this long to recover. So now I'm ready to share the love.

The seminar was taught by Elizabeth Lyon, who has a half-dozen books published on writing and editing.

So today, I'd like to share the notes I took on "Revise for Impact" since every writer will enter the dark abyss of editing at least once or maybe one-hundred times on each manuscript produced.

Remember, this comes after your first draft is finished. Go through your manuscript with an eye for the following things--it will tighten up your story and prepare it for your beta readers.

1. One word sentences (to emphasize, as a question)
*One word sentences brings a reader to a complete halt.
*It’s a stop sign. Make it an important word.

2. Take out repetitive words

3. Watch out for common words: look/walk/saw/turn are the most used words.
*These have no emotional or descriptive value

4. Use synonyms for common words like "walk": sauntered, scuttled, stumbled, tromped, scurried, ambled, skip, trudged, side-step
* Or "look": stare, regard, view, peer, gazed, stared, glance, examine, study, glare, leer

5. Power positions. Words that will gain more impact at the beginning and the end

6. Alliteration—rhyme or several words in a sentence starting with same letter--only use when you are doing so for a purpose.

7. Clich├ęs—take them out

8. Repetition: former/past/history: This comes with reading the second draft and having a beta reader go over your story. Watch for those ideas, a beliefs, or desires that are repeated too many times. Remember--your reader is smart.

9. Watch the Telling first, then Showing. This shows that the author doesn’t trust the reader. Keep the scene and dialog that shows. Get rid of the advance sentence of telling. (I see this A LOT in novice manuscripts.)

10. Imagery
*Similes: as/like
*Metaphors: complete substitution
(E. Lyon recommends that you have a simile or metaphor on your first page).

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Have a Merry Writerly Christmas

by Annette Lyon

Here are some last-minute Christmas gifts for the writer in your life.
(If you're reading this, you're probably the writer, so forward this post to your loved ones . . . or buy some of these for yourself!)

An AlphaSmart Neo.
I can't live without mine when I'm in drafting mode. Read all about this handy toy tool here.

Paper
This may be an inexpensive item for normal people, but for the writer who goes through a lot of reams, this is a welcome gift.

Toner
You do have a laser printer, right? Ink Jets go through ink way too fast and end up costing you more than lasers in the long run. Toner cartridges may cost twice as much, but they last four times as long. Another welcome gift for people who print a lot (using that paper).

Books
Most writers are book freaks. 'Nough said.

Books on Writing
Check out this post for some of my favorites.

Bookshelves
On which to put the book freak's books. It's hard to have too many bookshelves.

Bookends
This site has tons of really neat ones. Like these. Aren't they cool?

Shirts, mugs, and more

Cafe Press has lots of fun products with goofy writer sayings, like "Will write for chocolate" and "Please do not annoy the writer. She may put you into her novel and kill you." Just search for, "writer" or "writing" and see all the fun stuff that pops up.

New York Public Library Gift Shop

Check out their ties, book earrings, bookmarks, and two really cool totes, one with a stylized image of Shakespeare and the other with a collage of stylized female writers.

They've got an entire jewelry section that include typewriter key bracelets and Scrabble tie cuff links. Fun stuff.

Journals/notebooks

Get a nice hardback book (preferably with a spiral inside so it can be laid flat). Perfect for brainstorming and jotting down ideas on the run.

Sony voice recorder
Catch those ideas on the fly while driving or doing laundry. You can find several digital recorders that are reasonably priced. This one's under $60.

The Oxford English Dictionary (The OED)
This is the most exhaustive dictionary in the English language. Use it to find the earliest known use of a word, look at date charts for the most common uses, discover etymologies, and more. Subscribe to it online or get it on CD here.

Writer's Digest subscription
Get it. Read it. Don't let your subscription lapse. It's a great magazine for both beginner and expert. Get the actual magazine; the newsletter is good, but it's not as complete as the magazine itself.

Some ideas for Stocking Stuffers:
Paper Clips
Sticky Notes
Sticker Flags
Nice pens.
Red pens
Bookmarks

And finally, the best thing you can get for any writer: TIME
Organize a writer retreat for overnight or even just an afternoon. Give your writer a chance to get away from distractions and just WRITE!

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Characterization: More than Rice

by Annette Lyon

In my pre-published days, I attended a small writing conference with a very successful novelist as the keynote speaker. She discussed characterization and how important it is to know your characters.

She went to the lengths of saying that you need to know your characters so well that, if given the choice of mashed potatoes or rice with their meal, you'd know which they'd pick.

Wow, I thought. You'd really know your character then.

Years later? I think that so what if you know that Jenny prefers rice to mashed potatoes?

That's not necessarily good characterization; that's taste.

I agree that you need to know your characters well, to the point that you'll likely know a lot more about Jenny or Peter than the reader ever will.

But really, is rice versus mashed potatoes relevant to creating a well-rounded character?

Maybe, if there were a deep reason for Jenny preferring it.

What if rice reminds her of those two life-changing weeks she spent in Hong Kong? Or she hates mashed potatoes because that's what she had for dinner the day her father died? If there's a good reason for it, maybe it's a detail worth knowing about her, regardless of whether your reader ever learns it.

But to me, having full characters is about knowing what makes them tick rather than what menu choices they make.

Take your main character(s) and think through some of these questions:

What were the most forming events of their childhood, for good or bad? Why? Who was there? How did they feel?

What person (or people) have impacted them the most (again, for good or bad) and how?

What moment from their past scarred them forever and impacts how they act today?

What experiences created their belief system?

I'm sure you can come up with more. You don't need to know all of these things up front. For me, half the joy of writing novels is discovering these kinds of things about my characters as I go.

Relatively early in one of my books as I drafted a scene between two brothers, I was still trying to discover more of who my characters were. Out of the blue, the POV character remembered a life-changing event that happened to him as a child.

The event was a huge revelation into what made him the man he was, and it impacted much of how he had already interacted with his brothers and other people. It was huge for my ability to "get" him and make him real.

Understanding him this way helped me write him better for the rest of the book, and, in fact, that bit of history ended up playing a big part in the rest of the plot and the conflicts that followed. I think I uncovered that part of him because I was looking for it and because I was focused on him, his thoughts, his feelings, his motivations. In other words, what made him tick.

Somehow I doubt his character would have been nearly as likable and real to readers if, during that scene, I'd been more worried about figuring out his favorite color than what made him who he was.

There is a place for taste-type characterization as well, of course.

Let's use an example. Knowing that Greg loves John Denver definitely says something about who he is. But you can't rely on preferences alone to create characters who come alive on the page.

What if I tell you that Greg's wife died from a gun shot at a convenience store when their little girl was just a toddler? That he's now the single father of a first grader? That he became a police officer after his wife's death in hopes of preventing someone else from having the same kind of loss he'd experienced?

Suddenly you know much more about his past and what drives his future actions.

Knowing he likes John Denver is a pleasant touch, a fun addition, but far more important is knowing the big events that shaped his heart.

Think of characterization details this way:

Dig deep to uncover what makes your characters tick. That's the cake.

Then add the fun, fluffy details like Coke versus Pepsi or rice versus mashed potatoes. Those details are the icing.

Plain cake is okay. Iced caked is much better.

Just be sure to give your readers more than icing!

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Don't Panic

One of my favorite writers for science fiction, Douglas Adams, wrote the book Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Across the front of the guide is written in big friendly words, "Don't Panic."

This is good advice for all of us. I know a lot of people are worried right now about the economy and what the economy is doing to the publishing world, but I think we are like chicken little running around saying the sky is falling when we're just getting a little rain. I know there are many would-be authors who are rethinking finishing their books because they think the market is too sour right now and no one is acquiring new work.

