Saturday, September 29, 2007

What the Heck Does That Mean?

If you’ve ever received a rejection letter, you know that sometimes the comments you get back almost make you glad an editor or agent didn’t accept your work. I was looking back over some recent rejections, and I couldn’t help but wonder how I could interpret them to improve my writing for a future submission. In the end, I decided I couldn’t. But at least their responses told me where NOT to send my next manuscript in the eternal quest for publication.
Here are a few examples so you can see what I mean:

“Thanks so much for your suggested article. We will consider this as we plan our editorial calendar for future issues.” So, does that mean they might contact me someday? Should I wait around until they decide? Will they ever let me know? My questions are nearly the same for the rejection I got that said: “I’ll keep your name in my file.” Is that a good or bad thing? Should I worry or just wait for them to swoop across the internet lines, asking me to write a multi-million dollar project?

How about this one: “Thanks very much for your query. We appreciate your thinking of (small press publisher), but unfortunately, we have too little time and too little reader-power to give your project the attention and time it deserves. So until we have 26- or 28-hour days and many, many more readers, we must regretfully decline your query.” Huh? Are they saying I’m too good or that my project is too big for their house? Were they trying to be funny?

After nearly I year, I got this from a big name publisher: “While I enjoyed reading your manuscript, I am sorry to say that this particular project is not right for our list.” So glad they enjoyed it, but a year? Come on. Even I can do better than that with the 185 essays and short stories I get each week from my students.

When it comes to rejection letters like these and the houses they come from, I often find myself using the same phrase my husband hears at work on the film sets—Moving On!

Why do YOU write?

By Josi S. Kilpack

I have not been great with my posts on this blog for . . . most of the summer. I was busy, like the rest of you, and it slipped my mind. But it certainly didn't help my rememberer that I haven't had many great ideas--things I feel would bless the lives of other writers. It's a lot easier to forget about something when you don't know what to do about it even if you remembered it.

I face the same thing today (which should have been yesterday) and am without any deep and completely engaging topic. And so, I'd rather hear from you guys. What I want to hear is why you write. I know that many of the answers will be the same for all of us--that's fine. But I want you to ask yourself anyway, and answer in the comments why YOU write. It's a question I ask myself A LOT and the answers change. Right now I'm writing because:

1) I know God's given me a talent and I enjoy using and growing it.
2) I really want to make some money
3) As much as I love my family--there is so much of them all the time. I could easily fill my time with cleaning and cooking and yard work, but I don't WANT to. I want something that's my own, that I do because I WANT to do it.

So bring it on, why do YOU write?

Thursday, September 27, 2007

I Beg to Differ

by Heather Moore

This week I’m reading The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes by Jack M. Bickham. I love his advice, and I love the frank way he delivers it. But today, I read the chapter called “Don’t Take It to the Club Meeting,” and ever since it’s been bothering me.

Bickham essentially warns fledging writers to stay away from writing clubs where one reads his/her work aloud, then listens to advice by the other attendees. Bickham says not to waste your time at a club meeting because “they won’t be honest; they usually don’t know what they’re doing anyway.”

I won’t discount that in some clubs, or in some club attendees, this may be the case. But I’ve also met many unpublished writers who have never let anyone read their work. Not even their mother (although that may be a good thing).

For the writer who is too timid to let their friends or family read their work, a non-personal writing club may be the answer—until relationships with professional writers can be established or funds can be spent on professional editing.

Bickham also advises working with a professional writer coach. This can be very costly, and unless you have a great friendship with another author, it will be difficult to get professional feedback on what you’ve written without paying for it. (Another reason our Monday Mania blog is so valuable.)

When I go to my critique group, I sit around a table with six or seven other people—all from different backgrounds, all in various stages of publishing. I walk away from each session with a better understanding of the direction I need to take in my writing. One person’s strength is description, another’s conflict, a third, motivation. This adds up to a rather complete edit, and by the time I go through the critique process with my group, I feel I’ve received the best of the best.

If my critique group hadn’t taken a chance on me, I probably wouldn’t be where I am today. Out of the seven original members, only four were published. Now all of us are--multiple times over.

In the same chapter, Bickham also discredits writing contests that offer judge’s feedback. “The comments and advice from judges can vary as widely—and wildly—as the comments from the club meeting floor after a reading.” Of course, this is true, and I’ve seen it myself. But until I started submitting short stories to local writing contests, I had no idea if my writing even matched up to anyone else’s. The judge’s feedback was invaluable to me at the time. Sure, it’s subjective. Just as any agent or editor will be when you’re submitting. Just as a professional writing coach or editor is subjective.

But how are you to start at the beginning if there is no beginning place to start? I believe that the average fiction writer didn’t major in English Literature in college, he didn’t have a fantastic mentor, and he may not have access to professional writers now. He has to start from scratch.

I started from scratch. I googled writers groups, found the League of Utah Writers, and started attending their meetings. I signed up for a couple of night classes on publishing and creative writing. I entered a few local writing contests. Eventually I found a critique group, I attended writer’s conferences, entered more contests, read books on writing . . . I learned the craft from the ground up.

