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Archive for the tag “writing tips”

My Quarter-Writing-Life Crisis

When I first started writing, the blank computer screen was like a ginormous bag of dress-up clothes where I could play make-believe every day. I didn’t always write every day–I was fourteen years old and I had all the time in the world. Even when I wasn’t writing, I could daydream about characters I loved in a world I loved, and all the amazing and shocking things that would happen to them. I had my own private movie studio in my head, and the power. Was. Incredible.

Then I finished my first novel.

If you’ve never experienced this high, it’s even more awesome than the private movie studio. Suddenly, you want everyone to know what you’ve done, and you want everyone to read it, and you have mega dreams, so you have your mom read it, and your best friend read it, and your English teacher read it, and of course they are supportive and glowing and they are lying through their teeth BUT THAT’S OKAY because it’s what you need to hear at the time.

And then sooner or later you get to work on the sequel. (There’s always a sequel).

By the time I was neck-deep in my sequel, I was in college, and finding time to write proved more difficult than it was in high school. Also, I was pretty arrogant, and didn’t do much in the way of studying the actual craft of writing fiction. I’ve always had a pretty good grasp on flow and grammar, and I knew how to tell a story (out loud) really well, so I figured I pretty much knew what I was doing. This was the wrong approach.

By the time I was halfway through the sequel’s sequel (that’s the third novel, if you’re keeping track) I discovered AbsoluteWrite’s forums and my writing took an FTL jump ahead. Suddenly, I could see all the things I was doing wrong, and that there are gadzillions of resources for writers on the web. I’m also grateful that I didn’t seriously start my querying journey until I learned about Writer Beware through the AW forums. There are a LOT of predators lurking out there, seeking to scam unsuspecting writers out of their cash and dreams.

About that time, I passed my 10 year anniversary of writing, and it was like a little celebration. I felt like a grizzled veteran. I felt like I was making major progress. I started new novels in completely new worlds that I actually plotted and planned out ahead of time.

I was going somewhere.

And then I passed 12 years. And then 15 years (wow, fifteen years), and then like every other good 30 year old I know, I kind of stopped counting. “I’ve been writing for fifteen years,” I would say, very aware of the hard work it takes to get published. “Fifteen years.”

Finally, I did the math yesterday, and it hit me like a ton of soggy pancakes. I’ve been writing novels for seventeen years.

That isn’t gloating you hear in my voice. It’s panic. I don’t know if it’s the extra syllable in seventeen that makes it sound like an eternity, or the fact that I’ve been writing longer than most of my characters have been alive (ahahahahasob), but coupled with the fact that I’ve heard lots of stories recently about writers who’ve been writing two or three years getting agents and book deals, it made me feel like a failure.

And then I found this incredibly heartfelt and honest blog post about a writer experiencing those same feelings of failure–and at the time she wrote it, she had an agent and some meaty nibbles from a publishing house. Even though both of those things didn’t end up working out, she later got a new agent, and a publishing contract, and her first novel is getting published next year.

I feel better! I feel re-energized! I’m calming down now!

Anyway, I realized that maybe I’m going through a bit of a quarter-life crisis, except that it’s for my life as a writer, not my actual calendar age. I know for a fact that this is what I want, and that I am still learning and growing as a writer. Publishing doesn’t work like school, where you put in x-number of years and come out with your goal in hand. It will happen when it happens, and until then I won’t ever give up.

And if you are a beginning writer, or at a different stage of the journey, I hope this has been helpful. Don’t be like me and waste years of your writing life toiling without learning your craft. Take classes. Read widely. Follow blogs and agents and editors on Twitter. Get a writing partner or three and read the AW forums. Join a writer’s association.

As for me, while I query and pitch my novels, I’m going back to that box of dress-up clothes, where I can put on a big, floppy hat and heels four sizes too big for my feet. I have a new project to write. 🙂

Wednesday Writing: QueryTracker

Today, I’m going to highlight one of my favorite resources for writers pursuing traditional publication: querytracker.net.

