Monday, June 15, 2015

7 Common Fears and Advice for Writers

Digging this one up from the archives, because good advice never goes out of style! And neither do writers' fears. 

Hats off again to Sylvia for her words of wisdom.

The talented Sylvia Ney over at Writing in Wonderland is taking over the blog today to share her insights on common writing fears and how to overcome them. Take it away, Sylvia!

Writers often express common fears when talking with agents, editors, and other authors. The advice I offer below is based in part on my own experience and in part on interviews I have completed with agents and editors.

Rejection and Inadequacy - This is the most common fear because it’s the hardest to let go. You question if your work is worthy of publication. You feel it as a first timer wondering if you’ll ever find someone to like your finished product. And this feeling will still sneak up on you as a multi published author worrying if the next creation will be as successful. Rejection happens. You can’t please everyone all the time. Shelves are lined with the books of famous authors who suffered repeated rejection. The key is, they never gave up. They continued improving and searching for the right market. You can too.

Success - Many people are afraid of success. They believe too much will be expected of them and the thought of everything becoming too big to handle is enough to paralyze them into doing nothing. The trick is to deal with the situation one step at a time. Worry about success when you get there.

Revealing Too Much - There are times writers expose so much of their soul, inner demons, dreams, hopes, and beliefs that a project can become very journal like. You begin to fear you are revealing too much of yourself. Maybe family and friends who read the book will see right through the characters, and to the true depiction of yourself (or worse yet, one of them). Relax. Every great writer draws from experience, as well as the heart. The relationship you have to the story is what makes it memorable. It’s what will hook and never release a reader. And the truth is, someone will see themselves in your story whether that was your intention or not. That means you’ve been successful at capturing human experience.

You’re Too Old - You’re never too old. I know a thirteen year old who has just published her first book, but it’s nowhere as moving as the first book my friend published in her seventies. With age comes experience. Experience adds depth and maturity to your writing. A novel requires patience - something young authors often lack.

Too Much Research - Details are important in a novel. You have to know the period in which the story is set, details of characters’ occupations, nuances of different cultures, etc. Enjoy the research. Learn about your characters and the world they live in. Try writing articles, blogs, or ebooks based on the new things you are learning (these can prove to an agent or editor that you are highly qualified to write on your topic – even if the book is fiction). Don’t consider learning a job. It can be a fun hobby as well as a lucrative side project.

Technology - If you’re only comfortable using a word document, and have yet to learn anything else about your computer, the thought of mastering the technology involved in submitting and publishing might be intimidating. The great news is that it’s all relatively simple to learn and use. You can take the time to learn to do it yourself, or there are many others you can hire to help with everything from formatting, to cover design, to marketing. Shop around and ask for recommendations.

Marketing - Some people are natural marketers: confident, charismatic, and with an instinctive grasp of what benefits will entice their audience. Others find marketing uncomfortable at first. Marketing may not come naturally to you, but you’re perfectly capable of it. You are simply letting people know what you can do for them. Focus on your audience in your marketing. Instead of trying to write about how great your work is, write about how it can help them. Start an email list, create social media accounts (facebook, twitter, pinterest, etc.), use your own blog, guest post on other sites.

If one of these fears has been holding you back, decide today how you’re going to move forward. If you want to ask specific questions, I encourage you to leave a comment below or read Jane Friedman, Rachelle Gardner, Noah Lukeman, and Chuck Sambuchino. Other agents are helpful as well, but these four have FREE information available on their websites/blogs.

Awesome advice, Sylvia! I know from experience those four names you suggest are fantastic resources for writers. So go ahead, guys, check it out and vanquish those pesky fears and doubts!

Monday, June 8, 2015

Writing about the Good Stuff

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It was (finally!) a beautiful, sunny summer weekend here in the Cheese state, and it got me thinking about the importance of calling out the happy times, the salad days, the celebrations in our novels.

We writers get a kick out of trapping our characters in awful situations, so it's easy to overlook a story's lighter moments. But they're vital.