Attending a writers club may not be for everyone, but I believe it will benefit you. If you don't grow from it, find another one. And when it ceases helping you, move on. Entering writing contests may not impress a big-time editor or agent, but it will give you an idea if your writing stacks up . . . if your plot is interesting . . . if you are developing those characters . . . if you are growing your craft.

And that's the most important thing you can do, published or not, is find avenues to improve your writing.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Characters as Archetypes

by Annette Lyon

All stories have a structure that is reflected throughout time and cultures. Whether you're a believer in Jung's philosophy about a "collective unconscious" that we draw from or not, the fact remains that from Homer to Grisham, from China to Italy, certain elements get repeated over and over again. For example, it's amazing to see how many versions of what we call "Cinderella" exist in the world, many of which were created independently of the others.

I'm currently reading The Writer's Journey by Christopher Vogler (2nd edition). It's out of print now, but if you can get your hands on one, I recommend it. This relatively small book has become a bible of sorts among the filmmakers in Hollywood and novel writers as well. Vogler takes the work of many others who have analyzed the structure of story and myth and put it all together in one place. It's given me lots of food for thought, and I'll likely discuss elements from the book here many times in the future.

Today, however, I thought I'd list and define some of the common archetypes found in literature. Not every story has to have them all. Some characters can assume more than one archetype, depending on their story "job" at the moment (Vogler calls these temporary archetypes "masks" that a character puts on).

Male or female, this is your main character, the person whose life is shaken up and changed at the beginning of the story and who must put things right. Vogler states that, "The most effective Heroes are those who experience sacrifice" whether it's a loved one, an item, a treasure, or a personality trait. Heroes often come full circle, ending where they began (think The Hobbit). Other times they'll stay in the "new world" they were thrust into with the story (Disney's Aladdin). Or they'll come back to the old world, only to discover it no longer exists, at least for them. By and large, the Hero teaches us how to deal with death in some form or another. The "old" and "new" worlds could be literal in a fantasy novel, or figurative in the sense of someone leaving home or even leaving their comfort zone and having difficulties to surmount that they've never faced before.

This person gives something to the Hero that will be useful or protective later, such as wisdom/advice (ala Jiminy Crickit), a helpful object (the Marauder's Map), or a skill (using a light saber blindfolded). Mentors are often old men or women, but any character can wear the Mentor's mask. Sometimes it's the Mentor that gives the Hero the kick out the door to get the story moving.

These characters block the Hero's way, but generally aren't the primary antagonist or villain. Often they are the villain's underlings, but they can also be a friend who disagrees with the Hero's quest and tries to stop them. The Hero must find a way around the Threshold Guardian, whether through attack, bribery, winning the Guardian over as an Ally, or something else. These characters essentially TEST the Hero, make them worthy of continuing the quest. How much does the Hero really want this?

Generally showing up in the first act of the story, the Herald is the one who brings the news that will disrupt the story and create change. Sometimes the Herald isn't a person, but rather a letter or other event. Regardless, after the Herald's appearance, life will never again be the same. One of Vogler's examples is in Romancing the Stone when Joan Wilder receives the treasure map in the mail, followed by a frantic call from her sister who is being held hostage in Columbia.

Like the name suggests, this is a character who is inconstant and changing, at least from the Hero's perspective. A Shapeshifter can change loyalties or be revealed as having been in disguise the entire time (think Cary Grant in Charade; you don't know until the end who he really is: a good guy? A bad guy? Hmmm.) Often, but not always, Shapeshifters are of the opposite gender as the Hero, and therefore they're often the love interest as well (which makes some sense--since when did either gender fully understand the other?). In some cases, an opposite-gender Shapeshifter can turn out to be evil (think Fatal Attraction).

In short, the Hero's Villains, Antagonists, and Enemies. Note that an Antagonist isn't necessary a bad person. It could be a close friend or family member. In the Harry Potter books, Professor McGonnogal is, at times, an Antagonist to Harry, preventing him from doing what he wants to do. Vogler uses a great analogy to explain the difference between a Villain and an Antagonist: A Hero and a Villain are like two freight trains heading for one another. A Hero and an Antagonist are like two horses pulling the same wagon but trying to go opposite directions. A strong Shadow can provide a great story. (What would Star Wars be without Darth Vader?)

This person provides impetus for change as well as comic relief. Tricksters make the audience laugh at themselves and can cut the villain's ego down to size. They often act as the Hero's sidekick. According to Vogler, many cartoon characters are tricksters, including Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and the Roadrunner.

