Friday, December 30, 2016

Fashion Statements and the Omniscient POV

A popular post from June 2009

by Annette Lyon

Anne Shirley longed to wear puffed sleeves.

In high school, I wore pegged jeans and shoulder pads.

And a century and a half ago, Dickens wrote in the omniscient point of view.

Fashions change, and the literary world is no different. Today, it's very difficult to write in an omniscient POV and get published. There are several reasons for this.

Frankly, a good omniscient POV is really hard to do well. It sounds easy, because yes, "omniscient" means that the narrator knows what's going on in each character's mind.

But here's the giant caveat: that does not mean that the narrator can hop around between their heads willy nilly. There has to be a purpose for when we go from one person's viewpoint to the next person's, a stylistic reason for showing the contrast between this person's feelings and that one's, even if it's within the same line.

The most common excuse beginning writers use when they're criticized for a poor point of view is, "But I'm using an omniscient POV."

Chances are that no, you're not. You're just being sloppy.

A real omniscient narrator has its own personality and feel. There's a distinct reason and purpose for telling the story in that way, more so today than in Dickens' time.

In today's publishing world, the most common place you'll see this type of POV is in epic-style fantasy, where the scope is large and sweeping. But even in many of those works, you'll get third person POV, such as with Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time books, which are definitely written in third person.

A contemporary example of an omniscient POV that works is Lemony Snicket's 13-volume The Series of Unfortunate Events, wherein the narrator has such a distinct personality that he even breaks the "fourth wall" and talks directly to the reader at times. He pontificates on his own opinion of the events as well as what other characters think about them. It's done very much tongue-in-cheek and deliberately over-the-top. And every bit is intentional and smart.

A somewhat older (and serious) book that has an omniscient POV is James A. Michener's The Source. It was published in the 1960s, when the omniscient POV was already going out of style. The POV really works in this book, and for that matter, there's really no other POV that Michener could have used for it. For starters, the book covers literally thousands of years, so he couldn't have picked two or three POV characters to carry the plot.

Another big issue with The Source is that because the stories and themes covered over the centuries in the book reflect on one another, an omniscient narrator is needed to gently draw lines between them for the reader. The result: a brilliant read that must have been painstakingly written.

The entire point of this post? In general, pick a third person POV (how close or distant is up to you, as is how many POV characters, but I wouldn't go for more than 3-5), or first person. Each of those POVs has its own pros and cons.

But unless you have a really, really good reason for using the omniscient POV, resist the urge. There's a very good chance your story won't come across as a brilliant Michener work (the guy won a Pulitzer, for crying out loud). Instead, you'll likely look like an amateur who head hops and doesn't know what it means to maintain a decent POV.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Rejection's Not a Stop Sign

A popular post from June 2009

by Annette Lyon

I got the chance to attend the same teen conference that Julie wrote about yesterday. In addition to teaching a workshop, I was part of a panel about the process of getting published.

We talked about the "typical" submission/acceptance process: the query, the request for a partial, a full, what an agent does, when you can and cannot submit to an editor, how to avoid unscrupulous agents, and so forth.

(Dang, what I wouldn't have given to know this kind of stuff when I was 16!)

When each of us on the panel talked about our publishing history, of course rejection came up. A lot. It's part of the business. One of the authors on the panel actually had his first novel accepted on his first try. (Yeah, I know. We can all hate him.)

BUT . . . he has since experienced plenty of rejection.

We told the teens in the room that not only does rejection happen, but it will happen. Plan on it. Being rejected is part of the business.

Sometimes you'll be rejected because you stink.

But other times, it could be for a hundred other reasons: your story didn't speak to that particular agent. Your writing voice isn't one they prefer. They just sold a book similar to yours to another house.

The fact that there are books on shelves that I love and someone else hates (and vice versa) is the same thing: editors and agents all have their own tastes.

Sometimes, finding the right agent or editor at the right time is a matter or timing and luck.

