Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

How to Ruin a Book at the Last Minute: Part 1, The Importance of Endings

March 25th, 2015 | Books, The Writing Craft, Uncategorized | 4 Comments

brick green no smile b:wI’m starting a new series today, one that will last until I run out of things to say on the topic or until I get bored, whichever comes first. I’ve received several ending-related questions over the past few weeks as well as been disappointed by the endings of several otherwise-good submissions I’ve read lately, so I thought we’d spend a few weeks talking about how to end a novel as effectively as you began it.

There are a whole lot of resources out there to help you craft a dynamite beginning of a novel– plenty of “first five chapters” workshops, lots of conversation on the importance of a great opening sentence, a bunch of opinions on how soon in a book the action needs to kick off– but not as much attention paid to how to END a novel well. It makes sense; the beginning is what makes someone decide whether or not to keep reading, and therefore gets most of the responsibility for selling a book to an agent, editor, or reader, but too often, all this emphasis on the beginning of a novel leads to some neglected or rough endings by comparison, and endings are what make someone decide whether or not to look for another book from that author. If you’ve managed to entice a reader into picking up your book and making it all the way through, you want them to stick around longer than just that one book. This week, we’ll talk about how the end of a story and the end of a book are (or should be) connected, as well as preview some of the topics we’ll address over the next few weeks.

“When is a book done?” “When is a story over?” These questions came in separately, and while they’re asking about two different things, the answers are related. A complete story has been told when the major conflict has come to a head (climax) and the events of the plot and sub-plot have been resolved in the aftermath of the climax (denouement). A book is done (or should be done) when the story has been told. The majority of problems I have with endings can be traced to a failure on the part of the author to either A) finish the story satisfactorily before ending the book, or B) end the book when the story is over.

Let’s look at problem A first– failure to finish the story to the reader’s satisfaction. Obviously, “reader satisfaction” is a subjective quality, and you can always find a reader who will want more details or more resolution than whatever you’ve given them, but for the most part, readers expect that the major conflict will be resolved (or at least ONE major conflict will be resolved or brought to a stopping point, in the case of individual books in a series), loose ends related to subplots or secondary characters will be tied up, and some lingering questions will at least be addressed, if not answered. When an author loses track of a subplot, or introduces a secondary character and a problem or scenario and then never brings it up again, the reader is left feeling cheated, and justifiably so.

That’s not to say that everything has to be sewn up tidily at the end of a book– unanswered questions, relationships in limbo, and continuing conflict are all parts of life and therefore are legitimate choices for inclusion in fiction, but there has to be some kind of resolution (a “story” is defined at its most basic, after all, as having a beginning, middle and end), and  the reader does have to be left with the sense that the author is still in control of his universe and is fully aware of the lack of resolution rather than feeling like the author has been stringing them along and dumped them in the middle of nowhere without a map, or worse still, that the author has forgotten about the plot holes, unsolved mysteries, and unfinished subplots. The former feels like a con on the part of the author, and the latter like bad craftsmanship.

Problem B is less frustrating, but almost more damaging to the reader’s perception of your book. Psychology 101 teaches that people’s memory/impressions are tied most strongly to primacy and recency– in other words, the things that stick with us the most from a study session or a conversation or a movie or a book are the first things we see or hear, and the last, or most recent, things we see or hear. There could be a lot of good stuff in the middle, and we might enjoy it while we’re reading/watching/studying, but that middle content just doesn’t stick with us like first and last impressions. Need proof? Think about someone you see on a regular basis, such as a coworker or a teacher or a pastor. You can probably recall the first time you saw or met that person, or at least one of your earliest interactions with them– where it took place, maybe who else was around, perhaps even some aspects of their appearance, such as a different hair color or cut– and you can probably recall what your last conversation/interaction with them was about and where it took place, or even what they were wearing the last time you saw them, but you probably can’t pin down a whole lot of specific outfits or conversations or sermon topics from the time between when you first and last saw or heard them. If you’ve ever had a falling-out with a friend, you know that your perception of that person is colored by your most recent interaction– even if you had five great years of friendship with them, if it ended badly, with an ugly confrontation or hurt feelings, that’s going to be how you remember that person.

What this means for authors is that, even if a reader loved the beginning of your book enough to keep reading, and even if you do a great job of building tension and they really enjoy reading the middle, that enthusiasm will be tempered with apathy if the ending leaves them cold– you want them to remember feeling excitement and satisfaction at the end of the book, not just pleasant interest, so you want to end the book while the reader is still basking in the emotional high of the climax rather than giving them time to come back down to neutral, emotionally, while you drag out the book for four more chapters. This causes the reader’s last impression of your book to be more tame or more forgettable than it could have been had the book ended at a point closer to the emotional high point.

I’ll be talking more about how to avoid anticlimax while still satisfying the reader’s need for resolution after the climax in the coming weeks. Next week, I’ll be talking more about denouement and how to give readers the resolution they expect without letting the momentum of your story peter out. If you have any ending-related questions or issues you’d like me to address in this series, let me know in the comments! As always, thanks for reading. 

 

Using your Writing Group to Promote Literacy (a guest blog)

March 13th, 2015 | Uncategorized | 2 Comments

I never have trouble getting up before my alarm rings on a Saturday morning. For one, I’m looking forward to my weekly blog, SATURDAISIES, to go live. And second, it’s time to get together with my writing group, The Flying M-Inklings.

Let’s do confessions, shall we?

If I ever walked into our beloved coffee shop, The Flying M, and some oblivious and under-formed new guy was sitting at our M-Inkling table, I would probably commit a crime.Writing Group

(I’m not proud of it.)

But I’m kinda like the guy who walks into church on a Sunday morning to find that someone is sitting in his pew? Some oblivious and under-informed new guy and his wife – with four or five rugrats in tow? And the guy whose pew has been hijacked has to get his heart right with the Lord again because instead of being gracious and welcoming this new family into the church, all he really wants to do is clock him with a candle holder?

I would need a Divine intervention to stop me before somebody had to call the po-po… just sayin’.