Dave Wolverton (aka David Farland) is a friend of mine and he has a "daily kick in the pants" email he sends out for writers on writing. Last week he sent out an email regarding the state of the publishing world in these economic times. I am going to paraphrase him and outright quote him here, because he had some good logical things to say. Have the bookstores and publishers taken a hit recently? Yes. Of course, they have. We have all the bad news about the layoffs and book returns flooding in. However:

A decline will occur any time that a huge national "event"
occurs. if you had a book that came out during 9/11, your sales
dropped through the floor. I had a novel that came out during the first
Gulf War, when pictures of missiles exploding over Baghdad played on television
every night. Sales were down by more than 32 percent across the country on
books, and I took a hit. If your book comes out during the Olympics, you
need to worry. Similarly, when O.J. Simpson was on trial, people were
glued to the television, and book sales plummeted.
In short, any huge, extended national event like this will cause
authors some grief: but it has nothing to do with the recession!That's why in
Canada, sales were up modestly at the same time they were down in the United
States. The Canadians weren't glued to the television trying to figure out
which politician to vote for.

There was a report recently that a large book chain that services the
airports had disappointing sales a couple in September and October―about a 12.6%
decline that affected mostly nonfiction, while fiction sales were actually up by
one percentage point.
But guess what? Another report by
mainstream news organizations mentioned that air travel in the United States was
down that month by about 12.8 percent. So of course book sales were down
in airports proportionally!

Thanks, Dave. This is all very good information to help give us perspective. In essence, the message is, "don't panic."

The market will bounce back; it always does. And editors at publishing houses ARE acquiring new work. I'm part of an email list for youth writers and I swear, every day, someone is writing in about their new book sold.

But if you're still worried, may I suggest you contribute to the solution and buy someone you love a book this year for Christmas? My kids get books for every Christmas and Birthday. And I usually get them signed books (this is a benefit of having lots of friends who write for the children's market). Check out your local bookstore and see what authors are going to be signing over the next couple of weeks. Stop in, say hello and get a perfect gift.

Save the industry--buy a book.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Expand Your Characters

by Annette Lyon

When writers think about point of view, they often focus on keeping the action and thought process inside one person's head throughout a specific scene. As well they should.

But there's one aspect of point of view many writers forget about, and it's one that, when handled well, can really bring characters to life.

Consider:
How does your character view the world?

How does he/she relate to it?

What kind of things are in his/her background?

All of these things and more should have a great impact on how your POV character in any given scene tells the story and relates to the other people and events in it.

One great example is Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series. He has many point of view characters and a complicated world with many cultures. But no matter whose head he's in, he's firmly entrenched in their way of thinking and viewing the events.

Perrin, who began the series as a blacksmith's apprentice, often uses blacksmithing imagery in his thoughts, speech, and comparisons: the fire, the anvil, and so on.

Elaine, on the other hand, grew up in a palace as a princess. She's also trained in the use of magic. Much of the way she thinks and talks is based on her background: epithets from her childhood nursemaid crop up frequently, as do how she can handle situations as a woman and with her magic.

A common theme in stories is the fish-out-of-water concept: a person taken out of their element and put somewhere else. The displaced character needs to relate to the new situation in terms of their old one, because that's the only frame of reference they have at first.

Be careful not to impose the new frame of reference onto the character too early.

What if Mork from Mork and Mindy had run into some major problem and made some joke about calling 9-1-1? He'd be more likely to refer to his own planet's way of handling an emergency.

In the first Harry Potter book, we're in Harry's head when Hagrid arrived at the shack on the island. When Hagrid sends a letter by owl, Harry describes the situation as if Hagrid had just made a phone call. For the time being, the Muggle world is Harry's only frame of reference. A phone call is exactly what Harry would compare it to.

If you put your own frame of reference into the POV character's head, you're sticking out as the writer. It's what you would think or feel in the same situation rather than your character.

I read a manuscript once that had a junior-high-aged farm boy looking at a rusted wheel-well of a truck. He compared the holes in the rust to the beauty of a lace doilie. That pulled me right out of the story. A 14-year-old boy is not going to be thinking of pretty lace doilies. He'd be far more likely to see a piece of Swiss cheese on his favorite sandwich or something else more boyish.

Listen to people talk: Men and women will use different phrasing and vocabulary to talk about the same thing. So will adults compared to children. Put yourself deeply into your character's situation, into their head, and figure out how they'd really react, think, and feel.

What specific words or images would they use?

An exercise:
Think of a single situation (breaking a bone, getting a flat tire, getting fired, failing a test, whatever) and then put several different characters into it. (Say, a football player, a cop, a fourth-grade girl, a lawyer, a fashion designer, a stay-at-home mother, a cheerleader.)

How would their reactions differ? What specific images from their backgrounds could you use to compare the bad situation to?

The football player might use images of tackles, fumbles, or interceptions.

The lawyer might feels as if his case had been thrown out or that he'd been given a bum jury.

The SAHM might decide she prefers changing a flat to changing dirty diapers.

Basically, what unique elements do each of your characters bring to the table that you can draw on? Make each one different. Make each one specific.

And they'll all stand out.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Multi-Person Narrative

By Julie Wright

No, we are not talking about schizophrenia (even if most of us have this ailment).

Melissa C has asked a question on narrative and POV (Point of View).

She is writing the manuscript in first person, but has a point of view that needs to be in the story that is from a differing point of view than that of our protagonist. The question is:

That second storyline is vital to the story, in my opinion but I don't know
what tense to write it in. Do I use third person or what? OR should you even
have a second storyline going in if the book is in 1st?

The answer is you can use a multi-person narrative mode in order to make your second storyline come through. You can do it one of two ways (there are other ways, but these two are the most common as well as the easiest to keep clear for the reader).

  • First person POV with main character/storyline, and first person POV with secondary character storyline.
  • First person POV with main character/storyline, and third person POV with secondary character storyline.

As Heather mentioned in the comment section of the previous blog, the absolute most important thing when you're switching point of view is to make sure the reader knows within the very first sentence that we've switched. You need to change scenes or chapters so the reader knows we're starting somewhere new. There are several successful authors who use multi-person narrative.

It is natural to move into first person narrative when we're story-telling. It keeps us closer to the character and makes us feel like we know exactly what's going on. The problem comes when you need the reader to know things the character doesn't know. At that point we end up contriving stupid scenes that could never happen in anyone's reality in order to put the character in the right place to overhear/see/be-in-on whatever we need them to know.

Having another point of view helps us as writers to avoid the absurd contrivance of maneuvering our characters into places they wouldn't logically or believably be. Even when real life seems contrived. Your manuscript cannot.

So if you need to add another point of view in order to carry along your secondary plot line, go ahead.

One last tidbit of advice: if you're secondary plot line is told by the antagonist or bad guy, you will likely want to do that POV in third person (even if your main storyline is told in first and you want to keep things all equal). The reason for this is that it is very hard for many readers to be too closely in the mind of the bad guy. It's causes a repulsive reflex that is hard to overcome.

Clear as mud?

:)

Monday, December 1, 2008

An Interview with Richard Paul Evans: The King of Christmas Fiction

Although this post isn't strictly about writing, I thought I'd share some of my own recent work with our readers. Rick's story gives all new writers hope that a little story idea can take off and become something that brings much joy to readers around the world. I hope all of you enjoy the holiday season.

From December Issue of DESERT SAINTS MAGAZINE,
Please visit them ONLINE.

by Lu Ann Brobst Staheli

Nearly sixteen years ago, Rick Evans wrote a book—The Christmas Box—as a present for his daughters, Jenna and Alyson. But like all good things, this story soon took on a life of its own. Passed from hand to hand among friends and neighbors, the book was an instant favorite with those who read it, and soon they were begging for copies to give to their friends
and family. Unable to find a traditional publisher, Evans self-published the eighty-seven page novella in paperback and distributed copies to bookstores in the Salt Lake City area.

