Monday, August 31, 2009

Why is Writing Hard?


Is there another task that's as hard as writing? Is there any other activity that requires as much thinking as writing a story?

The software engineers that work for me would argue that the tasks that I give them are hard, and require a lot of thinking. They are right, of course, writing software requires a lot of thinking and creativity, but there is a difference. Software tasks usually involve build this, and it has to work like that. There is a clearly defined specification for how it should work, and a clearly defined environment the software tool has to live within. It's not the same for a novel writer. While there are some rules that a writer has to live within, the story is free to roam anywhere you want it to go.

Writing YA, you're not going to put in a lot of sex, or the book won't be appropriate for the market. In the same way a debut author, or most likely any author, will not be able to market a million word manuscript. So yes it's true, there are rules, but they are more like guidelines. Some of these pseudo-rules may feel pretty hard, but it's also true that writing rules are broken all the time. It can be what makes a work feel fresh.

This is what makes writing a difficult task. You are free to roam any situation, any world, any character you like. Without a path to follow, how do you find your way to the end? How do you write a story that brings all of these varied elements together, but still comes off as interesting, and something that holds together? How do you write something that tugs at the heart, but doesn't seem over the top. How do you write something that makes the reader want to read more, but doesn't fall flat at the end.

It's not easy. There's no map to lead you through the "maze of twisty passages, all alike". (extra points to those who get that reference) Here's what's worked for me. Like anything, learn from others who have already forged the trail. There are a number of good books that teach writing, "On Writing" by Stephen King, "Writing the Breakout Novel" and "The Fire in Fiction" by Donald Maass. Those will give you some great ideas on directions to follow, and areas to explore. They are like maps of your story from 30,000 feet. You can see the general direction you want to go, but there are no turn by turn directions.

What I have found most useful is to read, read, and read some more. Find out how other writers have handled situations, built characters, and built worlds, and learn from them. Take your favorite story and plug in a new character and see where it takes you. Take your favorite characters, and put them in a different world and see what happens. As you explore the results, you will learn what kinds of changes are good and those that are not. It will help you form a strategy for what works, and what doesn't.

On that topic then, what would happen if Yoda from Star Wars was replaced by Gandalf from Lord of the Rings? or if Snoopy from Charlie Brown, was a cat?

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Response to Writing Without Inspiration

Somehow, reading this (Diane's Saturday post on writing without inspiration) made me sad. Why? I am not exactly sure, but the choice seems to be one of writing uninspired (very sad) or reluctantly giving up (also sad). Many of the comments did seem encouraging though, especially Anthony's 12,000 word day. I want to find out about that!

What do I do?

Now, I am more of the mind set to plan if I am uninspired. I've gotten out the notebook, which is one of many school-type composition folders, and written notes or checklists. I ask what if questions, and most of all I think about which point of view character has the most at stake. In other words, I get into the story by thinking about which point of view character should be next.

Most likely (if I was in the situation Diane described) I would spend a day or two, or even a week on occasion, just planning and making checklists. I would likely even write out scenarios in the notebook. You could call them warm ups or false starts, or even a rough draft if things worked out well. After awhile, all this notebook time leads to something that gets my heart beating and I feel that the story is ready to be written, or as Anthony described, I feel that I am in the zone.

I've learned that it is very important to take the story in the right direction. So, for a novel, I don't want to get on the computer and write an uninspired chapter. It could take the story in the wrong direction and then I could write more and more chapters that are built on an instable foundation.

Perhaps, I would approach things differently for a short story. It seems that because a short is one unit it can be reworked without creating the domino effect of chapter disaster that I was identifying in novel writing.

What do you think?

Is planning or pre-writing a good alternative to writing?

Do word count goals get in the way of counting pre-writing as writing? I'm of the mind set that putting a given amount of time into the process of writing is more important than counting pages. In running terms, this comes down to recording or counting the minutes run instead of the miles run.

I've got one other question on my mind, which is totally random. The worst thing that a creative writing teacher ever wrote (and this was during my first year of college) was that I should not turn in any more work until I could write grammatically correct sentences. In other words, drop my class. Well, I did not drop the class, and managed to earn a "C". What's the worst, or most uninspiring, thing someone has told you?

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Writing without inspiration

There are times when the story flows, when you can write one or two thousand words at a clip. There are times when the story takes over and you are amazed by the twists and turns that develop and the responses of the characters. There's no better feeling for a writer.

Then there's the opposite. This happens when you don't know what to say next, when you have to think about the story word by word and struggle through each new development, and it's hard work.

What then? Either you can give in and give up, for a while or for a long time, because you are "blocked." Or you can forge ahead anyway, without inspiration, in which case the writing likely feels stitled, overly artificial, and joyless.

I suppose that everyone who writes is familiar with these different experiences. And I suspect that it is the same with all creative endeavors.

Assuming you do forge ahead, writing slowly and painfully through your blockage right to the end of the story, the question is, What is the final result, and how does it differ from inspiried writing? And do you think your readers can tell the difference?

My hesitant opinion is that they will not know.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Your revisions process...

...I'm wantin' it.

So I finished my latest WIP, PoloGRRL (PG), this week. (insert BIG RELIEVED SIGH here) My agent is really looking forward to this one, although now it's come time to revise the MS I finished before starting this one (The Forester's Son - FS). (This one, PG, rather hit like a hammer, and I finished it in about three months).

The MS I'm preparing to revise (FS) is a dearly loved one of mine, though. Took a looong time to finish, mainly because it's one where the idea is better than my ability to bring it through in a first draft. It's going to take two or three or even four, which is a longer process than any book I've had up to now (as well as the recently finished MS.)

Which got me thinking about revision processes. Are you able to judge your first draft? For me, I know the most recent (PG) will take one revision, maybe two. The revelations and twists were there, all the time, and came at the appropriate moments during the writing process. But for the one I'm speaking of (FS) it has been an uphill struggle. And thus, will take longer.

