Mental Exercise for Your Writer’s Brain over the Holidays

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Just because we turn off the computer to prepare for the holidays, it doesn’t mean we should or even can turn off our minds. We are blessed to carry our best writing tool wherever we go. My family once gave me a custom tee shirt that said, “Just because I’m not WRITING doesn’t mean I’m not WRITING.”

As we scour the Christmas wrapping paper, we can stretch our vocabularies for as many descriptions of red as we can from blush to burgundy. Then there’s the saffron-green of the sun-starved, rain-logged shoots, or the nearly black-green just before dawn awakens the leaves.

While we tie the bows on gifts, we might consider the alternatives for tying up the loose ends of that story after the decorations come down.

Remember the feeling of frustration of standing in the post office line, shifting those packages from one arm to the other. Hold on to that ache; it might come in handy in that scene you want to strengthen with some sensory detail.

As we wrap that wool sweater for great uncle Dave, remember how your hand sinks into the cloud-like weave. What would you call that gray? Is it gun metal, mouse, or driftwood gray?

Until the timer goes off for those cookies, try a word association exercise. Not the linear kind that is so limiting, but those sometimes referred to as spider web or starburst. I like to think of it as a dream catcher. In the center of a blank sheet, write your key word, a diagonal slant, and the antithesis.  For example, bridge/gap, or arid/flood, etc. Now circle those. Think of as many words as you can from each of the words and let those start its linear line. For instance, from bridge I might put washed away, grandpa’s teeth, construction, covered, game, and one and on. For gap, I might start with generation, trendy clothes, Reconciliation. Follow each of these, and you will see story ideas forming. The nice thing about this exercise is that it is perfect to work on in the short spurts between cookie batches. If I succeed in uploading the photo of my exercise, you’ll see that everyone one of those threads can inspire a story.

And, oh those scents of Christmas everywhere: what reaction do you get? Did it bring a tickle in your nose? Did a familiar scent bring an incident to mind? Christmas is a virtual feast for your senses. It’s a good time to expand our descriptive capacities. That’s a gift that will keep on giving all year.

Merry Christmas, and a Happy, Productive New Year.

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PICTURE BOOK: THE EASIER IT READS, THE HARDER IT WRITES

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November is Picture Book Month, and since we have nearly two full weeks left, it seems appropriate to acknowledge such an important contribution to children’s literature. Many aspiring writers are attracted to the genre because they mistakenly believe that the deceptively simple books are easy to write. Just stick a bowtie on a puppy, give it a cute name, and you can whip up a story on your coffee break. How hard could it be?

That’s fine if you want to read it to your grandchild. She’ll enjoy your grocery list and the attention. But if you want to write for publication, my motto is, “The easier it reads, the harder it writes.”

The first step is to know your audience. Children are neither Goody Two-Shoes nor the “bad seed,” or are miniature adults. They share the same needs as any of us: To love and be loved, to achieve and learn, to have peer respect and self-respect, and to feel secure physically, emotionally and spiritually. Additionally, they have some unique needs. I remember feeling it was so unfair that I arrived at the party late. Everyone else seemed to know the rules already.

Primary children have a limited world: home, neighborhood, church, daycare, and regular school. Their interests are self, family, [siblings, being the youngest, oldest, or middle child], nature [animals, growing things], God, and accepting things that they cannot see. Even the ordinary things, like changes in seasons, are new experiences. These are your readers. Writers have a lot of potential subjects for fiction and non-fiction. That’s the good news.

The bad news is we have to get our wonderful manuscripts past an array of adults to reach the child: editors, publishing review committees, book reviewers, librarians, teachers, and parents. The final approval belongs to the child. Is it entertaining enough for multiple readings? A good story is like a familiar friend to share many times. That means it must appeal to an adult too.

Specifics and sensory details appeal to them: two sparkly sugar cookies on a smooth apple red plate, instead of cookies on a plate. Bring in numbers and colors where they are natural to the subject.

For practical purposes, we define all heavily illustrated books as picture books. They may be anywhere from no words to around 1,000 although most publishers seem to favor around 750 words. Remember that you are dealing with short attention spans. You should write as if you’re paying per word. The true picture book needs illustrations for the text to make sense. Subjects might be numbers, shapes, or colors, even. The toughest skill to master might be to switch from short story format to picture book format. They may contain the same number of words, but they are not the same. A short story might take place in one scene, in a span of a few minutes to a year. In a picture book, each page is like a chapter in a novel, moving the story forward quickly, making each page suspenseful enough to be a cliffhanger making the child ask, “and then what happened?” Plus you need to think like an illustrator. You’ll need at least 20 pages of unique scene changes. Type it out that way and imagine the scenes. Read it aloud to be sure that a pause is naturally at the end of a page turn. Is the sentence too long? Do you take a breath in the middle? Then the answer is yes.

Early primary children [birth to kindergarten] start out with the concept books. They may review something the child already knows [animals, colors, numbers, etc.] They might introduce the unfamiliar, like a visit to the dentist or first day at school. Every page is of equal value, like stepping stones, or a string of same-size beads. They usually end back where they began. There is no suspenseful buildup. Except for numbers or the alphabet, many of them have interchangeable pages without spoiling the subject. To appeal to a publisher, we need a unique approach. You might consider combining two concepts or find a unique vehicle for it. For example, a traffic jam with ten vehicles stopped at an intersection. One red firetruck turns right, leaving nine. One blue van turns left, leaving eight, etc. There is a preponderance of these on the market, but they still sell if your idea is special.