Query Tracker let’s you search an extensive database of Literary Agents and publishers, organize your findings, set up a plan of “attack” and execute it–while tracking the whole thing. 

From the website:

Literary Agents Listed: 1,266
Publishers Listed: 153
Members: 52,720
Success Stories: 785

Those might not look like great odds (785 out of 52,720) but that’s the publishing business for you. If you look at it a different way, that’s seven hundred and eighty-five brand new authors who give QueryTracker credit as a vital cog in their pathway to being agented (and ultimately, published) authors.

The free version of the site is certainly adequate, but if you’re getting serious about publishing, I highly recommends the $25 annual fee for premium membership. It gives you lots more search parameters and let’s you organize multiple projects at once. And I usually choke at the idea of spending money on “membership fees,” so that should tell you something.

Before QueryTracker, this was what the inside of my brain looked like:

Okay, going to make a list of agents to query…okay she looks right, what are her submission requirements? [search search] Okay, found the requirements, now, I need to find her pet peeves and make sure I don’t do those [search search] oh, he looks like he might be a possibility, too, let me dig further [search search] wait. What did I decide about the first agent? Where did I start? Did I actually query her? What did I SEND?

I’ll spare you the panicked thrashing. It suffices to say I had the hardest time organizing my research and tracking who I queried on what day, how long it had been, if I should wonder if I got lost in spam, etc.

After QueryTracker, my head looks like this:

First small batch sent out: check. Next batch lined up: check. Oh, did I just get a rejection? Oh well–let’s close that out…and okay, who’s up on the next batch?

You see how being organized and tracking your queries actually helps you deal with rejection? And bonus: there are lots of people posting comments on each agent listing, and that gives you a vibe for the kinds of projects an agent is accepting, the kind she/he tends to reject, and makes the entire writers-querying-agents process a lot less lonely.

Friday Frivolity: The Alignment Chart you never knew you needed.

I posted this to my facebook awhile back, but looking at it never gets old. It’s a classic example of what amounts to character archetypes, and a great starting off block if you’re playing around with creating a less-than-Boy-Scout hero, or devising a villain whose name makes Shenzi from The Lion King shiver and then ask to hear the name again. “Ooooh… do it again.”

I say starting off block, because you shouldn’t just put Captain Picard in your story and change his name. You’re better than that! (Not to mention some Trekkie will come after you in your sleep. Like my husband.)

For those of us who didn’t cut our teeth playing Dungeons & Dragons, this is an Alignment Chart. It had something to do with character creation in that game, and I think also played a role in how that character had to behave in certain situations. Also for non D&D people–it has translations (if you can’t read them, click the photo to see this larger).

Enjoy 🙂

For a larger version, click the photo.

 

Friday Frivolity: Spam Spam Spam Spam!

These days, I think I take Gmail’s exemplary spam filter for granted. Unlike my junk-riddled work email account, almost nothing spam-like gets past Google’s little electronic guards.

But that doesn’t mean those junk mail guards aren’t also blocking real emails.

For weeks, I’d been wondering why I was no longer receiving alerts for when it was my turn in an online game I joined. It didn’t occur to me to check spam.

Then yesterday, I noticed that I never heard back from a literary agent I queried on February 15th. So I requeried her (This agent seemed to recommend doing it in case the emails wound up in HER spam, but don’t assume that’s the case for all agents ).

She wrote back that she must have been caught in MY spam, because she remembered Veiled Iron vividly and had requested to see more of the manuscript!

Good news for me (and I sent her the MS right away), but also kind of a wake-up call (and indeed, those missing alerts for my online game were also in spam). So check your spam! Check it now.

And now for something completely different…

Wednesday Writing: Where Do I Begin?

Knowing if you’ve started your novel in the right place has got to be one of the most difficult things to master for a writer. Fortunately, there are professionals who read books and manuscripts for a living, so they have a finely honed sense of what makes a great jumping off point.

