Monday, March 31, 2008

No One Likes a Boring Date

By Julie Wright
Have you ever been on a date where you think you might have been better off going alone? Where sure, yeah, the other person existed, but there was no sense of immediacy about the date? And then horror of horrors, your date tries to kiss you goodnight and for all the zing that there *isn't* you yawn and shrug and head into the house.
I've read books that leave me feeling the same way. on the scale of one to five, they rate a "meh." Life is short. Kisses and writing should have passion.
If you want your writing to zing, make them immediate--make them right now.
One way to do that is to get rid of your telling voice.
  • She felt the knife against her skin./The cold steel blade pressed against her skin.
  • She saw the flag waving over the soldier's lifeless body./The flag waved over the soldier's lifeless body.
  • They noticed the green ooze seeping from the chemical plant./The green ooze seeped from the chemical plant.
  • He was looking./He looked.
  • She started searching through her purse to find the mace spray./She searched through her purse to find the mace spray.
See the words highlighted in red? Get rid of them. Any time you have a verb ending in -ing, you can almost always drop the -ing and the is, was, or were (or your dead word of choice) in front of it to make it active.
I don't know why we write in passive voice. I can't tell you why that feels more comfortable to authors or why we fall into the trap of passive, but we do--a lot.
A highly illuminating activity when you finish a manuscript is to go back and run a search for the word was.
Don't panic if you have a whole bunch . . . that's what rewrites and edits are for. The first draft is to get it down; the second draft is to get it right.
Write (and kiss) with passion.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Advice from the Experts

by Heather Moore

This past weekend I attended the LDStorymakers Writers Conference. The name may be deceiving because national publishing was discussed even more than LDS publishing. We had two special guests I'd like to highlight.

Jamie Weiss Chilton: Agent with Andrea Brown Literary. Since I was her "host" I had a lot of time to pick her brain. Probably one of the most significant things she told me was that she doesn't read queries/cover letters first. She doesn't think an author should spend hours and hours working on the perfect cover letter--because it will be your story that sells her. When she receives a submission she sets the cover/query aside and starts reading the first pages of the book. If she falls in love with the story and the writing, then she'll finally read the cover letter to find out more about the author.

Timothy Travaglini: Senior Editor at G.P. Putnam & Sons. He said that his publisher is one of the few big publishers that accept unagented submissions. He said that one of the most important things that we can do is read a lot and know our craft. Also, it's important to submit to the right editor or the right imprint. There are so many imprints under one publishing house that it saves you time and the editor time to research and know which one accepts your type of work. He also recommended approaching a junior editor over a senior editor--the junior editors are actively seeking new clients. He recommended (for childrens writers) to attend the one-on-one conference: Rutgers University Council on Children's Literature At this conference each attendee is assigned to a junior editor for mentoring purposes. Mr. Travaglini also said to spell his name right.

In the next weeks, I'll continue to blog about more tidbits learned from the great presenters at the conference.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Conferences: As Good as Gold

by Annette Lyon

I recently returned from a fantastic writers conference, which gave me a boost as I move forward with my work.

The weekend was a reminder to me about how important conferences are to writers and why we attend them.

Workshops
These are, of course, one of the biggest elements of any conference, whether they're breakout sessions or keynote addresses. No matter how experienced a writer you are, you can always learn more. Sometimes it's from someone who is farther along the path than you are, and sometimes it's a colleague who looks at a topic in a new and fresh way that can help you improve your work.

About a year ago I attended a class taught by a good friend. I did so to support her, not because I necessarily thought I needed work on my characterization, the topic of the workshop. Her approach to creating characters was so different from my own that it opened up a totally new way of viewing the process for me. I left the class with a boatload of notes and a better understanding of the heroine in my WIP.

Agents and Editors
If the conference hosts an agent and/or editor, soak them in. Hang onto every word they say—they know the markets, the business, the craft. If you have the opportunity to meet with them one on one in an appointment, do so. If you see them hanging out in the hallway, talk with them and get to know them.

Note that unscheduled meetings (sharing an elevator, cornering them in the restroom, and so on) are not the time to pitch your book. Just get to know the editor or agent and to learn from them.

