Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Writing Down The Bones

Author Natalie Goldberg offers up some amazing advice in her tried and true book, "Writing Down The Bones: Freeing The Writer Within": Keep your hand moving, lose control, and don't think. It's great advice, if you can fight the urge to resist it, because it takes so much pressure off the creation process in the early stages of writing your novel.

If you liken your work in progress to a body, the core structure is the skeleton, or the bones. Everything is built upon that foundation. You add the muscles, the nerves, the flesh, etc. until you have an entire being. Therefore, if you work on first creating that skeleton and not worrying about anything beyond that, you will free yourself to create the basic template of your story. Admittedly, it's hard for me to write and not want to edit as I go. I want to feel that when I finish that first draft, that it will be all downhill from there. But truthfully, that's where the hard work begins.

Don't worry about the details. Write your story, even if it includes long rambling passages of description and dialogue. You will go back and change it later, but in the meantime, you are getting the words on the page. Don't let others read your novel at this stage, even though you may want direction and feedback, because it may veer you off course. You know you're going to make changes, you know it needs work, so it can be equally frustrating for a beta reader to give you feedback knowing that it's all likely to be changed up anyhow. This is the part where you write for YOU - no rules, just free-form writing,

When you have finished draft one of your ultimate epic masterpiece, read it out loud. Make notes in the margins. Does it need more action? Is there enough suspense? Are the characters three-dimensional? Is there a discernible plot? How is the pacing? Author Jessica Brody had a great suggestion - she uses color-coded note cards to write the information about what each character is doing throughout the story. After all, each character has their own arc and purpose. Are there way too many note cards of the same color? Does your story need more balance? Try and break the story down to its natural chapter breaks, making sure each one ends in a place that keeps the reader hungry to find out what happens in the next chapter. Once you have completed this first pass, you will have added your muscles. Stir and repeat and you'll have your nerves. NOW would be a great time to give it to some writer beta friends to see what they think.

Once you get legitimate feedback about what's working and what's not, you can know where to focus your revisions from there. When you have finished (if a novel can ever be truly finished) you will have the whole body, with all it's parts working in concert with each other.

Be careful not to rush any part of this process. It takes work, patience and perseverance. When you send your novel out, you want it to be the absolute best it can be. Further, as you've probably learned by now, the world of publishing takes a loooong time. I've read it articulated many places to remember it's not a race. If you attract interest from an agent but they want some changes, don't feel pressured to pull a week of all-nighters to turn it around to them. They want to see you put in the time to make it right too, and there are few things in life that come out perfect if we rush them. It just ups the ante for oversights and mistakes.

Monday, October 24, 2011

How To Keep Your Readers Turning The Page

I went to a fantastic writing workshop last night taught by bestselling YA author Jessica Brody that offered some fantastic nuggets of wisdom about how to keep your readers turning the page and hungering for more. The fact that I got lost coming home in the streets of downtown Los Angeles at 11 p.m. and felt like I was in a bad Corey Haim movie is a whole other story for another day, but I digress . . . These simple techniques can be applied to any type of story in any genre, and can make all the difference in making your book one that they can't put down.

Jessica said that one of the best ways to get your reader engaged right away is to "hide the ball" - that is, to start in the middle of an action and write around it, but never actually reveal to the reader what is actually going on. It keeps them guessing. You plant the seeds of what is going on all around them - what they are seeing, smelling, small pieces of backstory that led to what has occurred, etc. If you can write your entire first chapter this way, the reader will be anxious to read the next because now they are dying to know what has happened, and if they guessed correctly.

It's always best to cut in the middle of the scene so that it ends before the resolution. This way, the reader continues to be propelled forth along with the character to find out what happens next. She often likes to end with a line of dialogue that sets you up for the next scene, whether it be in the MC's interior monologue or another character speaking. Sometimes she will not even say who says that line of dialogue, which adds further intrigue. Ending with a character's dilemma or the character figuring out something about themselves or the situation they are in allows the reader to be in sync with the MC, because you don't want your reader to be ahead of them or your story can become predictable.

Ever read a book that seemed like a fast read that you just couldn't put down? The length of your chapters can make a huge difference in the pacing. Short chapters lasting 4-6 pages in length can create the illusion of speed, especially if each one ends with a cliffhanger.

