Friday, February 27, 2009

You Might be a Writer if . . .

By Josi S. Kilpack

You find using abbreviations when text messaging an offense to your sensibilities.

You sometimes interrupt friends and family during conversation to teach them the correct usage of lay/lie.

You wake up in the morning only to suggest revisions to your subconscious mind for the dream you had during the night.

You accidentally put the name of your current protagonist as a reference on an application--it's the phone number that trips you up.

You have EVER finished a book and thought "I could do better."

Words like characterization, exposition, story arc, resolution and dramatic effect are frequently used even in non-writing conversation.

Your spouse trusts sending you to the mall with a credit card so long as there isn't a bookstore in said mall.

Instead of saving up for a vacation to Disneyland, you have a fund in place so that one day you too might own the Oxford English Dictionary--hard copy and CD.

You ponder the meaning of words like loquacious and rudimentary--how have their definitions changed between the early nineteenth century and today? What is their root language? When was the first usage of such words in modern literature? Can you use them in your current WIP without sounding like a pontificating intellectual?

You have ever read the someones name tag and noted it would be the perfect name for a character. You then asked them to pronounce it for you, pretending you were just curious.

Friends and family hesitate to confide in you for fear a new and improved version of their tragedy or triumph might show up in your current work in progress.

You have an inspiring quote in your house at this very instant by Mark Twain, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thorough or Steven King.

Instead of saying "We'll laugh about this later" you often comfort yourself with "This will make a great scene in a book one day."

AND, last but not least, while reading this, you thought of another one :-) Do share.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

One of the Many

by Annette Lyon

Nearly fourteen years ago, I took a university creative writing class from Dr. T, a professor who was himself an award-winning novelist. I looked forward to sitting at his feet and learning from one of the greats.

On one of the very first days of class, however, he announced that the chances of any of us ever getting published was pretty small, and that too many aspiring writers are encouraged. That we really shouldn't be encouraging so many of them, because there's too many already.

Um, thanks? I sat there, stunned. This is what I signed up for? A teacher who didn't think there was a point in encouraging his students?

When my first book came out, I was tempted to send him a note that said, "neener-neener."

But now? I almost (not quite, but almost) agree with him.

It wouldn't surprise me at all if I turned out to be the only student in that class to get published. I had the fire; I wasn't about to be stopped. But did the rest of them have that same need? From what I saw, most of them saw writing as a fun little thing to do.

In the years since, I cannot count how many people have told me that they "want to write a book." But there's always an excuse: they don't have the time (and I magically do?), or they don't know how (and I magically did?) or whatever the excuse of the day might be.

The reality is that these kinds of aspiring writers probably shouldn't be encouraged, because they aren't serious about it. It's a waste of the mentor's time and a waste of the writer's time.

Frankly, Dr. T had a point: there isn't enough room in the publishing business for everyone who wants to be there. Competition is fierce, and unless you're willing to fight the good fight, you won't make it.

If a publishing contract landed the laps of these people, they'd love it. But here's the problem: they aren't willing to put in the blood, sweat, and tears that it almost always takes to reach that point.

So here's the question each of us must answer for ourselves: Does the flame of writing burn inside you? Do you have to write? Do you want to be published the way you "want" oxygen?

If yes, then stay on this path. Most people who embark on it eventually fall off it, while those who stay on eventually make it through.

It isn't easy. But the journey is worth it, if you're willing to pay the price.

In a sense, I think that's what Dr. T. meant.

(Oh, and I did send him a postcard announcing my first book. Just to let him know about it. Ya know, just 'cause.)

Monday, February 23, 2009

Because I'm Immature, That's Why!

By Julie Wright

I've written nine books. And for reasons I can't explain any better than the title of this blog post, those books all target the under-18 crowd. I get a lot of cross over with adult readers too, but the marketing teams always deem my books as Young Adult and shelve them accordingly in bookstores.

And I won't lie, I feel better there on those shelves. This is the place I fit in whether I mean to or not. This last weekend I went to the Life, the Universe, and Everything Symposium where we discussed science fiction and fantasy. There were four panels on the YA market and the differences between young adult and middle grade literature.