The Christmas Box became a local best-seller, and the next year it hit #2 on the New York Times best-seller list, despite it’s humble beginnings and self-published status. National publishers clamored for the opportunity to release the book in hardcover. After a bidding war that is now historic, Simon & Schuster came out victorious, releasing the book in hardcover and paperback in 1993, where both editions hit the number-one position on the Times lists simultaneously, a feat never before accomplished. And The Christmas Box has been a seasonal favorite ever since.

I had the opportunity to interview Rick, the undisputable king of Christmas fiction, and I learned about not only The Christmas Box, but also about his family.

How did The Christmas Box change his life? Evans was quick to respond: “I could write an entire book on this…in fact I did—The Christmas Box Miracle.” But, all joking aside, he also says, “Besides taking me away (from home) every Christmas since I wrote the book, it fundamentally changed everything.” Evans had been in marketing before, but with a run-away bestseller like this, his new business became writing.

But not all of his books carried on the theme of Christmas, although recently he has returned to his literary roots. I asked Rick what brought him to focus so strongly on this season as the focus of so many of his novels. “There is wisdom in the saying, ‘Dance with who brung you to the dance,’” he said. “After The Christmas Box trilogy, I tried to distance myself from Christmas. (The Last Promise, The Locket, The Carousel, The Looking Glass, The Letter) It was a mistake. I’ve now reclaimed the season and my books have done even better.”

And the theme of Christmas has become a centerpiece for both Evans’ life and work. In addition to his novels (Timepiece, The Locket, A Perfect Day, Finding Noel, The Gift, and this year’s best-seller, Grace), children’s books (The Christmas Candle, The Light of Christmas), non-fiction (The Christmas Box Miracle), and special publications (Christmas Every Day, First Gift of Christmas), Evans has inspired the dedication of Christmas Angel statues in the U.S., Canada, France, and Japan, as well as Christmas Box Houses across America and a sponsored orphanage in Peru.

With all this Christmas spirit surrounding him all the time, it might be easy for Evans to want to step away, becoming more like Scrooge than feeling like Santa, but he tells me, “When it comes to Christmas in my own home, I’m more like…Santa? Definitely Santa. I love Christmas and giving.”

I asked about a typical Christmas in the Evan’s household, and discovered they are very traditional. “My in-laws are Italian, my mother Swedish,” Rick says. “So we’ve taken the best of both of these worlds—celebrating Christmas with my mother on Christmas Eve after a festive Italian dinner at my in-laws. Unfortunately with the recent passing of my mother and Keri’s father, the traditions we’ve so cherished will change somewhat. But we’ll do our best to keep them.”

One tradition has always been to keep the kids close to home, and even though their oldest, Jenna, recently married, Evans thinks this Christmas will be even better than before. “We didn’t lose a daughter, we gained a son,” he says. “Jenna’s been gone away for school for quite awhile, so she’s actually closer now.”

This year, the Evans family—Rick, Keri, Alyson, Abby, Michael, McKenna, Jenna, and her new husband—plan to honor their traditions, and celebrate the memories of the family members who have passed away, while Rick’s fans enjoy yet another Christmas story by their favorite author.

Evan’s most recent novel, Grace, opens with the story of The Little Match Girl, then takes readers into a poor neighborhood in Salt Lake City, Utah, in 1962, where we meet two brothers who spend as much of their free time as possible looking for treasures in the garage and working on their tree house. When the older boy, Eric, meets a young runaway girl, Grace, and decides to help her by allowing her to stay in the tree house, he doesn’t realize that it will be his life that is changed forever. And so will yours as you read Grace.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Monday Mania--Query Letter

One of our readers submitted a query letter. Feel free to make comments, but please keep them constructive.

Critique Archive 0019:

Dear Mr. XXXXX,

I have contacted you due to your representation of authors whose work I admire, XXXXX and XXXXX. I thought you might be interested in my 90,000 word Fantasy manuscript, THE THORN. I believe there is potential to serialize the characters in a trilogy.

Under the twin blue suns, Azure and Aqua, war rages between the tribes of Gideon, Daniel, and Uzzah. Jonathan son of Samuel, the last living Heir to the Throne of Daniel, finds himself staging an opportunistic rescue of his childhood friend Eli, Uzzahite Warrior and a Temple Priest, from a small band of Gideonite soldiers. After the swift skirmish has ended, a young Gideonite soldier by the name of Pekah joins Jonathan in the cause of the Tribe of Daniel, and discovers the truth about the true motives of the Gideonite Emperor. Pekah's eyes are opened, and he becomes the instrument by which the Three Brothers are united once again. Jonathan, Eli, and Pekah work together to keep General Rezon of Gideon from accomplishing his evil designs -- the total annihilation of the other two tribes. As peace returns to their lands, Pekah finds himself a changed man, and with a new found love by his side, they watch together as the promised sign of a special birth appears in the heavens above Gan. Worlds away, "The One Who Would Suffer" has been born.

I would be pleased to send the entire manuscript (or just sample chapters if you would prefer), for your consideration. I have included a SASE for your convenience. Thank you in advance for your time. I look forward to hearing from you.

Sincerely,



XXXXXXXX

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Two Books Head to Head

by Annette Lyon

Many of my posts come directly from whatever I'm currently reading or editing, and today is no different. I've been through a lot of historical fiction lately, so without naming names, I'm going to compare two novels and what they did (and didn't) do right.

Plot & Character over Period
Novel #1 has an intricate plot that relies heavily on actual historical events. But even though these events are dramatic and real, the point of the story is actually the characters involved and how they react to the situations they're thrust into.

In other words, in spite of the historical detail (and how involved real events are in the plot), the time period is secondary. I doesn't really matter when the story is set, because the characters are real, universal, and riveting. I had to find out what they would do next and what would happen to them.

Novel #2, on the other hand, has a time period that overrides the plot. Lots and lots of events are thrown onto the page seemingly just because they happened then. Yes, they (usually) impact the main characters at some point, but too often the time period comes first, the plot second.

And the characters? For starters, there's too many to keep straight. For another, few are interesting enough that I'm compelled to keep reading. I don't really care about them. It's a book more about a particular year in history than a story about characters who feel real and face real crises.

A novel should always be about the characters. We shouldn't have to care more about the year than about the hero and heroine in order to slog through the book.

The irony with this comparison is that of the two periods, Novel #1 has (by far) the more intricate story as far as weaving in the history. Tons of dates, places, people, and events from real life are woven into a complicated plot. But again, the characters and story come first. The story is about how the hero and the heroine handle the conflicts. The history is there enhancing the story, not making it.

Accuracy
Novel #1 was obviously heavily researched. So was Novel #2. Some of the details in both books make that very clear.

I caught one tiny thing in Novel #1 that made me pause and wonder if it was accurate. It was so small that I don't remember what it was anymore. Novel #2, however . . . I can list off several things I know (and I'm sure many other readers know) are downright wrong. It's as if the author researched X and Y and then just assumed Z.

But Z didn't show up for another fifty or sixty years. And in another case, Z didn't show up in history until even later than that. You can't assume.

Research vs. Showing off
With Novel #1, the historical details never got in the way of the story. They were there as the backdrop of the stage the story plays out on. If we heard about a car or a hairstyle or a piece of clothing or a meal, it was described in a way that made it clear that this is simply the way things were back then. These details set the scene and make the story come alive.

Novel #2 . . . well, a lot of details feel as if they were thrown in for the sole purpose of waving a flag to get attention and yelling, "Look at me! See? I DID RESEARCH!!!!"


To be honest, I'm still trying to finish Novel #2. While I'm not a fast reader, Novel #1 was longer than this one, and I finished it in half the time #2 has taken me to get 2/3 of the way through. That alone says volumes.

Whether you write historical fiction or not, many of these same principles apply. The Hunt for Red October wouldn't have been interesting if we spent too much time learning all about Tom Clancy's research into submarines.

House wouldn't fun to watch if they spent too much time explaining all the medical terms.

