Monday, October 31, 2016

Ideas and Playtime

A popular post from October 2009

by Annette Lyon
(with a bit by her daughter)
One of the most common questions writers get is this one:
Where do you get your ideas?
Most writers don't have much of a problem with this. We get ideas from everywhere.
For example, I had a character show up after I listened to a radio show. The entire concept of another book showed up after a brief conversation with my cop brother. Others appear after reading an article or a news story. The more I read, watch the news, pay attention to the world around me and ask, “What if?” the more ideas flow.
Granted, not all ideas are gems. Most aren’t, for that matter. But you need a constant flow of ideas, like a river, so that when the real gems float by, you can recognize them, grab hold, and hang onto them for all they’re worth.
My 12-year-old daughter was recently planning a lesson to teach to the writing club at the junior high. "Coming up with ideas" was her topic.
She had great notes, so I’m stealing them today, because what she planned for her lesson is applicable to all of us. And frankly, she had some awesome notes.
Earlier, I’d told her the genesis of a few books I knew about, and she wrote them into her notes, so they’re below as well. (I love how she refers to me by my full name one second and then as “my mom” the next.)

Coming up with ideas, by Lyon Child #2
All books have to start with an idea from some idea. Some of ideas that became published books:
Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card: He was driving up a canyon and imagined seeing fighter planes and wondered how would you teach pilots to fight in space when there is no up, no down, or side to side. All the rules of strategy would change. The book is much more than that, but that was the first idea.
House of Secrets by Jeffrey S. Savage. He read a column in a newspaper about the day a woman went to her grandmother’s house after she died. Jeff wondered what would happen if you went to your grandmother's house after many years and you found a dead body in the bedroom.
House on the Hill by Annette Lyon, was reading a book with a lot of historical articles and one was about Indians that would sell their children to get money so there were a bunch of Indian children raised by white families in Utah. So she knew that one of her characters in that book would be an adopted Indian.
Then my mom told me about walking through graveyards and reading the names and other stuff on them. She found a group of stones that were children who died within days of each other. One said that the child died from cholera, so Mom figured the others most likely died from it too.
Then I started thinking what if everyone in a town got cholera and died except for one person that was like 20 and lived by themselves for years and then got cholera too, and was freaking out because there were no more people living and the human race would be extinct.
Another story I thought of after talking to my mom about a gravestone and the inscription on it was that what if there were these four people in college two boys and two girls that hated each other and one of the boys and one of the girls got married and so did the other two. So when the first couple got older they had a girl and when she was twenty she really liked this boy and he came over and they really liked him and thought that he was really nice and his parents thought the same about the girl, but what they didn’t know is that the boys’ parents were their enemies from college. Then at their wedding they find out who his parents are.
One way to find ideas is to go somewhere that’s noisy with lots of people. You can just watch people walk by and imagine what their life might be like.

Or play the “what if” game. Like:
What if penguins could fly?
What if cars ran on lemonade instead of gas?
What if cats were the dominant species?
What if mice could fly?
What if Mother Nature were a real person?
What if house flies were really the size of a house?
What if pigs really could fly?
What if dolls could walk and talk?
What if pictures moved like in Harry Potter?
What if we lived in the 60s?
What if cows could talk?
What if everyone in the world had a super power?
What if socks went on your hands and gloves on your feet?
What if we lived in a time with no technology?
What if there were such thing as flying carpets?
What if we walked on our hands?
What if cows could type?
What if chickens could talk?
What if it was always raining?
What if pencils were earrings?

[End of lesson notes]
All of this came from about half an hour of my seventh-grade daughter typing away with my AlphaSmart Neo. Somehow I think if she can come up with this many ideas in that short of a period (even the soap opera love story one), the rest of us adults don’t have any excuses.
As you drive on your commute or while running errands, turn off the radio and mentally play the “what if” game and take each story as far as you can. My good friend J. Scott Savage has been known to take it so far as he lies in bed that he's plotted out entire trilogies before he falls asleep.
Eye people in the cars next to you and pretend they’re characters. Come up with reasons for where they’re going and why. Or ask yourself why they're driving that make and model of car and how do they feel about it. Make up additional conflicts. It’s great fun.
Now for a dare based on my daughter's notes:
This week, go to a mall, grocery store, or other crowded place and observe. I did this some time ago. I bought myself a few pieces of my favorite See’s candy and sat back on a bench at a busy mall.
I watched high-powered business men scurry by, mothers with huge strollers, senior citizens going on power walks, and more. I came up with stories and characters surrounding them. I sat there for a good half hour or more, letting my mind go wild, taking notes when I felt like it, letting myself daydream when I didn’t . . . and eating chocolate in between.
Best of all, when you do this kind of thing, remember to eavesdrop. That's one of the best ways to get great characterization and storyline ideas. Late-night grocery runs are fantastic for this. Check out this blog post for an example of a recorded late-night grocery trip that I laughed myself silly reading.
The bottom line is that coming up with ideas and filling your creative bucket aren’t so different from one another. Remember the artist child inside you needs fun. Make sure you take him or her out to play every so often.
Oh, and remember to take my daughter’s advice. She may be young, but she knows what she’s talking about.
(That may have something to do with the fact that she’s been living with a writer since, oh, birth.)

Friday, October 28, 2016

Step Away from the Manuscript

A popular post from October 2009

by Annette Lyon

I know of writers who claim there is no such thing as writer's block. In a sense, that's true. No matter what the situation, you can sit down, put your hands on the keyboard, and plunk out some words.

