Friday, July 29, 2011

Self-Publishing: The New Query Letter?

by Darke Conteur

Sounds weird, doesn't it? Self-publishing helping you to reach your goal of having a book published traditionally?

In the last few years, (generally due to the surprising popularity of the Kindle and other eReaders), the self-publishing route has become less and less of a stigma, and more of a freedom to create. Amazon and Smashwords made it easy for writers to get their works to the public, and with good results. Novels that were once ignored or passed over because the demand for the genre was too small, are now finding their audience and doing so with relatively good success. With high rates of achievement, I'm hearing stories of publishing houses (quite possibly small indie press—I doubt you'll have Random House knocking on your door) patrolling writing forums, looking for self-published writers who have strong numbers in e-book sales, and are offering contracts to these same authors. I suppose their reasoning is, if they do good on Amazon, they'd do great in traditional outlets as well.

Granted, it's a small number that are approached, but I can't help but wonder if this will increase as the popularity of e-books increases. Can you imagine? Instead of having to spend months perfecting a query letter, synopsis, and the endless rejection from agents, all you have to do is upload a few books you've written, market like hell (because in the end, it's the numbers that count) and sit back and wait for the offers of publication to roll in! Great, right? It's a win-win situation!

Or is it?

Don't get me wrong, I have NOTHING against traditional publishing, and you will never hear me bad mouth either side of this argument, but I can't help but be concerned at the fact I'm hearing horror stories about authors locked into contracts that are so Draconian in their terms, it makes you wonder how these 'publishing' houses get away with it. Don't believe me? Check out this blog post by Debra L. Martin and David W. Small. It's just frightening, and if that doesn't open your eyes, maybe these other blog posts will:

Writing Like It's 1999 (Kristine Kathryn Rusch)

Writers Are Losing the Fight Again (Dean Wesley Smith)

Authors are taking more control over their careers when it comes to publishing, and if you don't have an agent, you need to take a good look at anyone who offers you a publishing contract. Do. Your. Homework. Research the publisher. If you are offered a contract then either hire an entertainment attorney or an agent to go over it. That's easy money for them and a good safety for you. Read the fine print on the contract and if there's something you don’t understand or seems odd to you, ask around. If they ask for money up front—it's vanity publishing.

No matter how much they try to sweet talk you, remember MONEY FLOWS TO THE AUTHOR, not the other way around. Don't sign away your entire career because you were so enthralled at the fact you were 'discovered'.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Hysterical Accuracy

by Brenda Carre

Do you write to a deadline or do deadlines scare you? Do you make meeting deadlines into a writer's tool, or do you avoid them like the plague?

Writing fast can be terrifying, breathless and an amazing experience. In my opinion, the first draft should always be this way. You can always go back and clean up the manuscript later. Your first draft is all about belief in yourself. It's about writing to deadline, doing it fast and setting aside worries about historical accuracy for a time.

Deadline might mean one we put on ourselves. I know many writers who set a daily word count for themselves or a weekly one. I know a number of people who write a short story a week. They say it's a practical way to build the writerly muscle. To build trust in oneself and oust fear.
More about this later.

Deadline might also mean writing a 7000 word short story in a week because you had a story proposal accepted by an editor while you were on vacation in Europe and needed to deliver the not-yet-written story in ten days. Which is what happened to me last month. Being away from most of my avenues of research, I panicked. For about an hour. Then I got down to business and set my course.

I reasoned I'd need to do 1000 words a day. Easily doable since I was already journal writing more than that daily anyway. I determined where and when I would be able to write. For me this involved an iPad, the seat of a moving car, or bus, or train and breakfast rooms where I wrote steamy scenes of romance whilst other guests sat and ate their toast and sipped their tea or in the venue of train or bus, watched scenery roll past outside their windows.

It was a challenge, but more, it was a need to do what I might, a year ago, have said was impossible. To write for publication, to deadline, with limited internet, limited time, and the distractions of travel. I had to ignore the protests of family members.