The characters and the plot come first. Research is important, but don't let all the facts you dug up get your story quagmired in boring mud.

Oh, and be sure to look up Z. Just in case what you assumed about it isn't really so. It happens.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Monday Mania--Query Letter

One of our readers submitted a query letter. Feel free to make comments, but please keep them constructive.

Critique Archive 0018:

Dear Ms. XXXXX,

I've chosen to contact you due to your representation of an author whose work I truly enjoy, XXXXX. I thought you might be interested in my 84,000 word YA manuscript, THE REFUGE. It is the first installment of a planned trilogy.

When Narissa discovers she's been shifted to an alternate dimension, she resolves to locate the elusive gate that links back to her world. As she begins her search, Narissa finds herself the object of unwanted attention and gossip, which escalates as people begin to notice the way she's captured the interest of one of their leaders—prickly, reclusive Daman. It is only after deciding her new friendships are worth abandoning her quest to return home that she discovers how to leave. Will she cling to the life she craves or choose to return to the responsibilities of caring for her younger sister?

I would love the opportunity to send sample chapters, or the entire manuscript, for your consideration. I've included a SASE for your convenience. Thank you for your time and attention, I look forward to hearing from you.

Sincerely,


XXXXX XXXXXXX

P.S. As a professional courtesy, I'd like to let you know I'm also querying two other agents.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Knowing What You Know; Ya Know?

By Josi S. Kilpack

"Write what you know" is likely the most touted bit of writing advice any of us have ever heard. I don't think I've ever gone to a writer's conference and not heard at least one presenter talk about this topic. There's a reason it gets so much attention, it is a very good place for a writer to visit and become familiar with, but it's not about writing your life story. Instead, it has a variety of uses that, at different times, will come in handy. Here are a few examples, please feel free to share if you have some more advice along this line. After all, I can only write what I know, so if I don't know it someone better learn it to me:

1) What do YOU know?

Was your father a butcher? Did your grandmother tat lace? Were you forced to pull weeds as a child? Have you ever been arrested? Divorced? Dragged by a truck on icy roads in the winter? What about that vacation you took to those caves you got lost in for three hours? What about the tornado that wiped out the town twenty miles away when you were fourteen?

The point is every single one of us has a lifetime of experiences. Some are going to be similar to other people's--this is good. Shared experience allows us to communicate to other people's memories, it's a powerful tool to apply to your writing, taking full advantage of things you have in common with your readers. However, there are other things you have gone through that the typical person hasn't. My dad is a teacher. Boring. Average, right? But he's an art teacher. Not that much more interesting. He's also a sculptor with a special ability to take a two dimensional picture and transform it into a three dimensional sculpture. I grew up watching him take pounds of oil based clay (that stains your fingers and stings if you get it in your eyes) and slowly transform it bit by bit into the San Diego Chicken or Squatch. It's a phenomenol process and because I grew up around it, I know details of sculpting that most people don't know.

All of us have details like this in our lives that, if not useful in and of itself, lends us to knowing where to look for similar information. Try making a list of all the occupations, locations, talents, family situations, and household tasks you know more about than the average Joe. Keep these things in mind when creating characters, storylines, and details in your books. You might surprise yourself with how much you really know.

2) What do you KNOW?

Do you know where to go to look up the names of stars in any given constellation? Can you tell me the chemical make up of Elmer's glue? How many cups of water equate to a metric ton? How many players on Berkley's basketball team have set records in assists?

Don't know these things off the top of your head? Learn it. We are not limited by the things we already know based on our life experience. Because we are writers, we are likely very good readers, meaning we absorb information well and learn from the printed word better than most people. Take full advantage of this by continuing to learn all the time. Even if you aren't working on a project that demands research, keep your mind open to learning new things. You never know when they might come into play. And, by excersing your mind this way, you have a better chance of finding information when you need it because you have vast resources on research to go to. You might not know the name of that star, but you did read about the zodiac in that one book you found at the library six years ago. I bet you could find it in there. Julie recently blogged about this and it was a great reminder of just how awesome research can truly be.

3) WHAT do you know? (about your genre)

Did you know that in a Romance novel it's okay for the guy to be a playboy, but not the girl? Did you know that fantasy really isn't fantasy if it doesn't have magic in it? Did you know that horror is often considered the purest of all genres in regards to morals and ethics because it is, at it's core, a battle between good and evil? Did you know that even Children's books must have conflict?

Whatever it is you write, be sure to read it, and study it, and immerse yourself in it. There are rules and expectations that have to do with the contract you make with your reader and in order to be successful in that market, you need to offer up those expectations. This isn't to say that you can't provide your own twists and turns, that you can't set yourself apart from the crowd, but you must fit the parameters of your genre FIRST. There are pletny of writing books on this subject as well as very good internet articles you can find via google. Knowing what an editor, agent, or reader expects from you is a great way to start your next story.

4) What DO you know?

What if I don't know the ending? What if I don't know the first chapter? What if I don't know who dunnit? What if I don't know what color I want the carpet to be?

Well, what DO you know? Annette lyon talked about this a couple weeks ago and it pulled me out of a slump I'd been in. I want to write from page one to page 805 without stopping. I want to then start over and revise. It's what I want, but it's not reality. After Annette's advice I just starting writing what I knew. I knew, for instance, that I wanted my character to take over the kitchen. I also knew that I wanted her to find out a medical inconsistancy. And I wanted a really broody character that rubbed her wrong. I don't know who killed the guy behind the curtain and I don't know what they are trying to hide by killing him, but I know I want her to keep her jogging whistle in her pocket for protection, so I wrote that. And then I wrote this other scene, and then I wrote the really funny part. I've managed to break the 30,000 word barrier despite the fact that anyone that tried to read it right now would think I was completly bonkers because it doesn't make sense. Yet. But I have over 100 pages and that alone inspires me to continue. This week I've begun bridging those scenes to one another. I know she needs to get from the bedroom to the kitchen--how? It's coming together, not as easy and seamless as I'd like, but it IS coming together because though I don't know much, I know THIS and I'm writing it down. Don't be afraid to jump around. We live in the age of computers, lucky us!

We are more than we think we are upon first glance, and the journey of discovery often leads us to doors we didn't even know could be opened. Own the knowledge, own the power.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

All In the Name of Research

By Julie Wright

One of the coolest things about writing is the stuff I learn while writing. I dropped out of college my sophomore year because the stress was too much. I was taking a full load of credits on classes I didn't care anything about just because some one somewhere said that was what I had to learn in order to be well rounded. I don't regret not having the piece of paper that says, "Look at me! I graduated!" But I do miss the fact that I missed an opportunity to take classes I genuinely cared about. I regret not learning about the things that truly fascinate me. I would have loved archeology, and ancient civilizations. I would have loved photography and film making. Sigh. Oh, wait a minute, I'm not posting about past lamentations.

I'M POSTING ABOUT WHY WRITING ROCKS!

It's all about the research, baby. I love doing research. I love trying new things all in the name of research. I learned how to rock climb just because I wanted a rock climbing scene to be right in a book. You have to get those details right. People who really do go rock climbing will recognize your ignorance if you don't research out the details well enough. If you're having a portion of your book take place in Disneyland, then darn-it-all you just might have to take a little vacation for research. (there is one writer who missed this concept, and made some grievous errors in his novel. Those of us who love Disneyland will forever be irritated by his book. No I won't name names)

My latest book has been a blast to research.

