Archive for July, 2016

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People will tell you writing is work, you must treat writing like a job, no serious writing ever came from treating it as a hobby. Basically, you have to commit.

Okay, sure. There are merits to those viewpoints. But never forget writing is an art, an act of creativity, a process of love and tears. You can’t force it. For many people (myself included) the secret to good writing is like the secret to catching a soap bubble: you can’t pluck it out of the air, you have to let it land.

To be sure, you can learn how to judge the falling bubble, note the prevailing wind, and know when and where to place your hand for the best chance to capture the bubble intact.  You’re still going to miss occasionally, and some days it’s too windy or there are no bubbles at all.  But you will eventually learn to catch more bubbles and keep them alive longer before they pop.

Here’s the thing about that: you can’t consider yourself a failure if there are no bubbles, or if they don’t blow your way for a period of time.  Everyone has dry spells — fishermen, farmers, actors, lawyers.  We writers think ourselves special and give it our own name; WRITER’S BLOCK.

Made you cringe, didn’t it?  Like a cat just walked over your grave.  Yeah, I know.  It’s how we’re trained.  Like avoiding walking in the woods alone in the dark.  It becomes ingrained on a subconscious level.  But I think pauses are an integral and vital part of the writing process. Since it is a creative endeavor, it is naturally tied to your mood or your state of mind, and sometimes your state of mind is like a turbulent wind sending all of the bubbles away.  Don’t panic.  You’re not failing.

Writer’s block is like a forest fire.  Sometimes it’s best to let the fire burn itself out.  In places like Yosemite people went to a lot of trouble to put out naturally-occurring forest fires to “save” them, but we have since realized that naturally-occurring forest fires have been burning unchecked for precisely as long as there have been nature, forests, and fire.  Nature adapts; fires are part of the process, letting new growth access to sunlight and other arboreal sciencey things.  It’s the whole Circle of Life jazz.  Interfering with it just futzes it up.

Same with writer’s block.  It will pass, and in most cases take with it whatever was gumming up the works.  I talked about forcing yourself to write in an earlier post.  Unless you are a journalist or you make your whole living from putting words on paper, just let the forest burn.  New growth will come.  Trust it.  If you put out the fire every time, you will do long-lasting damage to the forest.

I got to a rough patch in chapter two of my second book, and ended up not writing anything meaningful for about three months.  It felt like I would never write again, like the whole forest was burning down.  And then I started writing again, and started happily churning out pages again, working late into the night instead of turning in early, and even pulling up my manuscript at work during my lunch hour.  The new growth was lush and inviting, and has a real chance to grow into a might forest since all of that old wood is gone.

So, if you are experiencing writer’s block, do what I do: embrace it and let it happen; find some other outlet for awhile and don’t beat yourself up. The desire to write will come back to you in its own time. You can’t nab it out of the air, you have to let it land.

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You’ve either gotten them or you are working hard to be able to get them.  Rejections.  From agents, from publishers, from contest judges.

But there is a huge stigma attached to the word “rejection” out in the world.  I mean, sure, rejection actually means that you have been rejected, y’know, the opposite of accepted.  But it is nowhere near that cut-and-dried in the publishing world.

Rejection doesn’t mean “Failure.”  At worst it just means “No.”  It might also mean “Not for me,” “Not quite,” or “Not yet.”

We’ve received quite a few rejection letters, my daughter and I.  A good portion of them were form letters.  Usually those form letters included an apology for sending a form letter.  I get it; reading and evaluating hundreds of queries a week is hard.  Time-consuming.  Emotionally draining.  An agent can’t be expected to give back as much heart and soul as each hopeful writer has poured into their query (not to mention novel).  And nearly all of these form rejections include some version of the same comment: “This is not a reflection of your writing … this business is very subjective … we hope you continue querying.”  Those are all positive, comforting, friendly sentiments.  And they are all true.  They mean it every single time.

Okay, fine, agents undoubtedly receive and reject abysmal writing samples they wouldn’t wish on any fellow agent, let alone future reader.  Maybe in those cases some agents eschew the form rejection and say it like it is.  But I bet even then, the agent advises those writers to dig in, improve their craft, and try again.

Here’s my point.  These aren’t failures.  These aren’t the end.  They are more like when a door-to-door salesman goes to the next door.  Each time you knock on a door is an opportunity to hone your schpiel and greet the next prospective customer with a slightly better pitch.

Most of the time its a “No.”  Some people don’t even want to hear how great your cookies are.  But that’s no reflection on the cookies, is it?  There’s a sweet tooth on every street, but you have to knock on a lot of doors to find it.  So it is with querying.  For sure, if an agent takes the time to advise you in their rejection on how to improve your presentation, you should consider that advice.  If you do and you steadily improve, and you keep trying, there is every reason to believe you will eventually find a home for your manuscript.  You certainly have a better chance than if you don’t.

