Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Highlights Full Novel Workshop--Trimming Your Word Count

I'm here in Boyd's Mill, PA, staying in a little rustic cabin, eating in a barn (actually a really nice facility just called that) and working hard to revise one of my MG novels.

We're getting great advice from Sarah Aaronson, Nancy Werlin, Amanda Jenkins, Nicole Valentine and Rob Jenkins.

Here are three great tips from Nancy's fabulous class on artful cutting (trimming and tightening your manuscript):

 Find a great image that can multitask. This is my term for the kind of details Nancy directed us to use, Instead of using the first simile or metaphor that comes to mind, make them count. Is there one great detail that can tell several things about your character or setting?

Combine. You don't need three scenes to illustrate one point. Cherry pick the great details from each and combine these into one good scene.

Make each scene, and each paragraph within the scene, count. Nancy quoted David Mamet: "Any scene...which does not both advance the plot, and stand alone (that is dramatically, but itself, and on its own merits) is either superfluous or incorrectly written."

By looking carefully at each scene, paragraph, and detail, Nancy said she got a 60,000 word manuscript down to 45,000 words.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Pitch Wars Consolation Prize

I found out about Pitch Wars toward the very end, so as you can guess, I entered last minute too. [New Goal: Look at Twitter more than once a month.]  I thought I'd done my research thoroughly, but I clearly didn't, as you can see by the bonus award I got from these kind pitch mentors, Stacey Lee and Stephanie Garber:


I also got a nice, personalized rejection from the other mentor I submitted to. The mentors were so kind that it really makes me want to try again next year.

And to do a better job keeping up on contest dates!

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Do You Have to Become a Writing Brand to Be A Good Author?

It's been way too long since I updated this blog. Last spring I did a weekly post for the WIFYR blog. At first I re-posted here, then I got busy and didn't even do that. Now it's time to re-post some of those blogs, and also to report on SCBWI/LA 2014.

 The word brand got a fair amount of attention during the SCBWI/LA 2014 agent panel. What is a literary brand? How you represent yourself to the public, including maintaining a respectful and professional online presence.

The agents spoke of looking past one project to the person behind it, considering his/her potential for longer career. Some said brand is best developed when a writer sticks to one genre.

 One great illustration is the way Laura Rennert describes a favorite client, YA author Maggie Stiefvater. This bestselling author had a strong online community even before she published SHIVER. She relates to teens because she’s young enough to think like one, and is a talented artist and musician as well. Stiefvater composed and produced her own music for the audio of THE SCORPIO RACES, one of my new favorite books.

 Laura Rennert called Stievater an author who’s managed to find the “sweet spot between literary and commercial fiction.”  If you read Stiefvater's writing, you'll understand why her agent raves about her.

 And then there’s me, a middle-aged mom who can’t even name Celtic instruments, let alone play them. By the end of my second day at SCBWI, I felt tempted to go home, give up, and learn to knit.  But not only would I be hopeless at knitting, I can’t quit. It’s too big a part of who I am. And just as every story is unique, so is each author. Even me.

An agent told fantasy writer Lloyd Alexander, “You have no future in fantasy, young man. Stick to nonfiction.”   And Judy Blume was told, “You’re a nice girl, but you can’t write.”  What would have happened if Lloyd Alexander and Judy Blume had given up?

These examples prove the words of another conference guest, Editor Justin Chanda: “Taste and talent are different things.” Not everyone is going to love your work, or even love you. I found further encouragement during Judy Blume’s closing remarks at the conference. “Don’t let anyone make you discouraged. And if they try, don’t get depressed, get angry.”

For me, determined is a better word than anger. The whine-to-husband, cry-to-writer-friends, then keep going kind of determination. Maybe I’ll make that part of my brand.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Elements of A Stand-Out Novel

A recent Query Tracker blog post by Rosie Genova quotes agent Michelle Wolfson: “I challenge you to make me fall in love with your work.”
That’s quite a challenge.
During a WIFYR Boot Camp Workshop, writer Ann Dee Ellis spoke of her conversation with conference editors. Ann Dee indicated writers often don’t understand just how special a book has to be in order to get published.
What, in your opinion, makes a book stand out?
Great voice?
A unique and interesting setting?
An action-filled plot that keeps the reader wondering what happens next?
The trilogy I’m currently reading has all three. Great voice that’s easy to relate to, characters so interesting I’ll miss them when the book ends, a setting I’m fascinated to learn about, and action that keeps me wondering.
Think about what you’re reading now. What made you pick this book? And what keeps you reading it?
Then go polish your manuscript until it shines. 

I also recommend a great post by David Farland on kicking your writing up a notch. http://www.davidfarland.com/writing_tips/?a=363
shiny water Originally posted on the wifyr blog http://www.wifyr.com/blog/2014

Friday, March 21, 2014

Why Editors Hate Flashbacks

Here's one good rule of thumb for your first chapter: No flashbacks. Why? Did some tired, cranky editor make up an arbitrary rule?