The things I learned while researching for my current book:
1. Thimbleberry bush leaves can be used for toilet paper because the leaves are soft, large, and non irritating.
2. Choke cherries can be eaten in the wild, but usually at the time they are ripe enough to eat, they are full of worms, and they are so bitter and sour as to make people sick to the stomach.
3. The worldwide birthrate is on a major decline--specifically in "civilized" nations, however even tribal nations are feeling the pinch of a aging population and no youth to bear the burden of work and societal needs.
4. Three out of every five teenagers are sexually active.
5. Four out of every five of those sexually active teenagers have a sexually transmitted disease.
6. When Mount Rainier finally blows its top, the possible death tolls stretches over 150,000 people.
7. A lahar is like a swiftly moving wall of wet concrete.
8. The people living in the path of a lahar would have less than a 45 minute warning to seek higher ground.
9. The city of Orting Washington is settled on six meters of deposits from the last Mount Rainer eruption.
10. Combining the declining birth rate and the amount of sexually transmitted diseases that cause sterility in both men and women, it will only take three to five generations before humanity puts itself into a precarious situation.
11. The climate of the entire world is affected by volcanic eruptions. Major eruptions cause worldwide "cold spells" or "winters" where crops die, animals die, and everyone finds themselves a little colder and hungrier than they were the year previous.
12. An electron can "skip" from one allowed orbit or energy level to another.
13. Quantum physics is awesome.

Why am I sharing this with you? Because I love writing. I love the tidbits of fact that I get to manipulate into my stories. There have been days where I've run little scientific experiments to make sure a thing is possible before I make an idiot of myself by including it in a book without checking first. I've learned more on more topics than two years of general education classes taught me in college. And it's been a whole lot cheaper.

I'd be interested in knowing what fun little tidbit(s) all you writing-on-the-wall readers have learned while working on your own writing.

Don't you just love what we do sometimes?

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Auction Items for Writers

By Josi S. Kilpack

The Whitney Award Benefit Auction is being held through the month of November. Items are added to the auction daily and all funds go to support The Whitney Award which is a reader based award for LDS writers. If you have been considering getting an edit, now might be a great time to do it (just in time for Christmas :-) and so far the prices are great. Here are some links to make finding the writer-related auction items easy-breezy:


PEG Content or line edit, click HERE (as of this post, the price was at $50)

Full 200-page content OR line edit from Precision Editing, a premiere service for writers of all genres. Content edit evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of your plot and includes in-depth evaluation of writer’s style, characterization, flow, tension, pacing, and plot structure. A copy/line edit addresses grammar, spelling, punctuation, and sentence structure. For more information about their many services, please write to us for contact information. RETAIL VALUE: $400

Writing Excuses Podcast ad, Click HERE (as of this post, the price was $31)

Need to get word about your book, product or service out to 5,000 new people – fast? This is the auction for you! You write the text for a twenty-second advertisement and the witty writer guys from Writing Excuses will read it on an upcoming episode of WRITING EXCUSES.

Each episode of this popular, fast-growing podcast by fantasy novelist Brandon Sanderson, cartoonist Howard Tayler, and horror novelist Dan Wells is downloaded at least 5,000 times every week!
Ad spots sell for $250 and more, but this rare opportunity can be yours through the Whitney Benefit Auction for a song. (NOTE: Podcasters will not sing! Well, they might if you beg…and/or pay enough!)

The link to this fun and very informative podcast is: www.writingexcuses.com


Manuscript Evaluation by YA novelist Aprilynne Pike
, Click
HERE (As of this post there were no bids on this item)

Aprilynne Pike will read and evaluate any fiction work up to 200,000 words. April has been spinning faerie stories since she was a child with a hyper-active imagination. At the age of twenty she received her BA in Creative Writing from Lewis-Clark State College in Lewiston, Idaho. When not writing, Aprilynne can usually be found at the gym; she also enjoys singing, acting, reading, and working with pregnant moms as a childbirth educator and doula. Aprilynne currently lives with her husband and three kids in Utah, and dreams of warmer climates. Her first novel for young adults, WINGS, will be released by Harper Teen in May, 2009 and is the first of a series of four.

Approximate Value of this Professional Evaluation: $600

While visiting any of these items click on the link "View Seller's Other Items" to see what other treasures the Whitney Benefit Auction holds.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

The Inner Critic

by Annette Lyon

Everybody has one.

Whether it's the voice of that high school English teacher (a pox on her) who said you couldn't string two sentences together or simply your own insecurities piping up, I'm sure you know what yours sounds like.

The Critic is loud. It's bossy. It's an authority. And we tend to listen to it.

That isn't always a bad thing. At times, you do need to look at your work objectively. Does this scene work? Is this dialogue cheesy? Did I start in the right place? Am I showing so much the story drags? Is this character believable? Without the critic there on your shoulder, these kinds of questions are hard to answer.

On the other hand, there is a definite time and a place for the Critic, and a large portion of the time, he ain't wanted.

For example, imagine you're in the flow of a story, living and breathing the events. You're really there with your characters. Then your Critic creeps out of hiding and whispers four little words, "This is kinda lame."

POP! The creative balloon explodes and you return to reality with a thud.

Was the scene lame? Maybe. Maybe not. There's no way to know when you're in the middle of it. You're way too close to it when it's hot off the press (or not even off it yet!). The passage you're working on could be brilliant, and you'd still think it's lame at this point.

Ignore the Critic. Shove him back into his cave and lock the door. Keep writing. And then tomorrow, unlock the Critic and let him read it with you. At that point, you'll be able to somewhat trust what he has to say, since he's had to tame himself in solitary confinement.

It's important for writers to understand the two ways your brain works and be able to compartmentalize them—to bring out the shy, scared writer child and to lock the Critic in its cave for the duration of a writing session.

And then, yes, to know when that timid artist can go take a rest and it's time to bring out the Critic to take a hard look at what you produced.

Having them both out and active simultaneously can spell trouble. The creative flow will likely be filled with painful bumps and jolts. You'll second-guess yourself, keep going back to smooth out sentences instead of moving the story forward. You'll trash entire sections in the heat of the moment because the Critic is yelling so loudly that you're forced to believe its ranting. The artist side won't have a chance to be heard or listened to.

Most writers have their own pet ways of reining in their Critics. Some do Julia Cameron's morning pages—three hand-written pages of free writing first thing every day, which force the Critic to move over.

Others give the Critic a name, say Morris or Agnes, so they can "talk" to the Critic and tell it to get lost.

Sometimes a physical form, like a stuffed animal, can be helpful so you can physically put the Critic on the desk when it's at work and into the drawer when it's not wanted or needed.

I know writers who put on music to bring out the inner Artist and quiet the Critic.

For others, simply recognizing the fact that they have those two sides warring against one another is enough to tune in to the one voice and ignore the other.

So how do you deal with your inner Critic? What works for you? How do you quiet it when it's not wanted?

How do you manage your dual sides as a writer?

What works for one writer won't necessarily work for all, but the more tricks and tips we have to work around the paralyzing nature of the Critic, the better.

Please share!

Monday, October 6, 2008

Does this stuff ever happen to anyone else????

By Julie Wright

I sent off several queries to agents for a new national book I have. This is a good thing. It's great to write books, but if those books never leave your computer and venture out in the world on their own, what good are they?

So I did the practice-what-you-preach thing and sent off my queries. That night, my website got jacked by some actress in LA. Her website is pink. I am not exactly a pink kind of human being. I respect all those who love pink and respectfully decline to join them. I threw a fit at my poor webmaster. He promised me he would get it fixed.

I awoke the next morning to an acupuncturist on my website. At least it wasn't pink. I worried about it a little, thinking about those queries I'd sent off and wondering if agents genuinely looked at the websites listed amongst the author information.

"Nah!" I told myself. Agents are busy and the chances of one actually going to my site were slimmer than the jeans I wore as a teenager.

Or not.

I got an email later that afternoon that began with, "I liked your query and went to look at your other publications. They look adorable." The heavens opened and the angels sang. As I kept reading, that singing I was hearing turned to raucous laughter. The agent had gone to my site and then got "stuck" there due to the neat-o flaws of my website's hosting servers. In this modern day of scams, spam, and viruses, and since the agent's computer shares a network with everyone in the agency, the agent felt a little apprehensive.