But will they be any good?

I've also heard people say that claiming you have writer's block is akin to a plumber saying he's got plumber's block.

To me, that comparison is ridiculous, because a plumber doesn't have to come up with a fresh, new way of fixing a pipe every time. He's got the exact same wrenches and other tools, and a pretty clear-cut list of leaks, clogs, and other issues he'll likely need to fix on any given day.

He doesn't need to find a unique voice, a fresh metaphor, a brand new way to plot a wrench, for Pete's sake. For that matter, if he's good at what he does, he can probably do most of his work without giving it too much thought. He might enjoy a periodic challenge because it's a change in his daily routine.

On the flip side, writers must come up with something new and different each time we sit down. Using the same proverbial wrench every day would be boring or, worse, cliche.

Sure, we can force ourselves to show up at the keyboard, but frankly, sometimes, showing up isn't the best thing to do. Sometimes our creative side needs a break to figure out where we've gone wrong, where to head next, what our character is trying to accomplish, where the plot has gone off into a ditch, what's missing.

And that means walking away from the keyboard.

Paraphrasing an interview I recently read with Audrey Niffenegger (author of The Time Traveler's Wife), writers can often solve problems by coming at them sideways, while working on something else creative. She paints and lets her mind drift. She doesn't force herself to think about her characters or story, but sometimes her mind goes there, and her characters decide to come slip into her mind, showing up with their own answers.

I've found the same thing happening when I let go and stop trying to chase the answers down. The more I try to force the story or the characters to face me head-on, they more they elude me just as I'm about to grab hold of them.

But if let them roam free and I do something else with my mind, letting them come to me, I find that eventually, they will.

For me, sometimes that means setting up my sewing machine and tackling the giant pile of mending my children's clothing. Other times it might be cleaning out a closet or pulling out my knitting needles for a new project.

Maybe I'll go on a walk several days in a row to let my brain think all the messy thoughts it wants to and eventually "unkink" and drift.

Often I find answers while driving, but only if I'm alone in the car and I turn off the radio and drive in silence.

In the summers, weeding a garden or mowing a lawn can do the same thing. Or scrubbing a kitchen floor. In the winter, try shoveling snow.

Do the dishes. Hand-washing is particularly effective for overcoming blocks. So is folding laundry.

I know that it's a pain in some ways that so many of these techniques are chores. (Darn it.) But the reality is that they work. You accomplish something without using a lot of mental energy.

That's the key, because you trick your mind: it knows it's getting something valuable done, yet it's not under pressure to be productive by itself, to be "on" and creative.

Therefore, as you work, your mind gives itself permission to play . . . and a tiny part of it drifts (sometimes you aren't even aware that your mind is working) . . . and then it becomes creative (again, you may not even know it) . . . and then WHAM! the answers come.

Sometimes all it takes is a couple of hours of a different activity. Sometimes it's a few days or even a week or two. But it works.

I'm always amazed when the answers show up. They're clear. They're vivid. They sparkle. And they're always something so much better than I could have come up with on my own by forcing my behind to stay in the chair and by pounding out my word count goal for the day.

That's not to say that writing goals don't have their place; they're very effective, and I use them regularly when drafting. But when occasional blocks smack you in the face, pause and take stock.

If you think it's time, step away from the manuscript. Don't feel guilty about doing so.

Wait for the answers to come while you darn a sock or bake a cake.

(If it's chocolate, save some for me.)

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Anachronisms & Other Ways to Make Readers Snicker

A popular post from November 2009

by Annette Lyon

Anachronisms are hysterical in fiction . . . and usually not in the way the author of a piece intended.

An anachronism is something stuck in a place where it doesn't fit in time. A really, really bad one would be giving a caveman a car. That's a bit too obvious, something no writer would ever accidentally do, but writers put in anachronisms all the time in more subtle ways.

While this is relevant to me as a historical writer, the overall concept is crucial for all writers to keep in mind, particularly in the revision stage, so read on.

For me, I constantly have to research bits and pieces to make sure that certain vocabulary, hair styles, household items, and so on were in use when I place them into a story.

Could Joe use a match to light a fire in this year? Can Sally eat a "cookie" in that year? Would David have access to envelopes in this location at this time? When did diamond rings become common symbols of engagements?

Those are the kinds of things writers pay attention to in their research. Where writers often lose focus is inadvertently throwing in common expressions that don't work for the time period of the book.

For example, a bad anachronism would be for a character from Shakespeare's time to say, "We're really off track."

The problem? "Off track" came from railroads. And yeah . . . railroads didn't exist in Shakespeare's time, so someone from that period wouldn't know what the phrase means.

So why is this important if you don't write historical fiction? Because this is one more way you can mess things up by imposing your mindset onto your characters.

The writer must always remember how the CHARACTER would really think and feel and relate to his or her world.

Luke Skywalker would never say he's "shell-shocked," even if what he's feeling would apply to our definition of that term. He'd use some other way to describe the feeling, because "shell-shocked" is World War II lingo.

When Lizzy from Pride and Prejudice discovers Darcy's involvement in saving her family's name, she'd never have said that he "stepped up to the plate." That's an American baseball term from the 20th century, for starters, one that didn't exist when the book was written. So granted, Jane Austen couldn't have used it, but someone trying to write a P&P sequel today could, and would really mess it up.

