Friday, June 23, 2017

Advice from the Experts

A popular post from March 2008

by Heather Moore

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

WD Revision Lesson #4


A popular post from April 2008

Yeah, so I haven't posted in, oh, six weeks. I realized this morning that if I hadn't missed so many weeks we'd be done with this article by now. But, hey, I like to drag out the lovin.

So here we are with point #4 from Jordan Rosenfeld in Writer's Digest February 2008 edition.

In this point, Rosenfeld tells us to highlight what she calls "High Voltage" passages in our manuscript. These are particularly well written portions of our story that make us smile, that give us the tingle, the moment of "Dang, that is awesome!" They are the sentences, paragraphs, and even whole scenes that make us proud to have been the one to have written them.

Once you've identified these portions, figure out what it is that makes them so "Poppin" (my kids will be so embarrassed I used that word). Is it the actual event that's taking place? Is it a particularly well-done description? Is the cadence nice? Does the variety of sentence lengths pack the punch? Basically, what is it that makes it so snappy, that caught your attention.

This is cerebral work--really dissecting it in your mind, or on paper, so that you can diagnose the specifics that make it so dang brilliant. Then, once you've figured it out and cemented it in your brain, look for other places in your book where you can apply those discovered elements.

What you've done here is you've found a strength. A lot of writing, and learning to write well, is done through finding our faults and weaknesses. A lot of revision orbits around the same thing--what's broken. This is the opportunity for you to find the sparkle, the shine, the glimmer and figure out how to broaden it to more of your work. It's an exercise in positive affirmation and polishing your skills. Don't deny yourself the chance to see the greatness of your creation. And consider making a separate folder or document where you save these gems. You never know when you'll need that inspiration of knowing you done good kid!

Monday, June 19, 2017

Sunsets are Fatal

A popular post from April 2008

by Heather Moore

In Jack Bickham’s The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes (Chapter 6), he warns us not to BEGIN our book with a lengthy description.

When you start describing a pretty sunset, a dark, leafy forest, or a calm blue ocean, the action of the story stops. So you want to make sure that you don’t BEGIN your book with a lengthy description. When you begin a book, you want to start with dialog, action or thought (internal dialog).

Also, watch for cliché descriptions. There are isolated circumstances when lengthy descriptions work. But until you get published, you need to follow the rules and make yourself competitive against the thousands of other writers out there. In fact, in writers and publishing circles, according the Bickham, cliché descriptions have become a hallmark of poor fiction writing—a red flag that signals the “beginning writer”. i.e. “the rosy fingers of dawn”.

Why? Bickham notes: Fiction is movement. Description is static. In other words, to describe something in detail means that you have to . . . stop . . . describe it . . . then move onto the action again.

Ask yourself this question. When you are reading a book, what do YOU skim over? Have you ever “skimmed” over descriptions to get to “what is happening next”?

It's important to find a good balance with description. Of course, you still need description, but you don’t need a page describing the desert terrain, or even a paragraph. Description must be worked in carefully in small doses.

Description isn't just about describing sunsets, landscape, details of a house . . . Description can also include writing about every single thought and every single action a character has. The seasoned writer will describe a little (tell), and demonstrate a lot (show).

Over the past decade or two, readers have changed. Readers today want you to move your story forward, not stand around picking apart the scenery or discussing every little movement.

From Bickham's book (15), I've modified his speed tracker idea below. If your story is moving too slowly, look at the form of writing you are using most, and speed it up with a higher “mph.” Or if it’s moving too fast, you can slow it down.

10 mph: Exposition—slowest of all.
1. Straight log of factual information—biographical, forensic, sociological, etc.

25 mph: Description
1. Some is necessary, but monitor it carefully.

40 mph: Narrative
1. Characters are in the story “now” and their actions, etc are presented moment by moment with nothing left out.
2. Similar to a stage play and what most of your story should be in. Moves swiftly.

55 mph: Dialogue
1. Talking, very little action or interior thought
2. Can be very quick, like a tennis match, when the characters are talking in short bursts

70 mph: Dramatic Summary
1. Summarizing. i.e. by Bickham: “A car chase or argument that might require six pages of narrative might be condensed into a single light-speed paragraph.”
2. Moves the story forward in leaps and bound.

Our ultimate goal as a writer is to keep the story moving. Don't let the description slow you down!

Friday, June 16, 2017

Speed Bumps

A popular post from April 2008

by Annette Lyon

There are moments when a writer feels blocked. No words come. The story stalls. You're staring at a brick wall. Every writer needs their own bag of tricks for overcoming Writer's Block. (One of the best: a deadline.)