No. In a recent lecture on plot, Carol Lynch Williams gave these reasons why flashbacks should be used rarely.

 If a flashback is needed in the first chapter, it’s a good indication the writer has started in wrong place. A story should begin when something in the character’s life has changed, or is about to change.

A good story is a rising progression of action. Flashbacks almost always slow the movement of the story.wrong way 2
If you have to use a flashback, and Carol said she did find them necessary in her award-winning book, The Chosen One, keep them short and simple. Get in and out of each flashback quickly. Experiment with techniques, such as alternating past and present tense, to let the reader know where they are in time.

So editors have good reasons for asking writers to be wary of flashbacks, especially in the beginning of your book. Use flashbacks sparingly and well. It may be a good way to make sure your editor doesn't end up cranky.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Your Synopsis: Bane or Boon?

Authors complain about synopsis drafting. I once heard somene say it’s easier to write a whole book. Still, writing a synopsis isn’t just necessary torture. To start, it can show:
Plot Holes: Condensing in short format can clarify events which need better explanation.baby 2 For example, changing my synopsis following a plot revision made take another look at a character’s pivotal melt-down scene. My edits had placed it before the crisis-creating reveal. That could have been a really bad oops.
Inconsistencies in Character Motivation or Logic: The synopsis process makes you revisit your storyline with new eyes. In my case, I had to ask myself a lot of why questions. For instance, if the main character left to get help in the first scene, why is he going back alone in the second? Why does he even leave? Writing a one page synopsis gave me over two pages of scribbled questions and ideas to take back to my manuscript.
As Alison Randall said in her Feb. 27 blog post, at www. wifyr.com/blog, cutting words encourages concise word use. Similarly, summarizing your story causes you to select and sharpen key story elements.
Write your synopsis. Write it early. Then edit your manuscript and write it again. The unexpected benefits may surprise you.
(Originally posted at www.wifyr.com/blog)

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Dear Lucky Agent Contest--Ends Tonight


Writer's Digest is sponsoring this contest in connection with Chuck Sambuchino's Guide to Literary Agents Blog. I just heard about this one. Fortunately, my WIP happens to be contemporary middle grade, and I just whipped it into shape for something else.

 If you happen to have something ready too, the prize is a 10-page critique, plus a year's subscription to Writer's Digest As you know if you've read that blog, I love that magazine.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Getting Published--Is there a Secret?

Today I read two great blogs by two great friends, and just had to share.

I've known Amy Finnegan for quite a while. It started when we were both members of the Utah League of Writers, and I took over for her as chapter president.
Since then, I've been impressed with Amy's networking skill, her efforts to plan some terrific writing retreats, but most of all, her hard work. After some setbacks (we've all had them, right?) she now has an agent and a great book contract with Bloomsbury. Her book is terrific, and I'm so excited for her!

Last fall, she published a great post, "The Secret Formula for Getting Published." It's really, really worth clicking the link and taking a look. https://emusdebuts.wordpress.com/2013/11/28/the-secret-formula-for-getting-published/

Another one that you really, really can't miss (I know, too many word repeats--cut me off), is this one from my friend Alison Randall, another terrific, hard-working writer who has won awards for her writing, including and award for her picture book, The Wheat Doll. She's a guest blogger on Cynthia Leitich Smith's blog, Cynsations. http://cynthialeitichsmith.blogspot.com/2014/02/guest-post-alison-randall-on-resolve-to.html

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Great Advice for Writers: Interview with Courtney Alameda

Courtney is a friend and former fellow assistant with the Writing and Illustrating for Young Readers Conference. We met in Alane Ferguson's workshop several years ago. At the 2012 Conference, Courtney met her agent, John C. Cusick of Greenhouse Literary. She says he's a fabulous agent. Courtney now has an equally fabulous book contract. 
The following interview was originally posted at www.wifyr.com/blog
Those of us who know and love Courtney can't forget her enthusiasm for all things related to books. When she assisted in Holly Black's workshop, Courtney dressed as characters from Holly's books, including this unicorn.
Q. As writers, we spend a lot of time working toward the goal of being agented/getting a book contract, and very little time thinking beyond that point. What do you wish you’d known before you got your agent and book deal?
I could fill a tome with the things I wish I'd known, but the most important thing I've learned since the book deal is why I write. Previously, I thought I sat down at my computer each and every day because it was good for my career -- which wasn't necessarily untrue. But I found the book deal didn't make me any happier than I'd been before, no more validated in my work, no more secure. Shocking, I know!