This last weekend I had several opportunities to chat with both an agent and an editor, whether during a meal or in the hall. Those were definite highlights of the entire conference. Because of some of the things they shared during those conversations, I'll be doing some specific revisions on one of my manuscripts.

Networking
I think a lot of writers can relate when I say that many opportunities I have had came about in large part thanks to my friendships with other writers.

Writing is a solitary field; it's just you and your keyboard. When attending a conference, get out of that bubble and rub shoulders with like-minded people. I know, I know; it's hard. Writers tend to be shy and introverted. Break open your shell and speak up. Get to know other writers. You may be surprised at how supportive they can be with everything from cheerleading to helping you track down a fact for research.

You may also find new avenues and possibilities for your work. Best of all, you'll (finally!) be hanging out with people who think like you do and "get" the life of a writer. They know what it's like to have writer's block or have characters bugging them in their sleep or to be rejected . . . again.

Networking is so important that, to me, it's even worth missing out on a workshop if it means you get to chat with someone in the hall who might turn out to be a terrific writing friend or ally.

I recall one conference I attended while expecting my second child. I was so exhausted from the pregnancy that I was about to fall asleep during a keynote address. I slipped out of the room to walk around and stay awake. In the corridor I met up with an author also stuck outside, keeping her baby happy. We struck up a great conversation and friendship. Her first novel was about to be released, and we talked a lot about that.

In the years to come, she became a great help to me as I navigated the publishing waters. I have no memory of who the speaker was that I missed, but I wouldn't give up that friendship I made the hallway for anything.


Take advantage of writers conferences whenever you can. Then while you're there, don't waste a single moment. Learn, network, talk, and enjoy.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Excuses are Lame

by Julie Wright

A writer died and was given the option of going to heaven or hell. Being a good writer, she decided to do her research first and check out each place first.

As the writer descended into the fiery pits, she saw row upon row of writers chained to their desks in a steaming sweatshop. As they worked, they were repeatedly whipped with thorny lashes.

"Oh my, this is awful," said the writer. "Let me see heaven now."

A few moments later, as she ascended into heaven, she saw rows of writers, chained to their desks in a steaming sweatshop. As they worked, they, too, were whipped with thorny lashes.

"Wait a minute," said the writer. "This is just as bad as hell!"

"Oh no, it's not," replied an angel. "Here, your work gets published."

Even in heaven the work is the same. There is no magical formula that makes a writer exempt from parking their backside in a chair and doing the work. There are a million and one excuses for not writing and they are all LAME.

The two biggest excuses for not writing are Time and Fear.

You've all heard me say it and I will say it again because I mean it: Time is Made not Found. Sometimes Time can be stolen, knocked out, and dragged off to do your bidding for a few minutes, but it is never found.

  • Cut out a half hour of TV (get TIVO if you have to . . . in the spirit of stealing time back).
  • Prepare several meals at the beginning of the week so you aren't doing last minute meal scrambling.
  • Teach your children to do for themselves (trust me; it won't kill them)
  • on your break at work, go out to your car and write instead of hanging out in the break room chatting with coworkers.
  • delegate tasks

Fear

Fear is the mind killer. So says Frank Herbert in the book Dune (great read) I believe him. Fear strangles your mind and all the fabulous ability you have to create and become.

Some people might call this writers block. I honestly think writer’s block stems from fear. Deep down, we writers are an odd lot. We’re egotistical enough to believe we can write something and have someone actually PAY to read what we wrote and yet, there are few people as filled with self doubt as writers.

“I’m afraid nothing will come of what I write and therefore it will not be WORTH my time.”

Or,

“What I fail?”

or,

“What if what I write is so dumb, publishers, critics, and my own mother laugh at me?”

“What if what I write isn’t worth my time?”

Why wouldn't it be? Everything you write will have some merit, even if it's nothing more than practice. Do you think dancers twirl on their toes without a little practice? Besides if you have lots of practice fodder, it becomes good for salvage material to use in later works. I steal from my own work all the time.