You can't blame all your rejection on back luck, however: you have to do the work first. Work hard on your writing. Make your manuscript shine. Write several books to hone your craft.

Do everything you can to make sure that when opportunity comes knocking (or, rather, when you're chasing it down and the door finally opens), you're ready for it.

Never take rejection as a sign that you should stop writing. It may be a detour, a pause, a yield sign. Maybe a moment to take another look at your work or your query to see if you can improve.

But it doesn't mean it's time for you to give up.

(Go ahead and burn the rejection letter if it makes you feel better. Just get back to the keyboard afterward.)

Monday, December 26, 2016


A popular post from June 2009

by Annette Lyon

Something only a handful of people know is that I've been dealing with chronic (as in daily) headaches for roughly 5 1/2 years. In that time, I've dealt with a bunch of doctors and tests and medications, and I'm still on that journey.

But the headaches themselves aren't the point of this post. What a new specialist told me this morning is the point.

When he found out that I'm a writer, he took it in stride and almost considered that a possible contributor to my headaches. I was a bit confused, because I know from experience that if I stop writing, I get more stressed out (and hence get even more headaches).

I can't stop writing. That would be akin to chopping off a limb, and I can honestly say that my headaches would likely get out of control if I stopped writing.

But then the doctor went on. He said that artistic and creative people tend to have more sensory receptors. That we're more sensitive and aware of the world around them. That things simply affect us more. And that can lead to stress, which can contribute to headaches.

I think he's right. I know I'm affected powerfully by major life events. But then, I also get a lump in my throat from something as simple as a lawn with a fresh coat of snow or by seeing my child riding without training wheels for the first time.

I'm more aware of temperature changes than the average person. I notice subtle shades of color. I see cloud formations, mountain shapes, or clumps of trees and try to find fresh metaphors to describe them. I rewrite billboards in my head as I pass them on the freeway.

When I watch a parade, I think about all the time and effort that went into each float and try to catch every detail to make it worth the workers' time.

Music has a powerful effect on me . . . which is possibly why I sometimes avoid it, because I can't always predict what it'll do to me.

My emotions tend toward the extreme. If I'm happy, I'm happy. If I'm scared, I'm scared. There's not a lot of middle ground. It's a matter of constant intensity. (My poor husband . . .)

Basically, with all that activity going on in my brain, I'm more prone to headaches than, say, a neurologist like Dr. T.

I don't write this in an effort to support the theory that writers are miserable, starving creatures with horrid lives. Hardly. I think we can feel joy just as intensely as we can feel misery. I just think that creative people are simply a more intense variety of human being.

I'm still on a mission to banish the headaches for good, and part of that will be a new medication and finding better ways to manage stress (I'm thinking yoga . . .), but for the first time in many years, I'm looking at my condition with new eyes.

It's almost as if what Dr. T. told me today validated me as a creative person. He basically told me that I have the ability to see beauty and detail that others simply lack. And that ability gives me an advantage over those who don't have it. It helps me imagine and feel and write.

So when all is said and done, I'd rather live with headaches if it means that I can find more beauty than others, if it means having the ability to feel an overwhelming ache because of an event so intense it makes me shed a tear . . . and then be able to put it into words . . . so someone else can read it and then shed a tear of their own.

I'm sensitive. I'm a writer. I'll take them both.

Friday, December 23, 2016

What Counts as a Publishing Credit?

A popular post from May 2009

Reader question:
When agents/publishers ask about previous publishing credits, they don't consider self-publishing a "real" credit, do they? If you have that in your background--and you're sending an electronic query--should you remove the sig line? 

You're right; self-publishing isn't considered a "real" credit during the query process.

Here's why: when an agent or publisher asks for publishing credits, what they're really wanting to know is whether you've been through the acceptance and rejection process. Has someone else in the industry evaluated your work and deemed it worthy of publication instead of rejection?