So why do I write? For love, of course. Because nothing thrills me more than the moment of discovery, when I stumble into a scene that will tie the multiple threads of plot, character arc, and theme together; nothing is more tantalizing than my first glimpse of a new character, or the way a new voice feels as it slips out of me and onto the page. There is nothing more triumphant than weaving messy bits of a scene into a tight, coherent whole, word by word, line by line. Writing is an alchemical sort of magic, and it brings me great joy.

Q. What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?
The best writing advice I've ever heard isn't writing advice at all, as it actually comes from psychologist Angela Lee Duckworth's TED talk about success. Duckworth says, "In all [the] very different contexts [we studied], one characteristic emerged as a significant predictor of success, and it wasn't social intelligence, it wasn't good looks, physical health, and it wasn't IQ; it was grit. Grit is passion and perseverance for very long term goals. Grit is having stamina. Grit is sticking with your future, day in and day out, not just for the week, not just for the month, but for years, and working really hard to make that future a reality." (The Key to Success, TED 2013)
I want to repeat one part of Duckworth's statement: Grit is passion and perseverance for very long term goals. Most writers work, on average, 7 - 10 years before signing with an agent or landing a book deal. Your passion for your work must be unflagging if you are to succeed. Don't expect to be an outlier, expect to work hard. 

Q. What top three writing tips would you give aspiring writers? 
1. Creativity's force isn't constrained by the laws of physics -- the more you use, the more you have. With that said, it isn't always on tap, either. Learn how to write when the muse is silent. Learn to write when you're exhausted. Learn to write when you're sick, stressed, or sad. You will do all these things on deadline. Learn how to do it now.
2. Be unique, be you. We already have a John Green, a Veronica Roth, and a Markus Zusak -- but we don't have you. Not yet. 
3. And most importantly: Play! Like Albert Einstein said, "Creativity is intelligence having fun." Write every day. Read every day. If you stop having fun doing these things at least a little of the time, reevaluate your goals for your work.  

Q. Do you make writing goals?  Are there one or two you could share with us?
My goals for the year are fairly simple: write well every day, finish a new novel by summer, and apply to a few MFA programs for fall 2015. Goals are a large part of success in any field -- goals, and grit.

Q. How do you balance a daytime job with writing? Do you have a set writing time or daily plan such as writing for at least an hour or a certain number of words?
I once heard Markus Zusak say (and I paraphrase greatly here), "If you are to succeed, writing should be your first priority. If it cannot be your first, then it must be your second." Balancing a writing life with one's day-to-day activities does not happen spontaneously -- you must create a writing/life balance that works for you.
My writing life is messy. I find my creative mind is most active late at night and early in the morning -- perhaps 10 PM to 4 AM -- and so I ensure that I get a significant amount of time each week to write inside that time slot. However, I carry my laptop and notebook with me wherever I go, so I can fill up the cracks in my day with writing. 

Also, I've started to use Victoria Schwab's calendar trick, which I have found to be surprisingly motivational. You may view it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kvDtCIA-_dk

Q. Can you tell us some of your favorite authors or favorite books? What books or authors have inspired you?
There are too many authors and titles to name here, but I'll certainly point to Neil Gaiman. While working on the revisions for Shutter, I kept a copy of his Make Good Art speech on my desk. One page got particularly water-stained and worn, and it read: "The moment that you feel that, just possibly, you're walking down the street naked, exposing too much of your heart and your mind and what exists on the inside, showing too much of yourself. That's the moment you may be starting to get it right."
That line got me through a lot of hard, late nights -- not because the revision wasn't going well, or because my editor was snarky with my work (she's brilliant and kind, I adore her), but because I knew this book would go out into the world with too much of me in it, and that in and of itself is a frightening thing. Looking back, I needed those nights so that I could learn how to let go. The time is fast approaching that my characters won't belong to me anymore -- they will belong to my readers. Every day, that fact gets a little easier to bear.

Q. For those of us who feel like we could edit forever, how do you know when a book is ready to submit?
I'm calling on Mr. Gaiman again to answer this question, because he is far wiser than me: "Fix it. Remember that, sooner or later, before it ever reaches perfection, you will have to let it go and move on and start to write the next thing. Perfection is like chasing the horizon. Keep moving."

 Q. What do you do when you receive advice on your manuscript from several different beta readers, and they all give you conflicting ideas?
Good feedback will resonate with you. Part of maturing as a writer and an artist is developing a strong sense of self on the page, and knowing what your intentions are for each manuscript, each scene, each sentence. Eventually, you will get so good at analyzing your beta readers' feedback that you will know, almost immediately, whether or not their feedback will take your work closer to your goal or farther from it. Above all things, stay honest with yourself, true to your work, and gracious to all your beta readers. 