Picture book writers need not be illustrators. Unless a publisher requires illustrations accompany the text, you could be jeopardizing a sale. Not all artists are illustrators. Publishers like to pair a newbie with an established illustrator to guarantee sales. Check out the publishers’ websites for their policies. Don’t be one of those micro-managers. Leave the art to the illustrator. After all, they will get half the royalties.

Some illustrated books have plotted stories. The art enhances the story but is not necessary to the understanding. These are picture story books. All half-text/half art books for the young we’ll refer to as picture books. They must stand a read-aloud without awkward stumbles and tongue twists, and they must be graphic. Even if the author isn’t also the illustrator, he must think like an artist. That means plenty of action with the dialogue and exposition. Illustrators complain that they can’t draw talking heads. Move the characters around. Maybe they are on backyard swings and then run indoors to retrieve an apple—anything to keep them active. Another character joins them. Visualize your story as you edit it. Can you see the illustration as a close-up, a single character? Then it’s time to write a group scene for variety.

It is okay for writers to use a less familiar word. I try to limit unfamiliar words to no more than three in a story because the child might start out listening to a story. Their oral vocabulary is much larger than their reading abilities. I like to keep the sentences short and words simple. That way the manuscript sells for a storybook or a beginning reader. On the copyright page, look for a bracketed “e” [E].

Picture books are like islands. The story is visible. The theme is the strong foundation beneath the water line. That is what the child carries away from the story. The hidden themes are as serious as those of Shakespeare: brother against brother, abandonment, the powerful abusing the weak, etc. They are real life made palatable by costumes and those magic words, Once upon a time, or in a land far away. The optimistic classic and they lived happily ever after, might be missing from tomorrow’s classics. There is virtually no subject that is taboo as long as you keep in mind the child’s level of understanding.

I worried for days trying to work my way through a story on child abuse, The Ghost in the Garage, one of the Goosehill Gang series. I wanted to punish the parent, just as that classic abuse story, Hansel, and Gretel. I finally realized that I saw the story through my adult eyes. Once I saw it through the understanding of a primary child, the denouement became clear.

What we see is not a “happy ever after” but young characters overcoming one barrier and achieving one small goal against all the odds. Writers can show the young that each success is worth the effort, and we might get the message too.

WRITERS LOOK TO THE HOLIDAYS FOR INSPIRATION

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We are in the midst of the longest holiday season of our year, with Thanksgiving, Chanukah, Christmas, Cuanza, and New Years among them. These holidays are a literary feast for writing ideas. Family and friends come together with good intentions. It is a time for joyful reunions. We catch up with all the wonderful news.

But the reunions might also trigger memories of slights and misunderstandings that we long ago tucked into dusty corners of our minds. Holidays also usher in those gushing/annoying letters naming all the successes and awards that they achieved while we were battling poverty, feeling as if we were at wits in, and underappreciated by our bosses. These are fodder for stories for children or adults, secular or non-secular.

Not all writers want to write holiday stories because they have such a brief window for publication and promotion. The competition is fierce for short stories in magazines, and even more for books. Holidays are a microcosm of conflicts that could happen anytime, anywhere, and you still have the differences of opinion, conflicting goals, and memories of conflict. Sometimes old slights fester from childhood and erupt into a contemporary rage. A 70-year-old woman burst into a rant about her sibling tearing the heads off her paper dolls when they were little girls. I imagined that was easier than recognizing the abuse that was too recent and raw to confront head-on.

Holidays bring with them high expectations and the inevitable disappointments, opportunities to heal old wounds or inflect new ones. They sometimes skewer our objectives and magnify our human needs to love and be loved, to achieve and learn, to have respect from others as well as self-respect, and to feel secure spiritually, physically, and emotionally.

I once wrote a Christmas short story based on a memory a relative told me about my deceased uncle. It focused on his love and generosity to a family at Christmas time when he had little to share and embodied everything I thought Christmas should be. It was my gift to our writer’s club holiday party. I was too impatient to wait six months before shopping for a market. Meanwhile, the idea nagged at me–the bond between the two people seemed a living thing.  It became the first two chapters of my middle-grade novel, Growin’ Pains, which followed a troubled girl through her year of coming of age. We writers should never waste anything when we can recycle.

The dinner conversation with those we rarely see is a highlight of holidays. It is also the catalyst for conflict and story ideas. When I worked on a metropolitan newspaper, we single folk worked the holidays so that our married coworkers could spend time with their families. [That reminds me of another Christmas story, but I think Dickens already did it]. With nearly everything else shut down, the city desk was sluggish. To while away our quiet morning, we had a pool going as to when the phone would ring with news of the first murder of the day, and whether the weapon was a gun or carving knife–big cities; you can always count on them. Inevitably, it was the carving knife at the table, and it depended on when they sat down to eat. At some point, someone at the table would ask, “And just what is that supposed to mean?” The second most used dialogue was, “We don’t talk about that in this family.” How’s that for a story-starter?

Whether your own holiday story is a mystery, burying the hatchet on old grievances, or the story of redemption, it is your opportunity to rewrite a bothersome past.