It seemed like an elaborate hoax to the agent and they weren't all that appreciative. And the email that began with praise ended with a scolding.

I screamed enough my voice went hoarse. I wrote the agent back the most insane email I've ever written. And I hit send. Yeah.

Seriously am I cursed? Does this sort of thing ever happen to anyone else? I totally don't blame the agent for feeling irritated. I certainly felt irritation! I wanted to weep. So I did what I always do in a crisis of literary nature. I called Josi. She laughed and helped me to see the humor. Another author to share such misery is a vital thing. While I lamented to my dear friend (whose book, Her Good Name, is simply a must read) another email popped up on my screen from the agent.

It was a very friendly, upbeat letter of understanding and commiseration over my internet woes. It was also a request for the full manuscript. And also a request for the manuscript to be sent snail mail . . . just in case. That last request struck me as really funny and made me like this agent as a human being, whether they take me into their agency or not, I will always have good things to say about them.

The moral of this story:

  • Never include anything in your query letter that you don't want your agent or editor seeing. If you include a website, your website needs to be active and professional. Granted, my situation was a result of bad timing and psychosis, but it's good to know they actually do pay attention to what information you include.
  • Agents are people too, with worries and a sense of humor.
  • Get yourself a good writer buddy. A phone call with a writer buddy is better than a pound of chocolate, cheaper than therapy, and more effective than drinking.
  • Even after four published books, *those* days still happen.

Warning: I do NOT suggest this as a way to woo agents.

Happy Writing My Friends!

Monday, September 29, 2008

The Perfect Pitch

I believed writing would be something almost spiritual. I believed I would sit upon the rocky cliffs overlooking the ocean in a white dress, while the waves would splash my toes with ocean spray. With this perfect setting, I would write feverishly, pen to paper. The muse would sit on my shoulder and whisper in my ear.

I've grown up and learned a few things--writing is more like chaining myself to my chair and having the willpower not to check email or visit my friend's blogs. And the muse? I think my muse is busy flirting with somebody else's muse because she has never once been helpful. There's a reason why my muse never gets any credit on the acknowledgement page of my novels.

But worse than the harsh reality of writing is the harsh reality of publishing. I never once imagined that this art form I am so in love with would equate to me having to become a SALESMAN.

Yet here I am.

I went to a pitch session last week with Kevin Wasden (my fav artist) for a project we collaborated on. My legs felt like water, my pulse raced, and the editor had strategically placed himself in front of the window so he was a dark shadow against the bright light of day. I felt like I was facing down a mob boss.

In just a few minutes, I had to give him the perfect pitch--the one that would entice him to ASK for MORE. I had to become a salesman.

I hate selling. It's so crass to consider literature as a product to peddle. And I wonder, is it worth it, especially for people who aren't usually as well-spoken as they are well written?

Yes. Meeting face to face with an editor or agent personalizes you to them. If they like you they will WANT to like your manuscript too. They will want to give you a chance to prove you're worth your weight in words.

First things first, the words you will use in a pitch are not the words you would see on a book flap. You don't want vague danglings of description in your pitch, you want to be brief and concise. Get to the point and do it fast (this is my biggest flaw, I have no ability at brevity).

But I started thinking of my novels as products that needed to be sold. It helped me to understand what exactly I wanted to accomplish at a pitch session. In my younger years, I dreamed of being a high powered advertising executive riding the subway and wearing a black power suit. I put that dream back to use when I realized I needed to sell my own product. Give yourself three to five sentences in which to describe your book. Keep it quick and to the point. Don't tangent on minor characters or minor plots. You need to give them something they can take back to their marketing team and SELL.

Be prepared. My husband has spent a lot of time in an acting career. He never goes to an audition unprepared. This means he records himself doing his monologue and then listens to it while he's driving. He practices everywhere he goes over and over and over until he has it down perfect. Your pitch needs to be like that. You need to be able to smile, say hello, and give your pitch with ease. Practice it. Time yourself so you know how long it takes. Be prepared, so when you meet that favorite agent, you aren't stuttering. Part of being prepared at an actual pitch session is being comfortable talking a bit about you as an author--give your ideas, your vision, prove you can go the distance and deliver. You have to genuinely believe that what you have is what they want.

Whenever someone starts a conversation with the words, "I really don't know what I'm doing and don't have anything to say, I take them at face value and automatically tune them out. If you don't believe in you, don't expect me to.

Know what category your book falls in. Do not say, "Well it's a mystery sort of romance, with some action adventure thrown in. It all takes place in a fantasy world, but with science fiction technology." You have to know where this book sits on a shelf in a bookstore. As in advertising, if a company walks in with a new product, the ad company needs to know who they are going to market it to in order to be able to run a successful campaign. If you were going to walk into a bookstore right now, in what section would you look for your book? What similar books are out there? Why is yours different and therefore worthy of notice?

Know who you're pitching to. If an agent comes to your conference, and they only agent for bodice ripping romances, they may not be the best person for your picture book. Don't waste your time or theirs. Familiarize yourself with what clients the agent has, or what books the publisher has recently produced. Yes, this does sound a little like sucking up, but what it means is that you were clever enough to do your own research. It means you are professional enough to do your homework. It means you're worth working with.

Don't defend yourself. I kid you not, I was standing outside the door of a hotel room once during pitch sessions and I honestly heard an author tell the editor she was pitching to that he had no clue what he was doing. I may be wrong, but that may not be the best way to get a contract. I'm still staggered by the absurdity of not taking the advice of a trained professional simply because you're feeling a little bruised and prideful.

Don't gossip, backbite, or act like a fool. The writing industry is a small community. You never know who knows who. Play nice in the sandbox, remember the golden rule, and don't monopolize an agent or editor's time.

I am giving this advice because I am preparing to go to New York where I will be doing a lot of pitching. This little blog is a good refresher course for me too. May we find favor with the kings and queens of ink and paper.

Monday Mania--first page

One of our readers submitted the first page of a novel. Feel free to make comments, but please keep them constructive.

Critique Archive 0017:


The Gatekeeper
The Education of Darny Switch

It was getting late. The shadows were deepening in the corners of his room and an oppressive heat hung in the air of the little attic of Darny Switch. He'd just finished his day of cleaning up other people's messes, and had come home to be yelled at by Mrs. Whippet for forgetting to pick up her laundry.

It had not been a good day. He plopped down on his bed and started reading the latest Harry Potter book. It had just come out and he had been waiting forever for his turn to check it out of the local library.

He opened the new cover and got a whiff of that lovely new book smell. It was still there. The pages crackled as he turned the first one. He loved the Harry Potter stories. He felt alive when he read them and lost in a world that was so entertaining and seemed so real. He had dreamed of living in such a world. Of walking down the halls of Hogworts. But the thing he most liked about the stories was that it was his story too. He had no parents, and had been left with people who didn't want him. But stories of high adventure don't happen to real boys. Stories like that are made up by great minds.

Real life was what Darny was living. He looked up at his closet door. Sometimes it would creak as he lay in bed. He would shut the door and still he swore he could hear it open as he lay there in the dark. He would close his eyes and will himself to fall asleep. He thought if he opened them, he would see something standing there and he had no magic spells to make it disappear. He was terrified of being alone up in his hot room, but he had no choice and no one felt sorry for him.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Killer Campaign--Are Booksignings Effective?

By Heather Moore

This blog installment is part of a killer campaign organized by Maria Zannini. Today several fellow authors will be blogging about booksignings, the good, the bad, and the ugly. To find out what other authors are saying today about booksignings, jump over to Maria's killer campaign post.

Here's my take:

In this era of internet marketing, booksignings are not necessarily as important as they used to be. Or are they?

When you read about new books coming out by bestselling authors, you can click on their websites and see a list of booksignings they have scheduled. But it seems that they are becoming fewer in number.