Technically, blogs are "published" online, but you wouldn't include that as a credit, would you? Of course not, because blog posts haven't been vetted through the quality machine. 

Similarly, anyone can self-publish a novel. Granted, there are a lot of very good self-published books around (I've read two excellent ones in the last year, and Writer's Digest has their own self-published book awards). 

That said, anyone can self-publish, even someone who can't tell a period from a comma. Self-publishing is particularly easy with modern print-on-demand technology. 

The upshot is that self-publishing won't tell an editor that you can write.

Now, if your self-published book won a prestigious award (such as the Writer's Digest contest), then it would be worth mentioning.

I don't know whether it would hurt to have a self-published book listed in your e-mail sig line (that might be a question for an agent to answer), but I definitely wouldn't mention it in the body of the query.

Other types of publishing credits are worth mentioning: magazine articles, short stories in anthologies, essays, and so on. Basically, any place where there's an acceptance/rejection system in place. And of course, the bigger the clout and audience of the place that accepted you, the better.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Misplaced, Dangling Fun

A popular post from October 2008

by Annette Lyon

Time for another post with self-editing fun. No, really. This time it is fun. Today's topic is one that's easy to giggle over, at least when you find the mistake in someone else's work (or before yours gets in front of an editor).

Let's laugh with some misplaced modifiers and dangling participles!

So what is a misplaced modifier? It's a noun (or pronoun) or phrase—basically any descriptor—that's in the wrong place for what it's supposed to be describing. Often that means it's too far away from it, or at least that something else is in the way.

Don't let the terminology scare you. Dangling participles are just a specific type of misplaced modifier. I won't go into the differences between the two. Instead, I'll lump them together.

Try this sentence on for size:

Joe went on the ride with my sister called The Raging Flame of Death.

Hmm. That's not a sister I'd like to hang out with. Oh, wait! The ride has that name. In that case:

He went on the The Raging Flame of Death ride [or the ride called The Raging Flame of Death] with my sister.

Other funny examples:
Two computers were reported stolen by the high school principal.
(That's one unethical principal . . .)
The anchor reported a coming lightning storm on the television.
(Get AWAY from that television!)
Please look through the contents of the package with your wife.
(Must be one huge package if she fits in it.)
James hadn’t meant to let it slip that he wasn’t married, at least to his boss.
(Wait. His boss is Mrs. James?)
Quiet and patient, her dress was simple, yet stylish.
(Let's hope her dress wasn't loud and impatient.)
At the age of five, her mother remarried.
(Um . . . doubt that's legal in any state. And she certainly wasn't a mother then.)
These little nasties are painfully easy to drop into your work without you even knowing it. Basically they happen when you've used an action and then the subject that belongs to the action is put into the wrong place.
The result is most definitely a meaning you didn't intend.
One of the most common forms is relatively easy to spot: look for sentences that open with an "ing" phrase. (These are the most common dangling participles, if you care about that sort of thing.)
Turning the corner on a bike, a huge dog startled him.
(Apparently that's a dog with serious coordination skills.)
Driving through town, the grocery store appeared on the right.
(Freaky store. And just how big is that car?!)
And here's one of my favorite dangling participles (which I found in a New York Times bestseller that shall remain nameless, even though it was just too funny):
Being my father, I thought he'd be more upset.
(Now THAT is one amazing genetic trick . . .)
You get the idea.
Misplaced modifiers and dangling participles can sound scary and intimidating, but in reality, they're easy to fix. Just make sure the action in your sentence is really attached to the person or thing doing it.
This is one of the many things you don't need to worry too much about in the drafting stage. It IS, however, one of those things you should try to catch in the revision stage. One great way is to read your draft aloud. The stresses and pauses will make you recognize when something doesn't quite sound right. Pick some trusted readers to ferret out these kinds of bloopers as well.
Your future lack of embarrassment is most definitely worth the effort.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Beauty Out of Context

A popular post from April 2009

By Julie Wright

Several years ago, the Washington Post convinced Joshua Bell, a world acclaimed violinist, to dress in simple jeans and a t-shirt and to take his $4,000,000 Stradivarious down into the subway to play for the masses. The experiment was to see if people recognized great art out of context.