Holidays make the perfect starting point for a good story or a renewed commitment to work on our craft. Happy Holidays!

MAKE ME LAUGH OR CRY: WRITING SHOULD BE EMOTIONAL

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Since a lot of you joined lately, I’e updated and reprinted this from four years ago.

When readers open a book [or flick on their electronic reader, I reluctantly add], they expect to enjoy it, or at least to FEEL something. Most adults will continue to read, even when a storyline is only so-so. I do that, too. I keep hoping that it’ll get through the rough or boring spots and wow me at some point. I am disappointed to find that it’s boring or unrealistic. I don’t know if I am more disgusted with the book or with myself for continuing to read. Perhaps we must read what we think is inferior to recognize what is good.

There is no way a child will read a boring book. There are far too many books and electronic distractions to choose from for children to spend a boring moment hoping a story will get better. They simply toss the book aside the moment it fails to interest them. That is why editors can tell by the first page if they want to read a manuscript further.

Our job to start out with great writing so that the reader doesn’t stop before page ten where the action begins. It doesn’t have to be a Mickey Spillane “two shots ripped into my groin, and I was off on another adventure” type of lead. But hook the reader with something familiar enough to make them feel comfortable and different enough to whet their curiosity.

A sure way to grab a reader is with emotion. Think of all the emotions we experience in a day—joy, anger, fear, shyness, etc. We give the reader the opportunity to experience emotion with whatever challenges they face. Readers expect to not only learn about a piece of life they have not experienced themselves, but they also want to laugh, to cry, to empathize–to feel. But they want to do it vicariously by identifying with a protagonist much like themselves.

The character is a surrogate for us, and a buffer between us and danger,  the same way those magic words, “Once upon a time,” let us know as children that ogres couldn’t reach us. The emotions will be greater than the story itself. It is a scary world in reality, and few of us feel we can control any of it. Stories allow us to face those fears whether they are as overt as an abusive parent in a contemporary story or facing down a fiery dragon in fantasy.

Words can’t erase a feeling. The main character overcomes a negative emotion with a stronger more positive feeling. [Example: A young boy is afraid of heights. Everyone tells him it is silly to be afraid; just be careful. It isn’t until his kitten appears trapped on a branch higher than an arm’s reach that the love he feels for his kitten overcomes his fear and he takes his first step off the ground Our desires direct our reasoning. We can justify just about anything if we put our minds to it. If you don’t believe that, remember the last time our boss or leaders told you that what they are doing is for your best interest. We internalize our emotional struggles that eventually cause our actions or inactions. [Example: I know I’m not supposed to stay up past my bedtime, but I can do it without being caught. But what if Mommy catches me? Etc.] It adds tension when the character has hidden emotions that are contrary to the overt feelings:

I would dearly love to dump this pitcher of water in her lap. “More ice, Aunt Maude?”

As you think your story through, see it in your mind’s eye as scenes, each leading to the next. Be aware that your reader will “become” the character as he or she reads. Your reader will experience the emotional struggle going on with a clear view of the protagonist’s thoughts. That’s subjective viewpoint, whether you use the preferred third person or first person version. That is what bonds you, the reader, to the protagonist until the last word.

Practice makes near perfect. Try your hand at writing scenes of frustration, jubilance, sorrow, regret, etc. Avoid using those descriptions. Show don’t tell. We’ll FEEL those words.

If I haven’t laughed out loud or had a good cry by the end of a book, I feel cheated. How about you?

 

 

WRITERS, WHERE DO YOU GET YOUR IDEAS?

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Whenever I spoke to writers’ groups, “Where do you get your ideas?” always came up. Like the unique platypus, the final story is usually a combination of odds and ends that somehow fit together. I eavesdrop, soul-search, collect bizarre facts and observe animals and fellow humans. Some ideas come from experiencing life itself. When I was a reporter, I covered The Salt Grass Trail, an annual event where we ride horseback or in wagons once followed by the pioneers, sleep under the stars, and eat from the chuck wagon. Many of the riders are genuine ranch hands on a “busman’s holiday.” I was one of the substantial numbers of wannabees.

Armed with a large supply of liniment and a boutique western outfit, I rode the three and a half days and ended up with the worst sunburn, sprained ankle ever, and er, uh, various sore spots. The real cowboys were no worse for wear. I concluded that the difference was their practical work gear from the broad-brimmed hat to the pick-toed boots. It inspired my non-fiction book; HATS ARE FOR WATERING HORSES: Why the Cowboy Dressed That Way. That book was the springboard for the biography for children, HATS OFF TO JOHN STETSON, and THE COWBOY CAPER, the humorous Sebastian [Super Sleuth] series. Whoever said that you are limited to only one book per idea?  If something raises your curiosity, follow through with research. You never know where it will lead.

Perusing a century-old school reader, I came across a tall tale about a trapper, John Coulter, and recognized his name from the Lewis and Clark expedition. Everything I’d learn about the adventure had been more about the sacrifices and hazards. If Coulter had a wild imagination and sense of humor, he appealed to me as a different viewpoint. Further research inspired WHO’D BELIEVE JOHN COULTER?

But the most unusual catalyst was probably a dot on a pre-colonial map that hung on my neighbor’s wall.