Them: "But you're on vacation!"

Me: "I'm a writer. I'm still on vacation; it just took a detour, that's all."

I fought with myself over the necessity for historical accuracy and determined that my need right then was to write the story and worry about research in the second draft, if needed. I remembered the words of Cherie Priest regarding historical accuracy when writing steampunk: "Steampunk needs historical accuracy like a dirigible needs a fish." Though I was not writing Steampunk, I did reason that to have two people making love aboard a fifteenth century war ship did not involve historical accuracy but an understanding that the mood is more the thing. In fact, had I included historical accuracy, it would have produced a tale more hysterical than romantic given the lack of room and privacy aboard said ship.

Over the period of a week I wrote from the gut. I finished my story feeling like I had just taken a roller coaster ride. I did a second pass to edit and sent it in, meeting my deadline one day early.

How? I set my editor aside. I told myself it didn't have to be good, it just had to be finished. I turned off the inner voice that says, "You can't write that...because," and just let the story unfold as it wanted to. In short I didn't worry about grammar, punctuation or usage because I trusted in my ability as a storyteller to communicate what was right at any given time and let the story and the characters have their own way.

They did.

They surprised me as always. They had opinions, they fought, they experienced life through all their senses and they took me along for the ride.

They filled in everything for me.

Characters are setting. Characters are conflict. Good setting comes to life through the opinions of the operating characters. And, surprisingly, their opinions dictated sentence structure, punctuation, voice and a whole bunch of other things that would have been dashed right out of my story if my editorial mind had gotten in my way.

So, again, I ask you, how do you deal with deadlines?

Monday, July 25, 2011

The Core of The Arts

by R.S. Mellette

I was a junior in acting Seminar Class. The production that year was The Merchant of Venice, so we did nothing but Shakespeare five days a week, two or three hours a day, every day for two semesters. By the end of the first semester we had each rehearsed and polished a two-person scene, four monologues, and a sonnet which we were to present to the class in a two day marathon for finals.

Ed, my scene partner, and I spent one evening working on our piece and then helping each other with our monologues and sonnets. It was a rehearsal that would change my approach to acting, the arts, and everything.

It began with our scene, Oswald and Kent from King Lear. I was Kent, Ed Oswald. The scene wasn't working. It just laid there. Here we were, two actors trained to the level of Navy Seals in our craft, and yet we couldn't make a scene from Shakespeare's greatest play entertaining.

It was Ed who stopped. "This isn't working."

"Yeah, I know."

"What's wrong?"

"No idea."

We refocused and tried again. No help.

"What would our teacher's say?" asked Ed. "Let's get back to the basics." He quoted from freshman acting class. "What do I want?" Then he answered his own question. "I want to get from here," where he was standing, "to there," the other side of the stage.

"And I want to stop you."

Without another word, we started from the top.

The scene popped. It had energy, humor, character, tension—all the stuff the same words were missing before. Why? We got right to the basics of all art: Objective and Obstacle.

The universe is a funny place. It only has three colors. In paint, these are Red, Yellow, and Blue. In light, they are Red, Green, and Blue. From those three colors alone, you can make every other color there is. With paint you mix down to black, with light, you mix up to white.

In the Arts we have Objective, Obstacle and I add Tactics as a third variable. With these three primary nouns you can create every interaction between all living things.

A writer turns blank paper into believable characters by giving them clear objectives. Their story is made exciting with seemingly insurmountable obstacles, and their characters defined by the tactics they use to overcome those obstructions.

An actor breathes life into those characters by personalizing the super objectives, and like a fractal equation, pushing down, down, down, down, until every moment of the performance has a clear objective, obstacle, and tactic for success.

Traditional dance is the same as theatre. Modern dancers and choreographers sometimes like to think they can create "moving sculpture," where there is no story or reason for the performers to do what they are doing besides the beauty of the movement, but I maintain they are wrong. If a single dancer is on the stage, then we, the audience, wonder what he or she is trying to tell us. If another dancer joins, then we begin to guess what they mean to each other. In that case, I suppose you could say that their objective is to have no relationship other than parts of a human sculpture, and their obstacle is our natural desire to find a story. Their tactics then become wearing ever increasingly ridiculous leotards.