Another writerly "condition" is similar to Writer's Block, but it differs in a significant way. We'll call it Writer's Speed Bump.

Writer's Speed Bump slows you down. It can make the words harder to come, but you can still write. This can take place during drafting or during revisions.

The trick, however, is that unlike with Writer's Block, sometimes you really do need to pay attention to the speed bump and back off. In my experience, the "bump" is a moment where you could keep going, but something doesn't feel right. However, you don't know what's wrong or how to fix it.

Worse, if you keep plowing forward, you may just run the story off into a ditch that will require a backhoe to get you out of.

I've learned to trust the feeling that I've just hit a bump. Over the last several days as I worked on a rewrite of my latest novel, I hit many such moments. While I was tempted to drive right over them (I was on deadline, after all), I knew I'd better stop and take a break.

Walking away from the computer at those points was the best thing I could have done. I'd go do something else for a while and let my mind drift and wander to the story. I wouldn't sit down and concentrate on what the problem was. Sometimes I'd pick my husband's brain for ideas. Other times I'd let the issue percolate and simmer.

Stories are like shy animals; you try to grab them, and they'll elude you. You have to wait for them to come to you. Hold out your hand as an invitation, call to them sweetly, and don't make any sudden movements.

Without fail, each time I left the computer and thought a bit about the story while doing something else (nothing exciting--maybe emptying the dishwasher or sweeping the kitchen), I'd have an "aha" moment and know where to pick things up next time I sat down. I ended up taking the story in directions I hadn't anticipated--directions that never would have occurred to me if I hadn't paid attention to the "bump."

The resulting manuscript is a tighter, more focused story that works far better than the original version.

A caveat: Part of the writer brain is hesitant and fearful. Don't interpret the messages from that area as Speed Bumps, or you'll walk away from the keyboard with your fears wrapped around you like a parka, and when you return, you won't have anything new to add to the table.

But next time you're sitting at your computer and you feel that gentle nudge that . . . hmm, something's not quite clicking into place . . . listen. Walk away. Think about it. The answers will come.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Writer's Toolbox: The Semicolon

A popular post from April 2008

by Annette Lyon


To some people, they're an outdated form of punctuation. To others, they're one more valuable tool in guiding a reader through their work so they hear the correct tempo and beat of the words.

The semicolon is a unique animal. It has a pause length longer than comma but shorter than a period. It's similar in length to the em dash, but it has a different feel to it.

The trick is knowing how to use it properly.

First off, what a semicolon isn't:

A semicolon is NOT a replacement for a regular colon. While it does connect two similar thoughts, it does so in a different way. Quite often (but not always), what comes after a plain old colon cannot stand by itself and still make sense. On the other hand, what comes after a semi colon is fully capable of standing alone as a complete sentence.

In other words, don't do this:

Laura peeked through the curtains and gasped at what she saw; at least a dozen cats walking around, cat food tins and cat poop everywhere, and in the middle of it all, Mrs. Porter sleeping on a lop-sided couch with a cat on her chest.

Replace that semicoon with a colon, and you're good to go.

Why? Reread it. While the portion after where the colon belongs is longer than the part before, it's still not a complete sentence. Yes, we need a pause there, but what comes next is just a series of visual details without the handy-dandy subject and verb that make a real sentence.

Another common mistake is using semicolons in place of em dashes. I am a fan of em dashes and use them all the time. Few rules apply to how you use them (quite possibly why they're so popular; they're hard to use wrong). But you can't take a spot where an em dash (and its lovely pause) would go and necessarily replace it with a semicolon.

Remember the rule of thumb: Both sides of a semicolon must be able to stand on their own.

Another wrong example:

The door burst open, revealing Steve's boss holding a clipboard and looking distraught; lay-off time.

Use an em dash there or add more to make it a full sentence: "lay-off time had arrived," or, "it was lay-off time."

One area of semicolon use is often debated: Can you use it in dialogue?

Many people say to forget about it, that semicolons are outdated nowadays and belong only in non-fiction. Instead, they argue, you should use em dashes in dialogue.

It's all well and good if that's your position. But I personally use semicolons in my fiction all the time, and I've been known to do it in dialogue as well. There are just moments where the pause length, the "breath" for the reader, and the feel I'm looking for can be achieved only with a semicolon.

There are other uses for the semicolon (splitting up items in a series that already have commas, for example), which we may cover another time, but for now, keep in mind the basic rule: Both sides of a semicolon have to made sense by themselves.