Another phrase I came across in a historical novel recently was, "We should give it a shot." I don't know for sure when that phrase came about, but the novel was set a long time ago, so the sentence jumped out as not belonging. It sounded way too modern for the context. I stopped believing the writer. These kinds of things just don't work.

Another warning: too much colloquial phrasing will date a contemporary book too; avoid anything too dated, even if it's dated as now.

In one book, the characters were from the early 1800s, and one referred to his mother as "pushing his buttons."

Um . . . which buttons would those be? The ones on his shirt? Because, yeah, well, hate to say this, but see, computers and other things with buttons that can be pushed . . . weren't invented when this guy supposedly lived.

What this writer needed was an idiom, term, or phrase from the early 1800s that would give the reader the same feel as "pushing my buttons" does today, but that came from the right period. They also needed something matching the character's personality. Instead, what we got was the writer's voice intruding on the story, the writer's point of view.

Sadly, it was hard to get immersed in the book when the author kept poking their nose into the story. I was painfully aware that they weren't fully into the characters' minds and hearts, let alone fully into the time period.

One of my favorite stories of this kind of revision (for the better!) is in Michele Paige Holmes's newest book, All the Stars in Heaven. She's used this example in a workshop herself when teaching how to get into characters' heads.

She originally wrote a scene where Jay, her hero, listens to the heroine, Sarah, sing a choir solo for the first time. He is blown away by her voice and says it's one of the most amazing things he's ever heard.

The rough draft had him compare her voice to an angel's. But then Michele realized that Jay wouldn't say that kind of thing. He's manly and tough. He wouldn't think in terms of angelic choirs. He loves and plays rock music.

Her final version says that Sarah's performance was the most amazing thing he'd ever heard with the possible exception of Hendrix playing "The Star Spangled Banner."

I love that change. It's true-blue Jay, precisely how he'd think. It's okay that Michele's rough draft had the angelic bit. We all have rough drafts that aren't perfect (that's why they're called rough). And frankly, the original wasn't bad. But the final version was perfect: just how Jay would think and express himself. Michele stepped aside as the author and let him speak.

Be sure that when you do those later passes over your manuscript for revision that you read each scene with an eye out for when you're really in your characters' heads. Is this really how they'd see each situation? Or is it your lens that we're looking through?

Ask yourself: Is there anything that I, as the writer, am putting in that doesn't belong?

Would your character really say it this way, think this particular thought?

Are you expressing your opinion or your characters'? Your world view or theirs?

Worse, did you inadvertently throw in an anachronism?

Another gem I caught recently: "No, way."

In context, it sounded just like a Valley Girl from 1988. The problem? The story was set during the time of pirates.

I closed the book, tempted to walk around the house, flipping my hair, snapping gum, and going, "Like, totally argh, Matey."

Monday, October 24, 2016

The Mirror That is Our Writing

A popular post from January 2010

By Julie Wright

I eavesdrop. I've confessed this before, but I've been doing it a lot again lately so figured I was due for another confessional. I HAVE to eavesdrop when I'm working on a book because I have a problem I call speech reflection.

My writing is a direct reflection of my own language and speech patterns. I have to edit out a lot to change that, but first drafts are so transparently me. And so I resort to eavesdropping on other people's conversations to save myself from my own voice. If you listen to people--really listen, you'll find that no two people sound alike. Their word choices, their cadence and beat, their stutterings, ramblings, and hesitations all reflect on who they are. Like snowflakes, no two are alike.

In so many ways, my writing is like a mirror. It is a reflection on who I am even when I try hard for it not to be. My own persona sneaks into all the characters I write, whether they are the good guys or the evil guy. It's frustrating.

And in some ways, it's unavoidable. They tell us to write what we know and sometimes we just can't help but listen to them. But there are things we can do to find our own characters speech patterns and voices.

These are the things I try to do:

--Eavesdrop. You thought I was kidding, didn't you? No seriously--eavesdrop. Go and listen to other people's patterns of conversation.
--have a complete picture of what your character looks like. Some authors I know cut pictures out of magazines to identify their characters. This keeps them solidly in their head. If your character is always shifting in your mind on how they look, how can you pin down how they sound?
--remember your character's age. A two-year-old speaks differently from a ten-year-old, who will speak differently from a twenty-year-old. Don't forget to check the nuances of speech in different ages.
--know where your character comes from. New Englander who says "wicked?" Southerner who says "fixin?" Know their accents, and the vernacular of the culture they were raised in.
--take out phrases that anyone who's met you could pin point as something you'd say.

I have books in the past where the character sounds just like me and I cringe over it. But I've confessed the sin of speech reflection and am daily working on eradicating it from my writing life. So if you notice this in your own writing, feel free to go eavesdrop. People don't mind. They really don't. If they did, they wouldn't talk so loud.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Everyone Needs An Editor

A popular post from December 2009

By Julie Wright

I got a great question from one of my up and coming author friends the other day about professional editing. She made this comment to me:
I'm assuming you don't send your own work off to an editor since you are one.

In my fantasy world, this might be true, but in reality, I'd dash out my eyes before trusting them, and only them, to catch all my flaws. You know that old saying? Something about not seeing the forest because of all those trees? Writing is a lot like that. We get too close to our projects and lose all form of objectivity. Or sometimes, even when we know something's wrong with our manuscripts, we don't see how to fix it exactly.

