Wednesday, November 30, 2016


A popular post from November 2008

They all say it. Agents, editors, librarians, even readers. They chant it like a mantra, "I want the hot new thing."

Sadly, no one knows what the hot new thing is. Hot and new are totally subjective. This will be a short post today because I am working on a manuscript that has a deadline and I'm doing an edit. Throw in a Thanksgiving holiday where family members expect me to be present and pleasant and I'm rendered incapable of writing a long brilliant post about anything.

But short doesn't always equate to bad information, so bear with me. I've been to several conferences over the last several months. I've met lots of people who represent all ends of the literary spectrum, and my message today is to Write What Your Passionate About.

Forget the hot new thing. Forget the trends, and write what gives you the greatest pleasure. I sat in on a librarian panel where they talked about what they were currently stocking on their shelves. They talked about Gothic stuff, vampires, werewolves, fairies, witches, etc. They talked about books they wish they had on their shelves, from non fiction stories on Native Americans to stories that delve into various sciences.

The writers in the room scribbled furiously, taking notes on all the new possibilities of books they could write about.

But let's look at this logically: If you write a vampire story now in order to "catch that wave" it might take you six months to finish the book, another six (being moderate here) to find an agent and or publisher, and then another year (again, being moderate) to finally see it being stocked on bookstore shelves. Two years . . . . That's a long time. Will that wave still be here?

Maybe. Vampires were big for Anne Rice too. But here's the question you have to ask yourself, do you really like vampire stories? Are you writing it because it's the hot new thing? Or are you writing it because you want to be published and you're catering to a market want?

I have no problem with pandering to the public. I'm just shallow like that, but I do have a problem with writing what I'm not really excited about. I found I can pander and be excited over what I'm writing at the same time. So I choose wisely where I will pander. There are things I know I could write and get published, but I won't go anywhere near those topics because they aren't my thing. If I don't love my topic, characters, plot . . . every word I write will feel like I'm digging slivers out of my skin.

One of those writers said, "I could write a book on Native Americans. If the market needs it, then it'll be easier to get it published."

"Do you know anything about Native Americans?" I asked.

"Well no, but I saw the movie Last of the Mohicans."


Another woman had actually minored in Native American studies and was delighted that she might be able to write on a topic she loved. It had never occurred to her to write on this topic before and she was so excited to get started, she looked like a puppy who just figured out he had a tail to wag.

That's the difference. Are you writing because it's the hot new thing? Or are you writing because you love it?

You gotta love it, baby. Your readers will know the difference. If you don't love what you're writing about, if it does not fill you with fascination and joy, it won't matter if it is the hot new thing, it'll be fraudulent. Don't cheat yourselves by following the trends. Write the books you love, the ones you want to read, become your own hot new thing.

Monday, November 28, 2016

When is my MS ready to be edited

A popular post from October 2008

By Josi S. Kilpack

I received this question from a fellow writer completing her first novel. Even though I gave an answer different from what she actually asked, I decided to use it for my blog post this week because a lot of people get to the end of their initial writing and are eager to have someone do the editing for them now that they are done. While this is completely understandable and a very important psychological fear (willing to get feedback) there is a right time and a wrong time to have someone else edit your book regardless on whether you get a professional editor or just ask a freind. Hopefully this will clarify a little bit:

Hi Josi,
I've been making pretty good progress. I'm at about 60,000 words, and if I just didn't have to do things like sleep, I could be done on Monday. So as I'm getting nearer to completion, I'm trying to figure out who I can have edit this for me. I wanted a good friend of mine to do it for me, but she's slammed with work right now and can't. She gave me a suggestion, but the other woman is reviewing another book right now and wouldn't be able to get to mine for a while. Do you have any suggestions of who I can ask or where I could look to find someone?

Josi said:
Way to go, that's awesome that you're making such good headway and are ready for another set of eyes to see your baby. Before you look for an editor, however, be sure to go over your complete project yourself, looking for things on your own that need to be clarified, things that are redundant, etc. Getting an editor to read over your book is a BIG deal and they can help you a lot, but if you give them a rough draft their advice won't be as helpful because they won’t be fine tuning, they will be helping with the building process. It’s also very frustrating for an editor to wade through things that should have been caught by you, the author. Especially when you use a friend that is doing you a favor, you don't want to waste their time (which is hours and hours of work if they are good at what they do) by handing them something you know isn't ready or you haven't revised at least once (more than once is even better). Should you send them a rough draft, they may be much more hesitant to offer their help next time. If you use a professional editor, they can do their best work when you have already caught all the little things you can catch, this allows them to do the nitty gritty things you can't see yourself. If you don't look (i.e. revise your completed book) you'll undoubtably end up paying them to point out things you could have seen on your own, often times those are things that will require such substantial changes in the story that their line edit will be irrelevant by the time you make the changes they suggest.
In a nutshell, you need to get it polished and ready to go in your mind before you ask anyone to put their time and experience into it. Good luck and congratulations! Most people never finish their book, you're ahead of the pack!

Friday, November 25, 2016


A popular post from November 2008

By Julie Wright

One of our commenters, Curtis Moser, made an excellent point the other day. He said he was, "working a full time job, struggling through full time school, and trying to balance that out with being a good husband and father."

Stephanie Humphreys said, "I feel I should spend my time doing things that will actually help pay for the groceries. Writing doesn't fall under that category, so then I feel guilty for even taking the time."

Life is insanely busy. Today even more so (get out and vote!!!!). Most men and women are in the workforce. there are children to raise, marriages to keep alive, house payments to make, things to fix, things to wash, things that must be done. There are days when I shout to my children, "I am only one person!" This is my lame excuse for not being able to be ten places at once, to accomplish all the things sitting on my "must be done right now" list.

Insanely busy.

I completely understand. I am no different. Though many might say Julie Wright is merely insane and the busy part is a side note, I maintain that my insanity is a direct result of being busy.