Brilliance happens around our table. It’s where we M-Inklings make our plans and dream our dreams. It’s where we laugh and cry, sometimes at the same time. It’s where we write. I have christened that table, and it is ours. There’s no metaphor there – when we sneaked in a bottle of champagne to celebrate our one-year anniversary together, I popped the lid off of that sucker and the bubbly cascaded all over the table, the chairs, the floor, my lap… marking that sacred place. Ever since then, the Flying M-Inklings have made it a point to leave our mark wherever we go.

(There’s your metaphor.)

Your writing group should leave a mark on this planet. If your group has not considered how to promote literacy in your community and get your name out there, here are some suggestions.Flying M

 

  • First and foremost, THINK BIG! Ideas become things. Synergy fuels your collective creativity. The possibilities are endless, so go fearlessly into your world and invest in people. The rewards are phenomenal – you win as a writer in tandem with the other members of your group, and your community benefits as well. You will change lives – that’s not hyperbole – that’s a fact.

 

  • Build an online presence. You know your group needs a website, right? Don’t even pray about this – it’s a no-brainer. If you have caught the M-Inkling vision of becoming greater than the sum of your parts and your group becomes an entity all its own, then all your efforts deserve an online presence. On our website, we all post excerpts of our writing along with any and all of our events, but we also provide writing tips for writers everywhere. We share our experiences as we journey toward being published and the strategies we’ve used to market our products and self-promote and how we continually hone this craft we love so much. We don’t do everything right, and we’re glad to share those stories too. Learn from our mistakes. Be inspired by our struggles and our victories. Take what you can from us and give us helpful hints as well. We’d love to partner with other writing groups and build stronger networks. And we are pretty darn friendly.

 

  • Use your writing group to promote literacy. Four out of our seven have worked in the education industry, and three of us still do. Obviously, we are going to have opportunities to serve in this arena.

Nic is very involved with the Scholastic Writing/Art Contest. This is an amazing organization who gives young writers the opportunity to be heard and, ultimately, provides college scholarships. The first thing Nic had the M-Inklings do is stuff envelopes at his house to promote the event. Then we spent one of our Saturdays jurying students’ submissions for the state of Idaho. We were so encouraged by these young writers. Their work was amazing, and we were blown away by their talent. See how happy we are? Working together to help young writers would put a smile on your face too!

 

Katie is organizing a mobile book drive this summer called, The Lunch Bunch Book Club. She has partnered with the Oasis Summer Feeding Program, an organization that feeds children from low-income families in the summer months. The M-Inklings are collecting books right now for children ages 3 – 11, and we will be loaded up her son’s Ford F-150 (unless we can get a truck or RV dealer here in town to partner with us, which I’ll bet we could) and take this mobile library out to these neighborhood children.

 

Don’t ever pass up an opportunity to connect with people in your area. Right now Colby is currently mentoring a young writer for his senior project. Additionally, both he and Shannon are also looking into coming to the school where Nic and Daisy work to talk to our students about blogging and writing careers. Volunteer to work with agencies who share a common vision to promote reading and writing. Always be ready to jump in and make that difference everyone says they want to make. Do it.

 

  • Become known in the community.

 

We were pretty thrilled last November to host a write-in at the Flying M for NaNoWriMo. As it turns out, Colby knows a gal who was part of the NaNo effort here in the Treasure Valley, and she put the word out for us. Every Saturday of November from 7:30 – 11:00, we met with writers in our area at the Flying M Coffee Shop and wrote our little hearts out. (Incidentally, Colby hit his 50,000-word goal while AT the M on our very last Saturday – which we celebrated! I’ve only ever hit my 50,000 words the first time I participated in NaNo and write fewer and fewer words every year. I don’t want to talk about it.)

 

Very soon, the new Nampa Public Library is opening, and that is BIG NEWS for us! The M-Inklings will be seeking out ways we can help promote literacy among their clientele. We’ve talked about the possibility of providing students of all ages with free writing help with their schoolwork in exchange for free space for our writing workshops for people in the community who are toying with the idea of writing books or magazine articles or starting blogs. Our hope is that those in the latter group will pay for our expertise and help us offset all the vacations we like to take together. (When The Flying M-Inklings start handling money, I’ll have to check back in and let you know how that goes. But this is in our near future, so in the meantime, if your writing group has any advice for us on the subject of sharing group money, we’d like to hear it!)

 

Finally, we are in talks now with our beloved coffee shop to sponsor our very first Flying Mic Writers’ Night where we M-Inklings as well as other writers from the community read their work and slam down some poetry. Daisy will sell a few books. Brandon and Katie will promote the books that they’re working on. Shannon and Colby will promote their blogs. We’re hoping Cody can come down and make an appearance. And we’re pretty much going to make Nic emcee the whole event. (He’s only now finding this out as he reads this with you…)

 

These are only a few options of a myriad of possibilities. If your writing group is out in your community like we are, then we definitely want to hear from you. We want ideas! We are curious to know what kind of events you are sponsoring. Where are you in this process? Does your group make money? How do you handle all that? What are your ideas about the ultimate writing group? The M-Inklings will be checking in here on Chip’s blog, and we’ll write you back and answer any questions you may have. As you can see, we have some questions for you!Daisy

 

Talk soon!

Daisy Rain

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Daisy Rain Martin is Editor in Chief for RAIN Magazine. She is also the author of Juxtaposed: Finding Sanctuary on the Outside and If It’s Happened to You, which can both be found on her website. Look for Hopegivers: Hope is Here in 2015.

Join the Rainy Dais Community and Friend Daisy on Facebook, Pinterest, and Twitter. The incredibly talented creator of the Flying M-Inklings logo is Geoff Siler @ www.geoffsiler.com

The Pros and Cons of Prologues

March 11th, 2015 | The Writing Craft, Uncategorized | 3 Comments

brick green no smile b:wThis week’s post is one I always think about writing after attending a writer’s conference, the reason being that, for every three manuscripts I’m handed at a conference, two of them (on average) begin with a prologue. Now, there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with starting your book with a prologue, but over the past few years, there seems to have been an increase in authors treating a prologue like a required element of a novel. It’s not.  The problem with this trend is that, in many cases, these prologues are either boring, unnecessary, or straight-up misnamed, so that, right off the bat, I’m distracted or distanced from the story rather than drawn in the way I want to be by the first page of a manuscript. This doesn’t mean beginning with a prologue is always a bad idea, just that you should be sure you understand the function of a prologue and whether your story is best-served by one.