Think of the semicolon almost like a "yield" sign between two sentences that makes you look both ways before proceeding. You'll find connections and subtleties in the writing that couldn't be there any other way.

Monday, June 12, 2017

No One Likes a Boring Date

A popular post from March 2008

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

Friday, June 9, 2017

Motivation

A popular post from December 2007

By Julie Wright

This isn't about you--the writer. If you're not motivated to write, go yell at your muse and get back to work.

This is about your character.

I recently finished the book Dragon Slippers by Jessica Day George. Her characters intrigued me. I believed them--all of them. I believe the things they did, because I understood what motivated them. Jessica took a young girl, not destined to become much or do anything grand, and made her marvelous.

It didn't happen over a single page-turn, but throughout the entire book. Little by little her motivations were molded and shaped into a moment where she alone decided the fate of a country. In the beginning our heroine, Creel, would never have punched a princess in the nose or faced down a small army of dragons. But things change for characters--or at least they should.

What changes our characters? Motivation.

A woman who loves chocolate needs no motivation to eat a chocolate cake. She sees the cake and eats it because it's there. But that same woman who has a deathly fear of heights might need some motivation to cross an old rickety bridge spanning a deep chasm. She isn't going to cross the bridge merely because it's there. She needs some motivation.

Say we have that same woman, who has never so much as used a mousetrap to kill a mouse, and we need her to kill someone. She doesn't kill people, she can't even kill mice. But a properly motivated woman *could* kill another person.

That person she needs to kill might be standing in front of that bridge she has to cross. That person is blocking her way. On the other side of that bridge is her two year old son, who's been kidnapped by terrible people for terrible purposes. She's in a hurry. She's a mom. She is desperate and there is a person and a bridge standing in her way.

Now that she's properly motivated, she could conceivably kill the man in her way and cross her bridge.

On the other hand, it is conceivable that we could get the nefarious character to do something noble and even, dare we say, good. In the right circumstances anyone is capable of doing anything.

Characters need motivations that are compelling--motivations such as fear, anger, pain, desire, greed, hunger, love, and morality.

The nice man who cares for his sister's child isn't going to break a window and steal a loaf of bread. But if his sister's child is starving and close to death and he himself is starving, he would break that window.

The motivation has to exist--even if it is only imagined. Much Ado About Nothing is a perfectly executed plot driven by imagined motivation.

It's your job as the author to make certain I believe in your circumstances. Ask questions while you write. Ask your characters why they are doing something (and don't feel insane when they answer, writer's are allowed to be slightly schotzophrenic). If your why reasons sound shallow and even lame, you need to rework your story. If you aren't sure, ask someone who you trust to tell you the truth.

Always ask why.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Death and Rebirth

A popular post from December 2007

by Annette Lyon

One of the most powerful recurring themes in all of literature is that of death.

I'd go as far as to say that every story is about death, whether that's a literal death or a symbolic one. Quite often the death is followed by a rebirth of some sort.

If we use the 3-act screenplay format to describe a novel, the most dramatic death/rebirth generally occurs near the end of the second act, or with about 1/4 of the story yet to go, but others generally occur along the way as well.

Literal deaths include times when a character is experiencing or is around death, perhaps witnessing a loved one pass away.

Symbolic deaths can include cheating death and coming out the other side with a new perspective on life and the goal for the story, sort of a "NOW I get what it's about" moment. That realization turns the story in a new direction for the final act.

Stories often have a number of death/rebirth moments, because any time a character changes, leaving behind a former self, it's a symbolic death of the old self and rebirth of the new. It can take something dramatic to shake up a character's status quo, to make them change course, and a death/rebirth can do that.

These are powerful moments for the reader, which is why so many classic stories, blockbuster movies, and best-selling books include death and rebirth moments.

As an example, let's look at Disney's movie Beauty and the Beast, and at the Beast's character in particular. (Belle changes and has deaths/rebirths, too. Think how the concept applies to her as well.)

The beast's first brush with death is when he saves Belle from the attacking wolves. After he saves her, he collapses in the snow and even appears to be dead.

Belle decides not to abandon her rescuer and instead nurses him back to health. This prompts their first significant conversation ("Ouch! That hurts!") and provides the first turning point in their relationship from captor/prisoner to being icily tolerant allies.

As their friendship progresses, the Beast moves into the death of his old self. His pride and selfishness peel off like a snake's skin, and he learns to love another person. An outward expression of the birth of his new self is the scene where he bathes, dresses, gets a haircut, and otherwise gets ready for a special night with Belle.