I have several professional authors/editors (These editors all work for Precision Editing Group) who I trade manuscripts with. I trust these people completely. I trust them to be brutal, but brutal in a way that helps. I've known editors who slash manuscripts to pieces simply because it makes them feel smarter, or empowered, or whatever, but a good editor will not slash for their own benefit, but the benefit of the manuscript. You know who you can trust for honest-even-when-it-hurts critiques. Don't trust your manuscript to anything less. And no matter how published, or smart, or HUGE an author is--everyone needs an editor.

And just for kicks, here is how my writing, editing, submitting process works:
• Write the book
• Edit the book myself
• Go over it one more time (just in case)
• Then send it to three others
• Write something new while waiting for the results
• Get results
• Cry a little over the fact that I’m not all that brilliant
• Eat chocolate and get over myself
• Do final edit
• Submit
• Get edits back from my publisher
• Cry over the fact that I’m not all that brilliant
• Eat chocolate and get over myself
• Do final final edit
• Get galleys
• Curse myself for not being more thorough in final edit
• Do final final, I-mean-it-this-time edit
• Get author copies of my book and still think of ways I could have been better, while also thinking how cool I am for getting a new book published.
• Eat chocolate and get over myself.
• Finish writing new book

If you're being honest with yourself, you know you can always do better. This is not to say you should never let a manuscript go. We all have to finally shout, "Enough!" and move on to a new project. Sometimes more fiddling is just more fiddling.

Eventually your book has to stand on it's own, but dragging it through a few other sets of eyes, makes it stand a little taller.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Don't Rush It

A popular post from December 2009

by Annette Lyon

'Tis the season for many a writer to query and submit.

Many reasons about for this sudden rash of submissions, and some of them are great. I'm referring specifically to fiction here, not to non-fiction proposals, which are a different animal.

If you have done all of the following, submit away. If you have not, back away from the "send" key. You must have:
  • written an entire novel. Not 50 pages. Not 100 or 150. An entire book, start to finish. You've reached the end.
  • revised that novel.
  • revised it again.
  • let other people (who are not you mother or your best friend but people with writing and critiquing experience) read the manuscript and tear it apart, showing you its strengths and weaknesses.
  • not ignored those people's advice.
  • weighed that advice, decided what to apply, and have done more revisions.
  • possibly done several more revisions.
  • possibly given the manuscript out to even more readers.
  • done another round of revisions based on those suggestions.
  • researched agents.
  • taken your time writing an amazing query letter.
  • revised that query letter.
  • revised it again.
  • taken that query letter to similar readers as above to get feedback on it.
  • revised it again.
At this point and only at this point are you ready to query.

From what I've read on agent blogs, they experience a huge influx of queries this time of year, and most of them are, to put it gently, um, not ready to be accepted.

Some of that is a result of what happened last month. Remember that big event so many writers were part of? I'm talking about NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writer's Month), something thousands of writers participate in annually.

It's a tremendous accomplishment to have pounded out 50,000 words in 30 days (especially when Thanksgiving lands during those days).

But the point of NaNo isn't to produce a polished, publishable novel. It's not even to necessarily reach the end of your story. It's to produce a lot of words in a short period, to show that you can break through writer's block and get the words down.

Submitting what you wrote last month is a really, really BAAAAD idea. (Apparently, not everyone thinks so, based on how many agents get queries based on NaNo projects.)

Submitting anything that hasn't had time to sit, gather mental dust, and go through the peer review and revision process is a bad idea.

There's also the fact that New York pretty much shuts down the second half of December, so really, what's the point of querying then? You might as well spend that time working on those revisions, getting those peer reviews, and getting that query ready.

All of the same agents and editors will still be ready for you come January. (Or February. Or March. Or later, whenever it is your manuscript is ready.)

Just don't rush the process. The cleaner the manuscript you hand over, the better your chances of getting that golden contract.

Remember: you want the agent or editor to see the brilliance of your writing and your story. Anything that pulls them from that experience is to your detriment, and creating such a clean manuscript can't be rushed.

It takes time. But it's worth the wait.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Press Releases: Find Your Hook

A popular post from September 2011

by Annette Lyon

Whether you've published with a traditional press or are going the indie route, a lot of promotion for your book will be on your shoulders.

In an attempt to get featured on television, radio, magazines, and newspapers, writers generally put together press releases and send them out, hoping for the best.

Problem: The vast majority of press releases will end up in the circular file, never to be read or passed along . . . or acted upon to give you any attention in the media.

There are several reasons why. One is that media outlets are bombarded with press releases. They simply have too many to wade through.

Another reason is that hundreds (if not thousands or tens of thousands) of writers send out press releases, and they all look the same. If a release doesn't stand out (as in, really stand out), it'll be ignored completely.

REALITY: Being a novelist doesn't mean you automatically know how to write a good press release.

Study up on the standard press-release format, including things like the headline, date, contact information, and even where to put the little ### symbols.

Of course, read it aloud, proof it meticulously, and then seek out the best people to send it to.

But before you write it in the first place . . .

Find your media hook, or your press release is already dead in the water.

The news is just that: NEWS. It's interesting information that the media think their audiences will want to hear and learn about. Write your press release with news in mind.

On the wall of a local news station I was at once, I saw a poster that was a reminder to the correspondents. It listed the most common things viewers care about (I think it was something like the 50 top subjects). Reporters were encouraged to use those topics as launching points when coming up with ideas for the news stories.

The types of things on the poster were all things that impact viewers' lives. I don't remember them all, but they included things like nutrition, safety, little-known hazards, heroes, health studies, recalls, environment, politics, warnings, and so on.