But it's a much more complicated book, just generally all round...more. And I do think when I nail the eventual revisions, it will be a fantastic book.

It's just the starting that's hard.

And you? How are you with judging your revisions?

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Things That Make You Go Hmmm...

Short one this week. I wanted to share a few quotes this week that I thought were pretty interesting. Currently I’m reading Under the Banner of Heaven, by Jon Krakauer, and the structure of the book inspired me to go out and hunt for thoughtful quotes. Krakauer uses epigraphs throughout his book, at the beginning of every chapter.

So, after randomly searching books and other sites, here were five of my favorites.

“All of these artistic geniuses arise in countries that promote education and health and have more money and more time. Art is a leisure activity. If you have to scramble for your food every second of the day, you're not going to make art.”—Ann Patchett

“A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus: 1. What am I trying to say? 2. What words will express it? 3. What image or idiom will make it clearer? 4. Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?” –George Orwell

“No passion in the world is equal to the passion to alter someone else's draft.” –H.G. Wells

“Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word. There are no exceptions to this rule.” –Stephen King

“I love Mickey Mouse more than any woman I've ever known.” –Walt Disney (Just to throw you a curveball.)

Feel free to share your own quotes that you might have around your workstation/creative writing shrine/desk…

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Voice

Voice.

I remember reading the Miss Snark archives, and coming across that repeatedly.

I, being the corporate hack writer, had no idea what people were talking about when talking about voicing as it pertains to writing.

So when the going got tough, the tough went to Google! Thereupon I stumbled on this little gem:

“Voice can be defined as the writer’s awareness and effective use of such elements as diction, tone, syntax, unity, coherence and audience to create a clear and distinct “personality of the writer,” which emerges as a reader interacts with the text.”

Woo woo! That was perfect. In fact, that entire page drips awesomesauce.

Now that I know what it is, do I have it?

That is not for me to judge. But I did start recognizing that, just like Miss Snark, I am a sucker for good voicing.

I am a reader of books sometimes for reading sake. I will, on occasion, read a novel simply because of its escapism. The non-thought-process, if you will. The voices of these novels are generic. I could not tell you who wrote them, because the voice was just there. These books have nothing memorable in them other than a lazy summer of drinking chilled wine and petting the cat while reading. The book is just a prop to my relaxation, and there is nothing, absolutely nothing, wrong with such a book at such a time.

When I come across a story with a voice, wow, I am hooked. Fascinated. It’s a page-turner.

Since I am a Graduate of the Miss Snark archives, let’s show rather than tell! Take this excerpt from a recent outstanding YA novel by Carrie Ryan, The Forest of Hands and Teeth:

My mother used to tell me about the ocean. She said there was a place where there was nothing but water as far as you could see and that it was always moving, rushing toward you and then away. She once showed me a picture that she said was my great-great-great-grandmother standing in the ocean as a child. It has been years since, and the picture was lost to fire long ago, but I remember it, faded and worn. A little girl surrounded by nothingness.

In my mother's stories, passed down from her many-greats-grandmother, the ocean sounded like the wind through the trees and men used to ride the water. Once, when I was older and our village was suffering through a drought, I asked my mother why, if so much water existed, were there years when our own streams ran almost dry? She told me that the ocean was not for drinking—that the water was filled with salt.

That is when I stopped believing her about the ocean.

Let’s just move past the sheer awesomeness of all the questions that pops up in a reader's mind about this opening passage. Let’s focus on the voice. Even if YA is not your cup of tea, you have to admit, as a writer or reader, Carrie Ryan has an amazing writer voice.

That opening page is dripping with style. It’s literary crack, storytelling goodness.

Another great voicing example is Gary Colby, a client of the infamous literary agent Janet Reid. You can’t read his book yet, because it’s not out (2010!). But his blog contains many good nuggets, and his voice is distinctive and compelling. He recently posted this except from his novel, The Ephialtes Affair:

A dead man fell from the sky, landing at my feet with a thud. I stopped and stood there like a fool, astonished to see him lying where I was about to step. He lay face down in the dirt, arms spread wide, with an arrow protruding out his back. He’d been shot through the heart.

It was obvious he was dead, but I knelt down and touched him anyway, perhaps because I needed to assure myself that he was real. The body was warm to my touch. The blood that stained my fingertips, from where I had touched his wound, was slippery and wet but already beginning to dry in the heat, and the small cloud of dust his fall had raised made my nose itch as it settled.

It doesn’t normally rain corpses, so where had this one come from? I looked up. There was a ledge above me, and another to the left. The one directly above was the Rock of the Areopagus, home to the council chambers of our elder statesmen. The other to the left but much further away was the Acropolis. There was no doubt about it; this man had fallen from the political heights.

Murder is always interesting, but I picked this example, not only because it’s great voicing, but because it is also in first person, just like the example above it.

Yet each is as different as night and day. Both passages have a rhythm going beyond cadences of words. It’s a unique style.

I point these out because I will never forget these two books, even when I haven’t read Gary’s yet! If you have a good story and a generic voice, I’ll read your book and feel I’ve gotten my money’s worth.

But if you have a that distinctive voice, I will never forget the book. Or the author’s name. I will talk about it with my friends. It is the building block to word-of-mouth. The book that makes me think. The book, at some point, I will read again, simply because it’s so damn good.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Best Advice I've Ever Received...

Well, folks, it's that time of year again: you can't have missed the going-back-to-school-sales, the crowded parking lots, the flood of new college students (doubling the population, if you live in a small college town).

You might be returning to school yourself, or sending your own children, nieces, and nephews off, or perhaps your grandchildren. Maybe it's the neighbor kids you see trotting down the sidewalk, spiffy new clothes in place.

So I'm reminded of learning. After all, school is a place to learn things. And, indeed, I learned quite a bit during my student career. Unfortunately, I can't think of a single thing I learned about writing in the school system that actually informed my craft.

5th Grade: An essay is like a girl's skirt should be: Long enough to cover the subject but short enough to be interesting.