So when do I write? When should you write? How many words a day is enough to accomplish your dream, because you MUST reach for that dream. If you don't, you will die always wondering what you might have done. So not doing it is not an option. Let me see if I can help a little.

I've said it before and I will say it again (probably many times) Time is made, not found! I've never found time like I would spare change in the dryer while doing laundry. If you need to write, then you need to make time. It's amazing how a few minutes of writing every day adds up at the end of a year.

And I'm not talking about making huge chunks of time in three hour blocks or anything absurd like that. I know your lives--know MY life. I'm talking fifteen minutes. In fifteen minutes (when I'm focused) I can write 500 words. When I'm not focused, I'm closer to 250. I just took an average of ten pages of my latest work in progress and found that the average page has 302 words on it. This is roughly 15-20 minutes a day. One page a day equates to 365 pages a year . . . hey! That's a respectable book length! Let's say you take one day off a week, that's still 313 pages at the end of the year. So at fifteen to twenty minutes a day, you can write one book a year.

Let's think of where you might make fifteen minutes. If you have a job, your employer will give you two fifteen minute break (it's the law; if this is the first you've heard about the fifteen minute break deal, you need to call your HR manager). Work breaks are awesome writing times because there are so few distractions. You can go to your car where you are all alone, and there are no kids begging for attention, no phones ringing, no one dropping by the house to say hello. Now Curtis said he was going to school full time. This means he likely uses his fifteen minutes for studying, finishing term papers that got put off . . . etc. I totally get that. Grades are important when you're going to school with the purpose of exiting with a piece of paper.

But even students who are employees who are dads need a few minutes to themselves. Find a few minutes that belong to you every day, even if it's only three words you get written.

Stay at home moms have a different set of worries. We all know there is no way to steal a few minutes to yourself. Even the bathroom proves impossible as little fingers reach under the door saying, "Mom? Are you in there, Mom?" Lately I've been driving kids all over the state for lessons, practices, recitals . . . oy! But I usually end up with a few minutes during practice or at the doctor's office. I take my manuscript with me everywhere! I used to write on a spiral notebook with a pen. I finished three manuscripts that way. As a gift to myself when my third book came out, I bought myself an Alphasmart. It's lightweight, portable and doesn't have the distractions of email. I love my Alphasmart. Keep your writing with you (but don't forget to backup!) and take advantage of idle time presented to you throughout the day.

I'm not telling you to neglect your life, I'm telling you to enhance it--make it better by reaching for the dream. A few minutes every day goes a long way towards 'the end.'

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Why Am I Doing This?

A popular post from October 2008

I came close to ruining some hopeful author's dreams a few months ago while I was running my little store. She was a customer and saw my laptop sitting on the counter (I own the store, so no one is going to fire me for writing on the job). We talked about writing, and the whys and hows, and she said something that indicated I should feel *so* accomplished by being a published author. She very nearly gushed.

Feeling grumpy over the stock market, the fact that I *hadn't* been writing, and the fact that dirty dishes were piled up in my sink at home, I said, "Yeah right. If you ever want to have a wretched self esteem, be a writer."

Her face fell--almost like the light went out.

Curse my unthinking tongue! Sarcasm in light of someone's dreams is never a good idea. I backpedaled and talked about my positive experiences writing. I talked about the youth groups and schools I've spoken to, and how incredible it was to be able to connect with the youth on such an intimate level. I tried really hard to recall my words by covering them over with others. That's the biggest problem with the spoken language over the written. There is no delete button, no time for editing . . .

And the thing is . . . it's not totally true. I mean--yes, rejection letters, writer's block, and bad reviews are part of the writing world, but so are accolades and applause. It is an amazing trip to be a published author and I do not have the right to dampen someone's dream just because I didn't get my dishes (or my writing for the day) done.

I went through almost a complete year without writing anything new. It's a horrible thing to confess here, but I was in a weird place and couldn't seem to pull myself out. I started all sorts of things, but couldn't finish anything. I'd get to page twenty and think, "Meh. This is lame." Then I'd walk away.

While speaking to one of my best writer buds, J Scott Savage, I spent a good deal of time whining about my inability to create. He asked me what I was working on. "Nothing," I replied.

And it was mostly true. Twenty pages of this and that every now and again hardly equated to writing. It was more like dabbling. "You're not having fun anymore, are you?" he asked.

I wasn't. I was worried about the market, and the publishing industry, and what my publisher wanted, versus what my audience wanted. I was simply worried. Writing became a job, rather than something I did for the sheer joy of it. It was like drowning in the ocean, the weight of water crushing everything worthwhile out of me, the inability to draw a breath.

This conversation spurned some introspection on my part. I stepped away from the novel I'd been tinkering with, and wrote something I WANTED to write. I wrote for me. The heavens opened; the angels sang. I could breathe again. Oh, that's right . . . writing is fun! How could I have forgotten something so simple, so amazing, so worthwhile.

My work in progress is a joy to open up in the morning. Does it have a place in the market? Is my publisher going to want it? Will it do well? I don't know. And I'm not that concerned. I'm having fun, falling in love with my characters, feeling their pain, discovering what makes them tick. I'm writing . . . just because it's fun.

When I told that hopeful author that being a writer is a great way to get a low self esteem, I was lying. Being a writer who doesn't write--THAT'S the way to get a wretched self esteem.

Remember why you're doing this, guys. Keep it fun. Fill your well with wonder and dive in.

Monday, November 21, 2016

How to Get Lucky

A popular post from October 2008

By Josi S. Kilpack

First, get out there.

Second, learn to smile

Third, wear perfume or cologne

Forth, act interested in other people and get their contact information

Fifth, find out what they want and help them with it

Sixth, be patient, it's a number game but you gotta play if you wanna score.

Now, wait, you weren't thinking I was talking about--oh you bad, bad, blog-reader! I'm not talking about that kind of lucky, the STD type of lucky, I'm talking about getting your lucky writing/publishing break. Shame on you!