First off, I'd like to tackle the one question asked at all four of the panels: What is the difference between young adult and middle grade? A lot of the answers were things like ages of protagonists, maturity level of content, full on boyfriend/girlfriend relationships or just puppy love. My answer is different. I believe that the determining factor of whether or not your book is for the young adult market or the middle grade market is your marketing team. They will pick the place where your book will sell the best and they will shelve that book accordingly. I know a lot of writers who get hung up on how to categorize their books while creating their query letters, but I am telling you right now to pick the best you can and then not worry about it. That is what a marketing team is for. They'll ultimately take care of it for you, so don't let that be a part of the query letter creation stress.

Another interesting question that came up was: how do you avoid the major stereotypical plot point of the child being orphaned? The answer to this wasn't quite so simple and the reason is that in order to write an effective children's book, you have to empower the children to be able to make their own choices. This means you MUST get the parents out of the way.

Seriously, you have to get rid of the parents because no good mother or father will allow their child to take a perilous journey or quest to save the world or whatever. Mom's are the type of people who insist children go outside with scarves on. They are not the sort of people who say, "Oh here, darling, don't forget your sword. Try not to let the evil destroyer slay you." as she smiles and pats her offspring on the head. Mom's are the types of people who will lock the child in their room and bar all the doors and windows to keep evil out.

The easiest way to remove parental authority is to kill them off. This gives your protagonist a sufficient amount of depth and angst because they're now a sad, misunderstood orphan. But precisely because this is an easy and effective way to remove the parents, it is overused to the point of being one of the worst cliches out there. But what other options are there?

  • The child could be an efficient fibber. Mom and Dad don't let you out of the house, so you stretch, yawn, say, "Man am I tired!" as you scamper off to your room and climb out the window. (I'm not endorsing making your protagonists liars. I am simply stating that this is another way to keep from committing literary homicide.)
  • Put the parents in peril so the kids have to save them.
  • Send the parents on vacation and give kids an incompetent babysitter
  • make parents stupid (I personally don't like the idea of the Homer Simpson Parenting Syndrome, but I see how it would work)
  • make parents work-a-holics
  • Do something really bold and give your protagonist parents who TRUST their child enough to believe in them.

The last question from the conference that was hit on was: Why do you write in this market?

For me the answer is complicated. The fan mail's better. The books are more exciting. But what it comes down to is that I am not afraid of wonder. I love the discovery and newness of life that can be found in the under-18 books. Before people turn 20, they live in a heightened state of emotion. Their feelings are unfathomable, un-chartable, undeniable. I remember finding myself in books when I was young. I remember finding characteristics I wanted to have and incorporating them into my own life. I love the idea of being one of those people who sculpt young minds in preparation for the lives they will live and the world they will one day lead.

And yes, maybe I write there because I am like that one boy who never grows up and live in a perpetual state of immaturity. ah well.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

How NOT to Begin

by Annette Lyon

Okay, okay, I might not be the best person to discuss the delicate art of beginnings, because I always struggle with where and how to launch my books. Inevitably, I end up writing several beginnings before I land on one I like and that I feel works.

But my trouble is generally deciding which moment of perhaps five possibilities is the right one to begin with.

I do know enough to always, always avoid the following ways of killing your story before it has a chance to get off the ground.

Waking Up
It's morning, the sun streams through the window, and your character wakes up.


Where's the action? Where's the dialogue, the conflict, the story?

Your story should begin in medias res, "in the middle of things." In other words, in the middle of action and conflict. Showing a character waking up and brushing their hair in the morning is almost as far away from action and conflict as you could get, short of opening with a scene of a sloth sleeping in a tree.

Wait, you say. We'll have action in a dream sequence, and then the character can wake up. That method usually backfires. If you've managed to get your reader engaged in the dream and its conflict, then they'll feel cheated when they find out it wasn't real.

Worse, you're basically creating two beginnings, because once the dream is over, you still have to start the real story.

Flashing Back
You know this one: a character looks out a window, observes a sunset/sunrise, notes the darkening clouds, hears a familiar song, or has some other emotional trigger and is suddenly transported back in time.

Then the reader gets a massive info-dump flashback.

The trouble here is two-fold: First (you guessed it), we're back to having little-to-no action. We're not starting in medias res.