9th Grade: Nouns, pronouns, adjectives, and this is how you diagram them.

11th Grade: Organize! Make sure you have a thesis and three body paragraphs.

I could go on, but I think your own memory can probably fill in the blanks.

The point is, we're all on this writing adventure together, and I know we've all received advice -- bad, good, and indifferent -- over the years. There's a lot of advice I ignore, yes, but I also define bad advice as something that tells me to do something but fails to show me how. (Organize? Sure, I'd like to -- but what are some methods?) Good advice, on the other hand, tells me how to do something and, usually, why.

Some good advice I've received:
  1. Read your work out loud; you'll catch errors, plot holes, and rhythm issues.
  2. Strong writing gravitates towards strong verbs and specific nouns; eliminate most adjectives/adverbs.
  3. Run the Find feature in your word processor to find -ly words.
  4. Keep a spreadsheet or organizer that details each character.
  5. Color code plots & sub-plots (or use a specific character (e.g. %#&) that you can run a Find for) as a way to keep track of story arcs.
What's writing advice you've heard over the years? Good or bad -- I want to hear it all!

Monday, August 24, 2009

My Friend the Murderer


No, not a character in my latest book. She's a real life murderer. She drugged and stabbed her husband, then tried to kill herself. Got a friend like that? I hope not.

While I don't know her real well, for instance I've never been to her house, I did talk to her 3 to 4 times a week at the gym for over 10 years. We talked politics, we talked kids, we talked about her fabulous vacations. She loved going to exotic places in style.

She was a mortgage broker during the real estate boom and seemed to be doing well. I'd always see her in the gym with nice workout clothes, brand new shoes, and expensive jewelry on her wrist. Then of course there was all the plastic surgery. She had enormous silicone breasts, many face lifts, her lips done at least a few times, liposuction everywhere, and massive hair extensions. It seemed she could never look "good enough". Over the years I watched her do procedure after procedure, shaking my head a little each time. She wasn't a knockout, but all the work did help.

I never really thought about dating her, I was married at the time, and frankly, she wasn't my type. Although some of my friends would argue that female was my type, she had an attitude that didn't appeal to me. She used to tell me, "Well, you know Doug, I don't date guys that don't make at least 250K a year." No, I don't make that, and even if I did, her attitude was a problem anyway.

So why am I talking about her? Because I'm thinking of using her as a character in my next novel. I have some interesting stories that I could use, and I kind of know what drove her. It wouldn't be that hard to integrate her as a murderer, after all I could just use the truth.

I thought about writing her actual story, but I'm not sure I am a True Crime writer. I'd rather write what I like, which is fiction.

The problem is that I am not sure it won't change my story in a bad way. As I try to integrate some of the stories, I am worried that it might take the novel into a direction that I wouldn't be able go with an invented character.

I also think that while the stories are interesting to me, because I know her, they may seem plain to someone who doesn't.

In case you want to read about the real thing, check out this link.

While I don't expect that you will have friends who are murderers, I'm curious to hear your thoughts on whether you think she would hurt the story, or help it.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Meeting Authors Part Two: Amy Waeschle's Memoir, Chasing Waves



What makes a memoir good?

I recently met Amy Waeschle at the Pacific Northwest Writers' Conference. Like many authors at the book selling part of the event, she looked out from her table a bit eagerly and seemingly a bit nervously. The photo on the cover drew me in immediately. I love outdoor adventure and surfing was something that I had an interest in pursuing before I went to college up north in Seattle. I never did pursue it, but I thought that I might learn some interesting things about surfing. There was one other thing that drew me. The cover hinted at the importance of landscape and one's place in the environment. That made me curious.

So, I picked up the book and talked with Amy for a bit. Whereas Boyd Morrison (the thriller writer that I blogged on last week) could be described as having an intense personality, Amy struck me as friendly and talkative.

I read a few pages and I could immediately tell that this would be a good book for me. So, that raises the issue of what makes a memoir good.

Here are three characteristics of a good memoir that I found in Amy's book, Chasing Waves.

1. The topic is of interest.

2. The writer's personality comes through in their writing style and their stories.

3. The issues in the story are both personal and big picture issues.

What I loved most about this story was seeing how a person with a friendly personality--one that seeks harmony--will come back again and again to learn to be a better surfer, despite the difficulty of the waves, the difficulty of other surfers, and the difficulty that being a new parent presents. Also, the descriptions of place and waves were wonderful. In a literary world where I often read about conflict and the underhanded nature of human beings, it was nice to read about an individual getting out and making themself better at something that is worthwhile. I came to see that surfing, at least for Amy, is much more than surfing: It's a way of being, one that I can relate to and pursue in other activities like hiking and running.

What do you think makes for a good memoir? Do you have a favorite?

Is anybody else starting up with classes or teaching? I start teaching on Monday. Life has been very, very busy with getting settled in and getting things ready for the new school that I am at.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Snowflake

Many writers are familiar with the Snowflake Method of novel design. It seems that the basic underlying idea here is that, instead of growing your plot in a linear manner, you allow all the segments of your story to develop organically from the seed of the idea into a full-blown novel.

I am wondering if anyone who visits Adventures in Writing has tried this method, if you've had success with it, and if you would use it again, or recommend it to others.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Characters

Piggybacking off Patrick's excellent post from yesterday, I wanted to share the one thing I think about when I write a story. Or the one thing I think about *now* when I write a first person story, in particular.

"Why does your character want to tell this story?"

The first time I read that, I was halfway through a third-person close MS (finished and waiting for revisions). It quite simply blew my mind. I know why I write stories, and generally have an idea of the theme behind my stories when I do write them (latest after revisions) but this...was such an awesome idea.

I can't remember where I read it but I loved that sentence. And now I use it for every story, before I start, just to get an idea.

Have you ever heard of that? Ever read it?

And Happy Friday!

Thursday, August 20, 2009

3 Little ?'s

These questions I often ask myself as I write and especially after I have completed a draft. They are meant to be general and as open-ended as possible.

