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Before You Write: Part 3, Plotting with a Purpose

January 21st, 2015 | The Writing Craft, Uncategorized | 3 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?

 

Before You Write: Part 2, Developing Your Characters

January 14th, 2015 | The Writing Craft, Uncategorized | 3 Comments

brick green no smile b:wLast week, I started a new series about some pre-writing strategies that can help you preemptively fix problem areas in your manuscripts. Since not every author is going to find every strategy helpful, however, I included a list of questions to ask yourself about your writing process to help you in figuring out which pre-writing exercises are worth your time. I’m talking today about some character development tools that you may find helpful if:

  • you struggle with writing multi-dimensional characters/relationships
  • you find yourself getting bored with your characters partway through a manuscript
  • you’ve struggled in writing dialogue for specific characters
  • you’ve ever been uncertain of a character’s motivation
  • you’ve received feedback about characters acting “out of character” or being inconsistent.

If any of those sound like you, some of these tools/exercises can help pave the way for a smoother, more informed relationship with your characters throughout the writing process.

Interview Your Characters

I’ve mentioned this approach to character development before, but it’s worth repeating. I often read decent, well-written manuscripts that start out with several pages/chapters of backstory and character introduction that I, as the reader don’t need to know right away (and sometimes, at all). What generally happens is that as an author begins writing about a character, that character continues to grow/take shape in the author’s mind and all of that new information ends up in the manuscript, slowing down the opening of the story and delaying the action. While it’s true that a lot of authors learn about their characters by writing about them, that material shouldn’t necessarily end up in the book, and definitely shouldn’t be dumped in a big chunk at the beginning of the narrative. Instead, consider filling out an interview questionnaire for each character that figures substantially in your story, taking some time to answer/invent the answers to a wide variety of questions that reveal the character– physical appearance, family, childhood, education, places he’s lived, significant relationships, hobbies, fears, religion, lifestyle– the more information you compile about a character, the more choices you have when writing about them.

When I was involved in theater in high school and college, we completed a similar exercise for our characters in each play/musical, even for the insignificant characters (Woman #3 in Fiddler on the Roof, anyone?), the idea being that if every actor onstage had examined his character’s relationships with the others, with the setting, and what was going on in his private life before the events of the play, every interaction that took place on stage would be informed by that knowledge and would be more lifelike because of it. Even if the audience never had occasion to find out that my character hated Woman #4 because her husband had cheated mine in business, knowing that made it easier for me to decide how to interact with her character onstage and made for a more compelling interaction between us. In the same way, your characters’ scenes are going to have more life/more flavor for you having delved deeply into their histories and personalities, and your reader will notice the difference even without being privy to all of that information.

Visit Your Characters’ Pasts

Sometimes, simply knowing that a particular event took place in your character’s life isn’t enough to be able to understand how that event affects their motivations or reactions. For example, I read a manuscript a couple of years ago in which we find out early on that the protagonist’s love interest has some traumatic event in his past, but we don’t find out until two-thirds of the way through what it was (his brother was killed when the two of them came home late one night and surprised a burglar). The story was pretty good until the climactic revelation conversation, and then– flat as a pancake. The dialogue in that scene and the conflict that arose in their relationship supposedly related to his brother’s death just didn’t ring true. I didn’t care, and the conflict seemed contrived. Now, obviously, that event was tragic, and it certainly could affect his relationship, but the problem was that the character just didn’t seem connected to that event– I didn’t buy his motives for pulling back from his relationship, and I wasn’t moved by his revelation. It felt as if the author had simply plugged a tragic event into his backstory in order to create the necessary conflict in the relationship.

A strategy I’ve found extremely helpful is to write out pivotal scenes from your character’s past so you can witness them firsthand. Seeing these determining moments through their eyes gives you a whole new level of empathy/understanding for a character, and gives a ring of truth to their conversations when they talk about it, and their actions when they’re motivated by it. Even if a scene would have no place in your finished manuscript, writing it out can be invaluable in helping you understand your characters and write their words and actions convincingly. If your character was in an abusive relationship, write out a few of those moments, as painful as that may be. If your character had a bad relationship with her parents, write out a few of their biggest fights. If your character was engaged before, write out the scene where he proposed to his first fiancee. Having these scenes in your mind will inform your writing about these characters in surprising ways.