Again, these roles are all very fluid. You can have a Trickster Hero, or a Shapeshifter Shadow, or a Herald who also happens to be a Mentor. Other archetypal characters exist as well, but these are the most common. Don't worry about becoming formulaic as you use them. There are countless ways of combining roles and creating new ways of using them. In a sense, instead of a firm recipe for a story, they're rather a great list of categories for the ingredients you can draw from to create a great dish.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Respect Creative Needs

I met at a guy a couple of years ago at my day (or grave) job who likes to write and who was working on a novel. Naturally, this set us up to be good friends. Since we both worked graveyard shifts, we were both in need of methods to keep us awake. So we started playing instant messenger games. Kind of like "tag" with words.

He'd IM me a phrase, and I'd have to twist it to mean something else. He'd IM me the word "question" and I'd come up with an off the wall answer to which he would have to respond with the question that could lead to that answer.

These games were great for flexing creative muscles. He no longer works for my company but we still play word games on line. It keeps our creativity sharpened.

I mention this because I think it's important to respect those useful, albeit odd, ways of honing your own creativity.

Sometimes when I look inside myself to find creativity, I find nothing staring back at me. At those times I know it's time to dip my bucket into the creative well and fill it to overflowing.

Some methods I use--aside from my online word tag--are:

Art Galleries- It's amazing what kinds of stories come from staring at pictures. A couple of my most inventive novels started with a picture and ended in 80,000 plus words.

Online writer groups- Oddly enough, I've found most online writing groups to consist of very little talk about actual writing and a whole lot of "chat." But writers chat in a way that leads to inspiration. We can't help but view everything in a story format and even our chit chats create new avenues of expression.

Music- Give me symphony or give me death. Actually, I delve into all kinds of music depending on the mood. I have CD's from every music genre and use them as needed.

Discover Magazine and National Geographic- If you're having a hard time discovering anything new, go to those who are willing to make your discoveries for you. The world is an interesting place . . . learn about it.

The newspaper- I'm actually grounded from the newspaper. I tend to internalize bad news and carry it around with me long after it's considered yesterday's news. But a lot of people I know get ideas for new stories based on what's really happening out there today.

The Mall- sit in the foodcourt and eavesdrop. People do and say the quirkiest things. Go have a listen.

Writer's Digest- They have some great writing prompts, kind of like my IM tag. Writing prompts send your mind in directions you'd never take on your own.

Blogs- it's true. The blogging world is a creative well. So much can be found there: motivation, commiseration, nuts and bolts, ideas, life, language, humanity . . . and if nothing else, our writing should reflect the humanity that we are.

Sometimes I clean closets and drawers when I need to fill my well. It sounds lame, but I'm willing to bet my next contract that I'm not alone in obsessive housekeeping being used as a tool for creative needs.

If you look inside yourself and find nothing staring back at you, go get your bucket and lower into whatever well that will allow you to bring that bucket up full again. And whatever that well may be--make sure to respect it so it's available for the next time.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Monday Mania: First Page

Introducing our Monday Mania submission. One of our readers submitted the first page of her novel. Feel free to make comments, but please keep them constructive.

Critique Archive 0003:

Chapter 1

Anita and I had made a plan on the phone: Think sophomore. Dad picked her up on the way to school and dropped us off where the buses unloaded. We slipped into the crowd, heading for our lockers like we knew where we were going.

“Think we’ll make it through the whole day, Joannie?” she asked as we turned left into the main hallway.

“Shhh,” I whispered. “You’ll give us away.” I chewed on my lower lip.

Kids roamed the hallway in search of lockers and friends, calling out names—Sally, Deb, Carol. Aurora was a small town so lots of people knew me. I kept my gaze low, not wanting to make eye contact with anyone who would give me away as a freshman.

Since seventh grade I had heard stories about hazing, so I dreaded the first day at Aurora High. Innocent freshman girls, chased down by upperclassmen, then pinned to the floor and fire engine red lipstick smeared all over their faces. Since we were forced by school rules to wear dresses instead of jeans, so that none of us stood a chance to outrun the senior boys. Our bad luck as children of the late 1960s that the micro-mini was in fashion. If I got wrestled to the ground, there would be more panty showing than worn by the entire group of Laugh-In dancers.

The two of us stopped at the bank of lockers directly across the hall from the girl’s restroom. I tried the combination on my locker. What was wrong with the stupid thing? On the third round I realized the locker number didn’t match the tag number I had pulled at early morning draw a few days ago. I moved a door to the right and spun the dial again. The final tumbler clicked as it fell into place. I sighed in relief, looking around furtively. No one had seen my mistake.

Saturday, September 22, 2007


By Josi S. Kilpack

I was recently talking to another writer who had a lot of questions about how to submit to an agent or publisher. I answered it with some version of the following:

Research the agent/publisher and find out what they want in a submission, determine whether it's e-submission or snail mail, write a query letter, cover letter, prepare whatever writing sample they may want with the query, or what they might request after they decide they like your query. Keep a log of what you send, to whom. Make absolutely certain before you send anything that you have the name, company, address and submission criteria exactly as it appears in Writer's Market or on their website.

As I spoke I could see the person's face falling. By the time I finished they had gotten past the denial phase "It can't be THAT hard", and were full fledged in the anger stage of grieving we all go through when we figure out that we just didn't understand how something worked. And they said. "Sounds like a bunch of hoops to me."