Within 45 minutes, 1097 people passed by the violinist playing his little heart out. Only seven people stopped for any duration of time to actually listen. Joshua Bell is a man who can fetch seat prices of $100.00 for merely adequate seats in a symphony hall and much more for good seats. Joshua Bell is a master. Only 7 people stopped for beauty, recognizing it for what it was.

What has this to do with writing, and more importantly with you?

I recently heard an editor say that they don't normally take middle grade work, but if Neil Gaiman walked in, they would never refuse him simply because his protagonist's were a little young for this imprint. They could say this because they know Neil Gaiman. He's been declared beautiful by literary standards.

But what if he showed up looking like everyone else? What if he came in out of context? What if he came through the slushpile as an unagented author without the Newbery sticker? Would they recognize him for who he was? A few might . . . but I'd bet most wouldn't. (and by the way, I loved The Graveyard Book)

The point is that you may be the next big thing--stamped with the approval of the literary world. Your manuscript may be beautiful, but not recognizable exactly yet. Don't obsess or let it get you down. Joshua Bell stood in the masses and played beauty. Few actually stopped for beauty. It's not to say the music was any less beautiful down there in the subways, but that out of context, it was harder to see, harder to pay attention to as the people scurried about with thier lives. The world just works like that.

Life gets out of balance and the subjective nature of art makes rejection inevitable.

Take a moment to view the entire article as it is beautiful in its own way and deserves to be read:

Friday, December 16, 2016

If You Wrote the Code . . .

A popular post from May 2009

by Annette Lyon

My husband is a software engineer. This comes in handy for a writer spouse. When my computer crashes or I'm my usual techno-idiot self, I just call him. ("Honeeeeey! Come fiiiiix it!!!")

The other day, he mentioned an industry axiom:

If you wrote the code, you can't write the test.

In other words, the software engineer who wrote the code is incapable of testing it properly. He has a limited perspective on it, so his test would cover (of course) just the things that occur to him to test. It wouldn't be comprehensive, because someone else would think of testing in other ways. If the coder is the tester, all kind of weaknesses or bugs will probably be left behind. 

A coder's test can't be comprehensive because he has blinders. He wrote the code.

It needs another perspective.

Sound familiar?

As a writer, you're too close to your "code," your manuscript, to test for problems, to find the holes. No matter how great of a writer you might be, you need someone else, a "tester," to look at it with a new, fresh perspective.

Writers need to learn how to do revision and self-editing, and I'd go so far as to suggest that those skills are crucial to being a successful writer. But they aren't enough. At some point, you need to step out of your isolated writer bubble and hand the pages off to someone else. 

I've had critiquers point out plot holes that I never would have noticed (usually things I can fix easily . . . once I know they're there). They've caught motivation issues (sometimes those fixes are more complex, but they always make for a more believable story). Other times it's something as simple as an inconsistency, a confusing passage, or a pacing problem.

The story is perfect in your head, so when you read it, you miss things a good "tester" can catch. Having such a tester is the only way to make sure that what's in your head actually made it onto the page.

In the software industry, testers are trained in what they do. They understand computer languages and coding. An engineer wouldn't grab any old Joe from the street (or his mother or best friend) to test his code. Of course not.

The same concept applies to writing: you need qualified "testers."

While Grandma Sally will pat you on the head for writing such a great story, she probably can't help you improve it. She's blinded by her love for you, for starters, but she's also not qualified. 

Pick testers who write and know writing. They need to be able to diagonose problems in a written work, tell you when you're telling and not showing, catch info dumps, and  grasp things like characterization, conflict,  exposition, and a plethora of other things.