With the dot was a hand-lettered notation: “Goody Sherman’s pig penned here.” I was immediately intrigued. Who was Goody Sherman? Why was one pig so important that it was on a map?

Research brought up more names. Captain Robert Keane [keeper of the pound], Deer Island [the pound: where livestock spent the summer], and Governor Winthrop. A governor would have left a broad footprint in history. He was the logical place to start.

His diary referred to Goodwife Sherman as “that woman and her pig.” Ah ha! Conflict, animosity—all the ingredients of a suspenseful story was coming together. He mentioned a seven-year court battle over “that pig.” Through the Library of Congress, I secured the court records, which contained a wonderful collection of little-known facts.

By the time I concluded my research, it had a stack nearly three feet high. Goody’s lawsuit became more than an argument over a pig. The Magistrates and Deputies originally met together, Parliament-style. They became so divided over the fate of the pig that they refused to meet in the same room. This strong, determined woman lost her case, but she nonetheless split the government into two separate houses, inadvertently creating a model for our congress when our forefathers wrote our Constitution150 years later.

I came to know this woman as if we were contemporary neighbors chatting over the fence. I cared what happened to her, a sign that I was ready to write. The story theme grew beyond a picture book; the goal morphed into a chapter book. It seemed a natural for classrooms and school libraries as a supplemental text in social studies, history, celebrating The Constitution, Women in History, and so forth.  That was something that teachers were always clamoring for, and librarians would stock up.

It didn’t sell well. In fact, it never made back its advance. The publisher couldn’t wait to drop it. The book, like Goody Sherman, faded into obscurity.

Perhaps the title torpedoed sales. It sounded more like humorous fiction than a story based on a historical event and a little-known figure. It is difficult to gain acceptance, no matter how factual, when it goes up against long-accepted facts. Whatever the reason, the two other biographies followed like lemmings. I suppose many of us wish that we could have retroactive-do-overs. Maybe I should have insisted that we keep the qualifying title, GOODY SHERMAN’S PIG: How a Pig Split Our Government in Half. Perhaps the impressive list of sources should not have been omitted. It didn’t look like authentic history.

Consider this a cautionary tale. Be prepared to argue your case for what you believe is appropriate to include. You might have to sacrifice a page’s worth of story to make room for the source list, but it could be worth it to be accepted by your target audience.

Whenever you hear yourself utter “hmm” or “I wonder,” follow through with research. You might stumble into the best story yet. Don’t overlook your family tree for ideas. It’s the ordinary people unaware at the time that they are making history. Their anecdotes could become the springboards for your best stories, even if you disguise them in the name of family peace. I have, but I’m not telling!

 

The above-mentioned titles are available on many of the online booksellers if you’re interested.

The Manuscript is Done. What’s Next: Agent or Publisher?

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The question that most writers ask is, should I send my manuscript to a publisher or an agent? It is a little like the old chicken vs. egg dilemma. The best answer anyone can give is it all depends.

You have a better chance of getting a great agent if you have a few sales under your belt. You have a better chance at selling to a great publisher if you have an agent. It is a classic catch 22. Finding an agent might prove as difficult as finding a publisher. For either, it is a case of no one size fits all. Editors and agents are like fingerprints. No two are alike. Just because your best friend sings their praises doesn’t mean that the two of you will be a good fit. And just because that stranger you enjoyed chatting with at that cocktail party doesn’t mean that you should sign without reading the fine print.

There are advantages and disadvantages either way. Without an agent, you have a limited number of houses open to unsolicited manuscripts. Many of the major publishers are agents-only. They do not even allow query letters. A few occasionally put a call for manuscripts on their websites. Editors at regional writers’ conferences will sometimes agree to read one manuscript from the roster list of attendees. If you’re particularly lucky, you might get a one-on-one consult during the conference.

It might take you months to find an agent, if at all. Professional journals like The Writer, and The Writer’s Digest list agents and what genre they specialize in.  Check out the website, http://www. aaronline.org/find for a list of Association of Authors’ Representatives, Inc. Its members operate under a canon of ethics and must be professionally active for the two years preceding application for membership and sold at least ten different literary properties in the previous eighteen months. For an agent not listed, find out what they have sold and how long they have been a full-time agent. If they take you on, you might be the sale that qualifies them.

You need to be sure that the two of you are a good fit. I’m not a good example since I’ve had two unsuccessful tries. Of the more than a hundred traditionally published books, I marketed all but one. The first agent I signed with almost cost me the book sale I already made. The second one sold only one manuscript over the years. Severing the “partnership” was traumatic for me, and it took me far too long to accept that we were not a good match. I think we were both relieved.

There are good reasons to have an agent:

They know the editors and what they want.

They know the trends at least two years in the future.

They do the marketing, leaving you to concentrate on writing.

They can get your manuscript to an editor who doesn’t read unsolicited manuscripts.

They get the rejections, which can negatively affect your writing.

They might be your most effective booster in low times.

On the other side, you have relinquished control over your baby. You are not their top priority since they have many clients, and a sale is a sale [except to you]. I heard from one author that her agent withheld other clients’ manuscripts as a bargaining chip to get her a better contract. That may be fine for her, but did the other clients know and approve that they were hostage to someone else’s negotiations? In another incident, the agent wouldn’t withdraw a manuscript or even ask about its status because she didn’t want to bother or offend the editor. Oh really?