Over the years, I’ve had great booksignings and not-so-great ones. You just never know if it’s the weather, the local rival football game, American Idol finals, etc. that keep people home.

So whether you choose to do them or not, I have lots of tips.

1. Bring something to hand out. This breaks the ice and allows you to introduce yourself. I’ve handed out bookmarks or author cards, by saying very simply, “Have you heard about my book. It’s about _____________ ______________ ______________.” That’s the ten second approach. The customer will take the bookmark (98% of the time) and read it when you’re no longer staring at them.

2. Have your table near the front door, or near the register. This will allow you to either 1) greet each person as they come in, or 2) chat with the people standing in line. Ideally, it’s nice for a store employee to stand with you and introduce you to customers. Oh yeah, don’t EVEN plan on sitting. Stand, walk around, approach people.

3. A candy dish? I usually eat more than anyone else, and it doesn’t seem to help my sales. Of course, if you are writing for kids, you will get more attention from them. But if you bring a treat for the store employees . . . now that might make a difference.

4. Back to the store employees—it’s what a booksigning is all about. Surprised? Your job as an author is to get to know the employees, find out what they like to read. In essence, ask THEM questions. This makes them your new friend, and you can bet that the next day when they’re working a long shift, they’ll be recommending you left and right. Even if they haven’t read your book yet.

5. If the store isn’t going to provide posters or fliers about your booksigning, then drop by a couple weeks in advance (or mail) and provide them yourself. All of my books have been released in the fall, and I’ve found that I see just as much store traffic during a Friday lunch hour than I do a Saturday afternoon (yeah, it’s the football games). You might consult with the store manager about a good day and time.

6. Back to bookmarks. I like them because I can get a cover jpeg, a couple of endorsements, and my website all on the bookmark. Then with the store manager’s permission, I’ll walk around the store and slip my bookmark in other books that are similar to mine. Hmmm. The advertising that continues long after you’re gone.

7. Try an attention-getter at your table. Hold a drawing or bring an article of interest that goes with your book. Writing about a Mayan mystery? Bring a look-a-like ancient Mayan sword. Have a romance? One friend had a magnetic bulletin board and the customer gets to pick a number off of the board. Depending on what it says, the customer gets a candy bar, etc . . .

8. When you chat with a customer, keep your book pitch very brief. You can tell by their eye contact if they’re interested beyond the 10 second pitch. Then turn the tables and ask them, “So, what kind of books do you like to read?” Suddenly they perk up and chances are, they’ll make their way back to your table, or purchase your book on their next store visit.

9. NEWSLETTER SIGN-UPS. Yes, there’s a reason it’s in all caps. A NY Times Bestselling author told me this should be my #1 strategy. Both on your website, and at a booksigning, you should be capturing emails. Offer a newsletter sign-up sheet. Then promote it by saying you include reviews, recipes, other author interviews, or giveaway contests. And of course, your list won’t be shared with anyone. As long as they don’t unsubscribe from your list, you’ll have them part of your target audience for life. One last thing on newsletters. Don’t send anything out more than once a month, quarterly is best. You don’t want to be annoying, but you don’t want to be forgotten either.

10. Be patient. It wasn’t until my third book came out that I had people showing up to my booksignings to meet me specifically. These were mostly people that signed up for my newsletter at an earlier booksigning or on my website. They ended up buying a book, liking it, and wanting to come back for another.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Cheating the Reader

by Annette Lyon

Imagine a story that leads, slowly and inevitably, toward the final climactic battle. The tension is building. The stakes are high. The bad guys are on their way.

The battle arrives.

Your protagonist takes a back seat and watches most of it. He's worried and afraid, but not really participating.

That is, until a critical moment, when all might be lost. The hero steps in, knowing he might well die as he acts to save the day.

In the end, the battle is won.

But the reader then learns that the action the hero took was not only unnecessary to the victory, but actually made the winning side worse off and victory harder to come by.

Feel a bit cheated? Thought so.

When you put together a story, you're making a silent contract with your readers. Their obligation is to suspend their disbelief enough to give you a chance to tell a great story.

Your obligation as the writer is to do your best to carry out a story that's satisfying. That doesn't mean every reader will like your work. Hardly. But it does mean that you can't promise to give your readers one thing going in and then deliver something else.

It means that if you're building up to a climactic battle, the battle should be, well, climactic.

It means that your hero or heroine should be in the thick of things, taking part, and not on the sidelines observing and reacting.

It means that if the hero is willing to sacrifice everything, including his very life, his sacrifice needs to make a difference, have some significance to the story.

Now if your story is of the Thomas Hardy variety, your reader will know to expect a dark story with tragedy in it. So if the hero's sacrifice means nothing, that might actually work. But if you've done your part right, your reader will know pretty early on not to expect a Disney ending.

The battle example above is from an actual book that's part of a series, from a book several into the series. The author had made a very clear contract with the reader on what to expect with the previous books.

This ending wasn't what the writer had promised previously. Instead, I, at least, finished the book with a sense of disappointment and unease. Of irritation that I'd been brought through hundreds of pages for this.

The traditional hero story is one where the hero prevails, makes a difference, grows, and returns triumphant. If you're going to break those expectations, that's fine. Just be sure your readers know that going in.

For example, if you're calling your book a romance, then the hero and heroine must get together in the end. (If they don't get together, again, that's fine. That's a legitimate storyline. But you shouldn't call it a romance.)

If you're calling your novel a mystery, then the murderer better be revealed before the last page. (If the detective ends up being the last victim and the reader closes the cover without knowing his identity, you haven't written a mystery.)

As Chekov reportedly said, if you show a gun on the mantel in Act I, it had better go off before the end of Act III.

Don't want anyone getting shot? Don't put the gun on the mantel.

Don't build up to a big fight if you're going to let it fizzle out before it gets started. Don't have your hero observe the climax; make him participate. Don't set up a huge issue that your hero will face . . . but then have it turn out to be nothing after all.

Know what you're promising your readers and don't cheat them.

You want them buying your next book, not throwing this one against the wall in frustration.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Interview with Debut Author--Diana Spechler




by Heather Moore


I've been waiting a long time to share the story of how I met Diana Spechler, author of Who by Fire (Harper Perennial).

I met Diana at the BEA Expo in Los Angeles this past May. Her book looked interesting so I stood in her line and ended up talking to her for a couple of minutes. Since I spent time living in Jerusalem, I was especially intrigued by this novel that partially takes place in Jerusalem. And of course, I was interested in how she came up with her story idea and her road to publishing with a major NY publisher.

So without further delay, I'd like to welcome Diana to our blog:

Me: Diana, you’ve been published in Glimmer Train Stories, Moment, and Lilith. What compelled you to start writing a novel?

Diana: Who By Fire actually started as a short story that I wrote during my last semester of graduate school and published in the Greensboro Review in 2003. It was told from Bits’ point of view, and after writing it, I was curious about her brother, Ash. I wrote something from his point of view, then returned to hers, then went back to his, and so on. At first, I wasn’t really sure what I was doing. I couldn’t imagine that I was writing a novel. That was something that other people did, people who…you know…knew how to write novels. I was just making my characters have a conversation. Like a puppet show. It became a novel, of course, but I still write short stories, too. I love short stories.

Me: Have you always wanted to be a writer?

Diana:
Yes. I think that when I was eight, I used to tell people I wanted to be a marine biologist, but I doubt I really knew what that was, since I still don’t exactly know what it is. I mean, I know it’s a scientist who studies animals that live in the water, but what exactly would that entail? It sounds complicated. I’ve been writing since I could pick up a pencil. It is really the only thing I’ve ever loved to do (not counting things that aren’t jobs—like drinking good wine or going swimming).

Me: I loved the premise of the story as soon as you told me about it. Having lived in Jerusalem for a couple of years, I was excited to read your book. Where did your ideas first come from in writing this book?