What is a prologue? A prologue is an introductory part of the story (meaning, it’s fictional– not to be confused with a forward or an introduction, which are written from the point of view of a real person such as an author, as opposed to a character or the narrator) that, for whatever reason, doesn’t “match” the rest of the story. Examples include a piece of the story told from a different perspective, such as when the prologue is told from the point of view of the murder victim while the rest of the story is told from the point of view of the murderer, or taking place in a different time period, such as when the prologue shows a scene which takes place during the Civil War while the rest of the story takes place in 1978. A prologue along these lines is used when an author wants to make sure the reader has a certain piece of information or sees the beginning events of the story through a specific lens. So, sure, there are times when a prologue is completely appropriate, even necessary, but there are more when it’s not. Here are a few of them:

  • When it’s an info-dump. There’s a difference between necessary backstory or an important scene/event from the past and an entire chapter of background information on your main character. I’d say about half of the prologues I see fall into this category. It makes sense– the backstory of your main character is often some of the first writing you do as you’re getting to know your characters and where they’re coming from, so it’s fine for a birth-to-present account of your main character’s life to be the first thing that ends up on the page, but it’s not where the story starts. It’s not the first thing you want people reading (which works out real well, since it’s also not the first thing people want to read). All that development is important for you to know, but your reader doesn’t need to know it all right at the beginning (and sometimes, they never need to know it). Let that information inform your writing, but don’t expect the reader to wade through it all to get to the story of what’s happening to your main character now. Note: this is especially applicable to fantasy novels– I need to be drawn immediately into the story and connect with the characters, and a “prologue” that’s really just a detailed history of your world’s politics and flora and fauna and warring unicorn herds doesn’t do that. Sow the information we NEED artfully throughout the novel, and get us involved and caring about the main characters in the present moment as soon as possible, keeping in mind that this doesn’t usually happen in a prologue.
  • When it’s unnecessary. Every character has defining moments in their past, every story is informed by past events, and sometimes, showing the reader one of these moments or events is an effective way to establish the stakes or set a certain tone– if the reader knows from the prologue that the main character watched his sister drown when he was seven, they’re immediately going to understand what’s at stake when he gets assigned to investigate a child’s drowning death. There’s a lot to be said, however, for letting some suspense build about why a character is so afraid of a particular circumstance or why she has such a problem with commitment– not every break-up or parents’ divorce or traumatic experience in a character’s past needs to be shown in a prologue, and I see a lot of manuscripts starting out with an unremarkable or non-compelling scene from the past; your story is often better served by starting with the events of your unique story rather than a scene that feels familiar. If a prologue doesn’t drastically affect the way the reader experiences the story, why include it?
  • When it’s mislabeled. Finally, I’ve seen plenty of manuscripts  in which the author seemed to think “prologue” is just what you’re supposed to call the first chapter– truly, “prologues” which are no different in tone or timeline or perspective from the rest of the manuscript are not prologues! Labeling them such doesn’t make your book fancier or more complex, it makes your reader confused about why content that’s part of the story proper has been labeled prologue.

Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not against a prologue that immediately draws me into the story by giving me vital information or sets the tone in an importent way, but it shouldn’t be used as a lazy substitute  for sowing backstory artfully throughout a book or thrown in just because you think you need one. Bring your reader into the book at the moment your story starts and get him to connect with your characters as soon as possible (and make sure the first pages an agent or editor read are representative of your writing skill– prologues sometimes don’t reflect the voice/technique of the rest of the manuscript). If the best way to do that is with a prologue, write a great one, and if your prologue gets in the way of that, get rid of it and good riddance!

The Makings of a Successful Writing Group (a guest blog)

March 6th, 2015 | Uncategorized | 9 Comments

When I decided to start a writing group, I didn’t just slap something up on social media or tack a flyer on the bulletin board of a book store or coffee shop to solicit writers. I privately recruited people whose writing I had already read and respected – people I liked. After I secured my top picks, I put the idea out on Facebook WITH some conditions. I listed the genres that need not apply, apologized in advance for not welcoming them with open arms, and wished them well. For fear of offending anyone, I won’t list those genres here. Let’s just say that I am prone to flashbacks from having to endure the readings of exhaustingly plodding poems about leaves or some convoluted mash-up of intergalactic contention between angels and space aliens that left me twitchy by the end. I have no poker face. I just don’t relish having to slap on an encouraging smile as I ride out lengthy descriptions of serial-killer-high-school-science-teachers slashing body parts in some haunted shack off the I-70 in Eastern Utah. There’s a reason I don’t read that stuff. If I’m being honest, the only book I’ve ever read by horror master Stephen King is his book on writing which is called… and this is brilliant… On Writing. It’s a page-turner! And it didn’t make me pee down the side of my leg. In any case, regardless of your genre of choice, get into a group that is able to support you the best.Stephen King

Once you get a group together, here are some brass tacks to make sure it moves and grooves like it should:

  • Meet once a week. It’s a big commitment, but the time you invest in this group will return to you tenfold and more. We’ve talked with groups who only meet once a month. Guess what? They don’t have websites. They don’t go on field trips. They aren’t making any kind of an impact on their communities. They aren’t building their platforms, and many aren’t getting published. They write, and they critique each other – period – which is fine if that’s all a group wants to do. But The Flying M-Inklings have higher aspirations, and so do most writers we talk to.
  • Find the perfect number of members for your group. The Flying M-Inklings have seven members, six who meet regularly plus Cody who we’ve named our M-Inkling Emeritus because he moved away. (He still shares his writing wisdom on our site.) Keep the group small enough so that solid relationships can be built but large enough so that if one or even two members can’t make it one week, it doesn’t leave a gaping hole in the group.
  • Once members are fully committed, be loyal to one another. When the M-Inklings first began to meet, we were liquid. No one was necessarily permanent. We stayed fluid and tested the reliability and loyalty of our members with a rule that basically said if a person is gone three consecutive weeks, they’re out. As we got to know each other and people proved their commitment to the group (not to mention their writing chops), we began to gel. After a year-and-a-half, we are concrete. People can move out of state, and they are still very much a part of us and will be forever. Our vision is to becomWriting Groupe iridium in the years to come, resistant to corrosion. Till death do us part.
  • Have a regular submission schedule and set aside one week a month that is devoted to business. The M-Inklings have a private Facebook page where we communicate with each other and post our submissions. At the top of the page, Colby has magically made our submission schedule stick to the top. (He’s handy like that.) Katie and I know we’re always up the first Saturday of the month. Nic and Shannon are the following week, and Colby and Brandon The fourth (and fifth when there is one) Saturday of each month is when we get down to the business of our website; we plan our field trips, retreats, and community outreach endeavors. We also sit in a think tank and dream up new and fresh ways to get ourselves into trouble. Flexibility is key, obviously, but the structure has helped us to be phenomenally productive.
  • Make sure writers submit a few days before your group meets. This way everyone else has time to read, contemplate, and provide a quality examination of the work. Members should come prepared to have a meaningful conversation. The only time we ever read to each other is during our annual retreat in October or while our families are all camping together in the summers. We don’t expect one another to necessarily critique those pieces – we simply enjoy and talk about them. If your group’s protocol is to read the work right there in the meeting, expecting people to shoot from the hip in response, their feedback is probably lacking. No… their feedback is lacking, sorry to say; however, if you plan ahead and make sure your group can read your work before everyone arrives, this is easily remedied. Your time will be much better spent and your critiques will be meaningful and beneficial.Flying M
  • Have a plan for how your group will spend your time together. Our group is together every Saturday for three hours. We’ll take the first hour and talk, laugh, eat a bagel, and simply catch up on how our lives are going. It’s pretty chill – we have to wait for the caffeine to kick in, after all. The second hour is when we critique whichever two people have submitted pieces that week. The third hour, we write. Not one minute is wasted – especially not that first hour when all we do is sit and shoot the breeze. I think that’s been the magic that is us. We straight up love each other. The M-Inklings produce a colossal amount of work, we get out into the community, and we’re making a name for ourselves. Believe me, we’re busy too. But the best work we do is friendship – hands down – and we consider that first hour every Saturday nothing less than sacred.
  • Don’t get your panties in a wad if someone (or everyone) in the group pans your work. Yeah, I said it. This friendship that you build with each other comes in darn handy when there is constructive criticism “Flying” around. Being vulnerable in your writing is the nature of the beast and, to be frank, every member has to possess a measure of maturity if the group is going to be successful. Take it or leave it, but be open to whatever the others have to say. I submitted a piece once about rage – I thought it would be really edgy. The group thought it was hiLARious! They laughed their butts off, and then they all did Daisy Martin impressions with their favorite lines. Did I storm off? Did I throw a fit? Did I threaten to quit? No. I told them, “I can’t stand any of you,” and they laughed even harder. Good self-esteem is a non-negotiable. If you can’t handle your work being sidelined by the people who love you, you might want to avoid ever pitching it to agents and publishers who reject people for a living.
  • Celebrate every victory. Without this, you’re all writing with invisible ink, and you won’t last. People will reach their goals and see their literary dreams come true. Don’t allow those moments to disappear without fanfare. Throw a party, have a BBQ, or sneak some champagne into your beloved coffee shop so you can make mimosas!

I’m sure there are many of you out there who could add to this list. Maybe you agree with us or maybe you disagree with something. What say you? (We all have good self-esteem and promise not to get our panties in a wad!) Start a thread and put your wisdom on this post for us and for everybody else – we’ll get on and write you back!

Daisy

 

Daisy

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Daisy Rain Martin is editor in chief for RAIN Magazine. She is also the author of Juxtaposed: Finding Sanctuary on the Outside and If It’s Happened to You, which can both be found on her website. Look for Hopegivers: Hope is Here in 2015.

After a Conference: Next Steps

March 3rd, 2015 | Career, Conferences, Resources for Writing, The Writing Craft, Uncategorized | 3 Comments

brick green no smile b:wI’ve talked before about the value of a good writer’s conference as a place to connect with mentors/writing partners and as a reward/motivating factor in meeting your writing deadlines. Since I just got back from a writer’s conference, I thought I’d talk about some post-conference steps you can take to make sure you get the most out of your experience, because as fun or as encouraging as writer’s conferences can be, you’re not getting the most out of your time and money if you don’t follow up on the new information and contacts you encountered there. Here are a few ways to maximize your conference experience after you get home.

  • Organize new contact info (before you lose it). Save email addresses and phone numbers, make notes about who was who while you still remember– if you’re keeping business cards, write some reminders on the card, such as “French parenting book” or “talked about Star Trek.” This will help you keep all your new acquaintances straight and give you a talking point to start from if you contact them in the future.
  • Compile new information/feedback. Go through your notes from workshops and meetings, look over the comments on any manuscripts you shared for critique, and highlight or copy the pieces of advice that resonated the most, as well as the pieces you have questions about or didn’t understand. This way, you have all your favorite advice in one place to look over and remind yourself of, and you have the things you need to think more about/ask more questions on in one spot for reference if you want to email the workshop teacher for clarification or decide explore a topic more at a future conference.
  • Compare advice. Between workshops, critique groups, and agent/editor meetings, you can come away from a writing conference with a whole bunch of suggestions for your work, and they’re not always going to agree! Before you can decide which advice to take, you’ll need to compare the different feedback you received. Make a list of each general piece of criticism you received– too many adjectives, voice not strong enough, pacing inconsistent, etc.– and add a check to the list for everything you heard more than once (additional checks for additional times). Don’t forget to track your positive feedback, too– if you receive multiple compliments on your characters or voice, make note of it. Anything you have more than one check mark for is probably worth some consideration, either as an area you need to work on, or as a strong point you want to continue to highlight. Consider also the source– if you were told one thing by a beginning writer in a critique group and another by a longtime editor in your genre, you should usually lend more weight to the opinion of the more experienced critic.
  • Take action. Once you’ve identified some areas for improvement or collected some strategies for improving your writing and writing habits, take specific action steps to work on those areas and implement those strategies. If your dialogue needs work, seek out some novels in your genre with great dialogue. If you got some helpful time management tips, buy a planner and revamp your schedule/goal list. If your characters are two-dimensional, find a writing partner who is great with character development.
  • Follow up with new contacts. If an agent or editor requested materials, send them. don’t wuss out! If you met a new friend who you might want to form a critique partnership with, follow up and feel them out on that possibility. If you took an especially helpful class from a faculty member, send them an email thank you– it’s always nice to hear.