I tell my kids all the time, "Courage is being afraid, but doing it anyway." This has enabled them to get on rides at Disneyland, go rock rappelling, and learn to snorkel in the ocean. I'm telling it to all of you in the hopes that it will enable you to take the chance on yourself and finish that manuscript so you can submit it to agents and editors and the people who can turn your dreams into reality.

Time and fear . . . not anymore

Excuses are like armpits. Everyone has two and they all stink. You are in charge of your life. Make your time and conquer your fear and do what you were meant to do.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Conflict--The Good Fight

by Heather Moore

Before reading Jack Bickham’s book The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes, I assumed that conflict in a novel was anything that stopped the character on his or her path. Anything that went wrong, anything that “conflicted” basically.

According to Bickham, conflict is simply defined as “a struggle between story people with opposing goals.” (25)

Conflict is NOT, he says, “bad luck or adversity. It isn’t fate.” Yes, these may play a part in your book too, but your character doesn’t try to reason with it or confront it.

“Conflict . . . is a fight with another person.” Not necessarily a physical fight, but a fight at some level.

Bickham recommends the following to bring true conflict into your story (26):
1. Make sure two characters are involved.
2. Give them opposing goals.
3. Put them onstage now.
4. Make sure both are motivated to struggle against each other now.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Format: A Refresher Course

by Annette Lyon

Several years ago I sat at a general session of a writers conference during a Q&A. I was surprised at the kinds of questions asked, things that were, I thought, obvious.

Then it dawned on me that four years prior, I hadn’t known the answers to those very same questions. Of course not. I had to learn them just like everyone else. I had really learned a lot over the last few years.

In the same vein, I’ve been surprised recently at some manuscripts that have crossed my path, or rather, I've been surprised at the format of some of them. They’ve had some really basic problems, and I finally clued in why. The writers just hadn't learned yet. It's not like there's a writer fairy that bestows knowledge about things like formatting the moment you declare you're a writer.

So in light of that, I thought I’d do a refresher on some basics about manuscript formatting. It’s something I think we often overlook, focusing instead of the craft of writing. But really, how your work looks will be the first thing the agent or editor ever sees.

If it’s wrong, you’ll look like an amateur, and that’s not a the best way to make a good impression.

While publishers and specific types of manuscripts vary (screenplays, etc. are very different), in your average novel, you’re pretty safe using all of the following:

  • One-inch margins. That means all around: top, bottom, left, and right. A bigger margin (say 1.25 inches—1.5 at the most) is fine, but never go smaller than one inch.
  • Twelve-point font. Don’t go bigger, and don’t go smaller in an attempt to fit stuff onto the page.
  • A standard font, like Courier or Times New Roman. In the past, Courier was the standard, but that was in the days of typewriters, when editors needed a good way to estimate word counts. Courier was good for that, since every letter takes up the exact same amount of space, whether it’s an I or an M. Nowadays, Courier is still fine, but Times New Roman is also popular and accepted—and for some editors and agents, preferred, since it's a bit easier on the eyes. Just don’t use some funky script or cutesy font.
  • A header at the top of each and every page. On the left side, it needs to have your title (or an abbreviated version of it) and your last name, such as: SPIRES OF STONE/Lyon. This way, if manuscript pages get separated from the whole, the editor will still know which work—and which author—it belongs to.
  • Page numbers, beginning with 1, on every single page, preferably top right.
  • Basic contact information on the first page, top left. Including your name, address, phone number, and email address. You can also include a fax number. Single space this part.
  • Approximate word count. Either immediately under your contact information or flush right at the top of the first page.
  • Indent the first line of every paragraph by tabbing over once. Don’t use the space bar.
  • Create a new page for the beginning of each chapter.
  • Use italics instead of underlining, which is another fossil from the typewriter age.
  • Don’t use all caps or bold. Leave those for blogs, e-mail, and non-fiction.
  • Do ellipses properly. Always be sure there are only 3 dots, and each one has a space before and after it, like this . . . (Sometimes Word will try to smash them all together. Undo it.)
  • Know how to create an em dash, and use it properly. Don’t use a hyphen (or two hyphens) in its place.
  • Use plain white paper.
  • Print on only one side.
  • Double space throughout (except for your contact information on the first page).
  • Don’t include a copyright notice. That makes you look paranoid and unprofessional. Editors and agents know the copyright laws and that the moment you set your work into a tangible form, it’s already under protection by law.


