Thursday, April 26, 2012

Essential Advice

My issue of Essence magazine arrived today.
If you glance to the side -> you’ll notice I am not an African American woman, the target audience for this magazine.
I also live in an area where you’re much more likely to smell curry, and about half the store signs are not in English.
Let me explain.
I have incredibly dry skin, and a while back I made a purchase entitling me to a free subscription of Essence magazine.  I politely declined, but the issue showed up on my doorstep nonetheless.  This went on for about three months before I started having nagging feelings of guilt.  I wasn’t reading this magazine and in fact, it went straight to the recycling bin every month.  Throwing it away for the third time felt so wasteful. If it was my hard work, I would want each magazine to fall into the hands of someone who would gain something from it.  My thoughts turned from big business conglomerate, to the article writer hoping she’s making a difference somewhere.  
I decided to call subscription services to stop my “service.”  A very nice sounding Southern woman answered the phone.  We went back and forth for a few minutes.  Me, trying to explain the situation in the politest terms possible, her, insisting I continue my “free” subscription, and would I like another year for a discounted price?  I tried being firm, “I don’t need this magazine subscription when I already have so many I don’t read!”
“But it’s free!” she responded.  
“I’m not an African American woman!” I exclaimed in exasperation.  
“Darling, don’t you have a friend you might gift it to every month?”
“Maybe you don’t understand the area I live in?”  I wanted to say.  “It’s simply not the right kind of ethnic for Essence magazine.”
But I didn’t say that, because to admit I couldn’t think of a single African American woman to gift my magazine subscription to, sounded wrong.  I even took a moment to flip through the latest issue hoping there might be something for my Filipino neighbor, or the Mahjong group at the community center. 
No luck there.  I was out of excuses, and her southern lilt melted my firmness.  I thanked her for her time and resolved myself to another nine months of “Essence.”
When this issue arrived in the mail today, I gave a little laugh.  Lately I’ve been spending so much time thinking about this darn magazine, I couldn’t see the practical application to my writing life. 
Be careful about your audience.  This is especially true for you indie authors out there.  So often we spend time networking and talking to fellow authors, ignoring the people who we’re really writing books for.  It’s your time and money, make sure you’re not wasting it.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Day 25: Genres and Dominoes

In addition to your typical assignment (which is writing like heck), today we'll also be checking in on what we've accomplished so far.  First of all, let's take a look at genre.  When you began this project you likely had some sort of idea of what genre the finished product would fit into:  memoir, young adult, horror, etc.  Now that you're nearing the end of Act II, Part 2, it's a good time to take a look back at the genre descriptions and see if you still feel your novel falls into the category you had originally planned.  

Using Writer's Digest I found two fantastic articles that list out the most common genres and give a brief explanation of each.  Take a minute to review the genre you believe your novel fits into:

Do you still think your novel fits in that category?  Do you think your readers will see how it fits in that category?  Using the Genre Elements Tracker (scroll down to page 276) find at least one scene or scenario in Act I that points to a particular genre.  Repeat the step for Acts II and III.

And now for the Dominoes.  I've heard a lot of suggestions about how to plot out a novel.  One of the wildest suggestions was to write down every scene idea you have on a 3x5 notecard, then take the pile of scenes and chuck them up in the air, letting them fall wherever.  (I suppose shuffling the cards would have the same effect and be less messy).  With the scenes in no particular order try reading through the new story that has been created by the shuffling of cards.  