Role-Play with Your Characters

Your characters aren’t necessarily going to spring magically to your mind or to the page fully realized. I’ve read plenty of interviews with authors in which they talk about a certain character walking into their life one day with every detail intact, but I’ve had much more experience with authors who gradually patch their characters together from bits and pieces of inspiration, learning more about them the more they write. Consider taking your main characters through some sample scenes to learn more about them. Simple scenarios such as receiving bad service at a restaurant, someone cutting in front of him in line at the bank, or being seated next to a three-year-old on a flight can help you discover a lot about your character’s personality/reactions. Is he impatient? A pushover? Soft-spoken? Sarcastic? Is she uncomfortable around children? Does he avoid confrontation or relish it? Again, you may not have much luck with the whole “put your character in a situation and wait to see what they do” approach, but you can try several different options for each scenario and see which one feels the most natural– which response was the most fun to write? Which version of your character are you most interested in? Which character choice do you see providing you with the most options or the most conflict in light of your story? Writing some sample scenes like this can prevent you from picking a character trait at random and then struggling to make it stick for the rest of the story.

As I mentioned last week, the goal for these exercises isn’t to provide you with ways to procrastinate on writing the actual story, but to help you avoid writing yourself into a dead end or stalling out when you run out of information. If you’ve had character-related trouble in the past, try one or two of these strategies and see if doing a little homework sets you up for more success in the long-term.

Before You Write: Part 1, Learn Your Process

January 6th, 2015 | The Writing Craft, Uncategorized | 4 Comments

brick green no smile b:wHappy New Year! Maybe 2015 will be the year I finally come up with a name for this Tuesday blog on craft (suggestions are welcome).

In the spirit of new beginnings, I’m going to be spending several weeks talking about some of the pre-writing processes you may find helpful as you get started on your 2015 writing projects. The more manuscripts that come across my desk, the more I’m reminded that being a competent writer does not necessarily make someone a competent storyteller: I’ve read plenty of projects in which decent writing and a good story idea or concept were undermined by significant plot and character problems. And while the surest teacher in these areas is time/experience, there are many exercises and strategies you can employ at the front end of the writing process that can improve your story structure and character development.

Because not every writer needs help in every area, and because each writer’s writing process is different, the first step in creating your pre-writing strategy is to evaluate what kind of writer you are and what pre-writing exercises will be the most helpful to you, personally. The goal of pre-writing is not to give you a dozen hoops  to jump through or a list of ways to help you procrastinate, but to help you make the most efficient use of your writing time by identifying your successes and preemptively shoring up your weaknesses. If your high school experience was anything like mine, you remember the frustration of being required to turn in junk like an outline, research notes, and a rough draft before you could turn in your final draft, just to prove that you went through the “correct” process for turning out a solid paper. (Well, Mrs. Jennings, I wrote my paper first and then created all that other stuff, so there!)

Pre-writing doesn’t have to be like that; you’re an adult, and one of the perks is that you can pick and choose whatever dang pieces of the process YOU actually find helpful. So, to prepare for the next few weeks’ worth of posts, spend some time considering the following questions and forming a picture in your head of the kind of writer you are/what your process looks like, so that you can create a personalized pre-writing plan from the exercises and strategies I’ll be talking about.

  • What are your strong points as a writer? What comes easily to you? Dialogue? Characters? Sub-plots? Settings?
  • What are your weaknesses? Where do you get the most criticism? Where do you find yourself stalling/frustrated?
  • How much content do you create at one time? I.e., do you write in scenes? Chapters? Do you set a word goal for yourself? A time limit?
  • How often do you write? Daily? Weekly?
  • Do you start your writing time by re-reading your latest content, or do you just jump right in?
  • Do you write sequentially, or do you jump around in a story?
  • Do you like to plan out your stories in advance, or just see where the characters take you?
  • Do you develop your characters before writing, or do you discover them as you’re writing?
  • Do you prefer to talk through story problems with another person, or figure them out on your own?

The better you know yourself and your processes, the more effective your pre-writing strategies will be and the more efficient your writing time.

Merry Christmas, everyone!