Don’t let your conference experience be limited to the time you’re actually on-site. Review your new info, follow up on new connections, and take some steps to apply what you learned!

What have you always wanted to ask an agent?

February 25th, 2015 | Uncategorized | 3 Comments

In the month of March we’re going to invite writers to send in the questions they have always wanted to ask a literary agent. Normally we tackle one question per day, and try to go into it in-depth, but in March I want to fill up the calendar with questions, and respond to as many questions as I can from readers of this blog. So just start an email, write down the question you’ve always wanted to ask someone in publishing, and send it to chip at MacGregor Literary (d0t) com. I promise to get to a bunch of questions over the next month. Looking forward to it! You in?

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-chip

 

 

 

 

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Before You Write: Part 6, Next Steps

February 18th, 2015 | The Writing Craft, Uncategorized | 2 Comments

brick green no smile b:wI’m wrapping up my “Before You Write” series today with a post that’s a bit of a cheat, since it actually has more to do with the end of the writing process than the beginning; that is, what you’re going to do with the finished manuscript when you’re done. It’s worth mentioning because, as I’ve said once or twice (or seventeen times) during this series, the purpose of pre-writing exercises and plans is to make it easier to sustain your momentum during the actual writing process. To that end, knowing in advance what you’re going to do with your completed novel when it’s finished can help you avoid the post-writing slump and take some meaningful action with the result of all your hard work. Having a plan for your finished novel can also help motivate you to stick with it when you hit those middle-of-the-book doldrums.  Here are some suggestions for next steps you may want to have in mind on the front end of the process.

  • Take your manuscript to a writers’ conference. Even if it’s not ready to be published, a writers’ conference can be a fabulous place for a manuscript to continue to take shape. Between writing workshops, opportunities for private critique, and chances to pitch your book to agents and editors, you can leave a good writers’ conference with some really helpful feedback and a better sense of what should actually be next for your manuscript. If you’re an experienced writer or a really fantastic first-time writer, you might come away with some good leads as far as editors or agents who might be interested in your book, and if you’re newer to the writing scene, you will most likely get some valuable direction for how to improve your pitch or your manuscript before seriously attempting to get it published. If you have a rough idea of when you’ll be done with a draft of your manuscript, get online and find out what conferences might be taking place around the same time– if you register now, you’ll be doubly motivated to stick with your writing schedule so as to get the most out of your money at the conference.
  • Write a query letter and proposal for your manuscript. If you know your ultimate goal is to pursue traditional publication for your manuscript, you’re going to need a solid query letter and proposal at some point in the future, so why not harness the momentum that carried you through the writing process and get them down on paper right away after completing your book? You can always come back and polish/expand on a proposal later, but you’ll be glad you gave yourself something to work with before your enthusiasm/writing energy died down. In addition, having a proposal/query ready to go will make you more likely to take your manuscript to a writing group or conference because you’ve already created the documents you’ll need, and helps you to start to think about your novel in terms of the “pitch;” what the big-picture elements are that you’ll want to focus on when talking about your book to others. If creating these documents is part of your post-writing plan, add them onto your schedule/goals now so you don’t stop writing as soon as the manuscript itself is done.
  • Distribute it to a trusted group of beta readers. I talked a lot more about beta readers and where to find them in this post from a couple months back, so I won’t repeat myself too much here, but deciding at the front end of the writing process that your first step post-writing will be to let a select few people read it and offer their feedback is a great first step in getting over the sometimes-terrifying hurdle of letting other people see and critique your writing. Newsflash: if you want to be published, you have to learn how to deal with the possibility that other people will read your book and will not like it. Even if you self-publish rather than pursue publication through agents and editors, you will eventually be in a place where people can access your work and make unlimited unsolicited comments about it. And I know that’s not an entirely pleasant idea, but it’s a LOT easier to get there via baby steps– starting out with two or three beta readers who will be honest but supportive before moving on to agents and editors who will be even more honest but potentially slightly less supportive before ending up in front of Amazon reviewers who will sometimes be honest and will occasionally be complete trolls– than it is to go straight to being judged freely by the Internet at large. If you don’t start out the writing process with a specific commitment, even just to yourself, to let certain other people see your work, you run the risk of chickening out once the manuscript is in your hands and shoving it in the back of a drawer for your grandchildren to discover once you’re dead. For extra accountability, inform/ask your beta readers now that you’re writing a book and let them know your target finish date so they will bug you for copies when the date arrives.

That’s it for the “Before You Write” series; thanks for reading, and come back next week when I’ll hopefully have thought of something else craft-related to blog about! As always, suggestions or questions for future posts always welcome in the comments.

Before You Write: Part 5, Surefire Ways to Fail

February 11th, 2015 | Uncategorized | 1 Comment

brick green no smile b:wI’ve been spending the past few weeks outlining some before-you-write strategies that can help position you for greater success during the novel-writing process. Today, I’m talking about what is probably the easiest step in the whole writing process: quitting! Seriously, you wouldn’t even believe how easy it is to let your writing ambition die a quiet death while your day job and your personal life and your volunteer commitments and your own psyche chip away at your writing time and your confidence and your momentum. I’ve been droning for five weeks about all kinds of exercises and plans and busywork you can do before you even begin to write your novel, and guess what: it only gets harder from there! So who needs that kind of aggravation and stress in their lives, right? Right, you say! You’ve had enough of juggling to make room for writing and then of struggling to get published, you want out! But, you say, you feel so “passionate” about your story, or you “love” writing so much, or you feel such a sense of “accomplishment” when you finish a book, blah blah blah– how can you just let all that go, you may be asking? Well, here are some really good ways to wuss out on writing your novel before you even start.