(Side note here: An outward sign of Belle's inner death and rebirth occurs during their dinner that night, when she abandons her expectation that he use a spoon and instead raises her bowl and drinks from it. She's accepting who he is and no longer requiring him to fit her mold.)

Later on, the Beast frees Belle from her obligation, which shows his complete transformation but also sends him into essentially a death of the heart, which he doesn't recover from until Belle's return.

At that point we get the nearest to death the Beast ever comes: he and Gaston have it out, and the latter comes after the Beast from the back. In true villain fashion, such underhandedness is promptly punished, for after he stabs the Beast in the back, Gaston falls to his death. Belle pulls the Beast from a certain physical death (apparently with miraculous strength) onto the castle tower.

It is in that moment we see the final death/rebirth: the spell is broken when Belle declares her love for him, and the Beast melts away and transforms into the prince he's been inside this entire time.

Without such dramatic external and internal shifts between life and death, the story would lack much of its power.

As you read and watch movies in the next little while, pay attention to the deaths and rebirths. It might be Luke Skywalker apparently dying and in the trash compactor and managing to get out alive anyway. Or maybe it's Buzz Lightyear who faces the death of who he has always believed himself to be--a space ranger, not a toy--and in trying to hold onto his former identity, nearly kills himself physically by falling and breaking off his arm.

Look at your latest story and try to identify when your main characters face death, both literally and symbolically. What parts of them die? What parts are reborn? What do they learn from each death and rebirth? Does someone actually die? What is the rebirth that follows? Do you have one final, powerful death/rebirth scene that propels your character into the final act?

Don't start killing off characters for the sake of playing with your reader's emotions, but do take a look at where you can use those moments of change to enhance your characters, their problems, their goals, and their ultimate rewards.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Excuses are Lame


A popular post from March 2008 
by Julie Wright
A writer died and was given the option of going to heaven or hell. Being a good writer, she decided to do her research first and check out each place first.
As the writer descended into the fiery pits, she saw row upon row of writers chained to their desks in a steaming sweatshop. As they worked, they were repeatedly whipped with thorny lashes.
"Oh my, this is awful," said the writer. "Let me see heaven now."
A few moments later, as she ascended into heaven, she saw rows of writers, chained to their desks in a steaming sweatshop. As they worked, they, too, were whipped with thorny lashes.
"Wait a minute," said the writer. "This is just as bad as hell!"
"Oh no, it's not," replied an angel. "Here, your work gets published."
Even in heaven the work is the same. There is no magical formula that makes a writer exempt from parking their backside in a chair and doing the work. There are a million and one excuses for not writing and they are all LAME.
The two biggest excuses for not writing are Time and Fear.
You've all heard me say it and I will say it again because I mean it: Time is Made not Found. Sometimes Time can be stolen, knocked out, and dragged off to do your bidding for a few minutes, but it is never found.
  • Cut out a half hour of TV (get TIVO if you have to . . . in the spirit of stealing time back).
  • Prepare several meals at the beginning of the week so you aren't doing last minute meal scrambling.
  • Teach your children to do for themselves (trust me; it won't kill them)
  • on your break at work, go out to your car and write instead of hanging out in the break room chatting with coworkers.
  • delegate tasks
Fear
Fear is the mind killer. So says Frank Herbert in the book Dune (great read) I believe him. Fear strangles your mind and all the fabulous ability you have to create and become.
Some people might call this writers block. I honestly think writer’s block stems from fear. Deep down, we writers are an odd lot. We’re egotistical enough to believe we can write something and have someone actually PAY to read what we wrote and yet, there are few people as filled with self doubt as writers.
“I’m afraid nothing will come of what I write and therefore it will not be WORTH my time.”
Or,
“What I fail?”
or,
“What if what I write is so dumb, publishers, critics, and my own mother laugh at me?”
“What if what I write isn’t worth my time?”
Why wouldn't it be? Everything you write will have some merit, even if it's nothing more than practice. Do you think dancers twirl on their toes without a little practice? Besides if you have lots of practice fodder, it becomes good for salvage material to use in later works. I steal from my own work all the time.
I tell my kids all the time, "Courage is being afraid, but doing it anyway." This has enabled them to get on rides at Disneyland, go rock rappelling, and learn to snorkel in the ocean. I'm telling it to all of you in the hopes that it will enable you to take the chance on yourself and finish that manuscript so you can submit it to agents and editors and the people who can turn your dreams into reality.
Time and fear . . . not anymore
Excuses are like armpits. Everyone has two and they all stink. You are in charge of your life. Make your time and conquer your fear and do what you were meant to do.