Well, yeah. What's wrong with hoops?

Consider this; let's say you hold a best pie contest, and you're giving away a million dollars as the first place prize AND they will be crowned as best pie-maker in the country. How many people do you think will want to enter your contest? Two million? Three? A lot, right? In fact, so many that there is NO way you can review them all, much less actually bake them to see if they really work. What do you do?

Well, how about you set up some rules that will automatically weed out the crackpots that have never cooked a day in their life. So you make the rule that entries have to mailed, not e-mailed. Perfect, you just cut down your contests by about 2/3. Why? Because people that aren't serious, or don't really have a good pie recipe, aren't going to go through the trouble of sending it in. However, you've still got about 600,000 recipes. Too many.

So, you decide that the recipe has to be typed. You just cut down your qualifying submissions again. What if you insisted it was typed on an index card instead of a regular sheet of paper. You just cut your submissions in half again--BUT you have kept the most serious pie makers.

So, you're down to about 100,000 pie bakers now. You still want the best pie makers, but you can't handle 100,000 recipes. How about they have to send a photo. How about you have them put the photo on the back of the index card they wrote the recipe on. How about you insist it's a color photo--after all, you need to see that it looks good enough to eat. Then, let's say you insist they send it in a white envelope--no other color will do. Very good, you've come up with a lot of entries. So you post the rules and wait for submissions. This is no longer just about finding the best pie. You are only human, and can not go over 100,000 entries. There has to be a way to narrow down.

You get 25,000 submissions. But 10,000 are in envelopes that are not white. Another 10,000 didn't do the photo. Another 3,000 aren't typed. 500 didn't include their contact information, 400 were actually recipes for cobbler instead of pie, 300 are for pizza, 200 are for homemade baby wipes (to help clean up after you eat the pie) and of those millions and millions of people that were originally interested in entering your contest, you are left with 600 people that are not only good pie-bakers, but they can follow instructions. They are the type that can proudly wear the pie maker crown.

Did perhaps the BEST pie baker not follow through? Perhaps. But that's just it, it's not JUST about baking pies. It's about being someone other people can work with, someone that can learn the rules AND execute them.

It's the exact same thing with getting published. Yes, there are millions of people that want it, but mere wanting is not what publishers are looking for. They want to see commitment, they want proof that you respect what they can do for you. Is it frustrating? Absolutely. We are pie makers, we make pie and don't want to deal with this stuff. Which is fine, unless we want the crown.

So, yes, there are a lot of hoops to jump through, and yet, why not jump? If that's the only way to get there, then start hoppin!

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Chicken or the Egg?

Recently I read a blog by Maria Zannini in which she interviewed Maya Reynolds, author of Bad Girl.

You can read part of the interview below. Many times I've heard other writers say that they don't worry about grammar and punctuation when they're preparing a manuscript for submission because "that's what an editor is for." Poor editor, I say. If we submit sloppy work their time investment is that much greater, and in this highly competitive market, the sloppy writer with a great story will always lose out to the fastidious writer with an equally great story.

Maya gives us an excellent explanation of why the business of writing includes perfecting the craft:

Maria: You blog a great deal on the business of publishing at . How important is it for writers to understand the nuts and bolts of the industry? Isn't that what agents and publishers are for?

Maya: This is one of those chicken-and-egg questions. It’s vitally important that writers understand publishing is a business. Agents and publishers invest a great deal of time and money in authors. If the agent doesn’t get a contract, s/he makes NO money. It’s a form of sales except that the agent may spend months trying to make that sale. By the same token, a publisher invests a huge amount of capital in editing, printing, distributing and marketing a manuscript. Given that, if you were the agent or editor, which kind of client would you want to have? One as ignorant as an egg, or one who understood how the cow ate the cabbage?

I always cringe when I hear a newbie writer say, “I don’t worry about punctuation or spelling. That’s for my agent or editor to deal with.” Well, if an agent has to spend two months cleaning up a manuscript, that’s two months of overhead without any revenue coming in. Which manuscript do you think s/he will be most interested in: the clean ready-to-market one or the sloppy need-to-edit one? It’s simple economics.

Well said, Maya. We need to pay attention to the little things. Spell check is not enough. Pass your manuscripts to readers before submitting. Read the submission guidelines. Which font should you use? Double-spacing? Sample chapters or query only? When I submit my manuscripts to my publisher, I continually edit and correct until the publisher's editing process is about to begin (you might have several months between acceptance and the start of the editing process). Then I tell my editor that I've made some additional corrections and forward the most updated manuscript to her.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Staying Brilliant

by Annette Lyon

In a recent magazine, I came across a listing of how some of the geniuses of our day keep their minds sharp, honed, and ready to create and think of new things.

One was a writer, but others included an inventor, an engineer, a choreographer, and two scientists, one of whom was a Nobel Prize winner for physics.