This blog is all about creating your lucky moment, your big break, your connection that then leads to another connection that down the road puts you exactly where you want to be. Lot's up and coming writers justify the success of other writers by their being in the right place at the right time, or knowing the right person, or being at the right conference. Usually, they say this in a whiny tone of voice, consoling themselves with the misconception that because they weren't as 'lucky' as someone else, they missed their chance. Lame! And I'm gunna tell you why.

Right now, Julie Wright, a writer on this blog, is living it up in New York and hopefully not annoyed that I'm telling people that. Oh well, I'll choose repentance over permission this time. Julie is in New York because she is attending a highly-respected and very hard to get into writer's conference where she will be surrounded by editors and agents of some of the largest agencies and publishing houses in the country. They are very particular about who they allow to attend, she had to submit writing samples and wait a very long to time to hear that she was able to go. Then she had to plan a trip in 3 weeks and get everything ready to present. You can look at her current situation and think "Dang, she's lucky." You can think that, but you'd be wrong.

Julie isn't lucky (go to this post from a couple weeks ago for confirmation), she is brilliant. Brilliant because most writers have never heard of this conference and therefore wouldn't know to apply. Brilliant because most writers would be scared to death to submit a writing sample to be evaluated because they could very well be told they aren't good enough by some highly-respected judges. Brilliant because in the years I've known Julie, she's attended five times the writing conferences I have, knows hundreds of people in the national writing market, and despite having a hundred or more rejection letters in her file, she still goes to conferences, submits writing samples, and hob knobs with the mucky mucks of her market. Brilliant because instead of justifying other people's success with the idea that they were in the right place at the right time, Julie has consistently put herself in as many of the right places as she possibly could so that when the right time came, she knew what it looked like and got it's name and number.

If you want to achieve your writing goals and have ever said that someone else succeeded because of luck, or being the right place, or knowing someone, or simply by chance--then consider the following factors that can up your chances exponentially (I don't actually know what exponentially means, but it's a very, very cool word and makes me sound smart until I explain that I don't know what it means)

First--Get out there. Attend conferences, send queries, go to critique group, leave comments on blogs, have cards made up with your contact information. If you stay home and do none of these things, you'll never meet people, you'll never learn to network, you'll never gain confidence in who you are, you'll never perfect your elevator talk or learn to interact with all kinds of writers and publishing professionals. It's the law of the harvest--you reap what you sow. If you plant nothing--meet no one, go no where, comment on no-blogs--then you reap nothing--no Friends in the business, no name recognition, no card file, no inside knowledge. It has nothing to do with writing skill and technique (though they are important) but getting out there is about becoming part of the club. People talk about an 'old boys network' in pretty much every industry. And they do exist, however, in writing, it's an open invitation. Anyone can join, you just have to meet the rest of the people in the group. Writer's moan about being in the slush pile, but they put themselves there by doing nothing. Many writer's avoid the slush pile through having connections--but that doesn't happen in their kitchen.

Second--Learn to smile. Smiling isn't just about pulling up the corners of your mouth and showing your teeth, it's about attitude. It shows you're happy, it makes you inviting to others, it invites a good mood around you. When you're 'out there', having a smile on your face will increase your ability to meet other people to an incredible degree. It's the first step to being nice--smiling. And you should be nice.

Third--Wear perfume or cologne. This goes along with the smile, you want to be inviting. You don't want to smell like a cheeseburger or yesterday's shirt. You want to be confident in your presentation and that means not offending anyone's senses. You can take this a step further and brush your hair, stand up straight, choose a colored shirt that sets off your eyes. You're not going for super model here, but details are the difference between good and great--work toward great. Now, I know there are people out there that are allergic to perfume and Cologne--don't give me excuses. The point is, you want to be inviting. Stink is not inviting.

Fourth--Act interested in other people and get their contact information. Do not--DO NOT--simply advise, talk about your own book, tout yourself. Ask questions, find out what other people are doing, ask about their goals, how they got started, where they see themselves in ten years. Not only does this make them connect with you better, but you could learn a thing of five. Instead of being set on inspiring them, look to be inspired BY them. After meeting them and learning what they do, get their contact information and store it in a card file. You never know when that information might become very valuable to you.
And by people, I mean beginning writers, advanced writers, published authors, editors, agents, conference coordinators, spouses of all these people, marketers, the guy at the registration table. EVERYONE is someone worthy of your time. Julie knows, literally, hundreds of published authors and hundreds of writers who have yet to finish their first book. She could name three dozen agents off the top of her head and tell you what they publish. She goes to national conferences and goes to lunch with top authors in her market. She has their phone numbers and e-mail addresses and she knows if they are married, single, with kids, love dogs, are vegetarian, or vote republican. She knows these things because she's met them and she pays attention to them. Not every one of them have been responsible for a positive turn, but several of them have, and many are yet to play their hand, but they will. One thing she said about this conference she's attending now is that it's the first conference she's ever been to where she didn't know anyone, let alone forty people. But I can guarantee that when she gets home, she'll have fifty new contacts to add to her Rolodex.

Fifth--Find out what they want and help them with it. If you know someone that would be helpful for the situation of someone else, refer them there. If you know a book or a resource that would help them, share it. Some writers hold onto their advice as if by sharing it they will suddenly lose their place. That's silly. Be open and helpful and encouraging to other writers any way you can. Notice, this came after the advice to listening to the people you meet tell about themselves. That is not a coincidence.

Sixth--Be patient. Don't look at the people you meet as your ticket. They are people, not printed slips of paper, and be genuine, but realize that it can take time to develop a network and to feel comfortable in certain settings. This goes back to putting yourself in lots of 'right' places. Go to conferences over and over again, go to blogs over and over again, look and listen over and over again. Give it time and be sincere, be open to learning new things and generous in sharing what you know, but don't rush through it--rushing will negate the genuine pursuit and you'll miss out on so many things you need to learn through this phase of your career. Once your published, don't stop. You'll still need those resources, those networks, and they will need you now and again to help them along.