December 24th, 2014 | Uncategorized | 0 Comments

From all of us at MacGregor Literary

–Chip MacGregor, Amanda Luedeke, Erin Buterbaugh, Marie Prys, Holly Lorincz, and Kate MacGregor

Chip, Amanda, Erin

Favorite Books, Christmas Edition: “A Christmas Carol”

December 17th, 2014 | The Writing Craft, Uncategorized | 6 Comments

brick green no smile b:wLast week, in between hurriedly throwing a few Christmas decorations at my walls and attending “The Nutcracker” for approximately the 1,247th time, I managed to keep my yearly date with A Christmas Carol. I always caution myself that it cannot possibly be as good as I remember, but every year it’s better. With each successive reading, the charm and earnestness and pure skill of the writing is more apparent, and if you doubt this book’s place in a blog on the writing craft, you probably haven’t read it in awhile. This book was a labor of love for Dickens rather than a serial written to pay the bills, and it shows. Free from the need to sustain a story for months/years on end in order to keep the paychecks coming, Dickens demonstrates a previously unsuspected ability to tell a story taking place over a time span of less than twenty years (I’m looking at you, David Copperfield), and he lets himself go on description and characterization in way he was unable to do in a serial installment expected to advance the plot each week. We see him revel in this independence in the gleeful abandon with which he describes the riches of London shop windows at Christmas time, the passionate cries of the narrator which interrupt the story from time to time, and the flights of whimsy he indulges in in a book not expressly written for children.

Basically, Dickens wrote the story he wanted to write in the way he wanted to write it, regardless of how well it fit the mold he’d found most of his success with, and 160 years later, it’s still his most popular work. The longevity of the book (it’s never been out of print) should serve as a lesson to those authors who are navigating the tricky issue of how to balance profitability and passion–  writing to pay the bills is all well and good, but the books that are going to resonate the most with readers are going to be the ones that you were most personally invested in, in which your skill set and your fervor for a story intersect and hone each other to a finer edge than either could achieve on its own.

William Makepeace Thackeray was right when he said that the Carol was, “to every man or woman who reads it, a personal kindness.” Even if you’ve seen every movie version ever made and you think you’re sick of the story, you’re cheating yourself if you haven’t read the book. It thaws out the little places where your feelings about Christmas have become frosted over by the annoying Christmas music remixes playing in the mall and the sniping over the political correctness of the phrase “Merry Christmas.” It’s not preachy, it doesn’t have any kind of “presents and food and parties aren’t important” nonsense, but rather, it reminds us why our celebrations are important, that things like compassion and hospitality are graces that we should revel in being able to employ during our time on earth, that it is okay to occasionally warm ourselves from the winter. A few passages to begin the thaw~

  • Scrooge’s nephew Fred defending the profitability of Christmas: 
”But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round- apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that – as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time: the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!”
  • Jacob Marley, lamenting his wasted opportunities for compassion: 
”Oh! captive, bound, and double-ironed…not to know that any Christian spirit working kindly in its little sphere, whatever it may be, will find its mortal life too short for its vast means of usefulness. Not to know that no space of regret can make amends for one life’s opportunity misused! Yet such was I!…Why did I walk through crowds of fellow-beings with my eyes turned down, and never raise them to that blessed star which led the wise men to a poor abode! Were there no poor homes to which its light would have conducted me?”
  • And on the changed Scrooge, post-spirit-visits: 
”Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them; for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset; and knowing that such as these would be blind anyway, he thought it quite as well that they should wrinkle up their eyes in grins, as have the malady in less attractive forms. His own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for him.”

It’s quite as well that we should wrinkle up our eyes in grins, and gain weight from food eaten in good company, and go broke buying gifts to delight the people we love, as have these maladies in less attractive forms. Merry Christmas!

Choose Your Own Final Draft: Applying Reader Feedback

December 9th, 2014 | The Writing Craft, Uncategorized | 3 Comments

brick green no smile b:wIf you caught the last couple of Tuesday posts, you’ll know I’ve been talking about the final stages of manuscript preparation– knowing when to stop polishing a manuscript, finding beta readers, etc. I pointed out that finding beta readers who are a good fit for your skill level and your genre is an important step in ensuring that the feedback you get from them is worthwhile and relevant so you don’t go crazy trying to apply conflicting or uninformed advice. Even when you’ve selected your beta readers wisely, however, it can still be overwhelming to revisit your manuscript with three or four different sets of feedback from three or four unique readers– even if all your readers are published sci-fi authors, each one is going to have a slightly different reaction to your book, and deciding which advice to apply and which to ignore can feel like one of those Choose Your Own Adventure books, in which every decision you make will result in a different outcome. (The good news here is that the editing decisions you make are highly unlikely to result in being thrown into a volcano or trampled by elephants, unlike CYOA.)

So, how do you decide what feedback, and how much, to apply? Here are a few guidelines to help you as you CYOFD– Choose Your Own Final Draft!