1) Are my characters DOING something? –Around six years ago I received a critique of one of my novels. They said my character was solipsistic, which I then looked up and discovered it meant, in a nutshell, that my character is egocentric and only cares about his own thoughts, his orbit, his own ‘self’. Bottom line, my character did nothing but think the entire novel. Yikes…

2) Is there a CONFLICT? –After getting blasted for my character’s solipsism, I wrote a journey novel where two characters did a lot of stuff, but they didn’t really ‘clash’, or disagree. They simply discussed things and continued moving to the end. Ugh…

3) If I’m 90 years old and sitting on the porch with my wife, will I say: “I am so glad I wrote THAT novel.”? –Sometimes I write so much I realize I’m only being clever, and I get a sudden feeling that, five years into the future, I’m going to look at what I’ve written and shake my head. Perhaps that is bound to happen with anything, but I feel like, if I respect what I’m writing, if I truly want it to be THE THING I leave behind, then there’s a good chance I’ll appreciate what I accomplished years on down the road, regardless of what happens.

Are there any questions you seem to continue asking yourself? Sorry for choosing 3 ‘serious’ questions. A lot of time I also think: Should I drink my coffee now? Or save it for later? Or…if I take the trash out now, could I write with a clearer mind?

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Tools of the Trade, Part II

I'm so easy.

For Father's Day I received the second best writing accessory ever.

I've posted previously about the Brother laser printer.

The next item in my toolbox is my laptop lap desk. It's just a piece of durable plastic with some unobtrusive padding underneath.

And this, my friends, prevents my lap from BURSTING INTO FLAMES FROM THE HEATED LAPTOP BLOODY HELL IS DELL TRYING TO BURN MY PRIVATES OFF?!?!?

Literally, my endurance, for sitting in The Overstuffed Green Chair Of Love Next to My Gorgeous Piano, which is also next to The Window to Outside with a Nice View of the Yard, has practically doubled.

How did I ever work without one?

I love you laptop lap desk. I love you very much. And thank you for saving my nether bits from overheating in my shorts.


Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Author or Hobbyist?

A writer's mind never rests. I've been contemplating my goals of late, especially those tied to writing, acquiring an agent, and publishing. Admittedly, I've unflagging determination and passion for my writing. Who among us doesn't? But I do want to make sure I'm on the right road.

Racheludin, who didn't leave a blog address, left an interesting comment on Douglas' personal blog. She indicated that somewhere she'd heard that a writer should (ideally) have several works in process.
  1. One novel should be undergoing edits
  2. One novel should be in full writing process
  3. One novel should be at rest, awaiting edits
  4. One novel should be at query
This begs the question of whether one is writing as a hobby or a vocation. A hobbyist, it seems to me, is forever tinkering. Think for a moment about the classic car world. Maybe you're working on a '67 GTO, tweaking this, acquiring that, installing a doo-hickey. And polishing the baby? The work is never finished, is it?
A hobby writer, then, is the same: the book is never finished. The plot needs just a little more tweaking. Chapter 7 must be re-written for the 49th time. And Chapter 1? That little baby needs polishing beyond belief because you know you only have 30 pages to hook an audience.
The writer-by-vocation must be, by definition, pragmatic. Of course, one's work must be carefully considered, edited, and polished. But one must move on. The act of writing is, in itself, a thorough education, and completing a novel can only improve one's craft. Thus, one must create, tuck away, revise, query, create --> not in a linear A to Z fashion, but in a recursive, reflective manner, always looping back, always moving upward.
I don't want to be a hobbyist. For a couple years, I think I was. After all, I worked and re-worked my first novel, ignoring the half-finished sequel that now sits abandoned. Looking back, I think it's a better book because of it -- and I certainly learned a great deal through the process. But my goal is writer-by-vocation. And in looking at my current writing habits, I realize that I'm only 2 for 4.
1. I don't have a novel currently undergoing edits
2. I do have a novel in full writing process.
3. Unfortunately, I have cannibalized the sequel that should be at rest, awaiting edits.
4. I do have one novel currently being queried.
So how about you? Where are you in this journey? What do you want out of your writerly life? Do you disagree with this idea of having more than one project in the mix? Most certainly Margaret Mitchell would, as I'm sure other can and will, so I'm not proclaming it The Way.
I am, however, thinking I must be more pragmatic.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Deadlines: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly


Whenever we writers hear advice about deadlines, they are always viewed in a positive light. Deadlines help you focus, deadlines help you finish, deadlines are good.

I can't argue that providing focus is a great thing. It helps you push through the daily distractions of work, family, and Twitter (for those of you that are hooked like me).

I also can't argue that deadlines help you close off a story, and help bring some closure to a wandering tale.

But what about the flip side?

That's what I have experienced lately. I shouldn't have done it, but I promised that I would have a story done at a particular time, much too short of a time. While doing so, I violated a one of my very important writing process items. I didn't let the story sit on the shelf for a few weeks before I revisited it. Then I evaluated my work based on the first draft.

The result was very predictable. The story sucked and I knew it. It was funny because it caused me to write a goofy blog post on my own blog.

I was pretty down at that point, I felt like what I had written was total crap, and I just wanted to start over. Writer Alex Moore, made a comment on that post that was right on. Writing a story is not like buying a car. When you buy a car you can't give it back if you don't like it later, but you can always change the story.

To understand why I put the unrealistic deadline on myself you have to understand a little about what happened. One of my characters is a motorcycle chick named Jesse Diamond. She's a total hoot. Unrefined, she says what she wants to, and doesn't give a damn about what anyone else thinks. Sort of like my alter-ego, well, if I was a girl.

To create this character I did some research. I ride with a number of motorcycle groups and so I polled some of the gals in the group for some interesting stories about riding. One of the riders, a gal named Marci, gave me a story that was pure gold. (You'll have to read the book)

So now here's the problem. Marci is very excited about the finished product, because she wants to see the result of her story and how it fit in. She has a vested interest in the book and keeps emailing me to see how it going, and when can she read it. Yep, crank up the pressure to finish it.