In music we see the same writer/actor dynamic in the form of composer/performer, but each performer is also his or her instrument. Paul McCartney decides a standard trumpet doesn't achieve his objectives in Penny Lane, but heard David Mason's piccolo trumpet on a BBC TV show. Composer, performer and instrument all came together to overcome the obstacle of the perfect mix. The notes play with each other, or counter to each other, to achieve their mathematical place in the cords.

Traditional painting and sculpture clearly show the three basic elements. Michelangelo's Battle of Cascina is a perfect example of objective—soldiers on one side attacking others who are bathing in a stream, while the surprised naked defenders struggle to find weapons, get dressed, and fight.

In sculpture, Bernini is a great one for capturing the conflict of objective and obstacle.

In modern visual arts, Jackson Pollock is probably the best known artist to try to escape all forms of tradition, and yet his work is a symphony of conflict. Colors and patterns fight to be seen above the chaos.

So whether you are facing the blank page, or editing a third draft, keep the basics in mind. Ask yourself, are the characters' objectives clear? Are they doing everything in their power to achieve those objectives? What tactics are they using—and which ones will they refuse to use—to obtain their goal?

Answer those questions for every sentence in your work, and you'll be well on your way to a good story told well.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Writing the Back-Cover Blurb

by Lucy Marsden

Inspired by Cali’s recent post on queries, I thought it might be fun to talk about that most helpful of pre-query writing exercises: the Back-Cover Blurb.

Anyone who’s ever read the back cover of a novel knows that the blurb is the essence of the book: a 100-word (or so) distillation of the characters, tone, and conflict of the story that should, if it’s effective, entice a prospective reader into plunking down hard, cold cash in order to learn more.

Thinking about it, this is not so different from the desired outcome of a query letter, right? Certainly, it’s in keeping with the constraints of a query letter, where we’ve got two paragraphs to showcase our hook and Act I of our story. Blurbing, because it forces us to articulate the essence of our stories, also hones our our ability to share that core in a concise and compelling fashion. Blurbing demands that we have a handle on the story that we are telling, so in addition to providing us a tool with which to “sell” our story, it illuminates the elements of our story that are fuzzy, or worse, outright missing. Some folks may even use a blurb as part of their pre-writing process, to determine whether they know their story well enough to begin writing, or as part of their revision process, to double-check important story elements. Bottom line, blurbing has a lot of potential applications for writers.

So how do we do it? How do we highlight and hone the elements of our story so that we can make those high notes sing in 100 words or less? One approach, which I’ve personally test-driven with my critique partner, is to use the 10-point “Art of The Blurb” brainstorming process developed by former romance novelist Suzanne McMinn. Although Suzanne has literally moved on to greener pastures, she has graciously granted me permission to reproduce those blurbing points here. Any gaffs in the elaboration of this content are entirely mine, so remember that Your Mileage May Vary, and feel free to ignore or challenge anything that doesn’t make sense for YOUR story. Here we go:


These are what they sound like--story elements that immediately grab a reader’s attention. It’s great if you’ve got something unique, but a fresh twist on a beloved trope can work too. Seeking Persephone by Sarah Eden, for example, is a Regency romance that’s mixes a Marriage of Convenience plot with a Beauty and the Beast story.

List both the external conflicts (zombie attacks, rogue asteroids, disapproving mothers-in-law) and the internal conflicts (survivor’s guilt, fear of failure, feelings of inadequacy).

Think in terms of the emotional state of your main characters (vengeful, determined, grieving), and the emotional tone of your book (a wild ride, a joyous romp, a gritty faery-tale).