It's my belief, based on watching many other writers use this formula and succeed, that following these six steps, coupled with good writing, will not only help you, but actually allow you to accomplish your publication dreams. You don't have to go to a dozen conferences a year, but you do have to go to at least one, and more if you can find those that fit your genre and your schedule. You will have to make networking a priority if you want to benefit from it, and if you do, one day someone will tap you on the shoulder and say "Hey there, my name's Opportunity. I heard about you from so-and-so who was introduced to you by what's-his-name--in fact, it seems that a lot of people know who you are. Wanna get lucky?"

Friday, November 18, 2016

What's My Story Question?

A popular post from October 2008

by Annette Lyon

About writing a good story, Lewis Carroll reportedly said something like:

"Begin at the beginning and go on to the end: then stop."

Nice advice, but it's harder than it looks. How do you know where to begin and when to end?

Here's a good place to look: uncover your major story question.

Sure, your book will have subplots and conflicts along the way, but there needs to be one over-arching question. It needs to be posed, or at least reflected, in the first chapter. It'll then be answered in last chapter.

Sometimes the story question might be just hinted at in the beginning. For example, in The Wizard of Oz, the main question is: Will Dorothy will ever get home from Oz.?

In the opening sequence, she's not in Oz. But she is unhappy at home and tries to run away. She wants to be anywhere but home. So that sets up the ultimate question: by the end, she wants to be home more than anything else. So by the time we get the question, "Will Dorothy get home?" we all want the same thing for her. Everything she does is aimed at that one goal.

After she returns to Kansas, the movie has a brief wrap-up ("You were there. And so were you!") and it's over. The credits roll. We don't need to see her interacting with her aunt, where we see how much better things are now. The question is answered.

Often you can identify the kind of story question your book should have based on the genre you're writing in. For example, a mystery's question is who committed the murder? and a romance asks, will the boy and girl ever get together?

Some books have easily identified questions:
  • Will Harry defeat Voldemort?
  • Will Lizzy and Darcy get together?
  • Will Montag stay true to books and escape with his life?
  • Will Langdon solve the puzzle before the bad guys do?
  • Will Poirot find the murderer?
  • Will Luke destroy the Death Star?
If the book isn't part of a classic genre, the story question might not be as obvious. Older books, such as Dickens' work, often have several story questions, but that doesn't work as well in today's publishing world.
With your own writing, it's important for you to know what your story question is, for two reasons:
1) It tells you where to begin.
2) It tells you when to stop.
Without a good beginning, your reader (or editor or agent) won't get past page twelve (or, realistically, past page three).
And without a satisfying ending, they'll never pick up your next book (or this one will never get published).
It's not uncommon for me to see beginning writers' work where they're obviously not sure of the major story question. I can tell because the chapters flounder around with back story dumps, characters who aren't quite themselves yet, a plot that meanders without a clear conflict (or a conflict that's too thin), and a story that doesn't end when it's supposed to.
There is a reason that The Da Vinci Code ends where it does: the puzzle is solved, the characters are safe, and the bad guys are caught. All the story questions are answered.
It would be silly for Dan Brown to have continued the story so Langdon goes home, takes a shower, makes himself breakfast, and then realizes that he's rather troubled by the events of the last while and he needs therapy. And then we watch him go through therapy.
Ack! That's a new story, with new story questions. It's also a new genre. We'd no longer be looking at a symbology-based thriller.
This may be an over-the-top example, but the point is valid. Do you know when your story is over? You might not know the details of the final scene, but do you have a general idea that when X happens, it leads to Y, which answers the story question, so the story ends?
It's hard sometimes to write that last page. We love our characters, and sometimes we know what comes next, so we want to write it. But if that isn't part of the story you were originally telling, don't include it.
Maybe you can write a sequel to tell the next part . . . so long as you start at the right place and end when that story is over!

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Learning to Roll With it

A popular post from October 2008

I am currently in a slump--everything I write is trash, just sitting down to write fills me with annoyance, and I look toward my future and wonder if writing is what I really want to do. Why not choose something easier, like rocket science or discovering the ruins of ancient civilizations of the sixth century.

Unfortunately, this is not an unfamiliar location for me to find myself in. I tend to wander into this forsaken wilderness with every book I write, but I seem to be staying for a longer visit this time around. Probably because I have a deadline. Murphy's law of writing says that if you have a deadline, you will find yourself blocked.

So, I've tried a hundred things to solve this. I've forced myself to write, I've rewritten my opening chapter eight times, I've stopped writing all together and cleaned out closets and bedrooms, even the BARN (and if you'd seen my barn you would know that cleaning it had to be an act of desperation). I've immersed myself in other people's books, baked relentlessly, watched all kinds of TV, caught up on several projects and am currently trying to teach myself how to crochet. I do these things in hopes of clearing my mind, emptying out my to-do list, and distracting myself from the story so as to create enough distance that my muse can come back and help me with this story. So far, nothing has worked. Not one single thing. Every word I have written feels as if it were scraped from my skin and I feel raw and anxious about what I have not done.

In hopes of healing myself, I turned to my collection of writing books, looking for inspiration. I've read and re-read some great advice. The other day I picked up another one of these books and found a chapter about finding your best time to write. I thought that would be good for me--what if my best time to write was at 1:00 every afternoon, which is about three hours after I've given up for the day!

The author explained how she had to really buckle down and go inside herself to figure out the best time for her to write. She explained how this is a very personal thing for every author, that it would be different for everyone. I agree with this. She said how some authors do great with a set routine, other's need to change locations to keep things fresh, still others needed to write in long chunks of time. All of this made sense to me. I know many authors and not one of them writes exactly the same way.