Some agents are hands-on in revisions before submitting your manuscript. Others decide which of your manuscripts they will represent and leave the rest to you to place. Some are timid about inquiring about the submission status. Another might be so pushy that editors avoid their calls and considering their submissions.

You have to understand what you agree to give up and weigh the benefits against the losses, so ask questions. Even if you solicited their services, you are not obligated to sign on.

 Once you get over the hurdle and sign with an agent, it could take months longer to find a publisher, if at all. There are no guarantees.

You might decide to market your material yourself. The benefits are:

You keep control of your manuscript.

No one will believe in it more than you.

You will develop a more personal relationship with the editor so that she is more willing to work with you on a flawed manuscript.

Publishing houses have personalities that vary from experimental to ultra conservative. Within those houses, the editors want the stories they most enjoy reading for pleasure. Publishers have websites with their submission requirements, and a few websites like http://greatstorybook.com/publishers-accepting-submissions-from-authors-now/ carry updated lists. Publisher’s Weekly carry updates. It’s expensive, but most libraries I’ve been in have them in their magazine section. My experiences with editors are mixed. One couldn’t stop noodling with every sentence simply because it was there. She made me feel as if I was not a writer at all. We were not a good fit. Another editor asked a question and then stepped back to let me work through it. We worked together so well that I had only to make a quick phone call to contract without an outline or full manuscript.

Editors and agents have one thing in common. They want successful manuscripts. Write and revise, and keep at it until you have a super manuscript that appeals to many. Whichever route you take is the right one for you. Write on!

REAL WRITERS MAKE TIME; AMATEURS WAIT TO FIND IT

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As a wife, mother of three, and a traditionally published writer, I often heard from others, “I would write, too, if I could find the time.”

I was never sure if that implied that I didn’t give my family priority, or if they thought that somehow I managed to “find” 48 hours hidden within the 24-hour day. There was no secret. I didn’t find the time. I MADE it. I pieced it together from a minute while the water boiled, a half-minute spreading bread with peanut butter, and fifteen minutes folding diapers or searching for the elusive matching sock.

It meant moving my desk to the window that overlooked the front yard to watch the two older kids with their playmates. [Hint: Being a touch typist helps.] It meant setting the playpen by my desk chair with one leg slung over the rail for my toddler to ride horsie while I typed a sentence, or an entire segment if I was lucky.

How I came to have a sentence to type is another problem. As I grocery shopped, stored and prepared meals, I mentally formed sentences, twisting the words until they seemed better than the alternatives. Then quickly, I jotted it in the food splattered notepad on the counter. I stashed pencils and pocket-sized notebooks throughout the house. When a spare moment availed itself, I gathered them and typed their contents into a whole paragraph—victory.

Carpool lines were opportunities to dictate into the tape recorder. Checkout lines added precious minutes to edit a sentence or two. Late afternoons, reading to my kids [and any neighbor’s kids who joined them] was an opportunity to research published stories and see firsthand what kept listeners’ attention and what didn’t.

Writers, who MUST write, find ways to match wits with time vampires: Can I have a drink of water? I’m hungry. I was not to be denied. I made sandwiches, chilled drinks, and snacks, and stowed them within reach on fridge shelves. “When you see me at that desk, I am not here. I am at work just like Daddy. You have everything that you need right here. Do not interrupt me unless you are bleeding.” I stopped short of adding bandages to the shelf. That worked for a while. I even spotted the smaller neighbor rummaging there because, as he explained, “I can’t reach stuff in my house.”

Then one day, I became aware of at least twice my number of kids, plus an unfamiliar dog, around my desk. Admonished for breaking the agreement, my oldest, all of nine, asked me how, since I was at the desk and therefore not here, could I be bothered?

The moral of these confessions is that we must exercise our imaginations in making time and at any moment be ready to adapt and adjust. I started out with five minutes “at the office.” I worked it up to fifteen minutes and finally to an hour. It is possible to write a 365-page novel producing only one page a day. When I worked on the newspaper, my immediate boss was David Westheimer, who wrote his award-winning, bestselling Von Ryan’s Express by writing a few pages every morning before he came to the office. He told me that he used the drive to and from the paper to think about what he’d say the next day. Only wannabees wait to find the time. Real writers make it.

No one is going to take you seriously until you do, especially until your time starts to pay off in contracts. Even then, few people understand what goes into writing a publishable story. Most think that what they see on paper is it. Whether it’s your family or friends, who are relieved to find out that you are “only writing, so you’re not busy,” will try to coerce you into dropping it and coming over for coffee. This situation is where that thick skin you developed against rejections comes in. Use it. Learn to say no sometimes.

The best way to counter the distractions is to set a regular time and a minimum daily accomplishment. Writing is solitary by necessity. We need to feel successful to write on less fulfilling days. I have found that the best way to do that is to set small successive goals. I stop short of giving myself a gold star or a smiley face Imogi; a satisfied feeling is enough. At the start, I knew that I could write only one segment at a sitting. Now I can write anywhere from eight to ten pages a day that I am not ashamed to reread when I go back to cut and revise. But I set my goal for four solid pages a day, which I am confident, is achievable.