You want the editor to notice your story, not your formatting. If you follow these basic guidelines, the formatting becomes invisible, and you’ll look polished and professional for that very first impression.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Give the Apple a Worm

by Julie Wright

There are three main elements to every story regardless of how short or how long. The three elements are:

  • Character
  • Conflict
  • Resolution


You need the first . . . the character . . . because people like to read about other people. Even when we read children’s books about animals or bugs, we always give those things human attributes.

We like to read about other’s lives because we like to escape our own lives. We want to become the character so we can sympathize, or at least be able to relate to the character so we can empathize. Without characters you cannot achieve emotional depth.

Jeff Savage has taught me to never solicit unearned emotion. Killing off a character in the beginning of the book and having the widow sobbing at the gravesite is kind of interesting, but we don’t really care. We don’t know the guy in the casket. So make sure your characters are in place. Properly introduce us to them so we want to like them, and root for them, and mourn with them. So we care when things go wrong. If you even give a small scene to that couple before the husband dies, then you come to like them and you’ve earned the emotion of pain when he dies.

Conflict stirs things up and makes things happen. Without conflict your story will be boring. I have found on the occasions where I’ve helped brand new writers with manuscripts that the most common issue their manuscripts have is not enough conflict. Too often people think that conflict is just the: you say tomato and I say tomahto. They consider the odd couple squabbling a good enough conflict

And while this has been used in several successful plots, there are always other subtle conflicts going on as well. There are opposing desires, death, stress, tension with work, tension with school, tension with family members. Every human being alive interacts on many levels with many different people. So you can use the ploy of differing personalities as your conflict, but make sure there is something more. Pride and Prejudice pulled this off expertly.

The whole concept was Elizabeth determined to hate this proud MR Darcy because he said tomato and she said tomahto. But there was so much more going on. You had the nefarious Wickham not only making Elizabeth’s heart race but also stealing the attention of her sister and causing disgrace for the family. You had ridiculous Mr. Collins proposing to sensible Elizabeth. You had Mr. Bingley who loved Jane, but was separated from her by his friends and family. And you had Mr. Bennett, an intelligent man who married an absurd woman for her beauty, and now has to live with the fact that she’s absurd. There are layers and layers of conflict within that novel. That’s how all of us should be writing.

Every day we all come in contact with personal conflict. (Ask someone what their conflict was in the last week.) It's that conflict and the struggle the characters has to undergo that keeps us readers interested and in suspense. Will the character succeed or won't he? And when is this all going to happen? And how is it all going to happen?

Imagine writing a children’s book with me for a moment.
There once was an apple. The apple was red. The apple hung from the tree until it rotted off the branch. The end.

There is not one kid in the world who would think that was an interesting children’s book. I don’t care how good the artist is who illustrates the thing, Harper Collins will never buy it. And no child would ever want to read it.

So make something happen. Give the apple a worm.

Or give the girl a boyfriend.

Or give the coworker that promotion your character worked so hard for.

Resolution
Something that starts has to finish, one way or another.Once you have created great characters, which the reader will come to care about, and you have placed them in conflict, that conflict at the end of your story has to be resolved. The characters will achieve their goals or they won't.

That doesn't matter.

You can end your story as you please and as it suits your story - but you have to end it. Ending the story means resolving the conflict. In the end everyone must be happy. And being happy doesn’t always have to mean that everything is perfect, but loose ends must be tied up and the characters must have reconciled themselves to the imperfect life.

Each layer of conflict has been resolved in a daisy chain of inter-connectedness, one closure bringing the closure of another.

When creating problems for your main characters, think along two lines. A big, external conflict that forms the plot and keeps the story moving, and an internal conflict that forces your character to change, reflecting the theme. This will give your story depth, and give your readers something to think about.

Friday, March 7, 2008

The Benefits of Writers Conferences

By Heather Moore

Writing can be a solitary activity. Well, we wish it is solitary--but there are many of life’s interruptions along the way (sometimes every three minutes it seems).