In trying to get the story in her hands as soon as I could, I tried to circumvent my process, and it didn't work. Marci didn't get to read the story, and I didn't write a good enough one.

So it's been a few weeks and I revisited the story, made some great edits, thanks to Donald Maass's book "The Fire in Fiction", and I'm now actually very happy with the story. Marci is going to get a copy this week.

So what did I learn from this.

  1. Always stick to your process. If you have one that works for you, make sure you follow every step.
  2. Play careful attention to your deadline dates, and always pad them, because things will go wrong.

In case you're wondering what I ride, here's my latest toy.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Part One of Meeting First Time Authors: Boyd Morrison and Amy Waeschle



Meeting first time authors can be cool.

I'd like to tell you the story of how I met Boyd Morrison, and then later in next week's blog, I'd like to tell you about meeting Amy Waeschle--author of Chasing Waves--and tell you about her surfing memoir.

So, a few years ago I was at the Pacific Northwest Writers Conference. It was time for a break and I had fallen in with a handful of people for lunch. This tall blond guy was looking around, presumably for a place to sit in the crowded restaurant, and some one in the group called Boyd over.

Now, at these conferences people often ask about your book. Some people respond conversationally, and others launch into their pitch. Well, Boyd launched into his pitch--with serious intensity. I was sitting right next to him and had to back up a bit, because his eyes were bugging out and he was giving me some serious direct eye contact. I was impressed with the book's story line, and Boyd's intensity.

Actually, the number one thing that I have noticed about highly successful authors--I'm talking the international best sellers who become key note speakers--is that they have an unusual level of intensity and purpose. I saw both in Boyd, and I will admit that I was a bit inspired, as well as curious about his book. He was a very easy person to relate to, especially when we had a chance to just talk about life. Turns out that we had both lived in the same part of Seattle.

Fast forward a year. I met Boyd again at PNWA. This time he had an agent representing him. Cool.

Fast forward another year, to this year's PNWA conference. I had another nice chat with Boyd. I figured that he might have landed a book deal by now, so I asked about it. He said that he had landed a book deal and would have his first book--The Ark--published in about fourteen different countries. Wow, that blew me away. It was really cool news, not just because it was impressive, but because I had met the guy years ago when he was pitching to agents, just like me.

Somehow when you see an unpublished author who has gone through the rounds with agents with you and you see that person rise to the top, it all seems much more possible.

There's a couple of really cool things about Boyd's story.

1. He supported his wife for about nine years through medical school, and then in return she agreed to support him for nine years on his quest to become a successful writer. He joked that he shouldn't have been in such a hurry because he got it done with about four years to spare.

2. A key to Boyd's success is that he sold about 7,000 books on Kindle. Taking the number one spot in his genre is an impressive accomplishment that certainly helped propel the book deals he now has.

I think that meeting authors as they go from pitching to published is inspirational. I'd recommend checking out Boyd's website: http://www.boydmorrison.com/. You can learn even more about his books and follow him as books hit the shelves. More importantly, you can read more about how many years it took him to get published and about how he moved beyond his first books. He has some good advice about going to conferences to pitch. It certainly worked for him.

If there is one thing that I would like you to remember about Boyd it's that he struck me as unusually intense, committed, and purposeful about becoming a successful writer.

Next Sunday I will blog on Amy Waeschle's book Chasing Waves and how I met her at this year's PNWA conference. I've recently finished her memoir and loved it!

Saturday, August 15, 2009

One project or many?


I find that I cannot work on more than one project at a time. It's tempting to try, but whenever I do try, I get completely blocked on all projects.

How about you? Have you ever revised one novel while drafting another, for example? Do you write a short story half-way through, set it aside to write another, and then go back and finish the first story? Do you think you can get the same result from multi-tasking your projects that you would get if you worked on one at a time?

Friday, August 14, 2009

Hm.

Forgive me. I recently found out some news that threw us a bit for a loop and last week was spent in a haze of OMG-edness.

I’ve had lots of friends lately going to different conferences, and it seems like the concurrence of the editors and agents there is this:

they’re still selling books.

but --

It’s taking longer, and for less money up front. I’ve also heard (and spoken to) a few different agents who say: polish. Editors are more likely to pick up a book (even from a debut author) if it looks like there’s not going to be much editing to it. As in, it’s slick. Proofread. Ready to go. They say they just don’t have enough time anymore to edit (yikes) and they’re gonna spring for those.

So the days when an editor would buy a book and go through 3-4 editing rounds seem to be over. More’s the pity.

What do they recommend us to do, besides wait and wear out the boat waiting for the tide to come in? Write more. Edit your present MS to a shine. Get some crit partners, or find some beta readers that would be willing to read through it and offer their opinions.

What do you think of the current publishing slump? How are you getting through it?

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Who's There?

So you’re staring at the white screen, your favorite drink next to you, perhaps some good music in the background to set the mood. But you just sit there, watching the little black cursor blink…blink. You want to write something…no, you need to write something. No…you need to want to write something. You’re grade-A frustrated, and nothing coming out of your head, all the ideas, seem worthy enough for what you’re trying to accomplish. The characters you’ve spent weeks creating are taking a nap inside the couch of your mind. You’re screwed…Ah, and this would be a good song to write to…damnit!

Suddenly a goldfinch finds a way to fly into your room and lands on your mouse pad: “I have an offer you can’t refuse.”

“Excuse me?”

“In ten seconds, someone will knock on your door. Obviously you’re frustrated, and I hear you. Us birds, we’re frustrated too…I mean, life kinda sucks. I mean, it’s hot!”

“Sooo…”

“So basically, when there’s a knock on the door, I can make it whoever you want it to be. Let’s make it a writer. Living or dead…it can be anyone…you’re gonna pour them coffee, and you get to pick their brain for two hours.”

“Any writer?”

“Living…or dead. Think about it.”

And so the goldfinch flies away, leaving you to your blinking thoughts and transcendent music.