In other words: what will the viewers want to hear about because they already care?

I can guarantee you that "Local Author Publishes Novel" isn't going to cut it. Sure, your neighbors might care. But they probably already know your news. But who else will bother reading that?

Non-fiction is typically easier to sell for press releases than fiction, because often the hook is in the topic itself. A how-to book on finances, for example, could launch a spotlight on the author with a few of the tips from the book. But even then, the press release isn't about "expert on finances publishes book" so much as "expert reveals 25 sure-fire ways to get out of debt." And those ways happen to be in the book.

In other words, your hook should be something you could imagine on that poster. (Who out there isn't impacted on some level by money? Right.)

To get any kind of media attention with a novel, you need a news hook that is something people already care about.

Several years ago, Precision Editing's own Josi Kilpack was on a local morning talk show with her novel Sheep's Clothing. Her hook was the underlying concept behind the plot: the dangers of internet predators and how to keep our children safe. (And then as a post script: "Oh, and the book is about an internet predator. It's a great suspenseful read. Check it out.")

Are internet predators a current topic? Does it (or at least, the worry of it) affect a lot of viewers?

Let's see . . . it impacts any viewer with an internet connection and a child somewhere in their lives. Pretty much everyone.

Note that Josi's appearance was more about the issue and less about the book.

The same thing applied when I made it onto two local television shows and two radio interviews, plus some newspapers, while promoting my novel Band of Sisters.

The focus of the press release and the spots was on a charity that helps military families, something I learned about while researching the book and then joined forces with. The novel is about deployment. I included a page in the back about the charity, the Flat Daddy organization. I raised money for military families through my blog. On radio and television, I talked mostly about the charity and what people can do to help military families. The hosts mentioned the novel on the side.

We snagged one TV spot with a press release about the Flat Daddy charity, but when I got there, all the hosts asked me about was the book. Which was nice, although totally unexpected.

When writing your press release, find a new hook that reporters can latch onto. Make it something viewers or readers will want to find more about. It must be relevant to the viewer, not just to you because you love your book.

Sometimes that could mean writing a guest editorial about a topic (like finances) instead of doing a press release, then mentioning your book in the bio line.

But whatever you do, remember to never, ever use a headline that mentions just you, your book, and that gee, wow, you published one. That isn't news, and it won't get covered except, perhaps, in tiny local papers with a brief mention (which won't sell you any books).

Why should the media care? Why will their viewers and readers care? Hook them with a news story about something that matters.

Then make sure it's a crisp, clean press release, and you just upped the chances that they'll bite.

Friday, October 14, 2016

In Writing, Nothing Is Black and White

A popular post from December 2011

by Annette Lyon

Recently at a meeting with my critique group, we got to talking about giving advice to other writers. All of the members of my group have spoken at writing conferences, at workshops, in classrooms. And we've all had aspiring writers come to us with specific questions.

We all try to help as best we can. But there's a little secret behind all our advice:

In writing, there are no black and white answers.
  • The craft and industry has some general rules, yes. But you can find exceptions to just about every rule.
  • You can find plenty of successful writers who violate rules all over the place.
  • What works for me may not work for you.
  • And while it pains me to say this: this includes grammar and punctuation, to a point.

Whether it's outlining, point of view, character development, world building, finding time to write, getting over writer's block, or a hundred other things, no one has the ultimate answer.


That said, figuring out what works most of the time and for most people is useful.

Learning the acceptable rules of grammar and punctuation will be in your favor . . . so that when you need to violate them, you can do so effectively and purposefully.

Following industry expectations usually plays in your favor when seeking publication, so you can come across as a professional.

You may be the exception. Or not.

So . . . How do you know if you are?

Um, yeah. Another tricky question. You can't really know, at least, at first. Figuring it out takes time and practice. And a lot of both.

My advice: learn the rules. Learn to use them well. Figure out why they're rules in the first place. That could mean years of practice.

You can't know what works for you until you do. So try outlining. If that just isn't you, try pantsing it. Chances are you're somewhere between the two extremes. Play around until you find the place on the continuum that fits you best.

You'll have far more success finding your own way than trying to duplicate someone else's journey to publication.

No writer follows the same path as any other. You'll find obstacles unique to you, things you need to figure out on your own. Things that, frustrating as that is, may not have a clear black and white answer.

None of this is to say to ignore the instruction of writing teachers, to stop going to conferences, to stop reading blogs like this one, or to abandon writing books, podcasts, and the rest.

Rather, it means to expose yourself to as many different ways of viewing the writing process and the rules behind it so that you can find your personal niche.

If something a writing teacher passes along doesn't resonate with you, that's okay. Maybe another writer's way of viewing the same issue will work better for you.

Along the way, you'll stumble upon situations where you'll want to do something out of the lines. If you've put in the work, you'll know if you can do that. You'll be able to do it better than if you tried going into it blind. And coming out the other end, you'll know why it worked.

So: Learn as much as you can. Read lots. Practice writing even more than that. Figure out which rules work best for you.