In the day square on the calendar, I make a diagonal line from the upper right to the lower left. On the upper left triangle, I write the modest goal [pages 1-4, 5-8, etc. or “plot chapter 1”]. In the bottom triangular space, I write the actual achievement.  On those days of unavoidable commitments or low creative energy, I have a visual reminder that I’m still ahead of my goal and don’t get paralyzed by guilt or anxiety, or miss out on something fun.

The system works if you are unwilling to fall behind your goals. It is a commitment. I can’t say often enough that writing is a pleasure; selling is a business. We must factor in time for experiencing life or else we have little to write. Only we decide if we want to make our living with writing or if it is a hobby. If you choose it as a pastime, that’s fine. Then you are free to “find time” to write. But if you NEED to write, and you want to quit your day job eventually, then you must approach writing as a full-time job with at least six hours a day in some phase of writing—research, plotting, marketing, writing, etc. It gets harder to adjust your time when you achieve the success you want. You’ll have to work in travel, guest appearances, video visits, etc. That’s why it is best to set low, achievable goals daily.

That’s when someone is bound to come up to you and say, “I could write too if I could find the time” you can smile knowingly. Time is elusive, but it is right there, hiding in the darnedest places. Write on!

Writers, Beware of the Tell

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For me, a side effect of writing is the inability to read for pure entertainment. Every novel becomes a lesson in the subtleties of plot, or in some cases, the lack of subtleties. Readers have certain expectations. If the story is a romance, we feel sure that the main character, despite the bumps and potholes she goes through on her journey, will find love in the end. Rarely are two males of equal “value.” We root for her to pick the one or the other.

In every day stories, we presume the main character will reach some recognized goal or an acceptable substitute that is better. In crime stories, we expect the seasoned detective or amateur sleuth to uncover the criminal. Further, we try to beat the main character to the solution or enjoy the shock of the unexpected. This is especially true in mysteries, my favorite genre for pastime reading. Like many readers, I select a few favorite authors because I prefer the slow uncover of clues to unspeakable violence every other page or psychotic killers. Motives may seem illogical to us, but they are reasonable in the criminals’ minds.

I find that some authors in book after book, have a Tell like poker players that points out the villain early on as surely as if he had a tattoo on his forehead that said GUILTY. I know that if a particularly ugly man or woman sporting a grotesque mole somewhere on his or her face enters the story by chapter two, it’s only a matter of a few pages before that person commits a dastardly deed. If his teeth are yellow or crooked, the deed will be particularly horrid. In another series, I realize that if a character is snarky to the hero, scowls all the time, and is disagreeable and demanding, whatever the crime is—that’s the culprit. One author no later than page 20 in every story brings the lonely heroine and mysterious stranger together like two ships colliding for no other reason than they just felt like it. She has even lifted the entire scene from one book to the other, word for word. I can’t cast any stones. Reviewing some of my published books, I find that often my character names are a dead giveaway. Of course, Grossman is guilty in The Double Double-Cross. Only my main character is surprised.

Perhaps it is time to reflect and regroup. Recall those news clips when some serial killer is finally caught? Neighbors and friends all exclaimed shock. “He is such a quiet man. He never causes any trouble; we barely knew he was there.” Or, “I can’t believe that she murdered her children. She babysits my kids. She bakes cookies for the neighborhood.”

Criminals’ goals are directly opposite to those of our hero, who wants to find and expose them. They want to get away with whatever crime they commit. They blend in, appear just like everyone else. Unless they are bat-crazy, they hold their snarky comments inside. They may help carry your groceries, bake cookies, and repair that loose picket on your fence. Most are ordinary-looking, or perhaps even beautiful or handsome. The Venus Fly Trap catches flies by offering them what they want. If Evil were ugly or insulting, we’d avoid it.

I am more aware now of my own Tell. A review of the manuscript in progress revealed that I made the killer too unlikable. That tendency we have may stem back to our fairy tale days with Cinderella’s ugly stepsisters. If I were retelling that story today¸ I would make them beautiful. Only their behaviors are ugly. So I’m rewriting my perpetrator’s role.

In real life, not all heroes are drop dead gorgeous. Maybe they broke their noses in high school football, or they limp from an old car wreck. The females may be unable to control their weight or have bad hair days every day. We must fight our cliché characters as we fight cliche text.

Some writers have the faith that their story will eventually reach a desired destination, even if they don’t plot it out first. I’ve done it that way too. The anxiety was agony. Some plot backward. They know the solution and plant clues as they work toward the beginning. I tried that and felt it was too obvious for me. I like to be surprised. The same holds true for stories of possibility. I always know where I need to end, and it’s only a matter of how to get there with the fewest detours. A loose plot gives me confidence.

There is no one way to plot a story. My method may not appeal to you, but this is how I try to avoid telescoping the denouement up front. I honestly don’t know which of the characters is guilty. I plot my story right up to the last two chapters and stop. Then I read through what I have. I find that I have subconsciously revealed clues [real ones, not cosmetic ones]. I see that, without realizing it, I have pretty much eliminated most of the suspects. I’m lucky if I narrowed the list to only two suspects. Did I miss something? Which one is it? How can I make the least likely one be the answer? If I’m surprised, perhaps the reader will be too. I know it isn’t going to be the ugly, snarky one. He’s much too obvious.