Unfortunately–for those of use who have yet to land an agent or an editor at a publishing house–we have to muddle along with help from fellow amateurs, trusting our instincts as readers to guide us to finding that magical point where a character’s story is ready to have a reader join the journey.

My writing partner has an excellent novel she’s been polishing for awhile. It has garnered contest wins and accolades from peers, and I certainly enjoyed reading it when we first became writing partners. However, the opening pages were hard to get through, and I thought it was something to do with presentation. I worked with her for some time trying to fix a problem I couldn’t quite put my finger on–was it the main character? The setting? The mix of dialogue to prose?

She recently got feedback from an agent and another professional who told her she wasn’t starting the novel in the right place. Instead of starting the novel with a magical duel between the main character and a rival, they suggested she start with the MC limping home from a fight.

My writing partner was worried I would be disappointed that she was essentially scrapping pages of stuff we’d worked on over a period of weeks, but I was excited! That sounded like the perfect place to start the story, and I looked forward to reading the new beginning.

In writing, you can never fall in love with your pages or become so invested in a partner’s work that you’re resistant to starting fresh.

Now, if only I could tell the best place to start my novels… 🙂

Wednesday Writing: Think Before You Name

As writers, we name a whole lotta stuff. Characters. Towns. Fantasy and science fiction writers name entire worlds. But a name isn’t just an arbitrary placeholder meant to differentiate people and places in your book.

In unillustrated works, the name is the face.

Think about that. You get a character’s physical description a handful of times in a book. Maybe you get clues to his personality a handful of other times. But how many times do you see his name? In a 300 page novel, the number is probably close to a thousand times. If your name sounds weak, the character will seem weak. If your name sounds brawny, the character will sound brawny. If your name is an unpronounceable mouthful, readers will skip right over it and probably not connect with your character very well.

I really want to know what Suzanne Collins was thinking when she named Peeta in The Hunger Games.

  • Katniss–sounds feminine but fierce because of the “Kate/Kat” element. It also makes sense in District 12 because it’s the name of a wild plant. A good, solid name for her.
  • Haymitch–great name for this character. He’s crotchety, older, a real scoundrel.
  • Peeta–wha? Is it male? Is it female? Is it concerned with the ethical treatment of animals? Is it a type of bread (seriously, I hope this isn’t the reason)? Whatever it is, Peeta certainly doesn’t sound like an attractive male lead. Maybe that’s the point, but Peeta’s name still bugs me.
And we’re not even going to talk about Renesmee. (shudder)

J.R.R. Tolkien used the power of connotation and our linguistic heritage to give Middle Earth its intense depth of history. This article in the New Yorker explores the power of brand naming and linguistic connotations. Naming isn’t the most important thing we do as writers, but we can’t afford to overlook it.

Wednesday Writing: Starting your story with ‘Want’

Today’s Wednesday Writing is a short one since I’m only expanding on a tip I gleaned from a literary agent I follow on Twitter.

YES. RT @AdviceToWriters: Make your characters want something right away even if it’s only a glass of water. KURT VONNEGUT

I really like that idea. It’s so simple, and like Vonnegut says, it doesn’t have to be a big thing—maybe your character just wants to punish her little brother for quoting her diary at the dinner table—but just the simple desire and attempt to get something draws the reader in: will he/she get what he wants?

BUT (and this is a big caveat) it’s probably a good idea to make the wanting relevant to your overall plot.

  • Maybe your MC succeeds in punishing her little brother, but that rash act sets the plot in motion.
  • Maybe getting up for a simple glass of water means he’s awake at the right hour of the night to witnesses  a murder in his driveway.
  • Maybe the thing your MC wants is his big goal for the entire story.

Tie it together, and the reader’s interest won’t wane after a few pages in. You got them reading, don’t let them drop now!