That idea has always seemed ridiculous to me.  If you're writing a story then each scene should inevitably lead to the other - no shuffling allowed - because scenes are a string of causes and effects.  It seems Victoria Lynn Schmidt and I are on the same line of thinking.  She created the Domino Scene Test (scroll down to page 272), explaining that,
     "Each scene should have a purpose in the story, a reason for being: to advance plot, reveal character, divulge information, something.  If not, it doesn't need to be there, at least in its current form; either get rid of it or give it a purpose.
     "An easy way to see if your scene has a purpose is to ask yourself, 'What would happen if I removed this scene?'  If a scene or two after it would fall apart, or not make sense, then you need that scene.  If you take it out and it has zero effect on your story... well, then, it likely shouldn't have been there in the first place" (Book In a Month, page 150).
And now you can see why it's called the Domino Scene Test, because
"Your book should be ordered as meticulously as [a] stretch of dominoes, all perfectly positioned to reveal, once they fall, an intricate, beautiful pattern.  But if even one of them is out of place, you run the risk of breaking the momentum, and that beautiful big picture you have in mind might never come to be" (BIAM, pages 149-150).
MY DAY 25:  I don't know if I've ever been so disappointed.  Okay, yes I have, but I still felt pretty bad after reading an article from my DREAM AGENT about how she's received a TON of submissions about FAIRYTALE RETELLINGS.  Considering my book is a Snow White retelling....  Yeah, you get the picture.  Being as bummed as I was made having any enthusiasm for the writing rather difficult, so I didn't get much done.  Truthfully I considered scrapping the project entirely, but I'd put too much heart, thought, and time into it to give up now.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

I'm Getting Professional Help

. . . But not the kind I probably, actually need. 

So if you're keeping up with me, you know I'm in the midst of querying a project. I've sent out something like fifteen queries, and every response I've gotten back so far has been a form rejection. On two different versions of the query. 

Fifteen queries isn't a lot. I'm aware that people send out dozens and dozens. And get dozens and dozens of rejections back. Not even getting an inkling, not even one request for fifty pages really bothered me. My two versions of the query went through tons of editing, was read numerous times by the people I trust the most. I thought I had a really good thing going.

So after a lot of thought, I decided to get a professional to edit and help rewrite my query. (If you're interested, I chose Eschler Editing.) I'm PUMPED about it. I've already received several emails on a discussion of just the genre alone, which I struggled over the entire time I queried. In my head I have visions of sending out this version of the query and being overrun by requests to read the manuscript.

Because you know me. I'm an optimist at heart. I don't think I'd survive the writing world if I wasn't. And to be honest, not having to worry about the wording of my query or whether or not my hook is really hooking has lifted a huge weight off my shoulders. 

I don't want to be premature, but I may never write another query by myself again.


Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Me??? A Grandmother???

            I was happy when my first born told me she was pregnant.  Posterity!  That was what I really wanted. But after a couple of hours of celebrating, it hit me like a ton of bricks: I was to be a “grandmother”.  A grandmother?  I’m 46 years old and I looked 35.  I am definitely too young to be called “Grandma”.  So I went about asking my friends what name for Grandma they used or what their grandchildren called them.  The results were interesting.

            "MeeMa" is the southern version and that is pretty popular where we are living in Alabama but I didn’t like it. "Oma" is the German form but that didn’t sound like a young grandma either.  "Iidee" (pronounced I-dee) is Finish for Grandma as "YaYa" is in Greek. But those didn’t seem to fit either. I kept thinking there must be some name I can be happy with.   "Nona" is the Italian version and Bunica, Romanian.  It sounded exotic but not quite right.     "Nadie" is Hungarian and "Bubby" is Yiddish.  Still not right.   There were also other suggestions: Mimi, Vivi, Gram, and Granny.  None of those seemed to work for me so I kept searching.  I asked the mail ladies at the post office.  I asked strangers in line at the grocery story.  I asked women at the auto center at Walmart and the Pharmacist down the street.  Everywhere I went I asked, but nothing struck my fancy.

            Then one of my daughters rented the movie “Rumor Has It”.  This was a real eye opener for me.  In the movie, the Grandmother (played by Shirley McClain) refused to be called Grandma.  She didn’t like it at all and told her granddaughter to stop calling her that even though she looked old enough to be a grandma.   This really frustrated her granddaughter (Jennifer Aniston) in the movie and that gave me more food for thought.