  • Set an imaginary deadline for yourself. Wait, you might be saying. I thought deadlines could help motivate me? Well, sure, they can when you stick to the goals you need to in order to meet them, but what about when you fall behind? Example: I’ve attempted to participate in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) three or four times, “attempted” being a word which here means “I’ve briefly entertained the crazy notion and made vague efforts towards starting a novel during the month of November.” The problem with NaNoWriMo for me is always the reality that, if I am going to complete 50,000 words by the end of the month, I have to average 1600 words per day. Not impossible, right? But inevitably, early in the month there will be a day (coughthefirstdaycough) when I don’t hit my target word count. And then another day, and another (otherwise known as the second and third days). Now the mental tally I’m keeping reminds me that I either have to write 6000 words in one day to catch up, or bump up my daily goal up by a couple hundred words for the rest of the month. And then I miss another day, falling further behind, and another, and now my daily word count is completely unrealistic and I have no hope of finishing the novel by the end of the month and that’s the whole point of the stupid game, isn’t it, to finish a novel by the last day in November, so if I’m not going to come anywhere close to that I might as well just forget the whole thing.This kind of attitude, especially when your deadline is completely self-imposed (i.e., “I want to finish this novel before my baby is born”), just makes it easy to make excuses for yourself for quitting. “But my goal was to write 5000 words per week and be done with my first draft in four months, and now that I’ve completely missed two weeks and come up short in the third, I might as well just abandon this and try again in a couple months. Or years.” Or worse, “Well, it didn’t happen before I moved/had kids/took that job, so now it’s too late.” Sound familiar? While it is discouraging to fall short of the goals you set yourself, that shouldn’t be a cue to give up completely, but rather a prompt to reevaluate the goals you set and figure out what you need to do differently in order to accomplish them, whether that’s make more room in your schedule or adjust your goals to be more attainable.
  • Be hypercritical of every word you write. Nothing spoils a writing party like letting the Judge show up early. Editing as you go is fine to an extent– many authors prefer to start out their writing time with a quick once-over edit of the content they created the day before– but if you second-guess every word choice, every syntax choice, or every line of dialogue as you write it, you’re going to nitpick yourself into a paralyzed standstill. Not to mention you’re going to rob yourself of the joy/fun of the writing process, which will further lessen your motivation to write. Save the Judge persona for the end of the writing process– after you’ve gotten your story down on paper, polished it up and fixed the trouble spots is the time for you to be ruthless in your evaluation of what’s good and what’s not.
  • Write in a vacuum. It’s ten times easier to let your writing ambitions quietly fizzle out if no one else knows about them. Sure, it can be terrifying to let people know you’re writing a book, especially if you don’t know a lot of other writers or if you’ve never written a book before–  maybe the second you start to tell someone else about your plot, you start thinking how dumb it sounds, or you timidly mention to a coworker that you’re writing a novel and now they ask you weekly when it’s going to be published– but having the accountability that comes from being vulnerable enough to tell some of the people in your life what you’re working on can be invaluable in motivating you to keep pursuing your goals. Using my pathetic attempts to participate in NaNoWriMo as an example once again, I can tell you that HECK no, I didn’t tell anyone I was planning to try and I definitely didn’t join any of those online encouragement groups for tracking your progress– if I was going to fizzle out, I was for darn sure going to do it behind closed doors so no one could witness my shame and failure. Now, for a fairly gimmicky event like NaNoWriMo, the stakes were pretty low if I ended up deciding to quit, but if I’m serious about pursuing a career as a writer, or even just serious about finishing a story I’m passionate about, I owe it to myself to be a little more public about my commitment so I have some positive peer pressure lined up for the days I feel like backing out.

Obviously, if you’ve gotten this far in entertaining the idea of writing a book, there is something about your story or about writing that you’re passionate about and that is worth pursuing. As you begin the process, be vigilant against the easy ways out that will crop up and tempt you to just give up– you started writing for a reason, and you owe it to yourself to see it through!

Before You Write: Part 4, Assembling a Writing Strategy

February 3rd, 2015 | The Writing Craft, Uncategorized | 2 Comments

brick green no smile b:wContinuing my series on pre-writing techniques that can help position you for a more successful writing experience, I’m talking today about assembling a strategy to help answer the “when,” “how,” and “so what” of your writing process. A lot of the pre-writing exercises I’ve discussed can be used by the savvy writer to put off the actual novel-writing process indefinitely, but if you’re one of those authors who actually wants to write his story instead of just talk/think/brainstorm about it, you’re going to want to put some kind of a plan in place to help you manage your writing time and meet your writing goals.

When are you going to write?

There are lots of people more qualified than I am to tell you how to use your time productively, what time of day/year is ideal for maximum creative synergy, how to arrange your furniture for minimum bad karma, etc., but the fact is that none of those experts is going to be helpful if you don’t start by understanding your specific lifestyle. What works for someone else may not work for you, no matter how much sense it makes on paper. When establishing a writing schedule, start by asking yourself these questions:

  • When do I feel the most energized/alert? If you can coordinate your writing time with the time of day you are mentally the most active, your writing time will be more productive.
  • When do I have the most free time? (Note: if you would argue that you don’t have any free time, answer the question this way instead: when do I spend the most time on Facebook? When do I watch the most TV? See what I did there?) Is there a way you can arrange your schedule so that your free time and your energized time coincide?
  • What can I eliminate/sacrifice in order to create more writing time? If you’re looking at your life and you truly don’t see a place to make writing happen regularly, you’re going to need to rearrange your priorities to make some room. Maybe you get up an hour earlier, or get rid of one show you watch regularly and write in that time slot instead, or plan to eat cereal for dinner one night a week to free up an hour of what used to be cooking time– if you want to write, it’s not just going to happen, you have to make space for it on your calendar.
  • Where have I struggled in the past with finding time to write? If you know that your personal Achilles heel when it comes to writing time is that you always end up spending it on housework, leave the house during your writing time– it’s hard to cheat on your writing time with laundry if you’re at Starbucks. If work email sucks you in every time you go near your computer, try writing on a spouse’s computer, or (radical measures here) turn off your WIFI during your writing time so no new emails can come in and distract you.