Second, you're not trusting yourself or the reader. Trust yourself enough to know that you can dole the back story well--and in small pieces--later on. Hold off until the main story is set up and on its way. Then and only then drop a line here and there to show back story.

Also, trust that your reader is smart enough to follow the main story without needing every single detail of what happened in your character's life before now.

Tell, Tell, Tell
Those opening sentences are crucial for hooking an agent, editor, or reader. That means you have to get the reader inside the scene, feeling, sensing, and experiencing it right with the character.

Don't be so worried about getting to the exciting parts that you end up telling the scene, skipping over the chance to show what's happening.

Don't tell us that the character is creeped out. Show us with thoughts, emotions, actions, and other details.

Don't use bland adjectives to tell us what the setting is like (it's an old, rundown house). Instead show details that make the setting pop (the house has peeling paint, broken windows, and a sagging porch).

Start too Late
While you do need to begin with action and conflict, sometimes the place to begin isn't with the biggest conflict.

For example, The Wizard of Oz wouldn't be nearly as engaging if we entered the story after Dorothy ended up in Oz. The big problem? We wouldn't care about Dorothy. She's a girl from a house that blew in on a tornado. So what?

We needed to see her struggles and personality back home so that when the crisis arrived, we could empathize with her.

The movie (rightly) begins with a smaller but relevant conflict: Dorothy tries to run away from home with her dog, Toto. That's enough conflict to get the audience engaged long enough for the major conflict to show up. In this case, that big conflict is a foil to the earlier one: now Dorothy wants nothing more than to go home.

You can't expect a reader to sympathize and connect to a character's plight until they've walked a few pages in their shoes. Having a page one where a character burst into tears, screaming how unfair life is pretty meaningless unless the reader has spent enough time with the character to care.

This is surely why Shakespeare included a brief scene with two very minor characters, a mother and son, in his play Macbeth. The mother and son never show up again.

Why did he bother adding the scene? Because we find out later that they are killed. The audience has a bond of sorts with the mother and son, making for a much more heart-wrenching murder than hearing about a nameless, faceless mother and son would be.

Start with action and conflict, but not so late into the story that the reader is spinning and disoriented. And be sure to connect us to your characters before they're thrown into the fire.

Avoiding these pitfalls certainly won't guarantee a great opening (my constant revisions are proof of that), but they will increase your chances of creating a great first chapter that readers won't be able to put down.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Free Writers Conference in Utah

Life, The Universe, and Everything Symposium on Science Fiction & Fantasy

February 19-21, 2009

BYU--Provo, Utah

Presenters include:
Brandon Mull (Fablehaven series)
Tracy Hickman (Dragonlance series)
Brandon Sanderson (Mistborn trilogy)
Jessica Day George (Dragon Slippers)
James Dashner (The 13th Reality)

and our own Julie Wright will be presenting!

More information here.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Subjectivity and Quality

by Annette Lyon

Generally speaking, if you hand over a really bad writing sample to a qualified reader (such as an editor or agent), they'll likely recognize it as trash.

Do the same with a mediocre piece of writing, and the result will be the same.

But what about works that range from pretty good to really great?

Says who?

There's a huge range where opinion and subjectivity step in. It's why agent after agent passed on Harry Potter before someone decided they loved it . . . and it did what no other series has ever done in history.

It's why some people hate Twilight while others are obsessed with the series.

It's why you can find rejection letters out there addressed to some of the best writers the world has ever created.

And it's why some people love Faulkner while others can't stand him.

Once a writer reaches a certain skill level, "quality" becomes a bit vague. Objectivity exists only to a point.

Remember that when submitting your work. I've followed agent blogs where they admit that a writer had the chops, but that the style or topic just wasn't their cup of tea, or they didn't think they personally could sell it.

Recently I've been involved with a published author awards program and the judging involved with it. It's been fascinating to hear different judges' opinions. By and large, certain books had a consensus (this one was really great, that one was really poor). But several titles garnered totally conflicting opinions.

In several cases, judges were stunned that certain titles weren't finalists, while another judge might have seriously disliked the same book.

Each and every judge was extremely qualified. Yet none of them had the exact same opinion, and sometimes they clashed on what was a quality book and what wasn't.

Of course you should constantly try to improve. After a rejection, analyzing your work critically to see if they're right can only help.