Adding mystery to your story keeps the reader going even through the slower parts. The "A" story is your character's story (i.e. the logline of your book). The "B" & "C" stories are the secondary stories that involve who your character meets, their relationships, the subplots, etc. All of these stories should converge with your "A" story, showing us your character's world. For example, in Jessica's book "My Life, Undecided", her MC is volunteering at an old age home and meets a crotchety old lady. Uncovering the mystery of why this woman is so bitter keeps the reader not only intrigued in that "B" story, but also serves to showcase to the MC what she will turn out like if she doesn't make some changes in her own life. Plant seeds along the way of things that will show up later and prove to be important.

Pick up a few of your favorite novels and see if you can find these techniques applied throughout!

Thursday, October 20, 2011

What's Another Word To Describe.....?

I'm in love.

With a blog.

It's true. And I'm giddy beyond belief that I've found it because I can't tell you how much I've needed this in my life, and I want to share the love. I've just discovered my savior, The Bookshelf Muse. Run by two fabulous writers, Becca Puglisi and Angela Ackerman, they offer a tremendous resource to writers scratching their heads for how to find just the right description to capture a mood, an emotion, the weather, shapes and colors, character traits, setting and symbolism - you name it. Check it out. Bookmark it. Keep it open on another screen while you write. No more Googling thesauruses and scrambling through tons of irrelevant entries - it's as if they've climbed into the writer's mind and they KNOW what you're trying to say! It's kismet, I tell you.

And most of all, give thanks to these two great ladies who put so much time and energy into creating this amazing resource for the rest of us!!!

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Immerse Your Senses and Jump Start Your Writing

I tend to be a very visual person. Perhaps it's from my film background, but I have to envision the whole picture when I write. In a film, one of the biggest contributors to mood setting is music. Can you hear "If You Were Here" by the Thompson Twins and not think of Molly Ringwald sitting on the dining room table with Jake Ryan and a birthday cake? Or "Don't You Forget About Me" by Simple Minds and not think of all things "Breakfast Club"?

I cannot suggest enough that when you write, you create a playlist that echoes the different scenes and voices in your story. For example, when I wrote my novel BAND GEEK, I listened to "I've Got A Feelin'" by the Black Eyed Peas the entire time I wrote the Homecoming scene. It was perfect. It was loud and fun and noisy and made me picture a dark gymnasium awash with crepe paper and overly-hormonal teens dancing. It set the mood. And because I tend to write visually, the scene played out in my head much like a movie. The music alone can inspire images and ideas to spring forth. Often, I will hear a song and add it to my playlist for a particular book because I know it will be the perfect thing to listen to when I write the breakup scene, or a kissing scene, or a road trip scene. I try and create a separate playlist for each book I work on, and often I listen to it when I'm driving (since I'm probably schlepping my kids in the car when I'm not writing) in the hopes that it might spark something then too.

Another useful device for setting the writing mood and bringing you deeper into your story is any kind of aromatherapy. For me, it's scented candles. I have an, er, slight addiction to Bath and Body Works scented candles, I confess. Yankee Candle is pretty darn good too. They offer such a variety of unique scents like Winter Night, Mountain Leaves, Sand and Sea, Storm Watch, etc. If you are writing a scene that takes place in the forest, burning a Fresh Balsam candle can make you feel like you're there. And if that doesn't work for you, at least your house is going to smell really really good.

If your story takes place in an environment that is locally accessible to you, go take some pictures of the places you are writing about. Tack them up on a bulletin board and have them around you while you write. If you can't get there but the images you need are available on the internet, Google them and print them out.

In other words, immerse your senses fully in the experience.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Sky Diving, Eating Pumpkin Cupcakes for Breakfast, And Other Things You Might Not Do But Your Characters Should

Okay, so admittedly, I have eaten pumpkin cupcakes for breakfast. Really, how are they that different from a donut? Or a muffin? Everyone knows muffins are just ugly cupcakes anyway. But, there are plenty of things I don't do because, truthfully, I'm not a hugely adventurous sort. I have great admiration for those that do, regularly branching free, fearless, from their comfort zones and launching themselves into new experiences.

There is no better place to take chances and live the life you've only wished you had the courage, means or resources to live than through your characters. While we search for universal truths when writing so that people can relate to our characters, it's also that special spike of a unique experience or a quirky trait that can transport us from our realities into another world. Not to mention, it's just plain fun to write.

Another great reason to write characters that are not flat (everyone does laundry, takes a walk now and then, goes on the occasional trip, whether it be to the Bahamas or Grandma's) is because it gives you a great chance to dive in and research. You can drive across country nowadays without ever leaving your chair via Google Earth and numerous websites. Your characters can bungee jump, fly on trapezes, climb Mt. Everest, run a marathon, etc., and finding out the terrain and what you can expect is also all at your fingertips. And best of all, it might inspire YOU to move out of your comfort zone and try something new yourself.