 

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I’ve been writing this blog for a bit over two years, now, and I’ve seen the steady trickle of viewers and followers.  Some weeks the trickle grows to as much as a minor stream for a day.  Over the years I’ve studied the analytics, and one thing has stood out.  Almost every single day a good portion of visitors to this site visit one particular post.  So since I am camping this week, I am going to repost this popular topic.  Enjoy!


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When my daughter and I were writing our first novel, THE LAST PRINCESS, I had already written a novel on my own.  I started it in High school and didn’t type “The End” until over 20 years later.  182,000 words later.  I learned a great deal about writing in those 20 years – how to write natural dialogue, how to build tension, how to show instead of tell, how to vary sentence structure, how to foreshadow and deliver on a promise, and hundreds of other little things that eventually become second nature to a writer who writes.  But one thing, possibly the key thing, I neglected to learn was how to plot a novel.

I realized this long after I had put my first book in the drawer.  I knew it was un-marketable, but not precisely why.  Other than the length, of course.  So when I started on my second novel with my daughter I knew I needed to learn how to structure a plot.  I bought several books, but none of them really helped.  There was all of this talk about the difference between a plot and a story, and lists of the classic plots, and so forth.  None of it stuck.

Then I started listening to Writing Excuses, a weekly podcast hosted by authors Brandon Sanderson, Dan Wells, Mary Robinette Kowal and Howard Tayler.  The podcast referenced Dan Wells’ 7-Point Story Structure on YouTube.  Five short ten-minute clips of a single lecture, and I beheld the elusive mystery of Plot!

We were already three or four chapters into THE LAST PRINCESS at this point, having written by the seat of our pants (aka “pantsing”) until we figured out where the characters wanted to go.  But we had reached the point where we couldn’t go any further until we had the rest of the book plotted.  So overnight I went from a pantser to a plotter and created a chapter-by-chapter outline for the rest of our book.

Now we are querying THE LAST PRINCESS and we’ve started working on the sequel, THE LAST FAERIE GODMOTHER.  This time we started with an outline. So we revisited Dan Wells and his Magic Story Structure, and I thought I would share it with you.  Because I’m nice like that.

Here are the seven plot points, defined.  I also include where these points fall in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone as a common example most of you will be able to see (because most of you have read it):

(1) HOOK “Establish characters and starting state.”

This fairly self-explanatory; this is the point when your main character or characters and their situation are described.  This may or may not be the first chapter.  Usually is.  [In Harry Potter, this is where we meet Harry and see him living under the stairs.]

(2) PLOT TURN 1“Call to action.”

Also known as the “inciting incident.”  This is when the primary conflict is revealed: what the hero must do and what is at stake if he/she fails.  [In Harry Potter, this is when Harry learns he’s a wizard and goes to Hogwarts.]

(3) PINCH 1 “Put pressure on characters; force action.”

Sometimes your hero needs a nudge.  Characters are often reluctant to undertake what they must do, or are somehow prevented from starting.  This is the point when you build the pressure and make it clear the problem isn’t going to go away on its own.  This is often a good place to double down on what is at stake if the hero fails, or just demonstrate that the problem is real.  [In Harry Potter, this is when the troll attacks and Harry and his companions realize only they can stop it.]

(4) MIDPOINT“Move from reaction to action.”

This is a key moment in the story – and despite the name, it does not necessarily need to occur in the exact middle of your book.  This is the point when your hero stops stalling or overcomes what’s blocking them from acting, and gets busy.  [In Harry Potter, this is when Harry learns the Sorcerer’s Stone is at Hogwarts and Volermort is after it.  Harry and his companions decide to find the stone themselves to protect it.]

(5) PINCH 2 “Really lay on the pressure; hero on his/her own.”

Applies pressure to the story and the hero, usually through a great loss.  Also known as the Dark Night of the Soul or the Jaws of Defeat.  This is often represented by the loss of a mentor.  [In Harry Potter, this is when Harry loses his companions on the way to finding the Sorcerer”s Stone and is on his own with the scary bad guy.]

(6) PLOT TURN 2“Get the last piece of puzzle.”

This is where the hero finally learns they have the power to solve the problem at hand.  [In Harry Potter, this is when the mirror reveals Harry’s motives are pure and gives him the Sorcerer’s Stone.]

(7) RESOLUTION“Winning!”

Obviously, the resolution of your story.  This does not mean your hero succeeds.  Many books are about heroes that fail and then exploring the consequences of failure.  [In Harry Potter, this is when Harry defeats Voldermort.]