Think of:
  • The long-awaited melting of winter in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe
  • Christmas holiday or the Quidditch matches at Hogwarts
  • The Bel Tine festival in Wheel of Time
  • The shindig or any of the crew's meal times aboard Serenity in Firefly
  • The wedding scene from Lion Heart

Each of those scenes--and others like them--allow us to glimpse the characters' normal lives in between the myriad of wicked plot twists we throw at them. Moments like these are opportunities to do three important things:
  1. They let readers experience a new, lighter side of the characters. Perhaps even learn something new or uncover a deeper layer of character. This last reason is why the Firefly meal scenes are some of my favorites. We always seem to come away from them with a new bit of history about our crew's time together.
  2. They let the characters and readers catch their breaths. Even if the next page is right back to action, even if the celebration is interrupted halfway through by a dementor in a space suit spreading a zombie plague...for that split second of calm, it's still a change of pace. Pause points like this help keep the plot flowing. When was the last time you enjoyed a book that was ALL NAILBITER, ALL THE TIME! There have to moments of reflection, moments where you get the information that helps you understand WHY you should be biting your nails in any given chapter.
  3. They set the comparison for the bad times. There's an old saying that you can't appreciate the light unless you've lived in shadows. The same is true for stories. Without the fun and celebrations, readers can't fully appreciate the gravity of your dark scenes or the frantic pacing of your action scenes. The burning of the Shire wouldn't have been nearly as powerful or heartbreaking if we hadn't seen the laughter, dancing, and cheer of Bilbo's birthday party.
So, next time you've got your MC backed against the wall, facing an angry weredragon with nothing but a hairbrush, try sending them a few happy scenes too. Readers will thank you.

In the meantime, long live summer!

Monday, June 1, 2015

Conference Insights and My Fave New Releases

Hello again, fellow interwebbers! Can you believe summer is here already? Well...sort of. What have you been up to in recent weeks?

My YA steampunk is coming along nicely, and I had a chance to attend the Milwaukee Writing Workshop with Chuck Sambuchino and a panel of fantastic agents. (You can see who here).

One of the most interesting segments was the first-page panel, where Chuck read aloud a variety of first pages from the crowd, and the eight agents then raised their hands at the moment they'd personally stop reading.

We got through about 35 first pages, from a variety of genres, and got an inside glimpse of an agent's thought process while reading queries, feedback and reasons for stopping. I was impressed with the panel's professionalism, business savvy, and love for stories!

Chuck's final piece of advice for the day? "Put down the remote!" The room chuckled, but it's sadly true. Butt-in-chair time works for a reason, folks.

The conference netted lots of great take-aways, on everything from platform to publishing options. I captured some of the highlights for you below.

New Releases that Deserve a Place on Your Shelves!

In the last week, two books launched that should be on your radar and your TBR.

The conclusion of Gaughen's Robin Hood trilogy, told from the colorful and delightful viewpoint of Scarlet/Marian. And if that's not enough convincing, read my reviews of SCARLET and LADY THIEF.

I was lucky enough to read this one prior to publication, and I'm so excited it's out in the world for all of you now! I loved Ashley Nixon’s pirate fantasy, CUTLASS, and said I couldn’t wait to see where she took the series. Well, with the release of FLINTLOCK, the answer is: bigger, broader and even more fun! Catch my full review here.

What's on your summer reading list?

Monday, April 13, 2015

Grand Exits

Revamping a favorite from the archives this week!

It’s hard to kill off a character, especially a beloved character. We debate, gnash our teeth and wring our hands, (They don’t reeeaally have to die do they? What if I just rewrite the plot? Or maybe throw in some magic Lazarus serum. Yes, that’s it! Lazarus serum!), we cry (and hope our readers do too), and then we stare at the page totally drained of emotion and wondering if we’ve just made a huge mistake and where to go from here.

But here’s a secret. Killing off a character also can be opportunity to have a little fun. Hey, we’re writers, remember? We torture our characters for breakfast (and lunch, and dinner, and elevenses).