Diana: I studied at Hebrew University for a semester during college. I also spent a summer in Israel when I was seventeen. Of course, I got to know the texture of the country during those trips, which has enabled me to write about it, but the idea for the novel really came from the short story I wrote about Bits and Ash (it was called Close to Lebanon), which sort of came from thin air. Set in Boston, the story takes place over a two-day period while Bits is waiting to hear from Ash after a suicide bombing. I guess the topic was on my mind because my brother had recently gone on a Birthright Israel trip. He was there during a particularly bad time, and I was worried about him, and I guess that’s what planted the seed.

Me: Tell us how you found your agent and the process from submission to acceptance.

Diana: Nothing makes me starry-eyed like talking about my agent. She’s the best. Her name is Kate Lee and she was recently ranked the twenty-first most powerful woman in New York, but I would rank her higher. I was lucky because one of my friends, the very talented author Cristina Henriquez, is Kate’s client. She read an early draft of my novel and offered to recommend me to Kate. I was thrilled because Cristina’s experience with Kate had been so positive, so I knew that if she accepted my novel, I would be in very good hands. When she signed me, I felt like my life was changing. I went to a bar that night to play pool and celebrate. In fact, my life was changing, but the process was slow. Kate had a lot of editing/rewriting suggestions, and then there was a lot of talking with various editors, getting feedback from them, rewriting again, and on and on and on. By the time Harper Perennial bought the novel, Kate and I had been working together for more than a year and a half.

Me: Your writing style seems so effortless. Do you go through several drafts? Describe your writing process.

Diana: Thank you, Heather! Bless you! I could use many words to describe my writing process, but “effortless” would never be one of them. Yes, I write a lot of drafts. I know some people use outlines. I’ve never done that. I just draft and draft and draft. Who By Fire has existed in countless manifestations. In early drafts, there was no plot. Of course, that was a problem. Plot often comes last for me, but until I find a plot, I’m terrified and frustrated. I always think, “What if this is just a plotless, pointless piece of crap?” But then when I do find the plot, I think, “That’s so obvious. Why didn’t I know it from the beginning?” Another integral part of my process is feedback from my readers. I have several writer buddies with whom I regularly exchange work. I don’t know what I would do without them.

Me: The characters in your book are very likeable, and their flaws make them easy to relate to. Did you pattern your characters after yourself or people that you know?

Diana: Yes and no. I think I inhabit all of my characters to some extent. But they’re usually composites. There are pieces of lots of people I know or have known or have met and pieces that are completely invented. For example, in Who By Fire, Ellie and Ben met in Jerusalem in the 1970s. My parents also met in Jerusalem in the 1970s, but they’re nothing like Ellie and Ben. I’ve just always found it incredibly beautiful and romantic that my parents met in Israel; I liked incorporating that detail into the novel.

Me: You write the whole book in first person, present tense. Is this your natural writing style or did you do it just for this book?

Diana: I don’t think I ever toyed with third person on this project, but at one time, all of Bits’ chapters were written in the past tense. (Changing that was tedious, to say the least.) In general, I like first person because of the sense of intimacy it creates. Whenever I start writing in third person, I have to ask myself what exactly I’m shying away from. Sometimes I let myself write in third person if the intimacy of first is daunting to the point of paralyzing me; after all, it’s better to write something than to write nothing. For some reason, I think my sentences are prettier when I use third person, but there’s an immediacy and an openness that only first person can create.

Me: In the “Conversation with Diana Spechler” at the end of the book, you mention some strange coincidences in what you wrote in your book to actual events that happened later. One of them is that your own brother decided to move to Israel to study Orthodox Judaism (when that’s exactly what the main character’s brother, Asher, did in Who by Fire). So . . . is he still on that path?

Diana: No. Not really. He is more religious than I am—keeps kosher, observes more holidays—but religion is not the focal point of his life right now. Which is not to say he’s plummeted into a life of sin or anything (whatever that would mean). He’s a lawyer in Texas who advocates for kids with disabilities. Quite an amazing, benevolent guy, my little brother.

Me: What advice do you have for other writers?

Diana: Write as much as you can. Read a lot. Try to eliminate as many distractions as possible. Don’t let yourself judge people; it’s more useful to step back, observe, and try to get a kick out of how weird people are.

Me: Tell us about the book you are writing now.

Diana: I’m writing a novel based on my experience working at a weight-loss camp for kids in the mountains of North Carolina.

Me: Thanks for the interview, Diana. Best of luck with your new release!

You can find out more about Diana's book on her website.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

The Rewards Happy Authors Deserve

By Julie Wright

Writing is sometimes a thankless job with no reward. We spin words on thousands of pages that no one but our moms have read; we mail off queries and get back rejections. We smile over gritted teeth when our friends get contracts, and try to remember that we love our friends, and we're really happy for them. It's hard to stay motivated

If you want a child to do something—to get a chore done—I’ve heard that reward is the greatest tool. If that doesn't work you can try taking away privileges or punishment to motivate the child.

But what happens if you want an *adult* to do something. What happens when you want *yourself* to do something?

I am not easily motivated. As an adult I am no longer swayed by enticements of candy or cookies. I can get those things if I want them--anytime I want them. I'm an adult. That's the perk of being an adult.

And I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking that I should up the reward. Okay fine, if I get my book written, I'll get to go on an exotic trip to Tahiti. Except, I know what my checking account contains (or doesn't contain, as the case may be . . . hello? I'm an author . . .). So I have to be responsible. That's the non-perk of being an adult.

Motivating someone who already knows what they can and can't do is a tough proposition. But I still think it can be done with a few tips to make it easier.

  • Self Control--It's necessary to use good self control to make sure your motivating factors are really motivating. With kids, it's easy to reward or withhold a reward when they do the things they do. You put the cookies up on the higher shelf. You lock up the x-box and hide the key. But when we are self governed it's a little harder. We know where the keys are, and we can reach that high shelf with very little effort. Being honest with yourself and refraining from partaking of an unearned reward will make the reward that much sweeter when you genuinely earn it.
  • Set a daily goal, a weekly goal, a monthly goal, and a final goal. And reward yourself at special milestones. So let's say every fifty pages, you get a manicure, or a massage, or you get a movie night. It makes the journey of writing a little sweeter. I know that our very own Annette Lyon uses chocolate as a motivator. When she finished a daily goal she rewarded herself with a little bit of the really good chocolate. We're not talking Hershey's here. Were talking real CHOCOLATE.
  • Make the final goal something a little bigger. Most of us cannot afford a trip to Tahiti, but maybe you can get play tickets or a weekend getaway to somewhere close by, or season tickets to whatever your favorite sport is. I reward myself with books. When I finish writing a novel, I allow myself to read. I allow myself to read five to ten books in between each novel I write. This makes it so much easier for me not to get distracted in other people's stories and provides me something to work for. I will buy a book (or several books) that I REALLY want to read and put them up on my desk where I have to look at them, knowing I cannot crack their spines until I am done.
  • Make submission goals as well as writing goals. It's great to get a book written, but if you don't submit it to anyone . . . so what? You can't exactly make a goal that states, "I will be published by June." You can't control the publishers and agents. So keep your goals within the realm of things you can control. Set goals for submitting: I will query five different agencies every week for the next six months.
  • Make networking goals. Attending writer's conferences provides you further education and builds friendships with people who understand what you're going through. Make a goal to attend one major conference a year and to maybe attend several smaller ones to help you stay at the top of your game. Make a goal to meet with at least two agents or editors at every conference you attend. Gather business cards.

I have to be honest, as far as rewards go, writing for me *is* the reward. If I don't write, I find myself stuck in depression I can't readily get out of. If I obtain my daily writing goal, I find satisfaction in every other aspect in my life. I love writing. It makes me happy. I can't think of a better reward than that.

So reward yourself and write. You totally deserve it.