You'll eventually discover what is your black, your white

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

School Assemblies for Authors 101

A popular post from October 2012

By Julie Wright

I’ve been doing a lot of school assemblies lately throughout the state of Utah. And I’ve learned some seriously important things. I won’t give you the wretched details of how I came to know all these things, but take my word for it.
The top ten most important things I’ve learned are as follows:
  1. Use the restroom first. It's a wee bit embarrassing (pun intended) to be doing the potty dance in the middle of your own presentation.
  2. Wash your hands (duh). And dry them THOROUGHLY. You will want to shake the hands of the principle and the librarian. Nothing worse than soggy palms because you have an aversion to those hand dryers or because you were too hasty in your use of the paper towels.
  3. Make sure you do up all zippers, buttons, etc. Make sure things that are supposed to be tucked in are tucked and those that aren’t stay out.
  4. Keep a kleenix in your pocket in case you need to sneeze. A thousand kids saying, “ewwwwww!” in your presentation when you weren’t purposely trying to be gross . . . well, that’s bad.
  5. Keep a water bottle handy in case your throat gets dry. A hacking cough really throws off a rhythm.
  6. Do a power point. Kids are trained to look at the big screen in front of them
  7. Don’t put lame stuff in your power point. Snoring children isn’t your goal.
  8. Be funny where possible, but don’t try too hard. Funny should be natural. If you don’t do funny, then know it can’t be forced.
  9. Do not make your presentation nothing but an hour long infomercial of “buy-my-book”
  10. Make the presentation about THE KIDS NOT YOU!
The last one is the most important thing I can advise. A really awesome author, James A Owen, said something that rang so true to me. He said, “If I am given the attention of five hundred middle-school students for an hour, and only that hour, I’m not going to talk about my books – I’m going to talk about the things that I believe are most important in this life; about things I believe are True, and meaningful, and worth sharing.”
Amen James.
There is very little in my presentation about my books. Seriously. I spend about 2 minutes on my books. My presentations are about literacy, believing in our own potential, believing that each individual human being has something magical and amazing to offer the world. Because I agree with James. If I’ve got an hour, and only that hour, there are way more important messages to give than, “Hey, kid, buy my book.” My presentation is about living without limits on your own awesomeness. Why should it be anything else? What if my presentation is the only place some of those kids ever hear that they can achieve great things? Wouldn’t it be tragic if instead of selling those kids on themselves I was instead trying to sell them on my books?
I had a few assemblies last week where I spoke to over 2000 kids. They were great. The kids were amazing in every way. I love doing assemblies and feeling that rush afterward. At my book signing at the library later that night, I ran into one of my friends who happened to work there. She was blinking in shock at the two hour long parade of kids tramping through her library. She asked me one simple question, “What did you do to make them all come out tonight?”
My answer?
I told them the truth.
I told them they were amazing. That they were brilliant. That they had the right to shine on the world in the same way that the star Antares shines from over a thousand light years away. I told them they had no limits to the great things they could accomplish.
The truth is powerful.
Youth are powerful if they only dare let themselves believe it.
And as writers, we have the power to tell them.
So I guess this post is really a bit of an admonition. I’ve heard many principles sigh and tell me of how disappointed they were in other authors because they felt like they’d yanked the kids out of useful class time just to hear a commercial. They were relieved my presentation was different. It makes me sad that I hear this comment over and over again. Truly consider authors. You have an hour with several hundred kids.
What message do you want to give them?

Monday, October 10, 2016

Resources for Writers

A popular post from June 2013

by Annette Lyon

Last month at the 10th annual Storymakers Writers Conference, Sarah M. Eden and I taught a class about helpful software for writers. I thought a brief rundown of some of what we covered would be useful here.

Before I get started, I'll add that I was recently told about a piece on the Open Education Database, which features links to 150 different resources for writers. You'll find some of what Sarah and I discussed in that post, along with many more resources, including several I list in the back of the 2nd edition of my grammar book (available HERE). The link is definitely worth a look.

Now for highlights of our class:

The best writing software around, and it's a steal for the cost. I've seen it anywhere from about $25 to $65. Winners of NaNoWriMo often get a 1/2-off coupon. What is Scrivener? Imagine a word processor combined with note cards, binders, folders with all your research (even web pages), and so much more, all wrapped into one. Now add the ability to jump to any spot of your manuscript, switch the order of scenes by dragging and dropping them, and being able to see at a glance all the points of view (or settings, or any other identifier you choose) at a glance. And mark each scene as to do, a first draft, second draft, complete, etc. You can then export your document into several file types, including Word and other industry standards.

The program does have a bit of a learning curve, so do the tutorial and keep an eye open for blog posts and articles about it, as well as video tutorials to get the most out of it. I've written several books and novellas with Scrivener, and I absolutely love it. I learn something new with each manuscript.

Get it at Literature and Latte.

Back-up Software
Because if you haven't lost data, you will. Be sure you have more than one type of back-up, so that if the power goes out/your computer crashes/the house burns down you'll still have access to all your work.

Every type of back-up software will have pros and cons. Some require an internet connection to use and/or to access. Some cost, some don't. Some cost only when you reach a certain level of data.