But at the same time, remember that sometimes a rejection simply means that you haven't found the right person to look at your work yet. Maybe it is fantastic, and you just need to get it into the hands of someone who "gets" and likes you and your style.

Here's one more evidence that writing can be extremely subjective: personally, I never did see why so many people like Faulkner. Ugh.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Are Writing Contests Worth It?

By Heather Moore

You’ve heard of them, and you may have even entered a few of them. But how can you tell which contest is worth the effort of following the submission guidelines to perfection, or if the entry fee will be worth the money?

Here is what you need to look for:

1. Do you already have something written that fits the contest guidelines? You don’t want to create something new on the spur of the moment because if you don’t place or receive decent feedback, you’ll be that much more disappointed.

2. Who are the judges? Are the judges either a) agents or editors who can get you somewhere, or b) authors who are published successfully in that genre who can give you invaluable feedback.

3. Do the entry fees seem compatible for what you are getting back? Be wary of entry fees if the grand prize isn’t something that can further your career, or you aren’t guaranteed judges feedback.

4. Find out if the contest is legitimate. How long has the contest been around for? Do you know anyone who has entered it with favorable results? Can you ask the coordinator a question?

Some blogs, such as Maria Zannini’s, will frequently compile a list of writing contests. Also, agents will posts “hook” or query contests. This is a great way to gain possible notice by an agent and receive honest feedback. You can also learn a lot from the comments made by other writers on the contest blogs.

Often if a contest is associated with a Writers Conference, there will be an award gala to announce the winners. This is a great way to gain some recognition for your bio as well as networking with others.

Just make sure you do your homework. A writing contest can be an important step in your career.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

The I's have it

By Julie Wright

I actually have real writing instruction today rather than my usual, "You can do it!" posts that I usually do.

Something horrible when you write in first person--you end up with a disproportionate amount of I's.
  • I wonder if he thought he was clever.
  • I saw him plunge the dagger into her heart.
  • I wished he'd just shut up!
  • I wondered whether or not I'd have the guts to fire him face to face . . . maybe I should just send an email . . .
  • I couldn't help but laugh when she tripped on her strappy heels.
  • I knew I'd end up walking home. He always left me stranded.

In third person, you can mix words around a bit--interchanging the character's name for words like "his" and "he." This allows you to shake it up and keep the reader from going blind by staring at the letter "I" ten times in three sentences. But in first person, you're stuck.

I am part of an online writer's group (several writer's groups actually) where the question was posed, "How do I get rid of all those I's?"

Well . . . you could have the protagonist always referring to him or herself in third person, but that's kinda creepy. Or you could create long and convoluted sentences skirting around the dreaded word. Or you could simplify.

In the world of Julie Wright, where all things are chaos, she simplifies where she can (I told you it was creepy).

I write mainly YA and middle grade. Such writing leans towards the usage of first person. This is because the youth are self absorbed! Just kidding. It's more likely because youth have an easier time reading when they can become the main character. The emotions are sharper, the victory more sweet, the pain more agonizing. And kids, who live in a world of constant shift and discovery, don't mind spending time in other people's shoes. Adults may sometimes find the experiences of another person uncomfortable.

Because my books are mostly first person, I've had to train myself to look for the "I's" when editing. First draft is a free for all--filled with: "was", "I", "that", "were", and all those other dead words that drag a manuscript down to the unpublished hot place.

Here are some quick solutions to a few of those "I" sores.

  • I wonder if he thought he was clever. (Did he think he was clever?)
  • I saw him plunge the dagger into her heart (He plunged the dagger into her heart.)
  • I wished he'd just shut up! (Couldn't that man just shut up?)
  • I wondered whether or not I'd have the guts to fire him face to face . . . maybe I should just send an email . . . (Sending him an email seemed a less confrontational way to fire him. He'd probably appreciate me saving him from the embarrassment of a face to face meeting.)
  • I couldn't help but laugh when she tripped on her strappy heels. (Laughter erupted from my mouth when she tripped on her strappy heels)
  • I knew I'd end up walking home. He always left me stranded. (Of course I ended up walking home. He always left me stranded.)

In most of these sentences, by yanking out the "I", the sentence ends up cleaner, and more immediate. This is a good thing.