What struck me about their methods in keeping their minds alert and active is that all of them are things that work for unleashing the creative writing mind, for smashing through writer's block, and coming up with great new story ideas.

As you read about them below, take note and try one or two next time you start feeling your creative mind begin to slump.

Reach for a book
Sometimes opening your mind to another way of thinking and seeing the word can shake up the dust gathering in your brain. When the pieces settle, you'll find new connections, images, and words. You might see the world with a slightly different lens, and you might even learn something that you could use in a story some day.

Talk it Out
Sometimes when you feel as if you've hit a dead end, it helps to use another person as a sounding board. Who you use doesn't matter (it doesn't have to be a writer; heck, use your five-year-old), because it's not so much their feedback you're looking for as much as hearing yourself explain the problem out loud so you can see it differently. It's amazing how easily plot problems can fix themselves when you've verbalized them. This can be especially effective over the phone, although the jury is out as to why.

Take a Break
If you have the chance to go on vacation to a new place, jump on a plane. New sights, sounds, smells, and experiences fill up your creative bucket like nothing else can. But if heading off to Italy (or even Yellowstone) isn't in the cards, a simple trip to a museum, a park, or even a walk around the neighborhood can "unkink" the knots in your creative side and free you.

Work on Something Else
Running into a roadblock with your fantasy novel? Don't stop writing altogether, just shift directions. Try writing an essay, an article, a mystery, a romance. Exercise a different writing "muscle" for a while, and in no time you'll be ready to return to the project you were struggling with.

Change Your Focus
Take a deep breath, walk away from the computer, and do something else for awhile. Chat with your neighbor over the fence. Watch TiVo. Bake a batch of cookies (extra chocolate chips). Weed the garden. Fold laundry. Doing something else for a while can be all your tired-out brain needs to recharge and get back to work.

Dream About It
Right before bed, think about your writing issues, whether it's character, plot, conflict, or whatever. As you drop off to sleep, your mind will often still be working on the problem, so when you wake up, a solution may well present itself, provided you don't jump out of bed and get going on the day. Let yourself wake up slowly and review the problem and any new ideas that might have occurred as you slept. A refined version of this technique is called lucid dreaming.

Give these techniques a shot. They work for modern-day geniuses; they'll work for you, too.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Monday Mania: First Page

Introducing our Monday Mania submission. One of our readers submitted the first page of her novel. Feel free to make comments, but please keep them constructive.

Critique Archive 0002:

September 1839

Thus sing I to cragg’d clifts and hills,
To sighing winds, to murmuring rills,
To wasteful woods, to empty groves,
Such things as my dear mind most loves.

(Sonnet XVIII, Henry More)


Liza swung around, searching for the source of the woman’s voice. It was familiar now, commanding her to do things at odd times. Seeing no one, she shivered and pulled the wool coat tighter around her slight frame, wondering if she had imagined it. Again. Turning to face the sea, she realized she was two steps from the edge of the cliff.

Ignoring the treacherous drop-off, Liza closed her eyes against the incoming storm as streaks of rain pelted her face. Waves crashed below, sending vibrations through her body. The seagulls had long since abandoned their screeching cries and found shelter among the jutted rocks.

“Do it.”

Liza opened her eyes and stared at the furious foam against the dark rocks. “Who are you?” she yelled into the wind. No response came. Feeling a sudden dizziness, she stepped away from the edge, squinting through the sea spray. The menacing clouds descended, and the wind picked up its pace, as a force outside her body seemed to urge her forward.

“Now I’m talking to myself,” she muttered. Aunt Maeve had said the New England coast was not for the faint-hearted. And now Liza understood why. Not only was September the most active month for hurricanes, but apparently the ghost stories she’d heard had just proved themselves credible.

She hurried to the lighthouse, bent against the gathering wind. She’d told her aunt that she’d only wanted to see the incoming storm for a moment. By the time she reached the decayed building, she was panting, shivering, and thoroughly soaked.

The door swung wide, and the wind slammed it into the wall. Liza started at the sound, then looked to see Maeve at the base of the stairs, lantern in hand.

“’Bout time you came back.” Maeve glared at her niece. “I thought you had decided to take a swim.” The woman’s white-streaked auburn hair had come loose from its customary bun. It cascaded across her shoulders, looking almost pretty.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Growing or Dying

Are you growing your writing talent?

In a recent article about JK Rowling, written by none other than Stephen King, the master of horror pays compliment after compliment to the children's fantasy writer. (I'll bet JK just earned even more readers.) King's comment, "Talent is never static, it's always growing or dying . . ." got me thinking.

We could all probably name ways to grow our talent of writing. Reading books in your genre, writing classes, writers conferences, critique groups . . . it can be overwhelming when you add it all up. But have you ever noticed that some authors seem to let their talent slide, or get too comfortable and subsequent books start to sound the same? I'm not talking about an author's voice--that doesn't need to change. But the characters, the plot situations, and the locations all seem to blend together until a title of a book no longer brings the story to mind.