  • Decide in advance how much rewriting you’re willing to do. If you don’t have the time and the fortitude to make major plot changes, or to rewrite the entire book from a different character’s perspective, you can cross off suggestions on this scale right away. Don’t waste time agonizing over whether or not a large-scale change would be a good idea if you know realistically that you’re not in a place to make a change like that. Turn your attention to smaller-scale suggestions and don’t drive yourself crazy with “but what it…?”.
  • Create a plan for whose feedback you’ll apply in which area. For example, if you gave your manuscript to three readers and you know one of them in particular has a gift for dialogue, look at what that reader had to say about your dialogue before you look at anyone else’s dialogue notes, . Obviously, you can get good advice from more than one source, but if you don’t want to spend your life in re-writes, starting with the “expert” advice in a specific category can be a good strategy for making the most of your editing time.
  • When readers give conflicting advice, go with your instincts (within reason). It’s one thing to have had twelve different readers tell you a scene isn’t working, or that your dialogue is unnatural, or that a plot point is unclear, but if one or two readers have an opinion that isn’t shared by another, you probably don’t have to agonize over who’s “right.” Which feedback makes the most sense to you? Which reader seems to know you better as a writer/really “gets” your book? Let your instincts drive editing decisions and be okay with having made the “right for you” decision instead of the “objectively, mathematically right” decision.
  • If a piece of feedback doesn’t make sense to you, and you’ve only gotten it from one source, throw it out. Like I’ve said before, actual problems with your manuscript will probably be caught by more than one quality reader, so feedback you get multiple times probably merits consideration, but even from an intelligent, articulate critique partner, you will occasionally hear a suggestion or a piece of criticism that just doesn’t make sense to you or that you strongly disagree with, and that’s okay. Don’t stress out over it; it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re blind to some major flaw in your work or that you’re an arrogant jerk (though you should probably double-check with someone, just to be sure), it just means that something that makes perfect sense to you doesn’t to one individual reader. Guess what? That’s going to happen as many times as the number of people who read your book. Either learn how to be okay with the fact that not everyone will perfectly understand every artistic choice you make, or prepare yourself for an exhausting career.

What strategies have you adopted for deciding when to apply reader feedback? Let me know in the comments!

Finding Beta Readers

December 2nd, 2014 | The Writing Craft, Uncategorized | 4 Comments

brick green no smile b:wIn last week’s post on knowing when to stop polishing a manuscript, one of the strategies I suggested was to solicit feedback wisely and sparingly. Reader Laura asked this question in the comments: “How do I find beta readers? I don’t have a writers’ group, I don’t know know any serious writers in my ‘real’ life… the local universities don’t offer [many] creative writing classes… I don’t have a lot of money to spend on a professional editor or to go to conferences… I’m at the point where I need quality feedback on my third novel, but I’m baffled as to where I’d find it.”

Great question, Laura, and thanks for providing the topic for this week’s blog post!

Location, contacts, and limited budget can definitely be some challenges to finding quality beta readers. Not everyone lives in a mecca of artistic fellowship or can spend $400 to attend a conference once a month to meet other writers and writing professionals. So how DOES one find quality beta readers under these conditions? Here are a few ideas.

Local universities— Laura mentioned that the colleges in her area don’t offer a lot of creative writing classes. Even when that’s the case, any community college or liberal arts school has at least a few faculty members who are (hopefully) qualified to give you feedback on your writing, even if they’re not experts in your genre, so even when there isn’t a writing class available for you to enroll in and connect that way with other writers, you can still try to connect with the adjunct or full-time faculty members who teach the literature and composition classes, and you at least know that these readers have a lot of experience in reading and editing. You can usually find contact info for these faculty members on the college’s website, so consider sending a polite email explaining that you’re a writer looking for quality feedback and wondering whether they might be willing to take a look at your writing. If a college you have some connection with (you’re an alumnus, you live nearby, etc.) has a graduate writing program, offer some chapters for use in class, either for discussion or editing practice, and ask if you can sit in on the discussion or receive notes on the class’s feedback.

Published authors— Published authors are very accessible in this day and age– they’re on Twitter, they have an author Facebook page, they have websites and blogs— if you’re not trying to connect with someone who’s major hugely successful (don’t hold your breath waiting for Stephen King to get back to your request to review your manuscript for free), you have a really good chance of being able to connect personally with them, and there’s a good chance that the average published author will be willing to offer some feedback to a reader. If you plan to approach a published author, it’s a good idea to spend some time engaging with them on social media, first– comment on a blog or two, mention them on Twitter, link to their website from your Facebook profile, etc., and then use whatever contact method they specify as their preference (this is usually mentioned on their website) to reach out.  Be specific about why you approached them—what is it about their writing that you admire, why would you value their feedback? Be clear that you’re NOT seeking an endorsement or an introduction to their agent (if they like it enough, they’ll probably offer), simply a more experienced writer’s eye than yours, and be open to alternatives— if they can’t review your chapters but can recommend a friend or another resource, that can be helpful, too.