            Soon after that I took a trip to Phoenix for the annual ANWA writer’s retreat and decided to drive to Los Angeles afterward to see my daughter, her husband and the newest member of the family.  So there I was driving across the desert to LA from Phoenix.  It’s a 4 hour drive and I put a CD in the player and started driving.  I had lots of time to think.  I had to make a decision.  Was it really that important to find a name that didn’t sound too old or was that just my pride getting in the way?  The drive went really fast and before I knew it I was driving down the freeways of Los Angeles on my way to my daughter’s house.  During that time I realized something:  It doesn’t really matter what you call yourself.   You are your children’s grandparent. 

            Flying back to Alabama I made my decision.   Being called Grandma was much more important for my grandchildren than for me feeling old or young. It really doesn’t matter.  I can still feel young after spending time with them; it’s all a state of mind.  After all, they just want a grandma to be with them and that is what counts the most. 

Thursday, April 12, 2012

I am Mother, hear me roar

I have a friend, let’s call her Rachel (because that is her name).  Rachel is perfect.  She is a perfect mother, perfect housewife, and above all else, a perfect friend.  Like the kind of friend who will bring you Pepto at 5am because your kids are all throwing up.  Sometimes I get a little embarrassed around her (okay, a lot embarrassed) and just so you know, I don’t embarrass very easily.  Embarrassment comes because I am not perfect.  I am far, far, galaxy far away, from perfect.  She will walk into my cluttered home and start sorting, cleaning, and dusting.  Nonjudgemental tidying mind you, because as I said, she’s perfect.
So nothing shocked me more than when she posted “something” on her facebook.  Her posts are usually full of sunshine and rainbows.  She’s homeschooling six kids (out of necessity) and the posts are always filled with bits of homeschooling wisdom, and lovey dovey notes to a husband that works very long hours.  
Until last week. 
When she posted this:
“In case anyone wonders, I am NOT perfect. I had many frustrating moments today that pushed me to the point of wanting to run away. Lucky for my kids, I just ran away to my car, where I could regroup. Though I try to maintain a positive attitude MOST of the time, I DO have very challenging, very frustrating moments. Please don't think that because my posts are mostly positive, that my life is perfect or that it must be easy for me to raise 6 kids. We ALL have challenges. Life isn't about what happens to you, but about how you respond to what happens to you. Today, I didn't respond well. Tomorrow I'll do better.”
She later went on in comments to tell us “regrouping” meant screaming at the top of her lungs in frustration.  After I wrote her a little empathetic note, I started giggling a little.  She had just validated the feelings of every mother.  Picturing Rachel sitting in her car, screaming, made me giggle even more.  I had never thought to try screaming in my car.   
Of course Rachel had a better tomorrow as Anne Shirley would say, “tomorrow is fresh, with no mistakes in it.”
I’ve been thinking about this as I struggle with edits.  The second manuscript is so much tougher than the first, my beta readers are much more apt to scribble long angry paragraphs in the margins. There is much more red in the columns.  Instead of fueling me, the nice little notes of encouragement remind me of how much I’m not doing.  How I should be doing that much more.  There is an expectation, of me, of my characters.  The pressure to get it perfect.
Today has been a bad day. Today I have to let it go. Today I’m taking a page out of Rachel’s book.  I will scream my heart out.  I will remind myself that I am not perfect.  I will regroup. I will try and maintain a positive attitude.  
Tomorrow I will get through these edits.
Tomorrow will be better.


Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Day 24: Picking the Perfect Pace

tortoise meets hare

I'll admit I've never given much conscious thought to a novel's pacing - even when I'm the one writing it.  Pacing has always seemed to be an intuitive thing; something that can't be broken down into a "correct" format, but must feel right.  If you don't have a natural sense of pacing take Victoria Lynn Schmidt's advice:
"The best way to learn about pacing is to read tons of books in your favorite genre.  Learn how the pros do it.  You may struggle with it a bit in the beginning of your career, but it gets easier and easier with each story you write" (Book In a Month, page 172).
That said, understanding HOW pace can be manipulated, as well as studying the advantages and disadvantages that come with pace shifts, will help you make a more informed decision in your own novel.  