Some back-up software to look at:
  • Google Drive: Free, online storage. Formerly known as Google Docs. Share-able. Can still fail, like all backup systems. 
  • Dropbox: Much like Google Drive. Free up to a certain data amount. More room available with a fee, as well as by getting friends to sign up. Files share-able. When working on files, they're seamlessly integrated into your software. Can work offline.
  • Mozy: Backups automatically twice a day. Great for full system backups in cases of system failures. Note that it does not backup every few minutes, so in theory you could lose a day's work if you don't have alternate backups. Also saves past versions for about two weeks. Costs based on data amount.
Research Tools
Writers always need good ways of gathering information. Here are a few of our favorites.
  • Evernote: Available on your computer and as an app. Syncs your account so all your information is accessible anywhere. Great for clipping and saving articles for research, making lists, sharing information with others, etc.
  • Behind the Name: Giant searchable database of thousands of first and last names. Search by language or region of origin, religion, mythology, meanings, etc. Also has popularity charts by birth years and locations. (Scrivener has a cool name generator that does some of these things.)
  • Now Casting: Database of actual actors, searchable by all kinds of facial and other physical features. Find head shot of your characters for inspiration!
Dictation Software
Some writers rely on dictation software, and some others enjoy using it as an alternate way of getting their thoughts out.
  • Dragon: The best dictation software out there. It's trainable to recognize your voice, and eventually can make the entire computer experience hands-free. It does cost, and there is a significant learning curve.
  • Mountain Lion: The newest version of the Mac OS hast his dictation app built in. It's adequate, but lacks the functionality of Dragon. 

Plotting Software
Some fun ways of brainstorming and outlining your next novel.
  • Storyometer: This app has all kinds of functionality, from idea, character, and plot prompts to outlining, folders, and more. Definitely check out the tutorials to learn how to use it. One of the pricier apps, but lots of fun.
  • Scapple: From the people who make Scrivener. A brainstorming "cloud" tool, currently only on Mac. Integrates with Scrivener.
Productivity Tools
Whether it's staying off the Internet or keeping focused on task, we all can use some of these tools. Find what works best for you.
  • Freedom: Prevents Internet access for up to 8 hours. To get on, a reboot is required. Mac and Windows. Free trial.
  • InternetOff: Windows only, free. Prevents internet access for a stated period. Easy to turn off the application, though. Also can password protect internet access for kids.
  • Simply Noise: Website and a free app that provides white, brown, and pink noise, with options such as oscillation, to help your mind focus. Other noises (waves, rain, etc.) for about $1.
  • Scrivener's Target Tool: Built into Scrivener, and oh, so effective in keeping you writing. Set manuscript goals as well as session goals and watch the bar go from red to yellow to green as you get closer to your goal.
  • A Timer: Whether it's a plain old egg timer, a clock radio, your microwave, your watch, or your phone, set a timer for 30 minutes or another period and get to work, something easier to do when you know you're "allowed" to stop when the timer goes off. Chances are, you'll keep writing, though.

Friday, October 7, 2016

Getting Past the First Chapter

A popular post from March 2013

By Julie Wright
We all know that the first line of the book has to be awesome. It has to earn you the right to the second line which has to earn you the right to the first page, which has to earn you the right to the first chapter. The first chapter is the thing that paves the way for the rest of the book. Sometimes it's all anyone will ever see of your book.

But writing a first chapter is HARD. It takes time--which is the number one reason people never get past the first chapter. I tweeted this the other day: My best writing advice to new writers? Time is made not found. If you love it, you will do it. We always *make* time for what we love.

Don't tell me you're too busy. If you loved writing like I love writing, then you will MAKE the time. Heck, even if you only sorta liked writing a tenth of the way I love it, then you'd make the time.

But it's still HARD. After all what if you write it all down and it's lame, lame, lame? Fear is another reason people don't write. In Steven Pressfield's The War of Art, he talks of Hitler's talent as an artist, then made the claim that it was easier for Hitler to start WWII than it was for him to face a blank canvas. That line stayed with me. Am I driving my own artistic life off course in order to avoid the blank page? I'm not saying fear of failure isn't real. I'm not saying that the blank page isn't terrifying. Of course it is. But it's also exciting, filled with possibility and adventure. The blank page can be anything you want. Embrace the page and write. So what if it's lame? I maintain my firm belief that a lame page is easier to fix than a blank page.

So where do you start?
I start with the character.
Then I put the character in a  situation that feels interesting to me. I have them act on that situation and speak to those people populating that situation.
You might be a setting starter.
You might be a plot starter.
You might be a late starter and need to turn the engine over and over and over until it finally engages (which means you'll have to delete the first few pages, but so what? They helped you get the engine going).

There is no right or wrong place to start. The point is to start at a place that is interesting to YOU. In my latest novel, Capes and Curls, the story opens with Red killing a rabbit in front of her sister who hates the killing even though they're starving. I opened showing the differences between the sisters, the sacrifices each were willing to take for the other. I wanted to show that even with all their differences, they stood together  in all things. Did I know I wanted to show all that with my beginning? Absolutely not. I started there because it was interesting to me. Admittedly, I had a couple of other false starts before I got to the scene with the girls and the rabbit, but those were the cranking-the-engine pages and were all deleted.

The first chapter is do vital because it sets the tone and mood of the whole book. Should the reader be afraid? Should they be cautious? Should they want to laugh?  All of that is revealed in the beginning of every book, so you should know ahead of time whet kind of book you're writing. Is it romance? And if it is romance, is it funny, tragic, steamy? You need to know going in so that your tone stays consistent. You don't want to start out with a deep, soulful, naval-gazing talk about the weather when you want the book to be an action-packed, hard core science fiction novel.

So have an idea of what you want to write, forget fear, make the time, and sit your butt in a chair. You might have to rewrite but that's okay. Why? Because it's easier to fix lame than blank.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

The Almighty Edit

A popular post from March 2013

by Julie Wright

As an editor, I get to ruin a person's day. As a writer, I get my day ruined by editors.