Writers’ Groups– Laura mentioned that she isn’t part of a local writers’ group and that the online group she was part of was a disappointment. While it’s true that not every group is going to be a good fit (or helpful in any way at all), the beauty of the Internet age is that if there IS a group out there that’s a good fit, you can probably find it if you’re willing to put some time into the search. A Google search of “writers groups” turned up dozens of pages of resources– sites that connect you with local writers in your area, sites that connect you with similar writers online, groups organized by genre, publishing status, area, etc. “Writers’ groups (state or city name here)” will return even more specific results, possibly of local groups with physical meetings you can attend to get a feel for the dynamic. There’s nothing wrong with shopping around, either locally or online, for a writers’ group that’s a good fit– you should feel challenged but not overwhelmed, you should feet like your input and your contributions are respected, and you should feel like the other members of the group have the same amount of motivation as you do.

 

When a quality beta reader says yes, here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Be clear (and reasonable) about your expectations. Are you looking for feedback on the plot? the writing? the mechanics? Are you expecting an edit, or just some comments/direction? How much of the manuscript would you like them to read? Five chapters? Fifty pages? The full manuscript? Make sure the person you’re asking knows what you’re looking for so they make an informed commitment. If you can’t pay them for their service, or can’t pay much, be up front about it, and adjust your expectations accordingly. Rather than asking for a full edit of a 100,000-word manuscript, ask them to take a look at a shorter selection. If you can pay $50 for a manuscript review, ask them how many pages or how much review time that would buy.
  • Don’t rush them. Everyone is busy, and they’re doing you a favor (if they’re doing it for free or low cost). Don’t expect an immediate reply, and don’t pester them for a response—it’s perfectly all right to follow-up/check if they’ve had your ms for a month, but be patient!
  • Accept their feedback politely. I know letting other people see your writing can be terrifying— you’re sharing something very personal that you’ve worked really hard on, and so every piece of criticism can feel like a personal attack, but your readers are just trying to make your book stronger—at YOUR request, I might add. If you’re confused by a comment, you can ask the reader to clarify, but don’t come back with a defensive response or an argument. You don’t have to agree with them, but you DID ask for their input, so accept it graciously.
  • Say thank you. Even if you can’t pay or can’t pay much, send them a nice thank-you note, and maybe a token like a gift card to let them know you appreciated their time.

I hope that helps, Laura, thanks again for the question! If you have a question on craft or the writing process, I’d love to hear it. Thanks for reading!

Writing for Yourself: The Value of Journaling

November 12th, 2014 | The Writing Craft, Uncategorized | 4 Comments

brick green no smile b:wWelcome back to the still-unnamed Tuesday blog in which I write about craft and mechanics! I just finished up a series on voice, and before I launch a new series, I wanted to take a week to talk about a writing tool that a lot of authors may not have thought much about and look at why you should think about adding it to your writing regimen.

When you think of “keeping a journal,” there are probably a number of scenarios that come to mind: Lewis and Clark recording  bear attacks and typhoid deaths,  Thoreau scribbling introspectively into a notebook on the shores of Walden Pond, or, in my case, your middle-school self in headgear and scrunch socks funneling all her angst into a locking Lisa Frank diary. *Shudder.*

If you WERE like me (hopefully minus the headgear) and you kept any kind of a personal journal/diary during your younger days, re-reading that journal is probably a fairly painful experience. Even if yours isn’t full of pining for Jonathan Taylor Thomas,  it’s probably, like mine, full of spelling errors, incorrectly used apostrophes, and run-on sentences, for a start. (Hey, my long sentences now are a VOICE choice, okay?) Beyond that, there is probably a good amount of just straight-up obnoxious content: sentences you’re disgusted with, sentiments that make you cringe for having expressed the way you did, etc.  It’s easier to excuse those embarrassing entries from your really young self, but I journaled on and off through college, and there are things I’d slap my 20-year-old self for putting in print, if I could, just obnoxious, cheesy writing that I’m ashamed to be the author of.