How to create it:
A feeling of urgency or acceleration can be created by using a lot of simple, short sentences in your writing.  An entire paragraph can even be brought down to a single sentence, and several one-sentence paragraphs strung together move the scene along at a nice clip.  Take, for example, this scene from page 5 of Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code:
     The man was now taking dead aim at Sauniere's head.
     Sauniere closed his eyes, his thoughts a swirling tempest of fear and regret.
     The click of an empty chamber echoed through the corridor.
     The currator's eyes flew open.
Each of these paragraphs is literally only a sentence, and each sentence is very brief, helping us - the readers - to read with speed and feel the hurried pace.  It's also important to note that the scene from which I took this excerpt focused almost entirely on action with only a few moments dedication to narration.  As Elizabeth Lyon says in her book Manuscript Makeover,
"Action increases pace over narration" (page 170).
She goes on to suggest that writers not forget that dialogue is an important form of action too.  I use again a scene from The Da Vinci Code to illustrate this:
     "May I come in?" the agent asked.
     Langdon hesitated, feeling uncertain as the stranger's sallow eyes studied him.  "What is this all about?"
     "My capitaine requires your expertise in a private matter."
     "Now?" Langdon managed.  "It's after midnight."
     "Am I correct that you were scheduled to meet with the curator of the Louvre this evening?"
     Langdon felt a sudden surge of uneasiness.  He and the revered curator Jacques Sauniere had been slated to meet for drinks after Langdon's lecture tonight, but Sauniere had never shown up.  "Yes.  How did you know that?"
     "We found your name in his daily planner."
     "I trust nothing is wrong?"
In this scene we see again, many short sentences strung together.  There is however, the option to occasionally use extra-long, compound sentences chock-full of short actions.  Lyon cites the following example from a novel called Tailed by Brian M. Wiprud:
I was racing across the parking lot, jacket and shoes cradled in my arms, dodging cars at the pumps, leaping over fuel hoses, headed for where I last saw the Pixie dry-cleaning van, my bare feet slapping the macadam.  In my half-dressed state, I must have looked like a boudoir interloper on the skedaddle.
When to use it:
Fast paced writing can be used in a myriad of situations, briefly summarized by Elizabeth Lyon in the following list:
  • To keep a reader's interest high
  • To add zip to style
  • To create movement and heighten suspense
  • To build momentum toward big turning-point scenes and climax
  • To help develop scene structure
When to avoid it:
There are a few drawbacks to using a continually fast pace in your novel, so take care to not let them mar your writing.  Firstly, a novel steeped in speed can have the unintentional side effect of appearing melodramatic or even slapstick.

Secondly, your reader will be left exhausted from the frenetic pace of your novel if it's never interspersed with scenes that allow her to take a breather.  Even in the most exciting of action novels a person needs the chance to slow their heart rate and rejuvenate a bit before moving on to the next sweat-inducing scene.

Lastly, a novel constantly dominated by action doesn't allow the reader to see a character's internal ponderings over their backstory, goals, inner demons, and the like.  Without a few slow scenes here and there to guide us through the psyche of your character you miss out on the opportunity for readers to see that character's development and cultivate a deeper empathy and appreciation of him or her.

How to create it:
Whereas fast-paced sentence structure was short and simple, the slow-paced scene or novel should be written with longer, more complex sentences, paragraphs, and chapters.  Also a heavy use of narration can supply a character's backstory, internal development, or be used to describe the character's observations of their setting or fellow characters.  Another way to slow a pace is by using flashbacks which is, in essence, an entire scene devoted to a character's mental ruminations.  