She had me right there with her until she got to this part:

"After this introspection I found that for me, I write best first thing in the morning (me too), after I've had a full night's sleep (ummm) and allowed my body to wake up when it wants to (bodies do that?). I find that my mind is fresher before I've done anything else (ya think?), that the ideas flow, that my critical side hasn't yet caught on to what I'm doing (there's my problem right there), and the words I put down are exactly the words my book needs. Once I've written for two hours without distraction (I now hate this woman) I'm then free to accomplish the other things I need to do in a day."

Just to punish myself further I read another chapter where she talked about hitting a block and all she wanted to do was take a nap, so she did--for TWO days. "Doing absolutely nothing, allowing my brain to turn to mush relieved me of the stress and worry that was standing in my way. When I was sufficiently rested I was ready to put those words on the page again."

I stopped reading.

I would love to wake up when my body wanted to and write for two uninterrupted hours. I would love to stay in bed for two days and allow my brain to turn to mush. However, that's not the fantasy world I live in. I'm up every day at 5:00 (my body would sleep till nine in a perfect world)--and things are chaotic until my youngest goes to school at 8:30. Then I go running, then I shower, do laundry, run errands, clean the house, and do the other 1000 things needed of me. I'm very lucky in that I don't have a job outside of the house and all my children are in school, and yet I STILL don't find two hours of uninterrupted time to get my writing done.

I'm not exactly sure what the intent of my post is, but in hopes to tie it into my title, let me just say this. Every writer is different and while some will work well with routine (I have in the past) others will feel stifled with it. While some of us have ideas pouring out our fingertips, others will have to bang their head against the wall in order to crack out one mediocre thought. I've been all of these people over the years I have written and as soon as I seem to figure myself out, I find myself at complete odds with the way I've done things in the past. Right now, my only goal is to keep writing. I'm learning, again, to roll with it, that creativity isn't stored in a box in my closet and that every story has it's own set of challenges (whether it's the story itself or family situations).

Amid all the writer's angst I might find myself drowning in, I don't have the option of waking up when my body feels rested, nor of taking a nap for two days. I have to find a way to fit the words I string together into the spaces of my family, my home and my obligations. I will not be 'owned' by this muse of mine and although I feel that writing is part of who I am and how I've grown, I will not become a slave to it and in the process sentence all my relationships to the same type of servitude. I am a writer, but being a writer is only part of my make-up. Therefore, I simply have to find a way to make it work. I've done it before, and I'll do it again one way or another.

One day I will be able to find my 'best' time to write every day. One day I will have the freedom to make that a priority--and perhaps that's what the author of this book did--maybe she wasn't trying to write and raise a family at the same time. But today, I have carpool and dinner, bills to pay and socks to wash. With a little luck, I'll fit some words within the spaces.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Splicing and Dicing

A popular post from November 2008

by Annette Lyon

I'm veering into line-edit territory today in hopes of doing my part in eliminating the literary world of a serious pet peeve: The comma splice.

Yes, we're talking punctuation. I'm not nearly as funny as Lynne Truss, but stick with me. After today's post, you'll never commit the egregious error of splicing with commas again! (And I will celebrate!)

English has a number of punctuation marks, and each has its own job and strengths.

For example, a period is strong enough to end an entire sentence. In fact, a period is so strong that you can't use it mid-sentence to indicate a pause between phrases or clauses.

This doesn't work:

Because she had no date. She didn't go to the prom.

Huh? The period makes it confusing. We need a less powerful pause, and a comma is just the thing.

Bring on the comma!

The little comma, while a trusty little trooper, is one of the weakest of punctuation marks. It's also one of the most abused. People assume that any time a pause is warranted, a comma fits just fine.

Not so. The poor comma isn't strong enough to do all we ask of it, and that's how we end up with the dreaded comma splice.

Drill this into your head:

A comma isn't strong enough to hold two sentences together.

It's a lowly comma! It's just a little jot! It doesn't have such power.

Take these two regular (correct) sentences:

He bought his wife flowers.

She sneezed when she smelled them.

All well and good. But what if you want longer sentence so you work doesn't read choppy? They're related, so you can combine them, right?

Well, yes, but not like this:

He bought his wife flowers, she sneezed when she smelled them.

Remember the weak little comma? It's groaning under the weight of two complete sentences. It can't take it!

If both sides of the new, longer sentence can stand by themselves, you have a comma splice.

To fix comma splices, you have a couple of options:

1) Turn the sentence back into two with a period:

He bought his wife flowers. She sneezed when she smelled them.

2) Replace the weak little comma with a semicolon. The semicolon is like a comma and a period put together, right? It's definitely strong enough to hold two sentences together:

He bought his wife flowers; she sneezed when she smelled them.

3) Use an em dash. They're fun. Almost like a freebie punctuation mark because they're hard to use wrong:

He bought his wife flowers—she sneezed when she smelled them.

4) Leave the comma but add a conjunction after it:

He bought his wife flowers, but she sneezed when she smelled them.

He bought his wife flowers, and she sneezed when she smelled them.

Conjunctions hook up "words and phrases and clauses." (Remember the Schoolhouse Rock song? "Conjunction Junction, what your function . . .") When you're connecting two sentences, you're hooking up "clauses."

Here's a trusty list of the SEVEN conjunctions to pick from:
  • AND
  • OR
  • FOR
  • NOR
  • YET
  • BUT
  • SO
Note that then isn't a conjunction, so this is wrong:
He bought his wife flowers, then she sneezed when she smelled them.

Also note that you can't have only a conjunction. You need the comma paired with it. So this is also incorrect:

He bought his wife flowers and she sneezed when she smelled them.

That's a run-on sentence, like a cross-street without a stop sign.

One last time, a correct version:

He bought his wife flowers, and she sneezed when she smelled them.