Wow, Erin, you may be thinking. What a great idea. Journal now, with some of my already precious writing time, so that future-me can ridicule and loathe myself retroactively. Thank you for that great advice.

BUT. I have another journal from high school, a yellow spiral-bound Mead notebook with falling-out pages and doodles all over the cover that my 9th-grade English teacher, Miss Stinson, assigned us to write in all year. Sometimes she’d give us writing prompts, things like “make a list of your favorite things,” or “describe your dream house.” Sometimes she’d give us the beginning of a story and have us finish it in our journals, sometimes she’d put on a piece of music and tell us to write about whatever the music made us think of. Miss Stinson would collect the journals every couple weeks and read over our hand-written entries just to make sure we’d done them, and sometimes she’d make comments, but the only grade we received on them was participation credit. She made it very clear to us that these entries were for us, for our benefit, not for her to correct our grammar or  to criticize our organization.

The thing that stands out to me now, reading back over it, is the amazing restraint Miss Stinson showed in NOT making corrections or criticizing that writing in any way. We wrote lots of other papers that year, and she took plenty of points off those for extra apostrophes and misspelled words, but she recognized that, to get any kind of momentum in writing, we had to have a place to write where we weren’t worrying about a grade or a review or someone’s reaction. Miss Stinson’s only notes in that journal are smiley faces or underlined favorite sentences or “love this!”/”funny”/”great thoughts” comments in the margins. She made those journals a completely safe space to write in, and as our trust in that safety grew, our writing became adventurous and creative and unfettered in a way it never would have done in assignments turned in for a grade.

Now, please hear me when I say, the place for unfettered, unedited writing is not my inbox. Obviously, the projects you submit to agents and editors need to have been refined and edited and polished, but the point I’m making is that there IS  place for free writing, and having a space like a journal where there will literally never be another set of eyes on your writing lets you create in a way that you simply can’t replicate when writing blog entries or books or proposals or anything that you know will eventually be read by someone else. Even pages for a trusted writing partner or critique group are written with the knowledge at the back of your mind that someone will eventually be reading and assigning value to your words. You will never create the same content for someone else that you will create for yourself, and even if you never mine that personal writing for any material you can use for your public writing, the process of writing for yourself and the freedom and honesty you enjoy when doing so can’t help but prime the pump for more honest, more creative work in your other writing.

So what’s the “right way” to journal? “Psh, that’s a leading question, Erin, because obviously the point you’ve been beating us over the head with is that every way is the right way!” Very good. Every way is the right way! Buy yourself an awesome leather journal from Barnes and Noble, pick up a good ol’ spiral-bound Mead at the grocery store, open a new Word doc, however you want to do it. You can start by journaling your day-to-day experiences, but don’t settle for just a laundry list of, “today I did such-and-such;” describe what you saw, where you went, what made you mad, what you loved, what thoughts you had in line at Starbucks.

If you’re not that introspective while waiting for your coffee, make a list of writing prompts and use a different one as a jumping-off point each day– things like, “favorite memory,” “best vacation,” “how you’d spend a million dollars,” “celebrity you’d like to be best friends with,” etc. Google “creative writing prompts” or “dating show questions.” Even a trivial writing prompt can get you started on the path to some really good free writing if you just jump in and start scribbling.

Finally, make a rule for yourself that when you go back and re-read your free writing a year or two from now, you are NOT ALLOWED to edit it or make any comments to yourself. Yes, you’ll probably cringe a few times, but the point of this kind of writing is that it enriches your writing going forward. The value is in the process, not the product, so don’t waste any time looking back in judgment.

And thanks, Miss Stinson, for encouraging us to write for ourselves. And for probably trying to cure me of run-on sentences.

Voice Lessons: Part 5, The Need for Voice

November 4th, 2014 | The Writing Craft, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

brick green no smile b:wToday is the last day of my series on author voice. I’ve spent most of my time over the past few weeks talking about what voice IS– how to define it, how to recognize it, how to develop it– but today, I want to talk about probably the most important factor in developing a strong personal voice as a writer, and that is understanding the need for great voice. I started the series by talking about some of the frustration associated with chasing strong voice, and the nebulous, elusive way we often talk about “great author voice,” and the reality is that the ability to identify or harness a strong writing voice doesn’t come naturally to a lot of writers. Like whatever subject just never made sense to you in school (just the word “chemistry” still prompts a panic response), voice for a lot of people is a frustrating area. You might think you see a glimmer of light when reading a blog post or a how-to article or listening to a lecture on it, but five minutes into trying to critique/improve your own voice in a piece of writing and you’re frustrated, depressed, and ready to forget it. It’s true that voice isn’t as easy to work on as mechanics, or characters, or dialogue, both because it’s less concrete and because there are fewer resources available, but understanding why voice is so important can help keep you motivated to continue working on yours, even if it feels like an uphill battle.

