Posts Tagged ‘humor’

How to Boil a Frog

Posted: March 15, 2017 in Writing
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boiling-frog

“If I’d known then what I know now….”

There’s this fable about boiling a frog which goes something like this: If you put a frog in boiling water, he will immediately jump out.  However, if you put the frog in water that is comfortable and slowly bring it to a boil, the frog will happily stay in the water until he is well and truly cooked.

I’m the frog.

When I decided to write a novel* I went into it with the conviction that if I really gave it my all, I could probably finish a whole novel good enough to be published, and I could probably do it in a year.  This was a real commitment, because I would have to do all of the writing  between two jobs and three kids, after chores and after everyone else had gone to bed — and I am a big fan of sleeping.  But with each chapter my confidence grew, which was good, because the job of writing the novel become more complicated, too. If I had known when I started just how much research and foreshadowing and weaving of complex plot points there was going to be, I might never have gotten up the nerve to climb into the water in the first place. But, really, the water was only slightly warm at that point.

A big part of my initial conviction was that I would not only write a novel, but get it published as well. And when I decided to turn up the heat, it seemed like just a little bit of heat. I mean, writing the novel was the hard part, right? Now I just needed to write a letter and send it out to a couple of dozen agents. I bought a copy of the Children’s Writers and Illustrators Market and I was all set. Another couple of months and I would be Published.

The water was still pretty comfortable.

But I’ve since learned that writing an acceptable query letter is almost as much work as writing the novel.  If every word in a novel counts, every word in a query counts about 200 times more; not only do you have to get across the setting, tone, characters, and stakes of your novel, but you have to make them so irresistible that an agent must want to see the whole manuscript based on just your query.

Little wisps of steam had begun to rise at this point, but I was happy where I was.  I could keep this up for a good long while.

In an effort to improve my query and those ultra-important first pages I started entering pitch contests.  This, naturally, turned the heat up even further, but I had been prepared for that — in fact I welcomed it.  That’s why I entered the contests in the first place. I wanted to up my game, get more feedback, become more competitive.  If I could perfect my pitch and query I was sure to get an agent sooner rather than later.

This is about the time I discovered a little-known (to me) fact, which is that 90% of writing a novel is re-writing the novel.  As the rejections began to pile up, and more and more feedback came in (and as I slowly relaxed to the possibility that the feedback was correct and I had more work to do), I embarked on the first of a series of full-manuscript revisions.  Each resulted in a new pitch and a new query letter, and a whole new round of rejections. The water began to swirl and bubble, but it felt good.  Maybe I could get one of those drinks with the little umbrella in it.

The water is uncomfortably hot, now. But I’m not ready to get out — not after everything I’ve gone through.  I’ve gotten too used to being in the thick of it.  I’ve been here far too long to just get out and dry off with nothing to show for it.  I’ve learned a tremendous amount since I started. And, of course, I firmly believe that this revision will be the one that lands me an agent.  But, if I had known then what I know now….


*The second time. My first novel was utterly directionless and took about 18 years to finish writing the first draft.

Present,  gift. Close up of female hands holding small gift.

So I entered another writing contest the other day.

This one was on a total spur-of-the-moment whim. In fact I had not even heard of this one, so it is not on my 2016 Pitch Contest Calendar.  I was scrolling through my Twitter feed during my lunch break, and saw a tweet saying that the submission window was open NOW, so I clicked on the link to check it out.

Usually, I get ready for pitch contests well in advance.  I read and re-read the rules and submission guidelines, making sure to catch every one of the little hidden formatting requirements, etc.  Then I make a Word document with my submission in it precisely as I am going to send it, right down to the spacing and font choice and everything (sometimes they specify even these details — and failing to get them right can be an automatic rejection).

But for this contest, obviously, I had not prepared anything at all. And frankly I tend to skip contests altogether if I haven’t properly prepared.  It’s embarrassing and unprofessional (and ultimately fruitless) to rush into these things with a slap-dash entry. So what was I thinking, clicking on the entry form?