A great example of writing about something with total authenticity despite it not being an actual part of your life is C.J. Omolulu's amazing YA novel DIRTY LITTLE SECRETS. The novel is about a young girl forced to hide her mother's secret hoarding habit, until one day she comes home to find her mother dead and has to decide how far she'll go to keep the family secrets safe. I asked C.J. about her book at SCBWI LA this summer because I was so blown away by it, and she shared with me that neither she nor anyone else in her inner circle is a hoarder; she culled all that information purely from people sharing their stories and doing extensive research. It shows the power of how one can write so convincingly about something they have not experienced, and helps remove the stigma that you can only write what you have experienced firsthand. (P.S. If you haven't read this amazing novel yet - buy it today! It's six kinds of awesome!)

Putting your character in a life polar to your own makes the writing more fun and challenging. What reader wants to escape from their life by just simply reading about a character just moving through their day to day with no depth or dimension? We all long for that extra something something that allows us to tune everything else out and get lost. This doesn't mean if you're writing a contemporary YA novel that your character shouldn't be dealing with traditional high school problems and issues. But look for that spike - what if they had to deal with vampires too? (Think Twilight) Or ghosts of dead cheerleaders that only they can see/hear? (Think The Ghost and the Goth) or even something like THE SUMMER I TURNED PRETTY, by Jenny Han, where the main character must choose between the love of two brothers, but the setting plays as much of a role as the characters do, and you are swept up in the romance and the eloquence of her words.

So whether you're writing late at night because you're working or shuttling kids or whatever during the day, or you have the luxury of devoting yourself full time to your craft, get out and live a little. Take chances. Do new things. And know that it's all risk-free, because your characters are doing all the work! Besides, the worst that happens is you write a killer story, right? Now get writing!

Monday, October 17, 2011


We all tend to fall in love with our words when we write. C'mon, admit it. You've done it too - refused to cut that one line because it was just so snarky and clever, or waxed poetic about the character's surroundings even though they in no way truly furthered the story by the end but . . . but . . . it was so perfectly written!!! In short, editing is like butchering babies, and although butchering babies is never an easy task, it's even harder when it's your own. When we are so close to our work, the best thing we can do to see what's REALLY working (and what's totally not), along with catching all those pesky punctuation errors we've flown by a million times and the repetition of words and phrases, is to have a few trusty beta readers.

Beta readers are other fellow writers (your Mom and best friend and the 10th grader down the street who loves all things paranormal don't count) who can read your work for you and objectively give you such feedback. But where to find them? By networking. Go to local writing events and conferences and get to know fellow writers in your area. If you are a member of SCBWI, there is usually a regional coordinator who can hook you into other writers looking for beta readers and critique partners. You can also go online to various writing websites and often there will be forums for people looking for other writers to do just this.

Granted, it seems hard to build that trust with another writer you don't really know. Will they know what they're talking about? Does it matter if they are published or unpublished? How often do we need to send material back and forth? The best thing to do is to exchange the first ten pages of what you're working on. Just like agents who want to read those critical first ten pages, it will give you a feel for the writer's style. If it seems like quality writing, and something you could connect with, fantastic! Hopefully, the feeling is mutual! Published or unpublished is truly no matter. Writers that today are unpublished may one day be published, and writers that are now published were once in the trenches waiting for their big break. Both are fully capable of providing different levels of insight based on their knowledge of writing and their place on the journey.

When I read other writers' work-in-progress, it is a fantastic opportunity for me to really break apart the mechanics of the story and see what works, what doesn't and why. In turn, I can apply that to similar sections of my own writing. I pay special attention to dialogue transitions, because I tend to write dialogue-heavy stories. Dialogue, while engaging, is boring if every other sentence just ends in "she said" or "he told me." I learn to eliminate that sometimes entirely to put in a small descriptive action that helps keep the action moving on the page. I am also able to discern much easier in someone else's work when there are huge passages where nothing is happening. Again, when we are in love with our words, it's much harder to do that with our own work. I learn about style and voice, description and how to convey action and emotion effectively. The insight and detailed feedback my critique partners and beta readers have offered me has been absolutely invaluable.

Just as our stories are never truly "done," we are also never "done" learning from others. The writing community is incredibly supportive in that way. It is such a welcoming group, eager to pay-it-forward. So if you're not connecting with other writers to help make your work stronger, start now!