Points 1, 4 & 7 are meant to work together – Hook, Midpoint and Resolution.  This is the heart of your story.  Knowing your Resolution in advance, you work backwards to your where your story begins (Hook) and the determine the journey (Midpoint).  The two Plot Turns (2 & 6) are where your characters are spurred into motion; they carry you from Hook to Midpoint, and Midpoint to Resolution.  And the two Pinches (3 & 5) are where you apply pressure to your hero.

This structure will work with virtually any genre or style of book – romance, sci-fi, fantasy, horror, mystery, and so on, and any age group, too (excluding very short children’s books and picture books).  An excellent exercise is to take a favorite or popular book and find where these plot points occur in them.  Dan Wells does this in his lecture, breaking down Pride and Prejudice, Othello, The Tell-Tale Heart, and others.  If you’re especially brave, you can put your own finished books to the test.

With this nif try crib sheet in-hand I was able to plot out THE LAST PRINCESS fairly easily.  I defined the action that would represent each of these events in the story, and then filled in the action between, roughly breaking the whole up into chapters.  By the time we were finished very little had changed from our initial outline.  We did decide to move the death of her mentor after her triumph, because we wanted her motivation to be her own breakthrough of character, rather than a knee-jerk reaction to the death of a loved-one.  So we replaced Pinch 2 with a different motivation and scene.

Now, we hope we’ve pulled that same rabbit out the hat again when we plotted THE LAST FAERIE GODMOTHER.  Because, unlike with our first book, I am not comfortable diving in blind this time.  We know the characters, now.  We know the world and our characters’ relation to it, and we have very specific ideas about what needs to happen in this book.  And we’re in good company; many writers I have talked to started as Pantsers and turned into Plotters.

I hope you find this information useful.

Voice

What is “voice?”

Yeah … hard to define, isn’t it.  And yet virtually every agent with a wishlist or contest with judges insist that “voice” is the most important thing about your manuscript.  You gotta have some.  And if you ain’t got it, you ain’t goin’ nowhere in this bidness.

Voice is like seasoning in a recipe.  You’re supposed to add it “to taste,” which basically means, fiddle with it until you like it.  But the thing about seasoning and voice — everybody has different taste. You know that thing where they say publishing is subjective?  This is exactly why.  Your book may be fantastic, but if the agent who happens to be looking at it isn’t a fan of, say, “peppy” you get rejected.  Lot’s of agents rejected Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone before J.K Rowling got a book deal.

Voice isn’t the only thing, of course, that is judged in a manuscript.  In fact, there are about a thousand things you have to get right. Spelling, commas, formatting, the agent’s name, dialogue, white space, the first sentence, setting, the font….  But most of those things you can figure out.  Spelling and punctuation are either right or wrong.  Dialogue sounds natural or it doesn’t.  There are guidelines on how to format your manuscript and what font to use.  You research your agent.  But voice….

How do you know when it’s right?  It’s like that joke by E.E. Kenyon, “Do you know how to get to Carnegie Hall?” Same answer: Practice!

Fine, but what is it, exactly?  Well, it isn’t anything “exactly.” It’s the personality of your book.  It’s the tone, the pace, the word choice, the flavor.  Voice is where you get to play with the rules a little.  Maybe your voice is a tiny bit irreverent, so you blithely begin sentences with “And.”  Maybe you’re voice is stern and no-nonsense, so you eschew contractions and use clipped sentences.  Maybe your voice is poetic, so you sprinkle in a few purple words here and there to highlight a feeling.

Voice is where you bring the funny.  Or the scary.  Or the poignant.  It’s where you show your style.  It’s where you choose certain turns of phrase and reject others because of how they affect the “mood” of your story.  Voice is what makes you stare at the page for 45 minutes trying to decide if you should use “challenge” or “difficulty” because meaning is everything and every word counts.

To a large degree, voice is why I chose to write THE LAST PRINCESS in first person.  Because the voice I wanted for the book was Cat’s voice — the main character.  So where somebody else might have written:

I was no longer hungry and, in fact, I began to feel rather sick.

 

In Cat’s voice I wrote:

I squeezed my eyes shut as my stomach rumbled again, only this time it wasn’t a pleasant, oh-please-feed-me kind of rumble. It was more of a get-me-outta-here-before-I-hurl sort of rumble.

This is the voice of a twelve-year-old girl looking at a menu in a French restaurant, staring at pictures of escargots and pressed duck.  The sentence above is not.  Yet they both say the same thing.

That’s voice.

Most of the voice I used when writing THE LAST PRINCESS came from listening to my daughter and reading lots of middle grade books featuring girls with attitude.  If you haven’t found your voice yet, don’t panic.  You will.  It takes time.  It takes practice.  And it takes patience.

Go ye forth and get some.