Think about some of your favorite books. If you’re like me, they probably come from one or two of the same genres– maybe your favorite books tend to be romances, or historical fiction, or mysteries. Even if your top five books come from five different genres, each one (most likely) can be categorized with THOUSANDS of other titles in the same genre or sub-genre. Take an easy example: say a couple of your favorite books are mystery novels. Now, you’ve probably read dozens, if not hundreds, of other titles in that genre– when we find a book or an author we like, we tend to look for books or authors with a similar feel to them. That’s the section we browse first at the library or bookstore, and those are the kinds of titles that Amazon recommends when we’re searching one of our favorites.

But not EVERY mystery novel you read ends up on your favorites list– not even close! For every one mystery on your list of books you would re-read and recommend to others and snatch up if you saw it at a used-book sale, you’ve probably read or skimmed ten or twenty “similar” books that were completely forgettable. If pressed to give an explanation for why those books didn’t end up on your favorites list, you’d probably cite a variety of reasons– mediocre writing in some cases, failure to connect with the characters, a plot that didn’t interest you– but at the end of the day, the books that DO end up on our list of favorites aren’t there solely because of their superior plots or excellent dialogue or particularly interesting characters, they’re there because our overall experience with them was special, because the world created therein was one we loved spending time in, because the stories were told in a way that made us want to listen, and THAT experience as a reader is the result of great voice on the part of a writer.

That’s what you’re chasing when you choose to spend another painful hour focusing on your voice, or when you ask your critique partner to give you voice feedback, or when you re-write your opening chapter yet again after getting yet another piece of “your voice isn’t very strong” criticism. Ultimately, your goal and hope as a writer is not simply for an agent or editor to say yes, but to make readers feel the same excitement for your story and characters that you do, to put yourself and your story on the page with such authenticity that no other mystery novel or historical romance or humorous memoir will satisfy those readers in the same way yours does. Voice is the reason readers are going to sign up to receive updates on when your next book is coming out, and the reason they think of your book when a friend asks for a recommendation, and the reason they’ll track down your blog or your facebook page to hear more from you– voice keeps readers coming to YOU, and if you’re one of those weird authors who actually wants people to read his book, that’s a really good thing.

Now, if you have a fantastic voice, that doesn’t mean you should stop reading Thursdays with Amanda. Obviously, you can’t just write a great book, slap it up on Amazon, and then wait for your million dollars to show up in your bank account, but it IS true that your entire writing career is going to be more successful and gain momentum more quickly if you get an early handle on your voice. For published authors whose sales numbers haven’t been as strong as you might like, it might be worth working on your voice a bit before your next book– find out what readers loved about your last book, what they like about YOUR romances or mysteries or thrillers in particular, and see if you can offer that to them in even stronger ways in your next book.

Thanks for reading this series; I hope you found it helpful in understanding voice and that both the concept of “voice” and your understanding of your own strengths and weaknesses in that area are a lot less hazy. Not sure what’s next for these Tuesday blogs on craft, so if you have any suggestions or questions for future topics, I’d love to hear them!

The Lulu Tree Boutique (a guest post)

October 14th, 2014 | Uncategorized | 5 Comments

She walked for four hours just to meet me.

Her soles were red from Uganda’s earth and she didn’t break a sweat in the high heat. Her eyes shone but she lowered them, looked at her sandals, even as I reached out a hand to touch her shoulder, and I could feel the strength in this peasant farmer’s arm.

She’d lost her husband just weeks earlier to HIV/Aids, an illness people still talk about in hushed tones because of the shame associated with it.

She’d lost her children long before that to this children’s home I was visiting–because she had a sick husband to care for and a farm that wasn’t bringing in money and no way to feed her sons or daughters.

And here I was, able to pay for her kids’ clothes and education while she wasn’t. And not because I worked harder. No, she worked sun-up to sundown and had callouses across her hands and feet. No, it was because I came from a first class country overflowing with food and privilege while the rest of the world is forced to feed from our trash cans.

I smiled at her, but I felt sick.