I recall from criminology classes that the perpetrator’s conscience, assuming that he is not a sociopath with an inactive one, causes him to make mistakes. Perhaps after cleaning up a chaotic scene, he neglects to wipe his fingerprint from the underside of the light switch. Or the clever hero views photos of the party before and after the crime and notices that the lapels on the perp’s shirt are slightly different or perhaps the buttons are sewn on one shirt with the crisscross pattern and the other shirt’s buttons are stitched like prongs. Perhaps one had cuff-links, the other one buttons. A quick search uncovers the telltale clothes. When we avoid Tells, we give the main character the opportunity to be smarter than the criminal. These details may not be enough in a real court, but the writer’s job is usually to point out the culprit and end the story. It is a matter of slipping the clue somewhere into the story.

It’s the same with any story. It doesn’t have to be a mystery. Whether we write every day possibilities, probabilities, or raw realism, the solutions are hidden somewhere in the observations or dialogue that bring about a satisfying denouement for our main character. And we don’t have to brand it with a Tell. Write on!

SUCCESSFUL WRITER: How Do You Define It?

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An aspiring writer, when asked what her goals were, replied, “I want to write a bestseller so that I can live on the beach and donate millions to the less privileged.” Ambitious and benevolent—you have to admire that combination. She was about three planets away from the real world, though. About two weeks into the class, she presented me with three typewritten pages and said that she had finished her novel. Stunned when I asked where the rest of it was, she said that was the entirety. I told her that she was about 375 pages short. She tossed the pages in the trash can on her way out of the class, and I never saw her again. As with a few aspiring writers, her goals were beyond her willingness to put in the time and work.

Most novices have a more grounded notion about what it takes to be a seller, let alone a “best” seller. None of us start out saying, “I want to write a mediocre manuscript that no one will read.” We want to feel successful. Defining success is more elusive. To one it may be to salvage three strong pages from the ten produced that day. To those who wish more than they work, you are impressive if you received a complimentary rejection.

A sure way to sabotage your idea of success is to compare yourself to someone else without realizing that there were many rungs on the ladder to get there. Only imaginary superheroes can leap to the top in one mighty bound. It helped me to set small goals, plateaus of minor successes, little rungs on the ladder to feel the least bit successful:

  • To study the best writing examples and learn from professionals
  • To stop apologizing for being an unpublished writer
  • To write the best manuscript possible
  • To research the best potential publishers still open to submissions
  • To list at least five potential publishers and to submit to the firsts on the list
  • To get a favorable comment, even buried in a rejection, by an editor
  • To revise a manuscript according to an editor’s suggestion
  • To sell a manuscript
  • To have my title featured on the catalog cover
  • To be reviewed by a major magazine or newspaper
  • To be invited to speak locally
  • To be invited to speak elsewhere
  • To sign books at a national conference
  • To receive fan letter [that is not a class assignment]
  • To be reprinted in paperback and foreign language or short film
  • To achieve name recognition

My list of baby steps follows one title. Think of it as a round-robin song. The best plan is to continue to write the best manuscripts possible and to follow all of the steps with each one. The moment you send out one manuscript, you begin another.

You’ll notice that there is no mention of winning awards, bestsellers, or dictating that next novel beneath the shade of a cabana on the beach. They came, but I was surprised at how short-lived the feeling of success was. My thoughts were always on the current manuscript. “Success” is addictive. One taste and it becomes the white whale in your life.

Ask any writer that you consider the epitome of success, and you will find that they have traits in common:

  • They strive daily to improve
  • They are not easily discouraged but see failures as a learning experience
  • They find their own voice instead of following what’s currently “hot”
  • They accept constructive criticism as a tool to better their writing
  • Although they have long-term goals, they have mini-interim goals

There might be a few success stories that make you want to skip some steps. I doubt seriously that more than a handful of authors were ever an “overnight success.” Rowling had 13 rejections before she sold her first Harry Potter. But if you make that first goal to write the best you are capable, good things can happen. Good luck!

 

ONCE MORE WITH FEELING: Check Points Before You Send Your Manuscript

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Before you submit your manuscript, here are some points you can check for yourself:

Title: Is the title provocative? Aside from your cover letter, the title is the first thing about your manuscript that the editor will see. A dull, unprovocative title doesn’t bode well for your style. The editor that bought my non-fiction book, Hats Are for Watering Horses, told me that she fell in love with the title immediately. “Only a poor manuscript would have prevented me from my instant decision to buy it based on the title alone.”
Put as much thought into your title as you do in your plot. List the possibilities, and wait until you are satisfied with your manuscript before you make your final selection. It should give us the essence without telescoping the story, i.e. “Suzie Goes Shopping.” Perhaps something like “A Bag of Surprises” would tempt the reader better.

Introduction: Is the opening sentence a strong one? Do the first few sentences or paragraphs let the reader know who, what, when, where, and why of the story? Does the story begin too far back? Start with the moment the situation changes. We don’t need to get up, bathe, brush teeth, dress, eat breakfast, pack, etc. to go to Grandma’s. Start with the arrival, or better yet, start with the first time the protagonist stomps off angrily.