In summary:
  • A comma is too weak to connect full sentences by itself. (Ask: can each side of the sentence stand alone as a sentence?)
  • To fix a comma splice:
1) Replace the comma with a period
2) Or a semicolon
3) Or an em dash

4) Or keep the comma and add a conjunction (and, yet, for, nor, yet, but so)

Eliminate a few comma splices from your work, and I'll thank you from the bottom of my heart.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Moving Past the Re-editing Block

A popular post from October 2008

by Annette Lyon

Reader question:

I've been having the same problem for a long time. Whenever I write a few pages, I cannot resist the urge to re-write them again and again to the point that I end up throwing them out and starting over. I know I'm not going to get anywhere with my manuscript if I keep this up, but I still can't resist doing it.

I was wondering if I could get a little advice on how to curb my desire to edit and re-edit and re-edit.

On one hand, it's not uncommon for writers to reread what they wrote yesterday, tweak it a bit, and get into the groove again before going on to the next scene. But of course, doing so is useless if you don't keep going. Getting back into the groove is a different animal from reworking chapters to death and then throwing it out and never making progress.

First and foremost, it sounds like your internal editor/censor is yelling at you all the time. If that's the case, your editor will continue to hold back your creative side. The critic isn't a good writer. It's a good editor. Your writer brain needs freedom and creativity, but it's being strangled by your critic.

You do need your critic, obviously. But at the right time, not all the time, and most definitely NOT when you're trying to get out of the gate and finish a manuscript in the first place.

Just like every writer finds their own way to get into "flow," every writer has to discover their own way to silence the critic when it's not time to edit. I wrote about the inner critic here, and that post might have some ideas to help you out.

But there are other things you can do as well. The creative brain is difficult to tame, and at times, you have to trick it to behave.

Here are a few ways to trick the critic into going back into its cave:
Give yourself permission to write garbage. In fact, make a point of writing garbage for a day or two (or a page every day), just to prove you're capable of it. This kind of exercise stumps the critic (Wait, it's supposed to be bad? Then what can I yell about?) and gets him to move aside.
Write out of order. If you have a basic idea of where your story is going, there's no reason you're obligated to write chapter one and then two and then three. Do you know what the exciting climax will be? Write it today. Have a scene you're especially excited about getting to? Put it down now. You can always bridge the scenes together later. And sure, the parts you write this way may need changing when you reach them the "real" way. But who cares? You're making progress.
This trick is another way of putting the critic off-guard. He has a hard time knowing what to do with the situation (and how to yell at you because of it), because it's not what's "supposed" to come next.
Write on a different computer than the one holding your manuscript. Walk away from your PC and borrow a laptop. Heck, use plain old notebook paper. Use whatever, just so long as it doesn't have the rest of your manuscript on it. Forcibly cut yourself off from the rest of the book so you can't keep tweaking it. Instead, you have a fresh screen or piece of paper waiting for the next part of the story. Paste the new scene/s into the file later. (Then save and close the file. Do not tweak!)
Even better, use an AlphaSmart Neo or Dana. The Neo does the same things as above (keeping you away from the rest of the file), but it has an additional perk: since you can see only a few lines of text at a time, you're less likely to go back for tweaking even during today's drafting session. As you type away, you're mostly oblivious to how many words or pages you've written, and you get lost into the story itself.
Set specific goals and attach rewards to them. It's shocking how well this works. While you do want an overall goal ("Finish this book by my birthday"), getting past the re-edit-treadmill type of block takes smaller goals. ("I'm going to write 1,000 words a day.") Reward yourself with something small and concrete whenever you reach a goal. It can be your favorite treat from Cold Stone, a DVD rental, a nap, or the latest episode of The Office. Whatever is enough of a carrot to keep you going.
Withhold something. This is the flip side of rewards. Our own Julie Wright often puts a book she's dying to read on top of her desk but doesn't let herself crack the cover until she reaches a writing goal. Once when I was bemoaning a big revision, my husband challenged me to have no chocolate until I got through a six-inch stack of manuscript critiques. That one got me moving fast! Something I'd been avoiding for weeks was suddenly done during a weekend. Motivation is an amazing thing.
Best of luck getting off the re-editing treadmill and reaching the end of your book! You can do it.
Readers: Have additional ideas? Let us know in the comments!

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

How NOT to Start a Story

A popular post from October 2008

by Annette Lyon

I'm terrible at writing opening chapters. Inevitably, I rewrite them a dozen times, and quite often, something else entirely ends up as the first chapter. Sometimes I back up further and begin earlier, and sometimes I start later. Regardless, my "first chapter" curse has become a running joke with my critique group.

But since I have my sixth book coming out in a few months, I figure I've managed to pull off a decent opening chapter more than once . . . with work. And I've learned a few things a long the way.

The biggest mistake writers make in their opening chapters is trying to include too much back story too soon. This includes throwing in numerous flashbacks.

Hint: If your book opens with your main character waking up, sitting in a bath, looking out the window, taking a shower, brushing teeth, driving to work, or otherwise not doing much of anything but thinking, or if your first chapter includes a flashback, you're starting in the wrong place.

These openings are B-O-R-I-N-G. Why? Because you're beginning with massive info dump and back story. That's not a story. That's a summary of events.

Do we need to know your character's background? Sure. (Although to "get" the story we probably need less of it than you think we do.)

And chapter one isn't the place for it. Throw us into the middle of the action, where something is happening, something is changing in the hero's life, and we see them reacting to it.

Later on, you can work in some back story, but even then, it can generally be woven in using brief snippets here and there so you never have a section where the story stops cold and the reader sits back for a giant history lesson (or, more likely, puts the book aside).

As an example, think back to Raiders of the Lost Ark and its opening scene.

Do we know that Indiana is an archeology professor when the huge boulder is chasing him, when the arrows fly, when the booby traps are set off? No. We know essentially nothing about this guy beyond the fact that he's a treasure hunter on a potentially deadly adventure.