Something is at risk for your characters--emotionally, physically, socially, or whatever. Something important to them is endangered. This is the place to define what’s at stake for your MC if they don’t achieve their story goal, OR what is being put at risk because they are pursuing their story goal.

Deb Dixon, in her fabulous book Goal, Motivation, and Conflict, gives some great tips on nailing the short-hand essence of your character. Although the descriptive phrase may use your character’s actual occupation, it’s more helpful to think in terms of their emotional “vibe” in the story. Examples Dixon uses are Princess Leia as a “royal rebel,” and Han Solo as a “cocky smuggler.” Throw out lots of descriptive phrases for your characters until you feel you’ve got a combination that sums them up perfectly. The punchier and more immediately evocative, the better.

Define the geographic location (real or imaginary), but also the emotional tone of the setting: lush jungle, bleak moor, treacherous Fey court, sparkling Regency society.

What concrete object or achievement are your characters pursuing in this story? What are they fighting for? Defining the characters’ story goals is a KEY aspect of creating a sense of the story stakes, which in turn, deepens the reader’s emotional investment. In Raiders of the Lost Ark, for example, Indiana Jones MUST get the Ark of the Covenant before the Nazis do.

Why MUST your character achieve their story goal? And don’t just define the concrete consequence of failure or success. Define for yourself what it will MEAN to your character to fail or succeed. In the movie Dodgeball, Peter LaFleur cares about his underdog clients; it matters to him that Average Joe’s is a place where they can feel accepted as their own goofy selves. Losing the gym means letting them down. Worse, Peter is someone who has built his life so that he will never have to deal with disappointment or failure. Losing to White Goodman of Globo Gym would mean trying and failing in a very public fashion.

Who (preferably) or what is blocking your main character from achieving their story goal? This is another way of looking at internal and external conflict, with an opportunity to focus closely on your major Antagonist.

Yes, I know, rhetorical questions are verboten in a query. Nevertheless, it’s important for you to be able to articulate (if only for yourself) your central story question. This is the question that summarizes the central element of tension or suspense in your story, the question that, once it has been answered “Yes” or “No” ends your story. And because you don’t HAVE to frame it as a question, you can use it in your query once you’ve articulated it for yourself. An example of a story question would be, “Will Indiana Jones save the Ark of the Covenant from the Nazis?”

OK. These 10 points are a lot to think about, I know, so I’m going to return on August 10th to talk about how to assemble these elements into a blurb. In the meantime, please weigh in with questions or comments, because blurbing is always more fun with group participation. Enjoy!

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Moon Shot to Publication

by Matt Sinclair

In my mind, today should be a national holiday, but I'm a bit of a lunatic. You see, on this day back in 1969 Neil Armstrong took the first human steps on the moon. From that moment, ordinary people of all walks of life had a perfect example of how the seemingly impossible was achievable.

I suspect my idea of National Moon Day could be taken the wrong way. (Note: no image will be linked to that name; I'll leave that to your imagination.) But we writers and artists and dreamers don't need to be reminded how difficult getting a manuscript published can be. It still seems like a moon shot, and perhaps that is the best way of looking at it.

Because, whether you're one of the wackos who thinks the moon landing was faked on some sound stage somewhere or you're a lunaphile like me who is disappointed we don't have colonies up there yet, you'll have to admit that getting to the moon—and staying—takes a lot of hard work. Indeed, it may even seem downright impossible. That's how becoming a published author can feel, too. It is possible, but you need to make sure you've put in all the work needed.