A well-written exit is a chance to make our adored character larger than life. The culmination of everything we’ve tried to convey about them, and it can be a huge page-turner and fan favorite if done right.

Here are some of my favorite final exit examples and why I love ‘em. Warning: Minor spoilers for Castle, Star Trek and Burn Notice.

Captain Montgomery: Castle

The Exit: In the semi-finale of a thread spanning multiple seasons, the loyal and beloved Captain Montgomery is revealed to be the mysterious “third cop” in a group of vigilantes entangled in the events surrounding the murder of main character Kate Beckett’s mom twenty years ago. Now, that past has caught up to him. He’s the only remaining survivor of the vigilante group, so the bad guy pulling the strings considers him a liability and gives Montgomery an ultimatum: turn over Beckett or they’ll kill his family.

Montgomery sets a meet with Beckett at an abandoned air field hangar. As she walks up to meet him, she gets a text that tells her he’s in cahoots with the bad guys. When she confronts him, Montgomery shows his true (awesome) colors. He used Beckett as bait to lure the bad guys, knowing he could get her safely away and take the bad guys down. Which he does. At the price of his life.

Why it Works: The twists! It’s a huge shock to the Castle team and viewers that Montgomery played a part in the backstory of Beckett’s mom’s death. We feel a sense of betrayal and whiplash, and because we’re so thrown off our game, there’s a lingering unpredictability throughout the rest of the episode. We have no idea what to expect.

The emotions! There is a very deep bond between Montgomery and Beckett, which is shown beautifully here as he gives his life to save her. Viewers, too, get the sense that, while Montgomery might be flawed or have made past mistakes, he is a man who stands his ground, a man to admire.

The lines! I have a soft spot for exits that include lines of bravado in the face of imminent danger or death. Montgomery’s last words, before he takes out the final bad guy (Who has just told him he can’t hide): “You’ve got that ass backwards, boy. You can’t hide from me.”

Kirk’s Dad: Star Trek (The new movies)

The Exit: George Kirk is on-screen less than 12 minutes. I love him anyway. The Romulans are attacking. The ship is crippled. There’s only one way to save his wife and infant son…stay behind. Not only does he do that, he does it with an aplomb and conviction of character that makes me want to cheer and weep at the same time.

Why it Works: Well, see above, for starters. Simultaneous cheering and weeping is like the gold medal standard of reader/viewer reactions.

Also, the pacing! It helps here because events move so fast and build a foundation of intensity that heightens our emotions all the more. The fact that they kept the dialogue running between Kirk’s parents throughout all of this was a brilliant move.

The effect on other characters! This is a great example of how a character death can alter the course of the lives around him or her. Sometimes, writing someone off isn’t the hardest part. It’s keeping everyone else going in their absence. We haven’t even met Kirk yet, but we sense this will play a defining role in making him the character we know and love. Don’t forget about managing the aftermath of your Grand Exits.

Madeline Westen: Burn Notice

The Exit: Madeline Westen, chain-smoking, straight-talking mom of spy hero Michael Westen, is trapped in a house with her grandson and Jesse (one of Michael’s fellow former spies) as the bad guys close in. Like, the really bad guys. The ones who also have Michael and gang pinned down in an office complex across town, threatening to kill Madeline and her grandson unless Michael gives himself up to die. So, what does Maddie do? She takes herself out of the equation. They have explosives in the house, but no remote detonator, so Maddie gives her grandson to Jesse to escape and sets it off herself, taking down the bad guys in the process.

Why it Works: The attitude! This ties back to my earlier comments about great final lines. Madeline Westen chooses to go out on her own valiant, kick-A terms. In a situation where the bad guys should clearly hold all the cards, she flips their metaphorical poker table so fast, it’s not even funny. They’ve lost their main bargaining chip, and Michael is now free to rain down hell on them.