That opening scene is engaging. Even though we didn't know much about this guy, we did see his personality through his words and actions (tackling problems with wits like using the bag of sand to get the idol, rescuing his hat even when a wall is coming down, a snake phobia on a man who, we thought, feared nothing).

Through it all, the audience is wrapped up in each frame, despite the fact that most of them probably didn't even catch Indie's name in that first scene.

Once the audience is hooked like that, then the story slows down a bit. We see Indie teaching a class and then scholarly men discussing ancient artifacts and history, trying to get him to start a new adventure.

Yes, the pace has slowed down a bit, but note that the story still moving forward. There's not an extraneous scene in the entire movie. Every single one is necessary. This doesn't pertain to just the opening of your book. Don't include scenes where characters are sitting around talking.

Every scene needs a point, whether it's to reveal character, give the reader information, add conflict, propel the plot, or something else. Preferably, each scene will do more than one thing. But if it's just there as a place holder or something to mark the passage of time, cut it.

As with any writing "rule," the info dump one can be broken, of course. Large sections of back story can work. So can flashbacks. Both can be done well. But beginning writers tend to lean on them as their primary way to tell a story, and generally speaking, there are more effective ways, and amateurism will show if all you do is info dumps.

The times I've personally seen flashbacks and back story dumps work the best have been at the hands of masters. Also at the hands of NY Times best-selling authors who have proven themselves and can now type the phone book and get a million copies pre-sold. They can break the rules because of who they are. But even they rarely do it in the opening scenes.

Are you starting in the right place? Scroll down to page five of your manuscript and start reading there. You might just have a better beginning hidden on that page. Does the action really get going there (or on page 3 or 6 or 12)? Very often the first several pages are what's commonly called "throat-clearing" and not really where you want to start.

You can also do what I do: Begin the first page with "Chapter ?" That way you aren't so stuck on the idea of this being Chapter 1 that you can't let it go or renumber it.

That little question mark can be rather freeing.

Monday, November 7, 2016

What Makes a Hero

A popular post from October 2008

By Josi S. Kilpack

Every book has a main character, also known as a protagonist, also known as a Hero or Heroine. Whether it's Dr. Seuss, Tolkien, or JK Rowling, every book is about somebody. That somebody carries the weight of the story on their shoulders because plot is what they are working toward, conflict is what is preventing them from getting what they want, setting is wehre they are, villians work against them; but everything in a story comes back to them. Therefore he/she/it needs to be worthy and prepared for such responsibility. There are some protagonist elements that vary from genre to genre--things like the male lead in a romance needs to be handsome and the detective in a mystery needs to be clever--but there are other things that every protagonist needs. Here are a few to keep in mind:

*Must be good. This is not to say they must be perfect or without sin, but the protagonist must, essentially, be a good person wanting good things. Their good things might include killing their enemies or something equally distasteful, but it's for a good reason.

*Must be interestng. No one wants to read about someone average. In fiction, average is boring. And yet, we all like to read about someone we can relate to. Your protagonist doesn't need to be a superhero, but she needs to be unique, she needs to bring something rather fantastic into the story. My daughter's science teacher is a heavy set woman, but she can do the splits and when the kids reach a certain goal, she preforms this for them. It's an absolutely facinating element of this woman, something you would never guess. That she can do this intriques me, that she's WILLING to do it in front of 30 seventh graders is even more amazing. It says something about her, points out things in her personality that make her someone I want to know. Look for interesting elements you can add to your character that make them intriquing and intersting.

*Must be strong. In addition to being good and interesting, the protagonist must be strong. Not necessarily physically (though that rarely hurts) but emotionally strong, able to break through the hardships thrust upon them, able to grow. In real life we all need internal strength to keep going, it's the same way in fiction, and while you can start with a weak character, you must show their potential quickly and have them end stronger than they began.

*Must have weaknesses. I'm not contradicting myself, but while your character shoudl be strong, they need to have weaknesses. This both allows the reader to identify with the character, but also allows conflict to take place. I strongly beleive that at least some elements of set backs in the story should be a result of the protagonists weaknesses. I want my readers to see that he made a poor decision, I want them to beleive that if he'd chosen differently he'd have never been in this mess. Allowing the reader to feel a little bit superior in this way lends to good reading.

*Must be consistant. You can't have your protagonist go wishy washy on you. If she's a vegitarian, she can't eat a hamburger because she's trying to kiss up to someone that has information she wants. She could pretend to eat it, but she wouldn't eat it because that would be inconsistent with who she is. If he's a chauvinist, you can't have him willingly submit to his wife while he's a tryrant to all other women in his life. You must identify your protagonists character and then make sure that everything they do fits into this. While it's fine to surprise your reader, the surprise must be a "Of course" type of surprise and not a "No way" type of surprise.

*Must have motivation. Why do they do the things they do? Because they are bored = a poor story and a weak character. Motivation is EVERYTHING, it defines your character for you once you know what motivates them to do what they will do. Once you truly know thier motives, they can be thrown into any situation and you know exactly how they will handle it. Motivation is the reason they do it, the force that pushes them, and the story, forward.

*Must grow. By the end of the story your readers should be able to look at your character and say "Wow, look at how he's grown!" The variations of growth are immense. Some characters will grow a lot, turning thier lives around, having found thier calling or their true love. Other's will simply be a little bit smarter, a little more compassionate, or a little more passionate for a cause. It doesn't have to be a complete transformation, but there needs to be marked progress. It restores our faith in ourselves, to realize that conflict equals growth.

So, think of the story your working on now. Think of your main character and ask yourself the following questions.
1--Is he/she/it essentially good?
2--What is it about my protagonist that stands out?
3--What are my character's internal strenghts?
4--What are his/her/its weaknesses that can add to the conflict?
5--Is he/she/it consistent througout the story?
6--What is my characters primary motivations?
7--Is my character stronger at the end than he/she/it was at the beginning?