This contest was rather unique.  For the first round the judges were going to select the top 50 entries, which would consist of nothing more than the fist sentence of your novel.  That’s it.  You give your name, e-mail address, genre, and the first sentence ONLY.  I could handle this on the fly; you enter via a web form, and I just had to fill in a few fields and hit send.  What was the worst that could happen?

I got a notification yesterday that I had been selected as one of the top 50, and would be moving on to the next round of the contest: the second sentence of my novel.

This made me laugh out loud.  Because the first two sentences of my novel are:

An ogre. Obviously.

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If the judges like a minimalist first sentence, they’re gonna love the next round.

A Little Fun Motivation

Posted: April 6, 2016 in Writing
Tags: ,

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Sometimes you just need to give yourself a gift, because nobody else is going to give you one. I don’t mean flowers or new watch or anything like that.  A free gift — but one that will make you feel better.

I’m talking about a confidence boost. Because when you’re in the middle of writing a novel (even your second novel), you sometimes just  need a pat on the back. A “that-a-boy!” regardless of what you are actually accomplishing. Especially when you don’t feel like you’re accomplishing enough.  All writers go through those “I’m not good enough” days … or months. You know you’ll get past the slump, but while you’re in the middle of one, a little pick-me-up can go a long way.

But does a writer give him or herself to feel better?  I have just the thing.

Pulp-O-Mizer webpage

Meet the Pulp-O-Mizer. This dandy little website, created by Bradley W. Schenk, is a laboratory for creating your own custom pulp magazine cover.  You can writer your own cover text, in a variety of fonts and colors, and place it wherever you want. There are dozens of different backgrounds and characters, to mix and match.  And when you are done, you can save the image — for free.  You can also purchase a high-resolution version or have your custom cover printed on a t-shirt or coffee mug, or even an iPad cover.  Here’s one I made to celebrate embarking on my second novel:

Pulp-O-Mizer Wordsmith 1

I had one made into a poster and mounted it on my office door. I urge you to do the same, and give yourself a little gift. If you do, I’d love it if you’d share your creations with my readers and I, in the comment below.

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Look, I’m aware that I’m approaching “elderly” status. I’m 52, and my favorite music is 1940’s big band swing. I get it it; I’m not the most modern of fellows.

Despite this glaring fact, I still feel I am pretty liberal with regards to my writing style. I start sentences – nay, paragraphs – with “and.” I use slang. I just finished a novel written from the POV of a 12-year-old, complete with contemporary girl-speak and everything. I’m by no means a stodgy grammarian who blanches every time someone forgets an Oxford comma.

But I do have a limit.

I hate how much our language – both spoken and written – has degraded to the lowest common denominator. There was a time when people wrote letters and cultivated a mastery of the English language. You see glimpses of it in historical dramas like Downton Abbey. Schools taught children to write well. This is no longer the case.

I read a rant today from a fellow writer, complaining how she had been reprimanded by her writing professor for offering respectful critiques of two of her peer’s work – the kind of friendly constructive criticism every serious writer embraces in order to grow as a writer. According to the professor’s methods, critiquing is prohibited and nobody is allowed to point out issues in a fellow student’s work to let them know what they should polish. Only positive feedback is permitted: “I like this because…” or “this flows nicely…” No feedback of any substance, nothing a writer could use to improve.

The professor is teaching that if you show your writing to others you’ll be rewarded with compliments. This is the same ethic that removes competition and “winning” from team sports, because losing will crush children’s fragile egos. That way they will be totally prepared when they go out into the real world and everything goes their way, like it does.

What do you get when you don’t teach the difference between good writing and bad writing? Or even speaking? Former Major League Baseball player Oscar Gamble is famous for dropping this gem during an interview a few years ago: “They don’t think it be like it is, but it do.”

Then there’s texting. I still like to write in complete sentences when I compose an e-mail or even a text. I realize I’m wildly out of fashion. I’m old, remember? But I truly believe the shortcuts people use in texts have completely overtaken writing and speech.