A friend of mine told me that when you're unpublished, you're writing from your heart. When you become published, you start writing for your editor. This is true in many ways. But as writers we have an obligation to continue growing in our craft. Although with book two or three our writing might be more mechanical than intuitive, we need to deliver a better product each time.

That's where I agree with Stephen King. The writing in JK's books get better with each volume. I noticed the same thing with Meyer's Twilight series. And we should hope it is the case with our own work. If the first novel you ever wrote is still unpublished, that might be a good thing.

When I look back at my early attempts--more than attempts since I have three unpublished books--I realize that every rejection was a blessing. If any one of those books had made it to the bookshelf, the reviewers would have torn them apart bit by bit. If I were to go back to those unpublished works and revise, I would probably end up rewriting entire chapters. I still love the characters, I still love the plots, I still love the endings, but I was at point A in my writing career. Now I'm at point H or G . . . hoping to continue moving forward.

So look at writing as a journey. Your novels will grow, change, and sometimes turn inside out. But that's a good thing. As long as your writing is growing, and not dying, your dreams will be realized. Talent can't be ignored forever.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

The Benefit of Extra Eyes

by Annette Lyon

My critique group is composed of several talented, published writers, yet we continue to meet regularly and read our work aloud to one another and get criticism. I've been attending for upwards of 8 years.

Some might think that by now we must have exhausted our usefulness to one another, that we've learned all we can, and might as well move on.

Nothing is further from the truth.

I've found that extra sets of eyes looking at my work will find things that I am incapable of seeing because I'm the one that wrote it. It doesn't matter how great a writer I become; the fact that I wrote the piece by its very nature dictates that I cannot see all the holes. The moment I think I'm such a good a writer that I don't need outside feedback is the day my writing takes a nosedive.

In our group, every so often we come upon something that makes us all laugh out loud—usually something that didn't come out quite how we meant it to.

Below are a few gems from our last meeting. Remember: all of these sentences came from authors who have multiple published novels under their belts. It happens to the best of us.

1. James hadn't meant to let it slip that he wasn't married, at least to his boss.

(No, James isn't married to his boss . . .)

A set-up for #2: the character in question has built a narrow enclosure for a horse, using dowels slid through the back opening of the area to prevent the horse from backing out of it. Okay, now the sentence will make more (silly) sense. Note that we've been talking HORSES:

2. He had made holes for sliding sticks through the rear end instead of her recommended two.

(Uh, that would be the rear end of the enclosure . . .)

The next one shows a scuffle between two WOMEN:

3. Suddenly her hands were on my chest, pushing me backwards.

(Doubt she meant to give her an unscheduled mammogram . . .)

Note there's nothing inherently bad about any of these sentences, but in context and with a different pair of eyeballs than the author had, a new meaning emerged.

Sometimes our "bloopers" are of the grammatical variety. Other times they're simply ambiguous. Then there are those that just leave a silly image in your mind.

Here are more I've gathered over the years—all real quotes from drafts brought to our critique group. And yes, some are mine:

Suddenly, my mother turned into a driveway.

Your grandmother killed him before I got the chance.

Lizzie's hands flew to her mouth. Inside lay four books.

Lighting a candle, she settled beneath the covers.

Andrew noted his lean frame on the high counter sipping his drink.

. . . he began, then stopped seeing Jacob's scowl

Quiet and patient, Alice's dark hair was always pulled into a simple bun.

And our all-time favorite blooper:

A man is inside a cedar wood closet, which reminds him of the cedar chest his mother once owned. But instead of saying it like that, it came out like this:

The scent reminded him of his mother's smelly chest.

We've had our laughs over all of these, and any time someone else lets a blooper loose, I write it down—not only because of the chuckle, but because it's a subtle reminder that we need one another to read over and catch not only our bloopers, but all kinds of other things that can make our writing continually better.

Every writer needs that.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007


By Julie Wright

My tenth grade English teacher began the school year with this declaration, "Real writers write in pen, because they're good enough the first time; they don't need to erase."

I actually wrote the quote down and for several years chanted this mantra as my own.

This was the same English teacher who told me I'd never be published, so why I'm running about quoting the man is a mystery.

Several writing workshops and reliable school of hard knocks lessons later, I found that the teacher was wrong about both of us--erasers and me.

I did get published (sadly, he died by the time I had a book in hand; I didn't even get to gloat . . . sigh)

And real writers do erase.

The revision process is what keeps real writers from looking stupid in front of the general public when a book is released. It is where we fine tune, rethink, and make clear.

Gone are the days when editors mold young writer potential into publishable literature. If your manuscript needs too much work, regardless of the plot brilliance and the perfection of characterization, they will send you back your SASE with a form rejection.

Make sure to workshop your manuscript through people you trust. Make sure to be caught up on latest industry requirements for submission, Never turn in a first draft. Don't be so immovable (arrogant) in your writing that you aren't willing to make changes or listen to suggestions. And don't be afraid to "kill your darlings" as Steven King so succintly said.