I am a mother. Every night I walk into my boys’ room and ache for them lying there in their beds, because they’re tucked deep in my womb. I cannot imagine how humbling, or humiliating, it would be, to have to ask someone else to take care of my children. To not be able to give them food or water, to not be able to keep them under your own roof — and THEN, to walk four hours to meet the woman who can?

This woman (me) who flies over in her airplane with her suitcase full of clothes and her bag full of lipstick and her wallet full of money, and says it’s all in the name of Jesus–a God this farmer worships more reverently each day than I ever have in my life?

Our Father weeps. He anguishes over every single mother–because there are hundreds of thousands of them across Uganda in the same situation–who has to lose her child, who cannot take care of her children.

And He’s asking us to do something about it.

Sponsoring a child is good, don’t get me wrong. I sponsor as many children as I am able.

But standing there with this beautiful woman in her brown hat and her downcast gaze, her son’s eyes shining as he looked at me, I thought, No. Enough. There has to be more.

I want this son to look at his MOTHER with adoration, not me–a stranger.

I want him to look at HER to provide his needs, not me–an outsider who didn’t birth him without an epidural, who didn’t weep and pray over him every night of his childhood, who didn’t spend every minute of every day trying to earn enough money to buy him a bowl of Matoke (cooked banana) so he wouldn’t starve to death.

So, I went home and founded a non-profit called The Lulu Tree. I didn’t intend to found a non-profit. I didn’t–and still don’t–feel qualified to start one, I just wanted to partner with someone who was doing what I wanted to do. But no one was.

Our vision at The Lulu Tree is to work with HIV mothers in the slum of Katwe, Uganda (the worst of Kampala’s eight slums), equipping them to be care for their own kids. Our slogan is “Preventing tomorrow’s orphans by equipping today’s mothers.” Lofty, I know. But you have to dream big, right? Shoot for the moon and you’ll land somewhere among the stars?

So we’re shooting for the moon.

We’ve hired a beautiful Ugandan social worker named Esther Natakunda Tendo (Esther–is there more anointed a name? She has been called to free her people from captivity). Esther is a 29-year-old married mother of two who has received education in Sex and Gender Based Violence, computer application and project planning and management from the African  Population Management. She has volunteered for years through the children’s home where she was raised, and has extensive work experience both in banking and in communications. Esther speaks several dialects, and is a strong believer in Jesus Christ. Her heart beats passionately for women and children suffering from AIDS,  and it is her heart’s desire to help those who are impoverished find hope. As her name suggests, Esther has responded to the call to set her people free from poverty and despair.

We’ve also hired a national coordinator named Carol Masaba. Carol is the national coordinator both for The Lulu Tree and for the African Evangelistic Enterprise in Uganda. She partners with churches across the country to bring hope to various parts of the nation. Carol has over 20 years experience in integrated community development work, during which she has worked with poor and marginalized communities to improve the well-being of children and youth. She is in charge of hiring and mentoring Lulu staff and volunteers and overseeing the ministry as a whole.

Both Carol and Esther will be working with the mothers in the slum of Katwe. Our goal is to equip them holistically–spiritually, emotionally, and physically. This involves connecting them with the local church, providing HIV treatment for the mothers and children, and teaching the mamas a trade–to how to sew, or cook, so that after two years of being sponsored, these mamas will be self-sufficient.

And … we’ve got some EXCITING NEWS! If you have Christmas shopping to do, and want to help people at the same time, look no further! We’re launching THE LULU TREE BOUTIQUE, with the ultimate goal of creating a market for these precious mamas to selling their beautiful work through, once they’ve been trained. SHIPPING IS INCLUDED IN THE PRICES. All proceeds go towards The Lulu Tree.

A friend of mine, dear Jodie Vanderzwaag, HAS GIVEN UP her very successful business a few months ago to run this boutique. Pretty amazing. We are also partnering with The House of Belonging, Funky Fish Designs, Krafty Kash, and Little Dragonfly Boutique, as well as a number of individual artisans who have donated their products to this shop. My dear sister Christy Stewart Halsell of Sandy Feet Media has volunteered long hours to set up this website and boutique (I HIGHLY recommend her web services!), and countless others including photographer Leanne Doell have donated time and energy to Lulu. To see a full list of everyone who’s helping us, please visit www.thelulutree.com.

So, let’s get shopping! We’ve got cozy slipper boots, slouchy beanies for kids and adults, little girl dresses, cowls and jackets, infinity scarves, dolls, darling Lulu headbands and artwork, jewelry, and more.

Emily and friends

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 Emily Wierenga, author of Atlas Girl