How/how much are you going to write?

Once you have your writing time on the calendar, the last thing you want to happen is to sit down and waste three-fourths of it figuring out how to get started. Once you know how much writing time you have to work with each day (or each week), set some realistic goals for what you want to accomplish during that time. Types of goals can include:

  • A word count– P.G. Wodehouse always wrote at least 1000 salable words per day before he’d let himself do anything else. Sometimes he’d meet that goal quickly and spend the rest of the day playing golf, and sometimes he’d spend the entire day in his study, presumably cursing. Some writers like this method of goal-setting because it’s objective– it’s easy to measure your progress and when you hit that magic number, you’re done, even if you didn’t finish a scene/chapter. This works fine for writers on a flexible schedule, but if your writing time is pretty limited, make sure your word count is realistic– you don’t want to set yourself up for frustration by choosing a goal you can’t regularly meet in the amount of writing time you have.
  • A scene/number of scenes– This works well for authors who have planned out their plots in a fair amount of detail in advance. If you already have an idea of the scenes that will make up your novel– the characters they involve, where they take place, what happens in each, etc.– you can chip away at your novel even in small increments of writing time by completing even just one scene each time you sit down to write.
  • A chapter– though this can be a sort of subjective unit of measurement, it can also be a reasonable goal for authors who’ve written enough novels to have a good feel for their normal chapter length/structure, or for authors writing types of fiction such as category romance that often has shorter chapters.

When establishing goals for your writing time, use what you already know about your writing style/preferences as a guide. For example, if you know you have a hard time beginning in the middle of a scene, plan to write a certain number of complete scenes during each block of writing time rather than making a certain word count your goal– this will ensure that you won’t stop in the middle of a scene when you reach your word count and have to face beginning in the middle of a scene the next time you write. If, however, you benefit from beginning your writing time with the momentum of a scene already in-progress, your goal could be to write from one point of tension to another, always ending your writing time at a moment when the stakes are high– a defining moment in a relationship, in the middle of an intense conversation, a situation where a character is in danger, etc., ensuring that you always come back to your story at a high-energy place.

How will you keep yourself accountable?

Sure, writing should (usually) be fun, or at least enjoyable, but that doesn’t mean that it’s also not extremely difficult at times. There are a hundred other things competing for the time and attention you devote to writing, and even if you’ve arranged your schedule to create some dedicated writing time, there’s still a very real possibility that you’ll sit down and spend it online in the name of “research” or that you’ll find something else to do with that time while promising yourself to “make up for it tomorrow.” Having some accountability measures in place can make a big difference in your productivity. Some ideas for checks and balances include:

  • An accountability partner– someone who won’t take your BS excuses and who isn’t afraid to show you some tough love if you start slacking on your writing time or squandering it away. Maybe this is someone who’s willing to text you at the beginning of your writing time to make sure you’re on track, or who will encourage you when you meet your goals, or who will kidnap your dog and hold him hostage if you don’t text them a picture of some new pages every day. Whatever motivates you.
  • A writing group– if you belong to a writing group (either an online group or an old-fashioned meets-in-person group) where you’re expected to share new content each week or each month, it can motivate you to create content in a way that’s hard to replicate without an actual deadline from a publisher staring you in the face.
  • A reward system– if you know that you’re motivated by something, figure out a way to use it to bribe yourself to be productive with your writing time. Maybe you “pay” yourself by the word and give yourself permission to use all your writing money for a luxury, or maybe you treat yourself to a weekend trip when you finish the first draft of your novel. Since it’s easy to cheat on this one, you may want to enlist a friend or spouse to award the “prize” so that you have to show the completed pages or manuscript to someone before you can collect.

Establishing a writing strategy that works for you before beginning your novel can stack the odds in your favor for a productive and positive writing experience. I’d love to hear from what other time-management or motivational techniques you’ve found helpful in creating a plan for writing success. Thanks for reading!

Before You Write: Part 3, Plotting with a Purpose

January 21st, 2015 | The Writing Craft, Uncategorized | 4 Comments

brick green no smile b:wContinuing my series on pre-writing, I’m talking today about different ways to plot your novel before sitting down to write. Figuring out your plot at the beginning of the writing process can help you:

  • distribute your writing– knowing in advance all the pieces that your story will need to include keeps you from getting bogged down/spending an inordinate number of words on minutiae or set-up
  • get a sense of your timeline– understanding the time frame of the events of your story helps you identify any out-of-place jumps or pauses
  • develop a plan B when writer’s block hits– if you get stuck in a certain scene or beat, you know what’s coming next and can move ahead and come back later instead of coming to a grinding halt while you beat your head against the wall (but maybe that’s just me)

There are as many ways to plot a novel as there are authors, and no one approach is the “perfect” one, but most authors use some variation of several common approaches to story planning. These approaches can be organized from least to most detailed, and knowing your writing process and the plot areas you most often struggle with can help you determine which level of detail will be most helpful to you– some authors enjoy the organic plot development that takes place when they’re writing toward a climax without a more rigid plan in place, while others get bogged down in the middle if they haven’t figured out all of the plot points that will take the story from beginning to climax. With that in mind, here are three common approaches to story planning and the common plot problems they can help prevent.