If you could spend two hours talking with any writer, living or dead, who would it be?

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The First Plan

The first inkling something was very wrong was the sobbing on the other end of the line.
We’re talking major sobs. I had no idea who I was talking to, or what the problem was, only that the other person on the other end of the phone was very distraught. She couldn’t speak.
I was nineteen years old.
And I supported Mac software. Over the phone.
Patiently, I extracted, bit-by-bit—this woman wrote a book.
One day, she went to load the book in her Mac Plus (yes, I am dating myself, for you clever techies), and it failed to load.
The file was corrupted. A year of her life, gone. Zap. Load, crash. No manuscript.
No backup.
No print out.
Devastation.
I fixed her corrupted file. I had her copy it to a floppy disk. We opened the Word file up in a text editor, and deleted the header. When we copied it back to her hard disk, we opened it back up into Word. Word opened it as a text document. There were funny characters all over the place, but the text itself, her book, was still there. I showed her how to search for the errant binary goo and delete it. With about an hour of work, she had her manuscript back.
I was popular with this woman. She thanked me profusely. She said she wanted to have my baby (!) and sent me a very nice thank you letter.
Do you have a backup copy of your manuscript?
Do you have more than one?
Are one of these backup copies stored in a separate location other than your house?
Do you know how to deal with corrupted files other than resorting to your backup?
Do you have a plan for restoring your backups?
Have you ever practiced restoring your backups?
Do you check the file integrity of your backups on a regular basis?
The answers to all these questions should be yes.
Don’t be the person who says no.
Or you could be calling someone, sobbing into the phone.
Only, tech support now is a whole lot different, my friends, a whole lot different.
Consider this a handy tech tip of the obvious from Anthony, Backup Hack Writer. No need to thank me, that’s just the kind of guy that I am.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Breathing Life into Evil

I was only about a mile into my morning walk, appreciating the cool air sweeping off the water, the tranquil ripple of a leaping fish, the faint cry of an overhead seagull, when I allowed my current WIP to tiptoe into my brain.

You see, although everything's progressing like it should, there's been a slight snag, something just out of sight. Like a floater, every time I tried to focus on it, it eased out of reach. Although we all have different methods, it seems that putting together your novel is often like working on a puzzle. You have all the pieces (though some try to hide in the couch cushions), and you have to figure out where they go.

I, however, had a puzzle piece that didn't quite fit. Oh, it looked like it did. It had the proper shape, the right curves, the perfect indentations. But when I wiggled it into place, it fit askew. I tried to smash it down and pretend that it worked. It didn't. I ignored it.

This morning, however, as I walked along the river contemplating nature, my WIP snag popped into focus. It's embarrassingly obvious, actually. I'm not sure why I didn't see it before.

My antagonist is one dimensional. I've known all along that he wasn't "right" somehow, but I wasn't sure how to fix it. Or how to put it into words. Or, sadly, why he even existed. I had written him into existence so that there would be conflict, so that my protagonist could defeat him, so that there would be a story.

Those aren't bad reasons -- without conflict there's no story -- but left at that developmental stage, they suck. Officially.

So, this is what I've done the past several hours:

1. Explore the bad guy: he has to be human, motivated by the things that motivate all humans, and he has to be believable. Humans are motivated by self-interest: taken to the extreme, that self-interest reveals itself in flares of power, greed, jealousy, etc.

2. Give the bad guy "good" dimensions: the audience needs to be able to identify with pieces of him. In order to be truly effective, an antagonist should be almost likable at some point.

3. Tweak the good parts: when you take those "good" parts of a man, then twist them somehow, you create equal parts empathy and horror. An audience who identifies with a certain act or emotion will begin walking the path with that character. It hurts all the more when the antagonist does his naughty deeds.

4. Allow the bad guy to influence the plot line: Once I realized what was motivating the antagonist, I had to let him guide pieces of the plot. And you know? It didn't mess anything up. Instead, everything felt tighter, more fluid, and ultimately stronger. Today's a good day!

How about you? Who's your favorite bad guy? bad girl? How do you flesh out the antagonist(s) in your novel or short stories? What's the hardest thing to accomplish?

Monday, August 10, 2009

How do you measure success?


Would you rather have someone gush over your book, or sell a lot of copies?

Yeah, I know, both.

But what if you had to choose?

The reason I'm asking is that I actually had a couple of people gush over my book recently. One reader talked to my wife for over five minutes about how much he loved the story, especially the ending.

The other said that her husband had gotten upset with her because on a trip she was holed up in her room reading, instead of spending time with him. At one point she stayed up until 4am so that she could read the ending.

How cool is that?

I'm talking about my self-published airplane thriller. It's called "Lost in the Sky" and available on Amazon.com or on the Kindle.

Now this is one of my earlier books, and while I wouldn't consider it a bad book, based on what I know now, I could make it better.

I like the premise, I like the action, it's actually a fun read, but I am sure if I worked on it for a while, I could deepen the characters, and enhance the plot, but I don't want to. I want to work on the next one.

The novel hasn't been a raging success, but it also hasn't been a flop. I am sure if I put together a targeted marketing campaign, I could increase the sales. But I'm at the point where I want to write the next one instead of trying to market something I did long ago.

So back to the question. Gushing or commercial success?

I enjoy the gushing, quite a lot actually. What about you?

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Meeting Authors and Trends




In Alex's last post she mentioned things that she wants to get out of reading blogs on writing. Hearing about conferences, and specifically hearing about trends was one of the things that she mentioned. I will mention a bit about what I learned about trends at the PNWA conference, but I'm also going to focus on how meeting authors can be cool.

So, first trends. What I heard about trends is simply not to focus on them because they come and go too quickly. Well, that's all good and cool, but what I have seen by going to the PNWA conference for three years in a row is that new writers from the Pacific Northwest who have been published in urban fantasy are doing well. Doing well can be defined as they are getting more book deals. I stopped by a bookstore in Bellingham before the conference and there was actually a sign with an arrow that said something to the effect of, "If you like Twilight and vampire romance check out Mead's stories." It was that direct. Yeah, that's a trend.