I know it's important, the job of an editor. I know I'm helping other writers. But as a writer, I don't know what I'd do without a good editor. A good editor is what saves you from yourself. He or she will save you from certain embarrassment if that scene or sentence actually makes it into the final version of your manuscript.

This post might seem a bit like an ode to editors past, but I would be remiss if I didn't mention the editor who changed my life as a writer.

Kirk Shaw was/is (he's at law school, now) a great editor. I owe many thanks to him for saving me from myself. He told me what scenes were lame and needed to be cut. He told me when I was going too easy on my characters and in what ways they could stand to suffer a little more. He taught me several comma rules. I still don't know all the fickle ways of the comma, but that's merely because we didn't have enough time together. The man was a genius at his job.

Some good things to keep in mind when editing your own manuscript
  •  Make your characters work for it. If the quest is too easy, it's not worth reading about.
  •  If a word is not a contributing member of the sentence, then it needs to be evicted. Make sure your words all have a specific function.
  • If a sentence is not a contributing member of your page, then it needs to be evicted.
  • If a page is a not a contributing member to the story, then it needs to be evicted. Don't let the dead weight take up residence in your story.
  • Cutting hurts. But a tight and tidy package looks nicer and is better received than the one hastily slapped together with a few errant pieces of tape and rumpled wrapping paper.
  • There is a difference between the words lightening and lightning. Make sure you used the word you meant to use. Spell check doesn't catch this.
  • There is also a difference between a nice dress and a mice dress. Sometimes you hit a wrong key, but the word still fits well enough in the sentence that spell check doesn't see it. Make sure you are reading your story out loud during your final editing stage. You catch so much more when you're reading it out loud and having to say every word as it is written.
  • Do your characters have a goal they're working toward or are they just playing around?
  • Avoid passive language--especially in a book meant for action and suspense. The active voice makes the scene more immediate and urgent. The passive voice slows everything down.
  • Editors never use the phrase "Show, don't tell" because they think the words sound pretty together. When you see that phrase, take it to heart. Showing versus telling makes the difference between meh and amazing. It is the plastic roses bought at a dollar store on clearance versus a fresh bouquet from one of the nicest florist shops in town. Always act on this directive when an editor tells you it is needed.
These are just a few things I've seen needing fixed over and over during my time as a writer and editor. When you get an editorial letter, it isn't a time for weeping and feeling terrible. It's a time to be excited to jump into your work and make it better than it was before. I love that Kirk was such an amazing editor that he inspired me to be better than I was. Thanks, Kirk. I know law school was the right choice for you, but that doesn't mean you aren't sorely missed in my life.

CS Lewis has this quote:

“Imagine yourself a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, you can understand what he is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping up the leaks in the roof and so on. You knew that these jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently, he starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and seems not to make sense. What on earth is he up to?
The explanation is that he is building quite a different house from the one you thought. He is throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were going to be made into a decent little cottage, but he is building a palace."

Your manuscript is your house. Build a palace.

Monday, October 3, 2016

The Anatomy of an Author

A popular post from January 2010

By Julie Wright

An author is defined as the person who originates or gives existence to anything. It is understood that typically, "anything" refers to a written work. Not always, but typically.

It's hard for people who aren't authors of written work to understand those of us who are. How can that happily married woman write steamy romances? How can that nice young man who is so helpful and thoughtful write about serial killers and sci fi monsters? How could she write about child abuse? How could he write about drug addictions?

And they assume that in some dark part of our lives as authors, we've lived these things personally. And some of us probably have.

I haven't. I make it all up. But I know there are a great many people who secretly believe I have had a baby out of wedlock and have given it up for adoption. They also believe I was abused as a child.

It's not true. My parents were (and are) incredible people. I've been spanked exactly once as a child and I deserved it. And though I threaten to put my kids up for adoption, I've never actually done it. But I was able to write about these things because I believe one of the things that makes artists who they are is their sense of curiosity. To create something from nothing, we must be able to view that something from all angles--to understand it completely. It means we have to be interested in things--all sorts of things--even if we have not experienced those things for ourselves. This is why Annette Lyon and Josi Kilpack have spent time researching books about murders and dead bodies, why Heather has researched the middle east and the different factions of political control there, and why I've researched abortions, adoptions, and sexually transmitted diseases.

We also have a sense of beauty--of the fantastic. We notice it, breathe it in, and let it alter us--if even for a moment.

While on my book tour with Josi Kilpack, we traveled through forests, deserts, rain storms, snow storms, and ocean side communities. It was beautiful. But we were very short on time between signings so there weren't a lot of stop-and-smell-the-roses opportunities offered to us. So I resigned myself to taking pictures out the window as we sped by.

So here we are--artists who are curious and so easily struck speechless by beauty and yet we're also a little egocentric, because we not only believe that people will WANT to read our work, we believe they will PAY for the opportunity. And we find that when we are rejected, or given a poor review, we become almost irreparably depressed.

What other profession out there is so emotionally exhausting?

So why do we do it?

The answer is found in the definition of who we are: An author is defined as the person who originates or gives existence to anything. We are creators and by so being must create.

So when your neighbors start avoiding you because they realize you write books about the inner workings of demons, or your family stops calling because you've been acting moody over a rejection, don't feel too bad. Because there is a group of us out there who understand you're still a nice, normal person.

We know you can be a nice person and still write about murder, or that you can be a loyal spouse and still write romances. We know this about you because you're an author, and all of this is simply the anatomy of an author.