A parallel axiom for the writing industry:

If you wrote the story, you can't critique it.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

The Unlovable Character

A popular post from December 2009

By Julie Wright

I have a confession to make. I write unlovable characters. I do it ALL the time. I like the growth that comes from a character who starts out with a bit of bite. And what's more, I think sarcasm is funny. If you stick with my characters long enough, you will find them softened and lovable by the end of the story, but some people think writing the unlovable is impossible.

I'm here to say it is very possible. To start out with someone who is reprehensible and then grow to love them makes for a fun journey for the reader as well as the character. It allows the reader access to understand other people, other motives, other walks of life. It allows the reader to grow and find compassion and comprehension within themselves.

I don't write the unlovable as a moral object lesson for readers. I think I write them because I was so unlovable for so many years of my youth and I can relate to the unlovable.

But how do you write snarky, ill-tempered characters and keep people from throwing your book across the room, or worse from writing you and demanding a refund?

Daphne Atkeson, someone I know from an online writer's group for YA novels, created what she calls a "cheat sheet" of ways to establish early empathy (not sympathy) for a character. She gathered this information from several craft books by Billy Mernitt, Michael Hague, Donald Maas and Orson Scott Card.

Here is her list with her permission:

-- undeserved misfortune

-- Liked or loved by someone else

-- Good at something, has a strength

-- Trying to improve or be good

-- Wit or boldness

-- Aware of his flaws

-- Has some power

-- Has a familiar flaw

-- Shows forgiveness

-- Self sacrifice.

Four keys. A character must have:

1) PURPOSE--most important--what he wants, must be specific

2) CREDIBILITY--believable

3) EMPATHY--not sympathy, don't feel sorry for him, identify with

4) COMPLEXITY--inner conflict, more than one side, surprise us with
unseen aspects, contradictions and quirks

To the degree that your character feels passionately invested in his own
life, the reader will feel invested, too.

CHARACTER TIPS from Blake Snyder (Save the Cat)

Character must be someone we can.

1) Identify with

2) Learn from

3) Compelling reason to follow

4) Deserves to win

5) Primal stakes that ring true (primal means sex, food, survival,
saving loved one, fear of death)

As I looked over the list, I realized that I incorporate these methods and tools in my writing all the time. With my characters being who they are, I have to. But seeing her list gave me an understanding into my characters that I'd never had before, and from now on, I'll be writing these characters a little better than they were before. If you lean towards the unloved characters, this list might just be what you need.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Synopsis Updated

A popular post from May 2009

By Josi S. Kilpack

Over the last six years or so I have given several presentations on how to write a synopsis. I gathered my information from books and websites; compiling it into instructions that are easier to follow and understand than many other resources. At a recent writing conference I was told that one of the 'rules' I have been teaching, is no longer in favor with the novel writing community. I have updated the Synopsis posts I've done on this blog, Part I and Part II, but am trying hard to make everyone that might have read the 'rule' aware of the change. Needless to say I am humbled by the correction. I certainly prefer to be right about everything all the time, so admitting I was wrong does not come easy to me, but I hope it's less about my ego and more about truly wanting people to be pointed in the right direction. Maybe it's a little of both :-)

Oh, what was the rule?

I've taught that when writing a synopsis you should put your characters name in ALL CAPS the first time you mention it in your synopsis, then use regular capitalization for other mentions of that character. Editors and Agents currently prefer just normal capitalization of the first letter of the name.

Thanks much,

Friday, December 9, 2016

The Publishing Sandbox

A popular post from April 2009

by Annette Lyon

This past weekend I attended writing conference and sat in our own Josi's class about building your own writing community. It's a topic I hadn't thought much about as a topic, but when I stopped and sat back, I realized just how important it is.

I'm sure Josi will do a much better job of explaining it another time (please do, Josi!), but for now, I want to mention it and encourage writers to build their own communities.

You'll have many types as your career progresses, and they're all important in their own way. I can safely say that without some of mine, I wouldn't be where I am today.