So, this is Mission Control: I need a Go-No Go for launch:

  • Writer: Are you ready for this? You may say you are, but do you know what you're setting yourself up for? I don't mean just the rejection. For some folks, rejection is easy to deal with. But you need to be ready for questions about you. Control, I need to get back to you in a bit...
  • Manuscript: Is it ready, has it been reviewed multiple times—not just for typos and errant grammatical mistakes but for errors that could cause the entire manuscript to blow up in your face. And who are these experts you've selected to review it? Do they know the subject from experience or is it your brother who kinda knows what he's talking about and always seems to have a good thing to say? Go-No Go?
  • Voice: Do you know what it is? Do you have it? Is it in your manuscript? Each page? Yes, that one too... If your manuscript doesn't have voice, that's a mission abort. Go-No Go?
  • Query: Have you written it. Does it sound like you? Does it sound like your manuscript? Does it say what it needs to say? Does it have a hook? Does it show a conflict? Have you run it by a bunch of experts who are at least of the same caliber as those who read and re-read your manuscript? Go-No Go?
  • Agents: Have you reviewed who the agents are who represent your genre? Have you checked out their Websites? Do you know who's who? Do you know who's new? Do you know if he's sold anything lately? Is she a good blogger but a mediocre agent? Who do they rep? Do you know which agents are closed to new queries? Do you know which of your target agents are not accepting queries over the summer? Are you certain that you're aiming in the right direction? Go-No Go?
  • Synopsis: Is it written? How long is it? Who's looked at it other than you? Is it compelling even in its simplest form? We don't want to be flying on a wing and a prayer, here, people. Go-No Go?
  • Writer: I ask again, are you ready for this? Do you know what you're looking for in an agent and an agency? Are you willing to be a small fish in a big pond? Do you expect hand-holding and gentle kicks in the back pockets of your jeans? Do you know why you're doing this? Go-No Go?
Ok, perhaps I'm taking this metaphor too far. But I don't think it's asking too much for writers to ask serious questions about themselves. Whether we're launching a fiction manuscript, a nonfiction book proposal, an anthology of short stories that have never been published anywhere else before, you need to be certain that your product is ready to go. You're part of that product. I don't know about you, but it's comforting to me that Frank Borman—who commanded the Apollo VIII mission, which was the first to orbit the moon—vomited along the way. Even the best of the best can feel weak at their moments of greatness.

Writing is not rocket science. You don't need to be an expert in fluid dynamics to know how a story flows or understand how laser toner gets zapped onto a page. You can even be relatively oblivious to how the ideas flow out of your mind and onto the paper.

But there was a reason why Neil Armstrong was chosen to lead the Apollo XI mission that was the first on the moon. He'd proven that he could handle himself in all sorts of challenging situations. He'd demonstrated that he could be decisive and steadfast even when a roomful of smart people were telling him he was wrong. He'd even hit the ejector button when he needed to rather than try to fix something that couldn't be fixed. He'd shown he was not only able and willing but ready.

You don't have to be like Neil Armstrong to become a published writer. But when you're shooting yourself above the stratosphere, it seems like a darn good idea to be ready for the entire trip. Ad astra, fellow writers. And shoot the moon!

Monday, July 18, 2011

Letting Go to Help Our Book-Babies Grow

by Sophie Perinot

Our books are our babies. They’ve kept us up nights, and acted badly in front of company (like those agents we queried too early), but we love them to death and we are very, very possessive of them. And, like most parents, we have high hopes for them. We dream that someday they will leave our laptop, pass through the wheels of publishing, and grace a shelf (wooden, virtual or both) somewhere.

Sometimes the “possessive” author part of us and the part that wants what’s best for our books are in direct conflict. What do I mean? Have you heard of the “helicopter parent?” I would argue the “helicopter author” also exists—she’s in all of us (guys, you can read “he’s” if it makes you feel better) and if we don’t keep her under control our book will suffer.

Repeat after me—“I am a wordsmith, I write, I write really well. But it takes a lot more than writing to make a book a success—it takes a village (it’s okay, you can steal that phrase from Hillary Clinton, everyone else has). Once I have a publisher I will let the professionals who work there do their jobs.”

That’s precisely what I told myself when I signed the contract for my debut novel (The Sister Queens). Despite being type-A, I was going to make a conscious effort not to micromanage every step on the publication trail, and not to freak out when I discovered that I didn’t have the political capital to do so anyway. So far, I am pretty proud of myself, and I am going to share the secrets to my tongue-biting success.