See, simply substituting letters for whole words (“CU” for “see you” or “LOL” for “laughing out loud”) wasn’t enough. Someone had to invent a whole group of little symbols (they’re called emojis); hearts and smily faces and hand gestures. So rather than take the enormous amount of time out of your day to actually spell out “I love you,” people can now show their devotion by texting just three characters: I (heart symbol) U. Because finding the little heart is so much quicker and more efficient than typing in four letters.  And it really shows you care.

The other day somebody whom I respect as a writer posted a comment in a writing forum which set my teeth on edge: “I heart you.”

There isn’t an emoji for a heart available on this forum (or in most e-mails, etc.), so people are now spelling out “heart” as a substitute for the symbol.

What?  So now a five-letter word is being used as an abbreviation for a four-letter word?

I get that this person was being cute and stylistic, but this is not the first time I’ve seen this, and every time I do it makes me think the writer is just ignorant. So I asked, is this a thing, now?

Yes. Apparently this is a thing, now. Because reasons. Language evolves and I should just roll with it, even embrace it. But this wasn’t explained to me in English, precisely. The exact response was:

I heart linguistic evolution, and find this particular trend to be totes adorbs.

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Where’s Duke Ellington when you need him?

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I hate to throw anything away.  And for awhile my daughter and I had a completely different opening scene to our novel, The Last Princess. We cut this scene, and the opening of the book is much stronger now, but I will always enjoy this little sequence, because it gives a fun, whimsical glimpse into the head of our hero, Cat Brökkenwier, the 12yo who wishes she were a princess.

How’s a girl supposed to get any serious daydreaming done with a little brother on the rampage? It was hard enough trying to do my seventh grade history project without him ricocheting off the walls like a caged dragon.

I know, there’s no such things as dragons. My mom told me. Pfft. How would she know?

I blew a strand of frizzy hair out of my face and picked up the brown pencil from the floor beside me. Hoping for just five minutes of peace and quiet, I leaned over my sketchbook and started coloring in the tallest tower of Windsor Castle. Where my room would be….

“Princess Brökkenwier! You must leave here at once!”

“Nonsense, silly servant. My father is the king. And he said I could have this tower for my very own.” I waved an imperious hand at the little man with puffy pantaloons and ringlets in his hair. “Now go and tell my maid I’m ready for my lunch.”

“No, Princess! The king sent me! We’re under attack!”

“Again?” I put down my silver brush with a sigh. “What is it this time?”

“Dragons, m’lady! Please, it’s not safe in the tower.”

“Whatever.” I stood and adjusted my gold crown. “Take me to my father.”

“At once, m’lady.”

Spiral staircases were so thirteenth century. That’s why I’d had Daddy install an elevator. And a fireman’s pole for quick escapes. The little servant screamed like a girl the whole way down.

As we ran through the courtyard I heard the shouts of the panicking servants and felt the chill of a huge shadow passing overhead. We ducked into the castle proper and secured the large wooden doors. We had almost made it to the great hall when a sound like thunder rocked the passageway and pieces of ceiling rained down. The dragon had landed in the courtyard behind us. I could already smell its awful, smoky breath. The doors slammed open revealing the courtyard on fire, and my brave little servant fainted dead away. But I stood my ground. An enormous yellow eyeball peered at me through the ruined doorway and I desperately wished I had one of the elf archer’s bows. One shot and this would be over.

“Princess!” my dad’s voice bellowed. I spun and there he was. Tall and muscular, bound from head-to-toe in golden armor. He clutched a dwarf-made axe in both fists, ready to rescue me or avenge my death. “Step aside, Princess. This is going to get messy.”

That’s when my little brother landed right in the middle of my drawing, sending pencils and glitter pens flying.

Even though this scene does not exist in the final draft of our book, I like to believe that it still happened.  So there you go; you have a secret bonus scene people who buy the book (when it eventually comes out) will never get to see.