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Turning The Mundane Into A Masterpiece

We all find ourselves in those moments in life where we are forced to endure the mundane: standing in line at the bank, grocery shopping, waiting for our kids in the pickup lane at school, etc. But these moments can actually be fantastic opportunities to sharpen those descriptive writing skills and save you from slipping into a coma.

For example: Today, I am boarding a giant yellow school bus filled with 119 marching band kids and parent chaperones, weaving our way through perpetual Los Angeles traffic to a high school nearly two hours away. There they will perform their first competition of the year. The bus ride is usually hot, slow and relatively boring (unless you have an iPod loaded with good tunes or another adult to sit and chat with), but it's also an amazing opportunity to "observe." For most of us, it's been a long time since we've ridden a school bus, but our characters often do. What does it feel like as it bumps up and down on the highway? What do the seats look like? Rips? Gum stuck to the floor? Sticky green vinyl? What does it sound like? What does it feel like as the windows open and your hair gets whipped about? And, grosser but true, what does it smell like? You will no doubt overhear snippets of conversation. What are they talking about? What are the kids doing as they travel? Playing on portable gaming systems? Watching movies on iPads? Texting? Talking? Is it hot? Cold? You get where I'm going....

And at the destination, there's a lot of hurry-up-and-wait in the marching band world. (Hey, kinda like publishing!) What a great chance to people watch! Sit with a notebook and pen and pick 5 random people and describe them fully, head to toe. Describe their clothes, their hair, their complexion, their vocal tone or dialect, their energy level (overzealous band parent or bored sibling that's been dragged along for the ride), what they eat. Look around and describe everything you see. The field, the way the sun looks as it is in the sky at different points of the day and how that affects your comfort in sitting there, what food options are available to you, etc.

And on the ride home, how does your body feel? Are you tired? Energized? How do those bus seats feel on your back now?

You can apply this to every mundane situation there is, because these are all situations we encounter in our day-to-day lives. They can otherwise be boring to read about, but rich description, or something funny or unique you can add as a spike, can make the mundane a masterpiece. Try it! At the minimum, you won't be bored because you'll be writing!

Friday, October 14, 2011

Got A Writing Question? Bet There's A Blog To Answer It!

I know . . . don't rupture an aorta from the shock of me putting up two blog posts in as many days, but this seemed like a good add-on to what I blogged about yesterday. I mentioned there are several fantastic writing blogs and websites out there that provide a plethora of informative, insightful and amazing advice. And best of all, you don't need to change out of those grungy sweats you wouldn't dare be caught dead in, nor abandon your favorite writing chair or let your morning coffee grow cold on the counter. You can garner all this info., free of charge, right from your computer. So sit down, get your mouse clicker finger ready, and be prepared to be enlightened.

First off, does your grammar suck? Are you like me and abandoned your basic grammar skills after 10th grade, only to have that come back and bite you in the butt when you decided to become a writer? Well, guess what. Have I got a lifesaver site for you! Grammar Girl is my new best friend. Unfortunately, we can't go have a latte together now and again or paint each other's nails, but she does give me the skinny on what I'm doing wrong and how to fix it. You can even subscribe to her newsletter and get great grammar tips daily. Another great grammar site is Grammar.Net has a lot of the same stuff as Grammar Girl, as well as a section where you can actually cut and paste chunks of text to analyze it for errors. It catches things even my Word Grammar checker did not. They also have a newsletter you can subscribe to, and I find the tips in it very helpful.

Glad you asked! There are soooo many great blogs out there, many run by agents or writers, that give the insider scoop on the way things should be done. Some will give you examples of great query letters, formatting tips, do's and dont's, and answers to just about every publishing question you can think of. Here are some of the best ones I've found:
Nathan Bransford is an ex-agent from Curtis Brown, Ltd., who is now a self-described publishing civilian working in the tech industry. He is also an author, and holds my current personal record for fastest rejection ever - a mere 43 minutes from query to pass, but I still love his blog anyway. To me, he is THE go-to source if I want answers.
Mary Kole from the Andrea Brown Literary Agency also provides an incredibly insightful blog, including resources for writers and information about upcoming events and conferences. Mary is a highly respected agent, a YA and middle grade author, has a strong web presence, and knows her stuff. She encourages readers to send her questions directly that she can address on the site. You can get lost for hours on there.
Chuck Sambuchino's Guide To Literary Agents blog features fantastic articles and interviews, as well as a platform for writers to share with other writers how they got their agents. He spotlights new agents, providing a great opportunity to approach someone new. You can spend hours going through the back archives and garnering great insight from industry professionals.
Jessica Faust at BookEnds LLC has probably answered more "when in doubt" questions for me than she knows. There are so many great entries here. The information is shared with humor and heart.
Rachelle Garner at WordServe Literary also has an amazing blog. Her information is spot-on, short and to-the-point. QueryTracker often includes links to her blog. She talks about everything from author platforms to query advice and beyond.