1) I keep my eye on the BIG picture—book sales. I want to sell books. My publisher wants to sell books. We both want to sell books to people who are not ME (and not my friends and family for that matter). So what I like—in terms of a cover, or a title or blog-ad copy, etc.—runs a distant second to what a majority of book-buying, cash-carrying potential readers will like.

And the truth is, I am not in a position to predict what will catch the eye of the average book buyer. I am not trained to do that (nor have I conducted studies or otherwise made it my business to keep my fingers on the pulse of such things). Which leads to my next point.

2) I remind myself as often as necessary, that years of experience and professional training DO count for something. Publishing is a competitive industry. The folks my publisher hired didn’t just walk off the street and say “this looks better than working at McDonalds.” They are professionals. The marketing and art department folks are trained to know what gets a book picked up off a “new releases” table. They have been designing covers and brainstorming titles for years. With this in mind, I decided, even as I was offering my own cover ideas (as my editor asked me to) I would stop well short of trying to “direct the brush” of the cover artists, and I would accept that they might know best.

Similarly, my editor has been polishing manuscripts since well before I thought of writing them. So, when I received editorial suggestions from my editor, instead of growling “my baby is perfect as I wrote it,” I consciously adopted a listening frame of mind, and seriously considered every suggestion. My editor gave me the gift of “outside eyes” and not just any old eyes, veteran eyes.

Was ceding some control over a novel I’ve lived with and loved easy—not all the time. Did I take every suggestion my editor made—no (ultimately it’s my name on the cover). But neither did I assume I knew best (or if I did assume that for some, giddy, amount of time—I made sure not to email my editor until the feeling passed).

Bottom line: I wanted a deal with a major publisher precisely so that I could tap into the resources and experience of “the best.” Disregarding the type of accumulated expertise a publisher has to offer is just stupid and stubborn. It is like going to the hospital and insisting on doing your own appendectomy.

My novel has now moved on to the production department. Just recently I saw sample pages. Am I happy with the results of my “campaign of collaboration?” Yes. My novel is still my baby, but she has my editor’s eyes. She looks spiffy in the cover designer’s custom creation. She’s all grown up and ready to hit the shelves in March 2012. In case your wondering, I’ll be the woman in Barnes & Noble snapping pictures of her on display like she’s a kindergartner getting on the school bus for the first time. “Say Cheese.”

Friday, July 15, 2011

Validation (and I Don't Mean Parking)

by R.C. Lewis

A few months ago, I wrote about accomplishment vs. prestige. Basically, lots of things are accomplishments, but some naturally have more prestige than others. It's important not to tear down others' accomplishments, but also not to assert that your own are more prestigious than they actually are.

I've been thinking about it some more and came to a related topic: Validation.

As writers, validation can come in many forms. Individually, we put more value in some forms than others. We aim for different targets. Some want the validation of an agent/editor deeming their work worthy. That makes sense. Others feel validation can only come from readers. Cool. Still others seek only to satisfy themselves, and feel that's the validation that counts. More power to 'em.

I won't say any of the above are the right or wrong way to go about things. But which camp you fall into will largely determine the route you take—the traditional get-an-agent path, submitting to small presses, or going it alone.

Deep down, I think we all want to feel the validation that our work isn't crap that's best left in the darkest recesses of our hard drives. Be warned, however, that no matter your course, you may take some hits on the way.

The validation of an agent taking on your work may never happen.

If you go indie, you may be on the receiving end of scathing reviews that feel a lot more like invalidation.

If you claim you only write for yourself and no one else's opinion matters, you may ignore both of the above and not realize that the work needs work. (Of course, if you really mean it that it's just for you, I suppose it doesn't matter. But in such a case, why bother setting it loose in the world?)

We fear a potential truth: Our work (at the moment) may actually be crap.

The bottom line, then, is not to be in such a hurry for validation that we don't present our best chance for getting that stamp of approval. Take your time. Learn the art of the query letter. Find some critique partners who'll give it to you straight.