Adding these elements to your character, if they aren't alredy there, will add texture, depth, and dimenstion to your story, regardless of genre or market.

Happy writing.

Friday, November 4, 2016

If You're Real, I Won't Kill You

A popular post from December 2009

by Annette Lyon

Due to the fact that it's holiday season and none of us are particularly active (or, let's face it, over our eggnog comas and even awake), this post is something from the archives of my personal blog.

It, however, writing-related: a writing first for me, and quite possibly an obsession.

Since that post first made its appearance back when I had oh, about a dozen people regularly reading my blog, I'm guessing that

1) most Writing on the Wall readers haven't seen it and
2) quite a few might relate to it.

(Happy New Year!)


I think I was fourteen at the time. I’d gone with my mother to the local university bookstore, where she agreed to buy me a binder for my writing. It was a rosy pink. The binder still sits on a shelf in my office.

Once home, I eagerly filled it with notebook paper, then plopped onto the living room couch and began scribbling.

I had no concrete story idea; I was just in the mood to write. I began with an image and went with it: a little girl walking through a meadow where her imaginary friends lived. I’m sure the idea was a direct result of the fact that at the time, I constantly poured over the work of L.M. Montgomery, of
Anne of Green Gables fame.

In the brief story, the girl greets fairies and other mythical creatures and bemoans how she has no other friends. The other children mock and tease her. She feels welcome only there with her magical companions. As I wrote, I discovered that the girl also has a serious illness and rarely gets to go out to her meadow.

She lies on the ground, hidden from sight by the flowers above and around her. Then she closes her eyes and whispers, “My dears, I’ve come to join you.”

And dies.

It was a perfectly melodramatic story for a teen to write. But overdone as the two-page ditty was, the ending hit me with a bolt of lightning. I closed the binder and stared at it, feeling not a little shaky.

A little girl was dead, and I had killed her.

It didn’t matter that she was fictional, that she hadn’t ever really inhabited this world, experienced life, or had a family to mourn her passing. (I worried about her poor mother—would she be able find her daughter under all those flowers?) In those few minutes I’d lived with her on the page, she had been real to me.

The sensation was odd—a creative rush combined with the sensation of intense guilt almost nauseating in its strength. The little dead girl seemed to haunt me for days afterward.

I’m sorry, I wanted to say. I didn’t mean to kill you. I didn’t know you’d die. It took a week or two to get over the guilt.

Then I had my first dip into research. I had to figure out what she’d died from, so I cracked open one of my mother’s many reference books and read up on various fatal illnesses that could strike children. For reasons I don’t recall, I settled on aplastic anemia, a disease I knew nothing about save for a brief description written in tiny text. The fact that a child minutes away from death wouldn’t be in a position to frolic in a meadow was pretty much irrelevant.

Since then, I’ve killed many fictional people, but I’ve reached the point where I no longer take responsibility for their deaths. I grieve when they die; they’re my friends, in a way. But it’s not my fault. Sometimes characters, just like people, die.

After reading
At the Journey’s End, a man in my neighborhood came to me and said, “What is your problem with death?”

Confused, I asked, “What do you mean?”

“By the end of the first chapter, three people are dead.”

At first I was taken aback. THREE? No way. But then I thought through the opening of my book. One person dies in the prologue. One in the first chapter. Oh, wait. Two. Yep. That makes three. But both deaths in chapter one were real historical figures. I didn’t kill them. They actually died on that day in history; I just told about it.

As if that made it so much better.

So I thought back to my other books. My first one has a mother already dead before the book begins, which is pretty much what the plot revolves around. Plus a little girl’s kitten dies. Oh, and a man dies in the girl's presence. Almost forgot that one. My second book features two deaths. And
House on the Hill? Several pretty major deaths. Plus a dog.
Wow, I thought. I do have some kind of fascination with killing people off.
The best response I could come up with for my neighbor was, “Rest assured, no one dies in my next book.” I paused to double-check, thinking through
Spires of Stone just to be sure—did anyone—or anything—die in it? Even a cat or dog? A mouse? Nope. No one dies. Phew.

However . . . I can’t say the same for
Tower of Strength. Sorry. It does have two deaths. Wait. Three. My obsession with the end of life is apparently quite healthy.

[Update: my upcoming Band of Sisters doesn't escape death either. It has at least two. Crimeny!]

But I’m innocent! I swear,
I didn’t kill anyone. It’s not my fault, and I won’t feel guilty over it.

Okay, I still cried writing them.

Goodness, we writers are certainly an odd lot . . .

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Just Call Me Hero

A popular post from March 2009

By: Julie Wright

Back in college I was engaged to a guy who, whenever he did something that merited a pat on the back, would strike a superman pose and say in a deep melodramatic voice, "Just call me hero!"

I didn't end up calling him hero (or marrying him--I know . . . I'm a fickle female) because there was someone else who deserved the title a little more.

Writing stories is like dating. You've got to weed through your options before you figure out who your hero is. And like dating, the hero you pick is totally dependent on the outcome you desire. So when picking your hero, or protagonist, how do you know who is best suited for the job?

Ask yourself a few questions:
*Who has the most to gain?
*Who has the most to lose?
*Who hurts the most (because let's face it, pain is interesting)
*Who is the character who will most connect to your reader?
*Whose story spans the greater part of the novel?

Knowing the answers to those questions will make it easier to find your protagonist--your story's true hero. In the novel I just completed, I have twin sisters who are separated. Both have compelling stories, both have much to lose and much to gain if the cards are played right. But one sister had enough *more* to lose--she hurt more. I picked the sister who hurt the most.

Because if the hero doesn't hurt, why do we care? And if the hero doesn't hurt, what will they over come to gain them the right to be the hero?

If you feel like your story isn't heading in the right direction, it may just be because you picked the wrong hero, or maybe you picked the right hero, but you didn't hurt them enough, which means they have nothing to lose, and nothing to fight for.