A lot of older novels tend toward the slower pace (those authors didn't have to compete with an entire story being played in a two-hour movie), so I'd suggest looking to the classics for examples.  Nothing spells out slow to me like a Charles Dickens' novel, so here's a paragraph exemplifying complex sentences and heavy use of narration from A Tale of Two Cities:
     With drooping heads and tremulous tails, they mashed their way through the thick mud, floundering and stumbling between whiles, as if they were falling to pieces at the larger joints. As often as the driver rested them and brought them to a stand, with a wary "Wo-ho! so-ho-then!" the near leader violently shook his head and everything upon it- like an unusually emphatic horse, denying that the coach could be got up the hill. Whenever the leader made this rattle, the passenger started, as a nervous passenger might, and was disturbed in mind.
     There was a steaming mist in all the hollows, and it had roamed in its forlornness up the hill, like an evil spirit, seeking rest and finding none. A clammy and intensely cold mist, it made its slow way through the air in ripples that visibly followed and overspread one another, as the waves of an unwholesome sea might do. It was dense enough to shut out everything from the light of the coach-lamps but these its own workings, and a few yards of road; and the reek of the labouring horses steamed into it, as if they had made it all.
Notice in those two fairly long paragraphs the "nervous passenger" - the actual person we're reading this story to find out about - is only mentioned once, and briefly at that.

When to use it:
Slow pace can be used quite effectively in, what is termed by Jack Bickham, a sequel.  Sequels are sections used to explore a character's feelings, thoughts, dilemmas, and decisions after having just gone through some kind of action scene.  As Elizabeth Lyon so succinctly puts it,
"Scenes are actions directed toward goals.  Sequels are reactions directed toward new strategies to reach those goals.  Because sequels are reactive and reflective, their pace is often slow, at least slower than scenes" (Manuscript Makeover, page 168).
In addition to allowing a character to gather his thoughts (thus giving the reader a chance to see how a character develops), the slower pace allows the reader the chance to take a breather if the rest of the novel has been filled with more fast-paced scenes.

When to avoid it:
Despite the chance to get to know a main character better, slow scenes can be a disadvantage on occasion.  In today's market an author must be very careful when using a slow scene at the start of their novel.  Most often a reader wants to see action right from page one, not a lot of introspection from a character they haven't learned to love yet.  It's also good to be aware that too many slow scenes can lull a reader to sleep or utter boredom, so use them judiciously.

For more fantastic tips on pace and just about everything else you'd want to know when writing a book check out Elizabeth Lyon's Manuscript Makeover.

MY DAY 24:  I have already written over 1800 words, which makes me happy, but it is REALLY difficult to keep myself from going back and editing!  If I could keep moving forward I think the progress would be much faster.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Write While You Wait

It will probably come as a shock to most of you, but I'm still playing the waiting game. Despite missing a whole month of posts, the only news I have is more rejections. Luckily, I've developed a somewhat thick skin since the first rejections came in my life a few years ago. The hardest part is the waiting. I've lamented about this time and time and time again. Some the best advice on what to do was in Elana Johnson's "From the Query to the Call." After she walks you through a step by step process of writing an amazing query letter, she suggests the best way to pass the time is to do what you got into this process for in the first place. Write.
So that's what I've been doing. Or actually editing. I've been waiting so long I already have a draft done, read by readers, and gone through my habitual first pass of edits. I suggest writing something fun. I have one of those in the works too. (Don't talk to me about the number of projects I always have somewhere on the burners. Is it any wonder I lose my brain and forget about posting??) Write something just for the heck of it. Something that you might get done with and say, "Well, that's never going anywhere . . . but it was sure fun." Enjoy writing again, because editing and querying and such sometimes make writing feel more like a chore than something we started doing because we loved it. 
When the good friends ask me how my writing's going and what's happening--the ones who may not be writers, but they still understand that you don't just slide a manuscript out of the printer and send it off to a publisher to be bound--I don't mind answering, "Well, I'm just waiting around . . ."