Sarah Davies at Greenhouse Literary offers up a wealth of advice on every topic under the sun. She is honest and forthright, and tells it like it is. She has a great sense of humor and I guarantee if you follow her tips, you will improve your writing.
Jenny Bent of the Bent Agency has a fantastic blog called Bent on Books. In fact, I was once writing back and forth with one of her clients and he told me, as I was describing my time in the trenches of query hell, to check out her blog, that it was one of the best he'd seen. I agree. She makes you laugh and offers up gems that are invaluable.

This is just a small sampling of what's out there, and should keep you busy for a while. There are also countless blogs written by authors from every genre, and often they will have links to other blogs you may enjoy in the same vein. We are fortunate to live in a time where so much knowledge is available to us with a simple click. Take advantage of it. And keep on writing!!!

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Things To Do While You're Waiting To Hear Back From The Publishing World

I might, possibly, be one of the most impatient people in the world. I admit it. So, it's obviously completely ironic that I've chosen to be a writer and enter the world of publishing, which far surpasses the world of "Hurry up and wait" that the film industry is. But I survived that, and I'll survive this too, because there are many lessons to learn from the tortoise rather than the hare.

First and foremost, when things are moving at the speed of molasses, it offers a great opportunity to work on your craft, and it might give you the spark that you've been looking for. Here are some great things you can do while waiting:

When I'm not writing (or packing lunches, shuttling kids, squeezing in time for a shower or doing laundry), I try and read everything I can in my genre. It's great to know what is selling and why. Further, it allows you the opportunity to learn from published writers that write in a style similar to your own. When I read, I will often sit with a notebook and pen and write down key phrases or lines of dialogue or things that caught my eye as well written. I may have written, or will write, similar things, but I study the eloquence with how they crafted those sentences and break them down to see why they worked so well. It's like a free master class. Further, as I query agents, I can use an example of an author they may know (or represent) to give them a sense of what to expect from my writing. Authors will often thank their agents in the acknowledgements, and it becomes a perfect way to target someone who might be an appropriate fit for your work.

Many authors (like Laurie Halse Anderson, who does this often on her blog) will offer up writing prompts to help inspire you to write. If you have a day where you are simply looking at the blinking cursor on the page, this is a great way to get inspired. Who knows what it can bring forth story-wise? At the minimum, it means you are writing, and whether or not you trash every word or write something amazing, the key is to aim to get words on a page daily, to make it a habit like brushing your teeth or drinking your coffee.

There is such a wealth of free, insanely good writing advice out there on numerous blogs, many from agents and writers themselves. These tips can help you ask yourself the right questions when revising, hear their personal experiences to help you know you're not alone, etc. Often, agents will even put up stats like where they are in their query letters or slush pile, which can help you calm down and refrain from biting your fingernails to nubs, wondering why you haven't heard anything.

For just $20 a month, you can get a daily email elivered to your inbox that tells you what is selling, in what genre, who is representing it and what publisher bought it. This may also help you hone your focus and know if the work you are trying to get out there is something that certain agents/houses might be interested in. You can also track Agent Deals and find out what agents represent what authors.

Workshops and conferences are excellent networking oppportunities - you never know who you will meet! Often, they have manuscript critiques available for that critical first ten pages, and it can be extremely helpful to get that insight from a variety of industry professionals, even if you've had it done previously. I have yet to go to a conference or workshop where I didn't leave with some new nugget that I carry forth and incorporate, and I can't find enough words to describe, at the minimum, how inspiring it feels to be in the company of fellow writers. You can't help but leave this environment and not want to go home and get busy. It doesn't matter if it's an SCBWI event, or something at your local community college. Get yourself out there and get involved. It will help keep up your momentum.

If you don't have one, start one. You're helping establish your presence in the marketplace, getting your name out there, and offering yourself another outlet to write. See? I'm procrastinating today's writing by writing this blog right now!! Just kidding. (sorta)

And above all, keep on keepin' on. Don't give up!!

Chatting With Fellow Sourcebooks Debut Author Kurt Dinan About The Writing Life and DON'T GET CAUGHT!

One of my favorite parts about the path leading up to the debut of MY KIND OF CRAZY has been becoming friends with the hilarious witty and i...