Courtney Alameda’s career has been spent in and around books. She holds a B.A. in English Literature with an emphasis in Creative Writing from Brigham Young University, spent seven years working for Barnes & Noble, and currently works as an Adult & Teen Services librarian at the Provo City Library. Her forthcoming novel, Shutter (Winter 2015, Feiwel & Friends/Macmillan), is a tale spawned in part by Bram Stoker’s Dracula, in part by her experiences both paranormal and not-so-paranormal, and features a cast of monsters inspired by everything from Japanese folklore to survival horror video games.

Courtney is represented by John M. Cusick of Greenhouse Literary. A Northern California native, she now resides in Utah.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

The 10,000-Hours Rule: Will Time Alone Improve Your Writing?

eric bananas and papers
Many writers set goals, i.e. 1 hour or 1,000 words daily. How does your time work for you?
We’ve long heard the theory that 10,000 hours of practice is all that’s required to make you an expert in your field, whether it be illustrating, writing, or playing the violin.
But hours of practice alone isn’t enough. “Anders Ericsson, the Florida State University psychologist whose research on expertise spawned the 10,000-hour rule…[said], “You don’t get benefits from mechanical repetition, but by adjusting your execution over and over to get closer to your goal.” Focus, The Hidden Driver of Success, David Goleman. [DavidFarland.net link to  http://www.brainpickings.org/index.php/2014/01/22/daniel-goleman-focus-10000-hours-myth/]
If you want to improve rather than simply put in time, says Goleman, your first essential is focused effort. The second essential is receiving feedback from an expert eye.  For writers, that means it’s near impossible to go it alone. Critique groups, classes, writing conferences . . . what feedback has been the most helpful for you?
Originally posted at www.wifyr.com/blog (Artwork courtesy Eric Birkin.)

Monday, January 13, 2014

Rate Your Skill at Critique

It's interesting how we go to Writing classes and workshops, pay for pitch sessions, all for the opportunity to hear feedback, including criticism, on our work. Talking with someone about critiques, I realize I used to be too nit-picky. (My apologies to you who had to deal with my comma-Nazi former self.) I hope experience has taught me to criticize less and help more.
Here are the questions I posted on the WIFYR blog as ways to evaluate how well we do in the critique setting, both for giving and receiving advice on our writing.
Are you open to advice that can improve your work? As much as we'd all like to hear our work is wonderful, we only improve when we are willing to listen to ideas that make good writing better.
Do you listen rather than argue? When others critique you, stay quiet and give them a full chance to talk. You don't have to agree, but chances are you can still learn from their ideas. In a group critique, pay attention when it's another's turn. You can learn a lot from others' work, too.
When critiquing, are you positive and kind?  Having your writing critiqued has been compared to holding your firstborn child up for scrutiny. The author or illustrator has put weeks, months, or years of effort into his/her work. Start by saying something good, and then tread gently.

Are your comments helpful and selective? Overly harsh critiques are a sure sign of the inexperienced writer. Learn to choose which comments to make, and don't rail on every flaw.
No one enjoys criticism, but these techniques can help turn your critique into a positive experience that can move you one footstep closer to publication.
I had to add that last bit because of the cool photo I got of my daughter's footprints (barefoot was not my idea) after it snowed.

Monday, January 6, 2014

New Year, New Writing Goals

It's Jan 6th. Did you make resolutions to improve your craft? Or does the idea make you cringe? I admit to either not setting goals, or failing to keep them. In church last week, I heard a talk by a business manager who'd been successful in helping her employees make and keep specific plans. I've adapted some of her ideas on effective goal-setting for those of us who write.  If you didn't follow through last year, here are some ideas that might explain why, as well as how to do better in 2014.
  1. Your resolutions are too grand. If you plan to win the Newbery this year, great. However, this is a wish. A more reasonable goal would be to plan to submit your manuscript or illustrations on a regular basis, monthly or bi-monthly, for example, or to plan publicity strategies for that already-published book.
  2. You forgot to build in wiggle room. Decide to write from 5-7 am, seven days a week, 365 days, and you'll feel discouraged the first time you slip. A plan to write at 5 am four days a week lets you try again tomorrow.
  3. Your goal is too vague. “I want to publish,” for example, is again more dream than plan. Be specific. As an alternative, “I will attend a writing conference and query 3 agents a month," is a concrete action that can move you toward your wish.
  4. 4. You forgot reminders to keep you accountable. Put a sticky note in your calendar or a monthly alert on your phone. Better yet, ask a friend to check on your progress. Do the same for her.
  5. You set too many. Your to-do list shouldn't exceed your daily word count. Joking aside, too many objectives can overwhelm as easily as goals that are too big or lack a specific plan. If keeping Resolutions is a challenge, this year, try setting just one or two. Plus one more: Use these ideas to help you keep the previous two.meg snowmen(A shorter version of this blog post was previously published at www.wifyr.com/blog)