3 Hashtags

Once upon a time, a young princess and her father embarked upon a quest. They wanted to share a tale of adventure and magic and friendship. They spent months of trudging through the jungles full of Wild Ideas and deserts of Empty Thoughts. They set sail on raging seas but were caught in the Doldrums where the Winds of Progress did not blow for weeks. They are on that journey still, looking for a Patron with a bard who will spread their tale all over the world.

But this isn’t about that. The Story of the Three Little Hashtags is a much more humble tale. It is a tale of overcoming modest obstacles and scoring tiny triumphs. Like the Little Engine That Could or Jack Sprat.

Writing the first chapter of a novel is hard. But it is hard over a long period of time; you will work on your first chapter longer than you will work on any other part of your novel. And you will be working on it until the moment it goes to press. However, writing the first chapter of a sequel is much harder (I’ve found). Because who is your audience? Fans of your first book who know all of your characters and how they met and what they did and all of the running jokes? Or people who have never read your first book? With the first book, it’s all about starting in the right place – not too soon and not too late – so you hit the ground running but so you don’t have to fill the reader in on a lot of back story. But with a sequel there HAS to be back story. You CAN’T start in the “right” place, because the “right” place was book one!

I’ve been struggling with the new chapter one for weeks. Months, really. How much back story do I include, how much character introduction do I need to give? Nothing felt right, so the motivation to write was weak. Which meant no progress, which meant no resolution, which meant even less motivation.

Well, last night I finished the draft of chapter one. Actually got to a perfect place to drop a little cliffhanger and close with some tension. And then the magic happened: I typed those three little hashtags that declares to the universe the chapter is complete.

What remains to be seen is whether or not they will live happily ever after.

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Like all things pertaining to writing a novel, or just writing creatively, knowing if you are a crazy person does not come automatically or easy. I mean, think about it … you’ve chosen to be a writer. You must be half-way crazy from the get-go.

So how do you know? Talking to yourself? All writers do that. Having invisible friends? Yeah, we do that, too. Making up elaborate stories, including all the behind-the-scenes details and even what everyone was thinking? That’s sort of the whole point of writing.

You see the dilemma. However I think I can help. I recently made a writing decision which seemed perfectly reasonable at the time – a natural decision based on the facts given and the options available to me. But upon reflection this decision clearly indicates that I am a crazy person. So please attend as I explain, and if you find yourself making a similar decision you can rest assured that you are also crazy.

So, my daughter and I finished our first joint novel. As a consequence we have been querying and otherwise carrying on in every effort to secure an agent and, ultimately, publication. To that end I have been reading everything I can get my hands on to help me understand the process, and that includes a great deal of advice from agents and fellow writers who have been published. Some of that advice has to do with what one should be working on next while they query – because everyone agrees, you don’t stop writing.

Now, there are two categories of novel writers: those who have written a stand-alone novel, and those who have written a novel with sequels in mind (in query parlance, we call these novels “Stand alone, with series potential”). We are firmly in the latter category. While we didn’t have plans to write a series when we started, ideas for additional books occurred to us as the story evolved. So now we’re writing a series. Not only that, but I came up with an idea for a spin-off series for a younger audience, following the little brother of the main character.

Here’s where my decision came in.

Some people say you should be well into the next book in your series when you query your first book, to show prospective agents you’re serious and committed (not mentally committed; that comes later). Also, in the unlikely event you actually do find an agent interested in your book, they are going to be more likely to make a deal with a publisher if the publisher doesn’t have to wait forever for the sequel.

On the other hand, many people suggest that your second book should be completely unrelated to your first. The theory here is that if you get a book deal for your first book and that book sells poorly, the publisher may take a second chance on you with a new book, but not with a sequel to a lemon.

So which way does one jump? To sequel or not to sequel? I’m writing in my spare time only, between family and two jobs; my writing time is pretty limited so I have to choose wisely how to spend it. This is the point at which I made the afore-mentioned decision.

I decided I’m going to do both – write the sequel to our first book and the first book in the other series. I’m clearly crazy. And you can see why, can’t you? Clear as day.  It’s too late for me, obviously, but with luck you can stop yourself before you are too far gone.