I can remember my first PNWA conference. Mead's books were first coming out. She was brand new and I attended an urban fantasy session with her and Caitlin Kittredge. They were really putting on a show in their goth outfits, and people were eating it up. It was fun to see Mead in the bookstore, where most authors look out from their tables nervously, hoping people will buy their books. By the end, Mead pumped her fist in victory, as she sold her whole stack of books. Now if you go to the bookstore you will see many, many of her books.

Do trends matter? Maybe they do? Maybe they don't? I don't really know that I would know how to ride the wave, but I've seen Mead ride the wave and it's been interesting.

Here's another observation on trends. During the agent forum, one agent said that dragons are hot in YA fantasy fiction. Cool, I thought, because that's what I've got, and I even had an appointment with her. (You could argue about whether my story is YA or not, but that's another topic) She requested some sample pages, which I had expected, but what I did not expect happened during a meeting with a different agent, which I scored by hanging out and waiting for agent cancellations. She had clearly stated in the program that she was not taking epic fantasy. Bummer, but I thought I would pitch my nonfiction running book idea. Well, she was interested in at least hearing about the fantasy book idea, and even though that was not my plan, we wound up talking about it for a few minutes. Turns out that the bottom line is that her boss has too many epic fantasy stories.

So, I'm not sure how you ride the wave. One agent says that fantasy stories with dragons are hot and another says that there are too many of them in the house. If anybody knows how to ride the wave of trends go ahead and let me know, because I just write what I write, which oddly enough is the advice that agents and editors most commonly give at conferences.

By the way, the agent who had too many fantasy stories in her agency was interested in my nonfiction project and asked me to send it when I was finished. That's very motivational!

I think that next week I will do a detailed post on the authors that I met and their books. Here's one thing though, that I want to say before signing off. Hearing authors talk about their books was really, really cool. If you go to a conference be sure to take the time to talk with authors one on one and go to sessions where they will talk about their books. I'm not talking about sales pitches or adds disguised as sessions. I'm talking about authors discussing what they did to create the fantasy world in their book, and I'm talking about seeing authors a few years in a row and seeing how they are getting more book deals. I went to a fun forum with urban fantasy authors that took a list of moderated questions on world building. That was cool.

Also, I talked with a thriller writer that I met three years ago before he had a book deal or an agent. His name is Boyd Morrison and he is going to have his first book released in about fourteen different countries. There's a good story there, but I'm going to wait until next week to tell it.

So, what are your thoughts and experiences on meeting authors and trends?

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Not writing!

No, I'm not. Everything is coming out wrong - plot, dialogue, tension, everything. I'm miserable at the thought of writing, and even more unhappy not to be writing. So, I decided to take a break from (all attempts at) writing for a couple of weeks, and to give myself permission to not feel miserable about it. And instead of writing, I'm taking pictures of some of the things which surround me.

So my offering this week is a picture of something I saw, which made me think of writing (ironically, considering my present state) but which applies to everything.


Thursday, August 6, 2009

The MFA Debate

I wanted to write a little about Seton Hill University, a graduate school where I received a M.A. in Writing Popular Fiction. The title is a bit strange, but I believe it was an incredibly positive experience.

For starters, it’s a low-residency, two-year program, and I attended a week-long residency at the college twice a year. I also got assigned a published genre mentor (for me, my genre was ‘mainstream’…a bit self-created, considering there was only one other person in the category, and we’re still friends. There’s also romance, fantasy, horror, sci-fi, mystery/thriller) who basically was my fire-starter for 5 months at a time. I set up a schedule and deadlines for the amount of pages I hoped to finish over a month. In the end, I completed a 400-page novel that was tightly edited and approved by two other mentors who came in at the end and read my final draft. Also, there was a non-fiction compare and contrast essay based loosely on my genre that was due at the end. Oh, and I read around fifty books either requested by myself (sort of a self-made kick in the ass) or assigned by my mentor.

In the end, I got a degree that, even though the novel I finished was rejected in the publishing world, has helped me work as an English Instructor in Japan, and gotten me now into college teaching.

Being a mainstream writer in a graduate ‘genre’ program would be, for many, not the right move. Most people who write mainstream attend other, more literary programs, but I feel like I’ve learned about both sides of the market now, and it’s made me a better writer. There are so many benefits (I’m trying not to sound like a salesman, really, I am…) to getting a low-residency Master’s Degree, especially if you’re working AND trying to write an incredible novel. Even if your master’s thesis novel doesn’t end up selling, what you have to show for it is a master’s degree that allows access to jobs close to your art.

For some reason, one of my favorite quotes came to my head. It’s from the movie Rudy. A man who works as a groundskeeper for Notre Dame talks to Rudy after he finds out that he might not ever play in a game at Notre Dame.

"You're five foot nothing. A hundred and nothing. And you've got hardly a speck of athletic ability. You hung in with the best college football team in the land for two years. And you're gonna walk out of here with a degree from Notre Dame. In this life you don't have to prove nothing to nobody except yourself. And after what you've gone through, if you haven't done that by now...it ain't gonna never happen."

Have you ever considered a low-residency M.A/M.F.A. program? Or, if you already have a Master’s in Writing/Creative Writing, what were your experiences?