Networking Opportunities
For me, the start here was with the League of Utah Writers and my local chapter meetings. Look around where you are to see if there's a similar organization where you live.

From chapter meetings, I branched out to attending LUW's annual conference (boy, was I terrified for that first one!) and then their spring workshops. I made several writer friends I'm still in contact with today.

I learned a ton, but even better, thanks to some of those contacts, I ended up landing in my next type of community:

Critique Group
I joined a group with several aspiring, but unpublished, writers. Over nine years later, we're all published, several of us are award-winning, and we've all got writing careers and deadlines.

But it's more than success our group has brought; it's also provided us with emotional support. There are some things only other writers understand, and those are the things you can share around the critique group table. I know I get antsy and on edge if I miss too many weeks of meetings. I need my group to keep me in balance.

Online Communities
These encompass a lot of things:

E-mail lists made up of lots of writers who are in the same market you are.

Your blog and the blogs of others you read and the relationships you build through them.

Online critique groups, forums, and other organizations you belong to.

Online marketing efforts.

Social networks.

And more.

These can all be amazingly powerful in many ways. My online communities have given moral support, provided answers to research questions, and brought me many friends and professional contacts.

The longer I'm in this business, the more I see that those who are willing to give and help each other out are the ones who will succeed the most in the long run.

Keep in mind that how you present yourself to some of your communities is critical. My critique group doesn't mind if I occasionally whine and throw a pity party, but you won't see the same kind of thing on my blog, where I need to maintain a bit more professionalism. Whining isn't a way to make people want to buy my books.

By the same token, be aware of how you present yourself in blog comments, at conferences, and in other professional interactions.

With blogs and e-mail in particular, you might be trying to be funny but come across in a way you didn't intend, because tone can be hard to interpret correctly in those venues.

Always be genuine and honest in every community. Be yourself. But that doesn't mean publicly criticizing someone else in your market or otherwise demeaning another person.

As Josi said in her class, publishing is a small sandbox; play nice.

What you put out will come back to you in spades, whether it's positive or negative. It's definitely worth sending out the positive.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Publication Timelines

A popular post from May 2009

by Heather Moore

Admit it. When you wrote your first book, you thought you'd find a publisher within a few months, and your book would be out before the year was up. Right? Now that you know better, here is the real story:

27 months . . .

My first book that I got published took 6 months to write, 2 months to edit, 10 months to hear back from the publisher, 9 more months to be released. Total time: 27 months

When you show up at an author’s book signing for his/her latest release, you should ask, “What are you working on now?” Chances are they are writing a book that will come out after the book that they just submitted or had accepted. Clear as mud? The reader sees the new release as the fruits of an author’s labors about 1-2 years after the book was actually written.

Often, when I’m at a book signing promoting my newest book, I’m in the throws of writing the next thing.

A sneak peak at my projected schedule:

July-November: Writing Historical Book “B” (sequel to “A”)
November: Historical Book “A” is released (written in 2007)

January: Book “B” accepted
January-July: Writing Non-Fiction Book
July-November: Writing Book “C”
Sept/Oct: Book “B” released
Waiting for news on book “Q”
Will start a sequel for book “Q” if it’s sold

*2010 Projection
Spring: non-fiction book released (if accepted by publisher)
Fall: Book “C” released (if accepted by publisher)
Fall: If “Q” book sells in 2009, it may come out 2010 or 2011

Currently I have book “Q” with an agent. I wrote the book Spring/Summer 2006. I handed it off to readers Summer/Fall 2006. In January 2007, I had an agent’s interest but she didn’t like the ending. I did mass revisions and finished them Summer 2007. The agent never responded back. At the beginning of 2008 I found another agent. A year later in January 2009, the book was “approved” for shopping (after more revisions). Five more months have passed. This might be a record. 36 months total . . . and counting.

Now, just for fun: The book “A” that I wrote Summer/Fall 2007 and was released Fall 2008, guess when I received the first royalty check? February 2009.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Paper-Thin Conflicts

A popular post from April 2009

by Annette Lyon

Want to annoy your reader?