You’re welcome.

51-P4iEaLaL

Just so you know, this week’s post is not strictly about writing. It’s actually not about writing at all. But it is about creativity and making progress on one’s creative projects.

And there’s free stuff.

I’ve had this idea for a music video to go with Billy Joel’s song, “Running On Ice,” for about 25 years.  Half my life.

Thanks to YouTube and iMovie I have finally been able to actually make it.

About the time this song came out in the late 80s the PBS series American Masters aired three documentaries about silent film era greats Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd.  I recorded all 8 hours of these (you know, on VHS tape) and watched them over and over all through my college years until I had them practically memorized.  And at that time Billy Joel was a big part of my personal play list (you know, on my Walkman).  At some point these two things collided in my brain, and thereafter every time I head the song “Running On Ice” — for the next 25 years — I pictured these silent film geniuses going through their paces, choreographed to the music. I had the whole thing worked out in my head. Only I had no way the actually edit the thing together and get the timing just right.

If you’re not familiar with the song, it is very frenetic, angsty, and full of cymbal crashes and drum rolls — the perfect soundtrack for the classic pratfall.  The song is about how difficult our fast-paced life can be, with all of our modern pressures and conveniences, and that pretty much sums up the films of these silent greats (only about 80 years less modern in their cases).

I think the video speaks for itself (here’s the free stuff I mentioned earlier).  Enjoy.

Now, if I can only get a couple of million dollars together, build a western town set with a bank and a saloon and hire a couple of dozen actors and a whole film production crew, I can start working on my other video idea … “The Ballad of Billy the Kid.”

Love Thy Brother®

Posted: October 1, 2014 in Writing
Tags: , , , ,

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This post will be a bit of a departure for me. Those of you who are regular readers or who have popped in once or twice to see what I have to say will know that I usually talk about my middle grade novel. Sometimes I talk about the process.

This is one of those. Kinda, sorta.

A few months back I confessed to my addiction to my iPhone and how I use it for everything, particularly with regard to my writing. Well, over the weekend I just enabled myself. They say the first step is admitting you have a problem, right?

As it is, between my iPhone, my wireless keyboard and my Dropbox account, I can write just about anywhere and anywhen. I even write my blog on my iPhone, and find and download the illustrations, too. As for research, I use a combination of ebooks, Wikipedia, good old-fashioned web searches, which I save very conveniently and tag using Pocket or Evernote. Right now I’m reading The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England. In iBooks I can highlight the passages I want to remember (in multiple colors) and make notes, which I can search through later. Is it any wonder I never want to put my iPhone down or leave home without it? Oh, and there’s games.

Am I bragging? Yes, I am.

But the one dark spot in all of this technological glory has been the fact that I could not easily print from my phone.

“Aha!” I hear you cry.

Okay, first of all, calm down.

Second, I’ve filled that void. And for only $100.

Meet my Brother®.

Brother_HL-2270DW_Compact_Printer

Our eight-year-old inkjet printer finally expired peacefully in its sleep, last week. So I drove down to my local office supply store and picked up this brilliant little laser printer. He prints at 1200 dpi. He prints on both sides of the page, so we save paper. He’s completely wireless, so no more standing in the corner holding our laptops at the end of the USB cable to print anything. And for $32 I get toner that will print 1,200 sheets. The inkjet cost me $65 for all the colors and I got a couple of hundred sheets if I was lucky.*

And I can print straight from my iPhone. Which, to be honest, it completely cool. It even reformats everything to the proper paper size without me having to do anything. This will come so in handy the next time I need to print off a Groupon. Or an e-mail attachment.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have stuff to print.


*Sorry if I sound like a commercial. I’ve been watching a lot of Top Gear, lately (on my iPhone), so this kind of running specs list is coming very naturally. Imagine I’m writing this with an English accent.

I was going to write about my progress with the epic final showdown in our WIP, between the hero, Cat, and the villain, prince Bone-Breaker.

But this happened today:

 

Thank you, Al, for making that clear.

Next week, the Battle Royale. I promise.