Seton Hill link: http://www.setonhill.edu/academics/fiction/

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

30 Pages an Eternity

I overheard a conversation at work yesterday. I try not to snoop but hey, if you’re going to talk loudly about books, my ears are gonna perk up!
The topic?
Thirty pages.
That’s how many pages these two women friends agreed they give an author to, and I quote, “make me care about the main character and provide an interesting plot.”
Oh my gosh, it was as if I died and went to writer snoop heaven!
What was interesting to me was their observation that new authors' books tend to be “well-crafted” and they were happy that was so, as their tolerance for poor writing and insipid storytelling was “shot.”
Well now. There you go. My blog post today is done here folks, not much I can add to this. Ladies, please continue your loud discussions about books.
I take it back; I do have something to add, an observation:
Some authors are enamored of their story and their craft.
Others are enamored of their readers.
It seems to me, in a hack writer observation, that the good novel is an intertwining of the two, that writing is a holistic exercise of literary gestalt infusion, and this is all a lot harder than it looks! Just as there is a fine line between self-confidence and arrogance, there is also one between rehashing instead of deriving.
Thirty pages… It seems so much in the first sentence/first paragraph/first chapter obsessed world agents, editors and writers talk about.
But then again, is it really?

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Organic or Contrived: the Writing Community

While others were studying their writerly craft, I was white water rafting. With husband. On the Salmon. In 110 degree weather. Oh yes, indeed, it was a delightful anniversary weekend.

I didn't write all weekend. I wasn't even worried about missing out on PNWA this year. I knew Dave was attending, and he'd certainly fill me in. Err...all of us in, that is. And dear friend, Kenneth Schultz (you will see his name in print one day, and you will love his books, I assure you!) has already emailed me his notes on the event.
Picture credit: riverraftingresource.com


Why do I mention this? Because I have a Writing Community. And it's an organic one; one that grows and ebbs and flows and adapts and evolves. It's not contrived. It's not structured. It's based on relationships and common interests and that overarching goal of publishing. It nourishes me -- and I, too, nourish others. (Ummm...hopefully, anyway.)

Why is this important? The Adventures in Writing Team is also organic. Although we've come together as a team to blog about writing adventures, we really only have one rule: write about writing. It prompts me to think, however, about Writing Communities in general.

What do I want from a Writing Community?

  • I want timely advice
  • I want tips on the publishing world
  • I want commiseration or encouragement or "hang in there" hope
  • I want reminders on how not to reinvent the wheel
  • I want updated information on agents and who's looking for what
  • I want stories on how not to do, say, act, or write something

When I post on this blog, these are the thoughts swirling in my head. How do I best serve the needs of this Writing Community? As Adventures in Writing enters its fifth month of existence, we are looking for ways to best meet your needs as a writer. So wherever you are on your own writing adventure, please feel free to leave a comment, drop an email, tweet me, and let us all know: What burning question or confusing topic are you currently grabbling with? What do you wish you'd known when you first started out on the publishing journey? What was it that you didn't even know you didn't know?

We don't promise answers, but we do promise serious contemplation. Or at least looking serious as we look contemplative.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Do you discuss Work in Progress?

I think this has been discussed before, on this blog, but I had to revisit it. On a long road trip to Lost Wages (Vegas baby!) the wife and sister-in-law asked about the next book.

I said that I had the basics figured out and some of the puzzles. I'm not talking about the kind of puzzles you put together, but the conflagration of events that would have to happen to make what I want to happen, well, happen.

"So what happens?"

I pause. I usually don't like to discuss my WIP. Firstly, as I write, the WIP changes. Then when the question comes up again, I get the following:

"But I thought you were going to have (insert previous scenario that included dancing chimpanzees or something)"

Me: "Yeah, I changed that"

"But I liked the (dancing chimpanzees or whatever)"

Me: "It didn't work with the rest of the story"

"Why not?"

(Me rolling eyes)

Me: "It's hard to explain"

That usually suffices unless the chimps were the only redeeming quality of the book, which hopefully doesn't happen.

Secondly I get this:

"I think it would be better if the (chimpanzees fell in love with the rhino)"

Me: "I don't think that will work"

"and I think the (rhinos should wear Prada shoes and carry Coach purses)"

(Me rolling eyes again)

Me: "(rhinos don't carry purses)"

"Well I think it would be better if they did"

At this point I'm typically trying to get the conversation to end.

"and I think that the (chimpanzees should be doing the Argentine Tango)"

Me: "That won't work"

The problem is not that it would be nearly impossible to teach chimps to dance the Tango, it's that typically I have not discussed enough of the book so that the wife and sister-in-law have the full context of what's been written. And most of the time it's not that the ideas are bad, (though I think Prada shoes are overpriced, but that's because I'm a guy), it's just that what they are discussing doesn't fit into the overall flow of where I was going.

If I take the time to explain the whole book in detail, it somehow diminishes the effort. It takes some of the energy out of the writing and sometimes it takes a lot more work to finish it.

What do you do? Do you discuss your work?

Sunday, August 2, 2009

The One Thing

My plane back to Minneapolis will take off soon. I just finished this year's Pacific Northwest Writer's Conference and, like always, there were so many great things that happened.

For now, I'll just mention one thing: meeting published authors. There's nothing like getting a bit of time to talk with people face to face about their books and how they made it. One author mentioned that it took her eight years and five books to make it. Now it is her full time job.

I'm currently on my third big creative project. The first was a short YA fantasy novel. The second was a children's play. And the third is a fantasy novel set in the same world as my first project.

It's all too easy to grow impatient and to forget that many of the people that have made it have put in twice the time and number of projects.

How many big creative projects (plays, novels, screen plays) have you completed? Have you meet any authors that have inspired you with their story? What was the one thing that inspired you?

With all the travel back and forth from Washington and Minnesota I've had to cut back on commenting on everyone's blogs, but I will be back soon. : )

Saturday, August 1, 2009

A room of one's own?

The Guardian has a series on writers' rooms.

A quiet room to write in is a luxury I don't have. I usually write with a laptop on the kitchen table. And there I battle the elements (the busy environment), mankind (that would be my family interrupting me and people calling on the phone) and most of all, I battle myself (because really, I prefer internet-surfing and time-wasing to working).

I would like to have a room devoted to writing. Oh, I do realize that writing isn't about the externals - not about the drapes and the flowers and the ceiling-high bookshelf. It's about concentrating on the words and the flow of the unfolding story, and yes, I can do that at my kitchen table. Still, I'd like to have a quiet little writing space.

So who has a room for writing, and who makes do without?