Character: Is your main character [protagonist] the most important one in the story? Is he/she interesting, likable and well-rounded [believable]? Is he/she the correct age for your readers? Can your readers visualize the protagonist through his/her actions, description and dialogue? Would the story be the same even if he/she were not in it? You need to rethink your cast of characters.]
Does the protagonist have a real problem that is appropriate for his/her age? Is it one the readers can recognize? Can he/she solve the problem without help? Have you kept to a single viewpoint? Review the manuscript to be sure that ONLY your protagonist’s thoughts and senses are overt. Show all other characters objectively, i.e., what you observe within your main character’s sight and earshot. Verbs like “thought, heard, saw, etc.” are for your main character only.

Style: Have you used strong action verbs? People don’t just walk. They amble, pace, totter, or stomp, according to their mood. Are the tone, style, and general feeling, portrayed in keeping with the time and setting? Does it move quickly toward the climax? Is the ending satisfactory with no loose ends, pat endings or coincidence? Did you omit obvious and extraneous explanations? Do the last several sentences wrap up logically? Does it leave you with a feeling that “justice” or that there is at least hope, if not a happy ending? Is it clear in unhappy endings that it was the character’s choice?
Is your dialogue natural? Does it move the plot forward? Does the story flow smoothly between scenes? [A simple “Back home,” or “Later” moves the protagonist from school to home. We don’t need the bus ride.] Have you kept the moral from hanging out there in plain sight? [SHOW the change in your character; don’t just tell us.]
Did you find weak spots that need to be deleted or strengthening? Are there gaps that need transitions or explanations? Is there variety in sentence structure? Do you have passive sentences [“started to,” “began to,” “was walking.” Did you eliminate verbatim greetings: “Hello. How are you? I am fine,” etc.]

Length: Editors reject beautifully written stories because they are longer than the magazines stated length allowance. Even books have limits for financial reasons. Check out the magazine markets for limits. No story truly suffers from cutting, and I’ve yet to see one bleed. Go through your story. Are there whole scenes that can be cut and the story still make sense? Is it still too long? Check for whole paragraphs, and then for sentences within the saved paragraphs. Look for unnecessary words within the saved sentences [So, well, really, very, just, even, at all, certainly, definitely, exactly, anyway, some, all of a sudden, there is, it is, forms of to be.]

There is a time to let go. When you have done the best you can at that moment, follow the publisher’s guidelines for submissions. Not many publishers have the courtesy of saying “no thanks” anymore. Mark your calendar for when you should move on to the next. Put it out of your mind and start a new story. If the recipient publisher lacks the foresight to purchase your baby, take the opportunity to reread your manuscript with a fresh eye. Chances are, you’ll find a few things you want to change before sending it to the next. That’s a good indication that you are growing as a writer. Celebrate!

THERE’S A STORY IN EVERY SITUATION

This one is going to be a short reminder that every situation we are in gives us fodder for stories and inspiration for characters. I just returned from a thankfully brief hospital stay, ER and all the drama that goes with that. I am struck by the human response to walk if we can’t run, crawl if we can’t walk, and swing by our teeth if it comes to that. Behind every curtain there was crisis and trauma, and a different mix of personalities, yet in every case, we were concerned for each other, offering comfort, courage and support. There was even the one obligatory character in everyone’s lives, the drama queen who was convinced that the entire hospital was there to serve her alone.

The overwhelmed nurses and staff, some of them now homeless thanks to Harvey, had too much on their plates to think about their own problems. A few had been there for days without knowing if they had a home to return to. As each of us struggled with our own problems, we bonded. These are the same people that we might not look at if we were in an elevator, staking out our space and staring at the number buttons. The observation tweaked my writer mind.

There were a few who had lost everything in the flood. There was another anxious to be released so that he could continue helping victims clean up and regroup. And there was the laughter in counting nine babies born, noted by the lullabies played over the speaker each time. It was like a message of hope in the midst of despair. I was struck by all of the parallel struggles going on simultaneously and how each one is the most important one in that life at the moment. It was a microcosm of the human comedy/tragedy.

Every life is a novel of overcoming challenges that we count in chapters. We’ll never run out of stories. Whatever situation you are in, be alert to the stories there. Eavesdrop, make mental notes of everything around you. Write on. I’ll write in my head awhile and be back soon. Hang in there, and I will too.

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Sometimes, it happens …

You may have noticed that the most recent post was removed. Any other time, it would have been a legitimate subject for this site on writing. Call it poor timing on my part. Out of respect for my fellow Texans and Gulf Coast residents, I have removed the article and will reissue it at a more appropriate time. Weather is certainly a legitimate subject for our fiction, but while those less fortunate than I are struggling to survive and maintain, still stunned at losing everything they had, I felt that my article was inappropriate.

There are many real life stories of pathos and heroism ongoing. Those are the stories we will pay attention to now. We see the best of humanity on our screens for the moment blotting out the worst of it. It is a good reminder to us that human endurance and a faith in the future drives all of us forward. With the great percentage of the news about Harvey and its devastation and suffering, we are so overwhelmed by the sheer volume that we fail to comprehend it on a deep level. Perhaps it is our brain’s ways of protecting us from overload. Emerson said that we cannot begin to understand the universal until it is housed in an individual. That is the writer’s job now. To tell individual stories that will touch one’s soul. Write on!

Emerson said, “We cannot begin to understand the universal until it is housed in an individual.” That is the writer’s job now. To tell individual stories that will touch one’s soul. Write on!