Basically, the point of this post is: never listen to tenth grade English teachers who look like leprechauns, and keep those erasers handy.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Monday Mania: First Page

Introducing our first Monday Mania submission. One of our readers submitted the first page of her novel. Feel free to make comments, but please make them constructive.

Critique Archive 0001:

Zina Martin shivered, though the early summer night was dry and mild and the full moon bathed the desert in a gentle glow. Then she prayed, a habit she had abandoned for a while, that someone would stop and offer her a ride somewhere, anywhere, far away from the polygamous hamlet of Gabriel’s Landing, Utah.

She heard the soft “Who? Who?” call of an owl in a scraggly juniper tree, and the Mormon crickets answered in unison with their rhythmic two-note “You-you, you-you, you-you” chorus. She knew that whenever she would recall this night, the moonlight, the scent of sagebrush, the owl’s mournful question and the crickets’ accusing reply would seep into the memory.

Her heart pounded, fear made her hands clammy and a cold bead of sweat slid down her spine. She had never been more than a hundred miles from home, and then only with an adult family member. Now she stood in the weeds beside the shoulder of the highway, a few clothes hastily stuffed in her duffel bag, and thirteen dollars and eighty-four cents in her pocket. She was sixteen, abandoned by the golden-haired man she had loved, and promised in plural marriage to a forty-two year-old man with four other wives and twenty-five children, some of whom were older than she.

Zina was trapped, just like the solitary sparrow that had flown inside the open window of her English classroom last week. The terrified bird had darted from one wall to another and bumped into windows in vain, trying to escape. The teacher finally tossed his jacket over it and took the bundle carefully to the window, unfolding the sleeves and allowing the trembling bird to fly away with a pitiful chirp. Zina understood the little creature’s terror and she envied its freedom. She hoped it had returned to the flock, or at least found a safe haven in a tall pine tree.

It was just the day before yesterday, when she overheard her father give Cyrus Hamilton permission to court and therefore marry her, that the final brick had been fit and cemented into the wall—a wall built, brick by brick, to keep her from the outside world and sentence her to a way of life she had always known she could not live. How could she begin to explain that to Mother and Father and Aunt Sarah and Aunt Hannah, so true and dedicated to the Principle, and so certain of her ultimate happiness and destiny as a young polygamous wife? Tonight would be her last chance to climb over the wall.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Homo Fictitious

By Josi S. Kilpack

James N. Frey wrote one of my favorite writing books, How to Write a Damn Good Novel. I found this book early in my 'seeking knowledge' years as a writer and found it to be an invaluable resource. One of the sections in the book deals with characters, and within that comes his description of the novel-species of people called homo fictitious. It is a species very closely related to homo sapiens (that's human beings) except that it doesn't exist other than in the pages of a novel.

You see, homo fictitious is a far more simple person--the only elements of him or her that matter are those elements that matter to the story. Aunt Edna that made the worlds best brownies, is inconsequential unless she somehow contributes to the plot. They don't fight with their neighbors, unless that's part of the story. They don't ever do anything for no reason, every action, every element of their existence exists to season their characterization or move forward the plot.

Often, homo fictitious is uglier, or prettier, or taller, or speaks with a deeper voice than your average human, and no matter how average they are, there is something that makes them worthy of the story you're creating for them. They have features that mark them, such as Hermione's wild hair, and Harry's scar, and Edwards diamond sparkling skin. They stand out, in one way or another, even when they are blending in.

Imagine if you will, writing what you do in a day, starting with what time you woke up, did you go directly to the bathroom or did you make the bed first? Did you kick a shoe on your way to the bathroom, did it chip your nail polish? What is your morning routine, are you a sock, shoe, sock, shoe, person or a sock, sock, shoe, shoe? Imagine the pages and pages of information you could write before you even finished breakfast, especially once you add thoughts to your writing--how do you feel about eating oatmeal today? What does it remind you of? Now imagine giving that to someone and asking them to read it. Can you imagine reading it about someone else? Those things don't matter, and most of them don't exist in homo fictitious, because, as I said, they don't matter and you only include those things that do matter about your characters.

I once told someone that my books were not novels in the traditional fashion, but more windows into life, that they took a snapshot of a characters, life, showing all the details of their existence. I told them about the eight page first chapter that was centered around canning peaches. It sounded very romantic to me, and yet the comment wasn't received very well. "So what happens?" this person asked me. "I like stories where stuff happens." my argument was that I wanted my characters to be real, to be just like my reader. But I went back and ended up cutting the 8 page canning peaches scene and an additional 100 pages before I really got to the starting point of the book--the fact was, in all those pages, not enough happened to make a story. People don't read boring, but to write 'real' people there is just too much to say.

So, as you write your characters, find their strengths, learn their motivations, delve into their background and their psyche, but keep in mind they are not real, they are fiction. They always act for a reason. Even if they don't know it, you and your reader should. Make Darwin proud and let them evolve, but don't let them fool you into believing they are anything other than homo fictitious.