There also is a strong sense of steely, motherly protection in her final scene. She wants to stick it to these guys, and she lets them know it. The bad guys enter the house, see a 50+ year old woman lounging on a couch smoking a cigarette. She fixes them with a sly, how-do-you-like-me-now smile, says: “This one’s for my boys,” and hits the button. People don’t forget characters like that!

Misc. Other Favorite Exits
  • Draco – Dragonheart *“Look to the stars.” Happy sigh.*
  • Boromir – LOTR *Can you say “redemption?”*
  • Wally Hamilton – The Far Pavilions *This one made me ache in a way beyond tears.*

How about you? Any you want to add to the list?

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Shelf Updates, Most Anticipated, & Book News

Can you believe 2015's almost a quarter done already? Time flies like books off a shelf! And, speaking of books and shelves, here's what's been on my shelf so far this year.

FIRST LORD'S FURY - Wrapped up Butcher's CODEX ALERA series. Fantastic!

MARK OF ATHENA & HOUSE OF HADES - These characters are so much fun to read. They always leave me cheering, and I can't wait to finish the series with BLOOD OF OLYMPUS.

THIS SHATTERED WORLD - The sequel to THESE BROKEN STARS. See my full review at Fantasy Faction.

ICED - A continuation of my fave Karen Marie Moning series. I was lukewarm on this one.

SNOW LIKE ASHES - This was a gift read and another lukewarm one for me.

THE MAZE RUNNER - It fell at the perfect time to feel like a fresh voice compared to what I'd been reading lately, so I enjoyed it!

THE LIES OF LOCKE LAMORA - A friend has been bugging me to read this for years. I owe him. It's amazing! Like, read-in-one-sitting-and-go-buy-the-sequel-the-next-day amazing!

Books I'm Still Looking Forward to in 2015

LION HEART (May 19) - The final chapter in AC Gaughen's Robin Hood trilogy. Can. Not. Wait!!

THE AERONAUT'S WINDLASS (Sept. 29) - Jim Butcher does steampunk! I love all his other stuff, so I'm very excited to see what he does with new characters and a new world in his CINDER SPIRES debut.

Other Book Happenings

If you haven't been following the Fantasy Fandom March Madness Battle Royale, check it out here

My pal, Nick Wilford from Scattergun Scribblings, just unveiled the cover for his up-and-coming collection A CHANGE OF MIND AND OTHER STORIES. 

And, in case you were partying too hard on St. Paddy's to notice Mark Koopmans found a publisher for his Donald Braswell  memoir (Woo!!), go congratulate him here. I reviewed an early draft and enjoyed it, and I'm so happy and excited for Mark!

Have fun and good luck to everyone doing the A-to-Z Challenge in a few days.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Writing that Perfect Pace

The right pacing can cover a lot of sins, and each genre, age group, and storytelling style has its own sweet spot when it comes to pulling the ready along at the proper speed. But what if you haven’t nailed that perfect pace yet? Here are some tips to help.

Too Slow

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 Is there at least a small amount of conflict pulling readers along in each chapter? On each page? Pull out your handy highlighter (or virtual highlighter) and actually walk through your chapters with this in mind. Highlight the conflict or stake on each page, and you’ll begin to see where the story drags. If you’ve got a handful of pages with no highlighter, that’s your trouble area. Focus there. 

Another approach is to assess the beginning and end of each chapter to measure plot progression. Read your first sentence in the chapter. What’s happening? What’s the main problem? Now, read your last sentence in the same chapter. Nine times out of ten, you’ll want to end with the original problem solved (or made worse) and a new problem introduced. Can’t go letting our characters to get bored, after all, can we?
Is that half-page-long description really necessary? Ask yourself this question and be firm on the answer. And then go ask a bunch of your crit pals who bring more distance to their assessment than you do. If it’s not needed or you can get away with less, do it! Remember, tightly written description often is the most powerful. 