One of the best things you can do is to have a story that, structurally speaking, might as well be a sitcom: it's episodic. That means every chapter has its own new (shallow) problem that gets resolved by the end of the chapter (or so).

That kind of weak plot is enough to make this reader want to throw a book across the room.

While it's common to have chapters that have their own sub-conflicts and sub-plots getting resolved, you always need a bigger, over-arching problem that carries the book from beginning to end.

Yes, we want to know if Luke will get out of the trash compactor alive, but we also have that Death Star thing to destroy by the end of the movie.

Yes, we wonder what Harry will do with Norbert the dragon, but if he doesn't save the Sorcerer's Stone and face Voldemort at the end of the book, we have no story.

And sure, it's nice that Belle and the Beast have a beautiful date in the ballroom, but if the spell isn't eventually broken, who really cares?

If you don't have a big conflict, one that's complex and, well, BIG, I'm sorry, but you aren't writing a novel. Or at least you're not writing a good one that readers will care about.

Conflict is the engine that drives the plot. You need enough of it to push the story from page one to the very end. That means the problems must be deeper than, "Dang. We had a misunderstanding."

At a workshop several years ago taught by Janette Rallison, she made a point that's stuck with me: If your conflict could be resolved by a single conversation, it isn't big enough.

Of course, stories with these kinds of paper-thin conflicts never do have the two characters talking it out, even if they could solve the problem in about fifteen seconds by doing so.

A common place for these kinds of thin conflicts is in romance. The basic romance formula requires the boy to get the girl and then lose the girl before getting her back again for good. Too many would-be writers use a thin excuse for getting the hero and heroine apart: a simple misunderstanding.

So the story has a series of misadventures that drag the story on, one minor blip at a time, for a couple hundred pages or so, until the sad little misunderstanding is fixed.

Misadventures and misunderstandings work for episodes of Hannah Montana, but they aren't going to work for your book.

With a thin conflict or series of thin conflicts, you'll lose your reader, because there's nothing driving them to keep reading. They lack the, "Oh, no! What's going to happen next?" or, "How will they ever fix that?"

As our own Josi likes to put it: Get your character up in a tree. Throw rocks at them. Throw bigger rocks. And even bigger rocks. Now set the tree on fire. Then make your character find a way down.

Ask yourself:
Is my character simply up in a tree?
Or have I set the tree on fire?

Get your conflict blazing. Keep us wondering whether (and how!) your character will find a way down. Intense conflicts don't have to be of the James Bond action variety. A solid internal conflict can do the job just as well.

No matter what it is, the conflict must be big enough to carry the story and keep readers interested so they won't chuck your book against the wall.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Flawed (but Redeemable) Characters

A popular post from April 2009

by Annette Lyon

I consider myself lucky that I learned this lesson relatively early on: Make your characters likable.

The lesson for me was shortly after I joined my critique group. I read a chapter of my work in progress, and everyone around the table agreed on one thing:

My heroine was really unlikeable.

She was in a somewhat embarrassing situation, so I had her a bit defensive and trying to explain herself. She came across as rude and nasty.

I had no idea until they pointed it out, but after that meeting, I was able to stand back and see that they were right. I changed several scenes to make sure that she was sympathetic and that the reader was compassionate toward her, not annoyed or turned off.

With a few exceptions where anti-heroes actually work (think: Artemis Fowl), your hero and heroine need to be good, likable, people whom your readers can relate to and root for.

Let's use the romance genre as an example. In the classic format, boy gets girl, loses girl, and then gets girl. Ideally, the reader roots for them to get together, is dismayed when they're separated, and then rejoices when they finally commit and live happily ever after.

Your reader won't engage in that way if your heroine is whiny and snobbish or your hero is so arrogant he deserves to be left at the altar.

On the other hand, your characters can't be perfect, or we won't care about them. They need to be human. They need flaws.