Wednesday Writing: Blogging for the User

Yay new blog layout! See it’s romantical old page-looky top and bottom? See the interesting texture of the background that in no way interferes with the nice new, readable font? See how it’s still RED? 🙂

I changed the look of my blog over the weekend in part because I felt the old format was difficult to read. The fonts in the sidebars were microscopic, and some of the formatting had weird spacing and often didn’t co-operate when I wanted to make a heading larger.

I made the switch after reading this article on ProBlogger: The 5 Keys to Blog Useability. Some of the points are a little advanced for my current blog ability, but I took one look at my category headings and realized they were organized for MY convenience—not for a user’s convenience.

In public (rather than diary) blogging, the user is key. So in addition to changing my blog theme, I streamlined the categories, eliminating ones serving no useful purpose for a reader.

It’s a small step, but I think a good one. 🙂

Book Review: The Princess Bride

The Princess Bride
S. Morgenstern’s Classic Tale of True Love and High Adventure
By William Goldman

You’ve seen the movie, oh, about a thousand times, so reading the book seems pointless. Do it anyway.

The Premise

This is like trying to write the premise of Star Wars. True love, Buttercup and Westley, Prince Humperdink, the Cliffs of Insanity, the man in black, Fezzik the Giant, Inigo Montoya, “Never go up against a Sicilian when death is on the line!” “As you wish!”, Rodents of Unusual Size, the Fire Swamp, Miracle Max, the six-fingered man, the Dread Pirate Roberts, and happily ever after. Imagine watching the movie, but getting more of it, because the experience of reading the book is just like watching the movie—complete with asides by the author, who claims to have first heard the story as a little boy.

The Pain

I wouldn’t go so far as saying the book is better than the movie. There are some jokes that work much better as visuals, but where those fall flat, Goldman has plenty more zingers that just never made the cut to the screen. You could say the pace is not as tight because the author takes the time to go back and give Fezzik’s story, and Inigo’s story, as well as more details behind the other characters. Anyone who wants to be a novelist or a screenwriter should read this book because you can clearly see what parts Goldman cut (he adapted it for the screenplay as well) and why, and how it was tightened, and how they made some scenes work when they had to cut lots of expository information to fit it all into the movie. Both the book and the movie work brilliantly, so this, my friends, is how it’s done.

The Payoff

I used to scoff at the idea of having a favorite book—there are so many I love!—but after reading The Princess Bride, this is officially my favorite book. There’s more of Westley and Buttercup’s romance in the book than there was in the movie (not a lot more, but a little!). I read slowly, savoring every turn of phrase because I was having too much fun experiencing it for the first time. The adventure is both old and new. It has everything, and it’s told in such a delightfully satiric and warm-hearted vein that I know I’ll want to read it again. And again. And probably read it to my children one day.

Rating:

5 out of 5 arrows

Wednesday Writing: Written Word Time Machine

Tee-hee . . . I have a new nickname for Tom, the nice, serial-dating heartbreaker in Broadway High. This nickname is low-brow and simple—so 7th grade and exactly what I needed, since my heroine coins the phrase after Tom dumped her best friend back when they’re all seventh graders. When it occurred to me, I felt like I was back on the green vinyl seats of the school bus, snickering with my best friend Becky. Ready for it?

Tom-Ass.

Heh-heh. (Shut up, Beavis.)

This is one of the things I loved about writing a YA book, especially one set in my own personal version of the real world. I had to claw back through my memories, force my 30-year-old brain into the thinking patterns and concerns a 17-year-old (or in this nickname’s case, a 13-year-old) would have. It was like stretching an old muscle, an adventure that often turned up things I had completely forgotten.

Even if you don’t try write much, or you aren’t aiming to write a novel or publish, try to write down a childhood or teenage memory in detail. Maybe it’s a funny story, or a difficult time, or just something that has always stuck with you. Whatever you choose, the act of writing it down somehow makes that memory come alive in a new way. Maybe you’ll realize you learned something from that experience. Or maybe it’ll just make you laugh (and make for a good facebook post). But either way, it won’t be a waste of time.

Heh-heh.

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