Friday, September 7, 2007

Introducing Our New Critique Forum: MONDAY MANIA

The editors at Precision Editing Group are pleased to announce our new on-line critique forum.

And you won't even have to go anywhere. Right here, on our Writing on the Wall blog, we'll post YOUR queries or first page of your book [about 350 words]. You'll receive same-day feedback on your query or first page from our editors AND readers.

How it will work:

1. Each Monday, hereby called MONDAY MANIA, we'll post 1-3 queries and/or first pages on the blog. As a reader, you'll be able to read the queries and post your own comments. Please keep your comments constructive and in good taste. We want to set ourselves apart from other blogs and stay helpful and professional. Our editors will also be reading the submissions and posting comments as well.

2. Email your query or first page to: If we receive it by the Friday before, we'll post your submission the following Monday by 12:00 noon, MST. You are welcome to request that your post be shown anonymously. Please remove any highly-personal information.

3. You can email us your submissions any time. If there is a backlog, it may take longer to be listed on the Monday Mania blog. Keep checking each Monday for your submission. Meanwhile, feel free to comment on queries and first pages submitted by other writers.

We hope this will prove to be a constructive way to earn immediate feedback from two of the most challenging writing processes. When you submit to an agent or publisher, your query and your first page has only seconds to capture attention. We want your submissions to rise above the slush pile.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Transitioning through Time

by Heather Moore

Recently PEG was asked what is the best way to mark the passage of time while writing a novel.

You don’t want to confuse your reader, so it’s important to make clear time transitions. Some ways to do this:

1. Epigraph—Use a heading at the beginning of the chapter that states the year, date, or time. If you are writing about a specific time period, Annette Lyon points out that if you say “The U.S. Civil War” rather than 1860, it will hold more meaning.

2. In the opening paragraph of a chapter or scene, casually insert what time of day it is or how much time has passed:
a. The following afternoon . . .
b. Jess looked at the darkening sky and reminded herself that the mall closed in less than an hour . . .
c. The days passed quickly as Rhys dreaded the meeting with Jack on Saturday. But Saturday came all too quickly . . .

3. If you are skipping months or years, you can use an epigraph that says, “Two Years Later” or “Six Months Later”. This provides a way for the author to skip through time.

4. In New Moon by Stephenie Meyer, the character Bella mourns the break-up with her boyfriend for several months. The single word “October” is written on a page. The reader turns the next page, and only the word “November” appears, and so on. It’s clear that the character is passing the time, but the author wants to skip to where a change in her life is about to happen.

5. Vary the way you show the passage of time. You don’t want each scene to start with “The next day,” or “Three hours later,” but you can do this periodically. I’m working on a novel where chapter two takes place five days before chapter one. I elected to use an epigraph that simply says: Five Days Earlier

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Ah . . . Sweet Misery

By Julie Wright

Have you ever shelved a book project because you, as the author, were bored?

I have four shelved manuscripts in various stages of completion. Yeah . . . they bored me to shame.

Most of the time, this happens because your character is flat, or has nothing going on to retain your interest.

This is why you need to make your characters suffer. In screen writing, this is called the principle of antagonism. Not saying that you’re character needs to be a bad guy, but that bad things need to keep happening to them. Your character needs to be pushed to the limits of what they can handle. They need to have weaknesses and then have those weaknesses tested to the point of pain for that character.

Just like misery loves company, the suffering loves an audience. If you’re bored with your manuscript, it’s usually not the plot’s fault. So what are some ways you can raise your characters from the dead?

Remember your characters are human. And as such they have human feelings. They feel anger, jealousy, sorrow, loss, depression, fear, happiness, excitement, love . . . Find an emotion you can identify the character with.

Show don’t tell. Don’t tell us he’s angry; show him throwing the bottle against the wall. Don’t tell us she’s in love and deliriously happy. Show her drawing hearts all around his name as she talks on the phone. If she’s mad at him she can draw a picture of him hanging from his necktie.

Don’t try to make the reader feel unearned emotion. If you open up a story with the wife getting news her husband is dead and you show all this great emotion, you might be pretty proud of yourself. But why do I, the reader, care? The dead guy could be a schlub for all I know. Show me a brief scene where the two of them are making dinner together and he surprises her with a dessert he’d made while she was at work. She can say something like, “That’s my favorite.” To which he’d respond, “I know.” Or something like that—something that helps you glimpse their lives and see that all is well. So when you take it all away, we, the reader, care.

Take it ALL away. Characters need to suffer. No one wants to read about some perfect person with no lumps to take. So if you’ve got a character with a great job, a great boyfriend, a great apartment in Manhattan, you have to take it all away so that we’re interested in what this character is doing.

Act, don’t react. Characters who consistently react to the things taking place around them are weak. Make them make their own choices—for good or bad—your characters need to act, make decisions, and take control at some point.

Identify with your character. If you can do this, so will everyone else.