1. The Compass: The Story Arc or Line

At its most basic, a story arc charts the rise and fall of tension in a story. From the stasis, or the way things are at the beginning, all plots generally follow a path of increasing tension or increasing stakes to the high point or climax, after which the relieved tension leads to a new stasis or new normal where most elements of the plot have been resolved. If you chart a story arc on a line graph where the Y axis represents tension and the X axis represents the timeline of the story, the arc will be roughly hill-shaped, though will appear sharper the more quickly events escalate to the climax. If you google “story arc graph,” you’ll find thousands of variations on this type of plot organization strategy, and there isn’t one correct version of a story arc, but an effective arc graph usually includes at least the following landmarks:

  1. Stasis (the way things are)
  2. Inciting incident (the action or circumstance or revelation that gets sets the story into motion)
  3. Rising tension (a series of events or a state of being rather than an individual instance)
  4. Climax (the high point of the action where tension reaches the breaking point)
  5. Falling action (the fallout or consequences of whatever went down during the climax)
  6. Denouement (the resolution/introduction to the new normal)

Some authors don’t need to know any more detail about their plot at the beginning of the writing process than is provided by a simple story arc graph. By knowing the inciting incident, the climax, and the way things are going to end up, they have a sufficient road map to push the story in the right direction but still have the freedom to let it take shape/surprise them as they write. If you think about it in terms of an actual physical journey, a story arc as a means of plotting can be thought of as the equivalent of a compass as a navigational tool. If you know you want to get to the Pacific Ocean from Denver but don’t want to be tied down to a specific route, a compass will get you there by pointing you due west until you hit the Pacific Ocean. Everything you do and see along the way is up to you, but you’re able to keep moving in the right direction thanks to the compass (or, more accurately, thanks to knowing that the Pacific Ocean is where you want to go and that it’s due west). Identifying the major elements of your story using a story arc graph or outline can give you the same directed spontaneity in your writing.

HELPFUL IF:

  • You like to discover minor characters and subplots during the writing process
  • You struggle to stick to an outline once you’ve made it
  • You’ve been told that there isn’t enough build-up to your climax, or that your climax isn’t dramatic enough
  • You make frequent deviations from your original plot plans
  • Your characters tend to change/mutate significantly during the writing process (not to be confused with regular character growth)
  • Your story ideas tend to be more character driven than event-driven

2. Turn by Turn Directions: The Beat Sheet

Beats are the unit of storytelling used by screenwriters to organize the action events of a movie, and many authors have adopted their use into their own story planning. When you hear the term “action events,” you may jump immediately to high-octane scenes of gunfire and car chases, but in reality, the phrase simply refers to every action performed by the characters that moves the action of the story forward in a significant way. For example, a conversation your protagonist has with her best friend in which she first begins to doubt her boyfriend’s fidelity would be a beat. Sneaking a look at her boyfriend’s phone while he was in the bathroom would be another beat. Confronting him about all the texts from “Alicia” would be another. All these actions, though smaller than a big confrontation at her wedding in which she finally realizes that she’s about to marry a cheater and calls him out in front of all their friends and family (this would be more of a “climax” type of action, and also a beat) move the story forward in significant ways– her thinking is changed in the first one, she takes action in the second one, she changes the dynamic of her relationship in the third, etc.

The number of beats required to lay out an entire plot changes based on the type of story you’re writing, but will generally be between 15 (a category romance) and 30 (a complicated political thriller). If you’re confused about whether or not an event is actually a beat or not, ask yourself if anything is different after it happens– a scene in which your protagonist googles “how to know if he’s cheating” might be funny, but if it doesn’t change her thinking or incite her to action (the conversation with her friend is what really rocked her world/introduced her doubt), it’s not really a story beat. However, because story beats exist to get the actions/decisions of a story pinned down, they leave a moderate amount of space for periphery or filler scenes such as the Google one. Continuing our navigation analogy, a beat sheet is more like specific directions to the Pacific Ocean– “get on I-70 heading west, then take I-15 south, then follow the signs for Long Beach.” You know the specific landmarks and turns you need to make, but you still have the freedom to get off the highway and look around/buy some beef jerky if you want to.

HELPFUL IF:

  • You enjoy having a road map to follow when writing
  • You often struggle with writer’s block
  • Your plots have been criticized for escalating too slowly or too quickly
  • You begin with a clear sense of your major characters and their world/the settings you’ll be using
  • You enjoy (or at least aren’t bothered by) writing scenes out-of-order on occasion

3. The Guided Tour: The Outline

A full outline is the most detailed of story planning devices. Some authors love writing from an outline because a well-constructed outline can serve as a virtual blueprint for a novel, telling you exactly what scenes appear in which order, as well as the setting, the featured characters, and the point of view for each one. Not surprisingly, other authors HATE this kind of story planning, because of the lack of room for spontaneity it offers and the amount of premeditation it requires. If you like the idea of having an outline tell you exactly what you’ll be use your word count on each day, you may want to try this method of plotting. If your beat sheet laid out every action event or scene of significance to the story arc, an outline expands on that to include the trivial and expository content that round out a novel– an outline indicates where you’re going to put the protagonist’s backstory and description, which scenes are going to start out with a description of the setting, which scenes will be told from alternate points of view, where you’ll include “montage”-type scenes which establish a pattern or show the main character in her element (i.e., scenes showing a wedding planner meeting with a couple or chasing a flower girl or wrapping chairs in tulle which aren’t central to the plot but which bring the character’s daily life into focus and provide a backdrop for the action events of the plot), etc.

If story beats are turn-by-turn directions, an outline is a guided tour which takes you on a carefully scheduled and carefully routed excursion on which each rest stop, gas station, and side trip is planned in advance and the guide has a list of views he’ll direct your attention to along the way. Not everyone enjoys traveling this way, but it does ensure that you will get safely to your destination and will have seen everything you should have along the way.

HELPFUL IF:

  • You’re a control freak– in a good way
  • Your subplots have been criticized for being weak or underdeveloped
  • You’ve been told your plots are confusing
  • You have a short time frame for writing
  • You have trouble jumping back into your novel when you come back to it each day
  • You’re writing your first novel/you’ve had trouble completing a novel in the past

Obviously, there are dozens of variations on these three methods, and a quick Google search will yield a myriad of resources to help you use and adapt each one to suit your own needs, but hopefully you recognized an element of your own process or a problem you’ve struggled with and can walk away with a better idea of which story-planning method can best help you position your next novel for success! Where on the spectrum of compass/directions/guided tour does your plotting technique fall?