When I first started writing, I had no idea there were Writers Conferences. So when I joined my local writing chapter, I found I had a lot to learn. I had written two novels by the time I went to my first Writers Conference and this is what I learned:

1. Marketing—authors don’t just write, they market.
2. Agents—the first agent I met was in his early 20’s—this kid was going to accept or reject my very fine, mature work?
3. Self-publishing—an option I’d never thought of.
4. Vanity publishers—I met two at the conference. Glad I didn’t submit.
5. Shoes—dress to impress, but do so with comfortable shoes no matter what.
6. Advil—I’m glad I had some along. I wasn’t used to absorbing so much information in a two-day period.
7. Writing Contests—enter them if you can. It’s a great way to get feedback.
8. Networking—people that I met over seven years ago are still my friends.

Now that I have a few books published, and have attended half-a-dozen conferences, my advice is as follows:

1. Marketing—ask the published authors you meet what are the top three effective marketing tools they use.
2. Agents—make appointments with them if possible. Have a list of questions for them in addition to the manuscript you're pitching. Remember most agents find their clients through writers conferences or referrals.
3. Self-publishing—a more viable option for many. Learn from the experts first though, since there are many considerations.
4. Vanity publishers—still don’t submit.
5. Shoes—wear warm socks, too. The conference rooms can be very cold.
6. Excedrin—takes away the head ache faster.
7. Writing Contests—the feedback from an unbiased judge can be invaluable. But remember, it’s still subjective.
8. Networking—no matter how many books you have out, it's still important to network. Make new friends and pass on your own advice. The writing world is very small and can catch up with you fast. Also, volunteer to help at the next writer’s conference. Give back as much as you have received.

Most importantly, you come home with a head full of fresh ideas and re-energized to get back to writing. You realize that writing is not so solitary as you first thought.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Your Platform

by Annette Lyon

The most important element of your book package, aside from the quality of the writing, is your platform.

Sadly, in the case of non-fiction books, platform can be far more important in convincing a publisher to take you on than having a quality manuscript.

So what is a platform?

Your platform is everything about you that helps to sell your book. Each item that makes up your platform is a "plank":
  • Credentials and expertise (If you wrote a book about diet and exercise, it helps if you have a Ph.D. in, say, exercise physiology.)
  • Publicity connections (Do you have an "in" with a popular radio personality? Can you get a review in a prestigious newspaper?)
  • Chances for speaking engagements (Can you get into schools, community organizations, etc. to speak and promote your work?)
  • Organizations you belong to (Nonprofit, hobby, etc. It helps if these relate to your book in some way; if you belong to a hiking and camping club and wrote a survival novel, you may already have potential buyers through your club.)
  • Professional organizations and networks you belong to.
  • Your general visibility (Do you have a newspaper column of your own? Do you appear semi-regularly as a contributor of a TV show?)

When you see what is involved with a platform, it's no wonder that celebrities "write" so many books. Their platform is who they are, and it sells books.

In those cases, really, who's kidding who? Those books aren't generally penned by the celebrity. They're ghost-written, first and foremost because celebrities are actors or singers or whatever else. They aren't writers.

But when it comes down to it, what's between the covers of those books doesn't matter all that much, because the public is already willing to plunk down $24.95 to read about Mr. Hollywood.

On the other hand, a "nobody" who has a drop-dead amazing memoir to tell may or may not be picked up simply because the marketing department will have to work so much harder to convince the public to buy the book.

Consider: Who has the better shot at getting onto the Today show: Joe Writer or Paris Hilton, who can barely spell her own name, let alone actually "author" a book?

Paris, by a mile. And she has been on that show promoting something she supposedly wrote.

That doesn't feel fair, but it's the reality. Think ahead to what your platform consists of and could consist of, because almost as important as the connections and possibilties that are in your platform now are the things you're willing to do to grow your platform.

When you submit your book propsoal, whether it's for fiction or non-fiction, write up your current platform plus your marketing plans for growing it.

If an editor loves your work, she'll have to sell it to those who hold the strings to the money bags. She'll have to convince them that they won't lose money by giving your piece shot, and that instead they'll turn a profit.

The stronger your platform, the easier it is to sell your piece to the final decision makers and to readers.

Build it plank by plank.