But make them too flawed, and the reader hates them. So in a sense, you as the writer have to walk a narrow tightrope: How much of a flaw is too much?

Romances often have the hero and heroine despise one another at the outset. It usually works, but in that case, neither can be so despicable that the reader won't ever overcome their own dislike. The reader needs to see their flaws to understand why they hate each other, yet at the same time be able to see past the same flaws and want them to be together.

The classic example of a writer who pulled off this type of character arc is, of course, Jane Austen with Pride and Prejudice. We pretty much sympathize with Lizzy for the entire book, while Darcy comes across as pretty darn arrogant and irredeemable. Yet Austen made him human, and oh-so-redeemable when we see him in his own element at Pemberly.

Suddenly we know he's not only a good man, but a likable one. We start to think that maybe Lizzy was a bit off in her initial judgment. From there, of course, the more we learn about Darcy and the more we see his noble actions, the more we like him, so that by the end of the book, we're thrilled that he and Lizzy finally get together.

If we hadn't seen Darcy at home, if we hadn't learned about his relationship with his sister and how kind he is to his staff, and if weren't given good reasons for his earlier stiff behavior and prejudices, or learned about how he secretly saved the Bennett family honor, the story wouldn't be the classic it is today, two hundred years after its publication.

A romance I read recently, however, narrowly missed being chucked against my wall because of this very issue: the characters were unlikeable, not only toward each other (which, as we've discussed can work well), but to the reader. For the entire book.

By the end, I figured they were both so annoying that they deserved each other.

On the flip side, I read a remarkably well-written self-published romance that handled the hero and heroine perfectly. In the beginning, they had a dislike for one another, and for good reasons. They both had flaws (quite big ones) and issues they each needed to overcome. But none of the flaws were irredeemable, and none were too big. They were both very sympathetic characters, so well-drawn, layered, and human that they became quite real to me, and I believed the story.

Here's one of the biggest compliments I can give a book: there were times I got so engrossed in the story that I almost forgot there was a writer behind the scenes pulling the strings.

The other book, however, never let me forget for one minute that a writer had put the words together. One big reason was that the characters were so annoying that they never became real to me. They were caricatures, cardboard cutouts.

I won't publicly say what the first book was, but since the second one was so good (in spite of some minor line-editing issues) I want to give it some props.

For a good, flawed, very redeemable, and likable hero/heroine pair, read Seeking Persephone, by Sarah M. Eden. (It's a Whitney Award finalist for Best Romance, and in my opinion, it deserves the honor.)

It's definitely worth your time.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016


A popular post from November 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Monday, November 28, 2016

When is my MS ready to be edited

A popular post from October 2008

By Josi S. Kilpack

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

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

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

Friday, November 25, 2016


A popular post from November 2008

By Julie Wright

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

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

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

Insanely busy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Why Am I Doing This?

A popular post from October 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 21, 2016

How to Get Lucky

A popular post from October 2008

By Josi S. Kilpack

First, get out there.

Second, learn to smile

Third, wear perfume or cologne

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 18, 2016

What's My Story Question?

A popular post from October 2008

by Annette Lyon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Learning to Roll With it

A popular post from October 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I stopped reading.

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 14, 2016

Splicing and Dicing

A popular post from November 2008

by Annette Lyon

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

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

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

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

This doesn't work:

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

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

Bring on the comma!

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

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

Drill this into your head:

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

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

Take these two regular (correct) sentences:

He bought his wife flowers.

She sneezed when she smelled them.

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

Well, yes, but not like this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One last time, a correct version:

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 11, 2016

Moving Past the Re-editing Block

A popular post from October 2008

by Annette Lyon

Reader question:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

How NOT to Start a Story

A popular post from October 2008

by Annette Lyon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That little question mark can be rather freeing.

Monday, November 7, 2016

What Makes a Hero

A popular post from October 2008

By Josi S. Kilpack

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy writing.