If you and the crit brigade are absolutely onboard with leaving it in, ask yourself the next question. Is it necessary HERE? All of it? Or, can you sprinkle it across multiple pages in the chapter, interspersed with action and discovery. Sometimes, that simple type of change makes all the difference in pacing.
Does your flowery prose need a trim? If your action scenes consist of sentences like: Ryan stretched his long, cargos-clad legs and leapt like a spooked gazelle for the rusted, cracking fire escape, retrieving his heavy black .45 from the leather side holster on his braided belt along the way… You’re probably overwriting. 

These sentences can be tricky to spot at first, but cleaning them up tightens your pace AND your word count. This exercise can help.
Should you consider adding fresh plotlines or twists? If you’ve run through the above and your manuscript still feels sluggish, it’s possible there’s just not enough going on yet to spark the pace. You want to be careful about adding plotlines or twists simply for the sake of complicating the story, but adding a layer of threat, complication or motivation can really up the pace. 

Imagine the Harry Potter storyline without Sirius Black. Harry would face just a teensy bit less mystery, lower personal stakes, and fewer external pressures and motivations to drive his actions and the series’ pacing.

Too Fast
I may not look fast, but I'm plotting.
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Even if the pace if quick, are you increasing the stakes? One of my recent reads had this problem – and note this was on a book I still enjoyed. I loved the pacing, but realized that 100 pages in, the stakes were essentially what they’d been on page 1. We just kept getting whisked along so quickly there wasn’t time to stop and think about it, or from the author’s perspective, to build those stakes. To me, this puts a story in danger of remaining shallow, when it could be much deeper and more developed.
Do your characters have time to process and reflect after big moments? This can be as simple as a paragraph or two, but it’s important to slow things down occasionally to let characters react, grow and change. These are the parts of the book that help us feel the pace because of their momentary contrast with fast action.
Are you going as deep into the plot as you could be? While I enjoy hyper-paced books, they also risk irritating me by breezing through important plot points or simplifying aspects I wanted characters to investigate further. Don’t abandon plot depth for pacing. Ask yourself if you’re allowing your characters to question the situation enough, to respond to alternate solutions, to dig deeper into mysteries you’ve left hanging. Remember, plot loses most of its power if readers stop caring about and relating to your characters.

So, there you have it. I feel like I should cue one of those fast-voiced legalese announcers to read pacing disclaimers and inspirations to set the mood for that nail-biting pacing you’ll crank out next time you open your manuscripts!

And jump over to Fantasy Faction to check out my review of THIS SHATTERED WORLD. 

Monday, March 2, 2015

Silly Things Writers Panic Over

Oooooh, what am I gonna do?! 

  • That our query alone among hundreds is the one that the email system has somehow mysteriously failed to deliver and it is now lost to the ether forever

  • To email or not to email that agent who was supposed to receive the perhaps-vanished-forever query

  • To email or not email an agent who’s a day late in his or her estimated response times

  • That some readers might mistakenly pronounce a word we MADE UP

  • The fact that, technically speaking, the title of this post should be Silly Things Over Which Writers Panic

  • Amazon rankings. Did anyone buy our book in the last hour…minute…second?!?! WHY NOT? REFRESH!!

  • Reviews…any, all, number, substance, you name it

  • That we've run out of a) chocolate, b) coffee, c) tea, d) [fill in the blank!]

  • Did that last edit save? Let’s save again, to be sure. Oh my gosh, we might lose EVERYTHING!! We did save it, didn’t we? Okay, just once more.

  • That another book (movie, TV show, one-woman play) in a totally different genre (format, universe) used the SAME NAME as our character’s cat (horse, best friend). Clearly, it must be changed THIS INSTANT!

  • What if someone misinterprets our meaning in line 3 of the fourth paragraph on page 315?! (Seriously, these are the ones that keep me up at night!)

  • Any combination of: We’ll be perceived as writing on trend. We ARE writing on trend. We missed the trend!

  • That people will call our work dreck.

  • That people won’t say that last one out loud, but they’ll be thinking it.

  • That no one, anywhere, will ever want to read our words.

STOP. Scroll back up to the title of this post. Read it.

Now quit being silly and get back to writing, because I want to see ALL your stories some day!

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