In the meantime, find validation on a smaller scale. Compliments from a critique partner. An enthusiastic response from a beta reader. (My favorites are responses from teens involving capital letters representing incoherent sounds.) Your first request for a partial or full from an agent.

And keep working.

What's your take on the need for validation? How do you balance that desire with patience to get your best work done first?

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Nature and Nurture: Growing Characters

by Cat Woods

Gardening is a bit like writing. We carefully plan out our landscape, filling it with colors, textures and scents. Sometimes we don't take into account every little nuance that ultimately impacts the garden's development. Sunlight, water, heat and soil. Some of these variables are within our control. Others are not.

Yet, these outside factors shape a plant more than you would expect. Take my grasses, for example.

Notice the slim, white blades with lines of green? This grass stands about twelve inches tall and has white spiky seed tufts that barely peek out over the top of the blades. I planted this grass in a full sun area on a bit of a decline on the south side of the deck. Inevitably this means hot, dry conditions.

Ironically, I planted the exact same grass in this flower bed.

The same genetic make-up placed in a shaded, damp bed gives me wide, dark green blades with thin white stripes. It stands almost twenty-four inches tall and boasts seed spires that soar another foot over the bulk of the plant. 

When we write, our characters--like my grasses--must be a product of both nature and nurture. They cannot feel like clones of each other and must have distinct traits and quirks of their own.

So how do we populate our manuscripts with fully fleshed-out characters? It's as easy as planting a garden.

  • Physical Nature. What does your character look like? Does he have black hair and green eyes? Is she slim with small hands and skin the color of skim milk? This part of character building is easy. It's the plant we pick up at the store and bring home to the garden. It is the building block for all that is to come. Physical character traits are as basic as describing the difference between a rose bush and a dandelion.
  • Physical Nurture. How does your MC wear his black hair? Long and silky or short and spiky, and why? Does she keep her nails painted and long or are they chewed down and rough—a direct contrast to the rest of her delicate appearance? As writers, we choose these variables for a reason. They can be modified as our characters change and grow throughout the story. It's akin to watering our plants. Less water can force a plant to become more hardy, while consistent water usually results in a fuller, more robust plant.
  • Psychological Nature. People are naturally predisposed to act a certain way. Some live with their glass half-empty, while others carry around one that is always half-full. As writers, we must understand the very basics of our characters' inherent psychological make-up. Is your MC timid?  Does she like hanging out in the shadows, or does she follow the light like a sunflower in an open field? These tendencies are natural and with us from birth. They cannot be changed, but they can be modified by the environment.
  • Psychological Nurture. Even a timid character can be ferocious when the time is right. What triggers your MC to break out of her normal tendencies? What words force your happy-go-lucky character to withdraw? Writers control the amount of light they shed on their characters' lives. Cloudy days impact a character's natural predisposition as much as consistently clear skies.
  • Social Nature. The community surrounding our characters is a bit like the dirt in which we plant them. They cannot change the fact that they have three vicious siblings and Crazy Aunt Betty living in the garage any more than the grass can control the acidity of the soil. Yet the social environment we create can be toxic or nutrient rich and largely shapes our characters and their behaviors.
  • Social Nurture. Boosting a character's environment is as easy as fertilizing a daisy. By providing the supportive coach or the business mentor, writers can give an otherwise socially fragile character the chance to shine. Consider the following: A typical baby of the family can, in fact, act more like a first child if certain pressures are exerted on them. What makes your MC of an alcoholic parent embrace sobriety or embrace the bottle? What stunts your character's growth? What motivates them to break the mold or to follow in Crazy Aunt Betty's footsteps?
By modifying even one or two variables, we can largely change the personality and behavior of our characters. It honestly doesn't take much to create unique traits and toss stereotypes altogether.

I live in zone 4—a cold winter climate that doesn't allow for many perennials. Most flowers I plant are annuals that must be replanted each spring. However, the winter snows this past year created the perfect insulation for my annual flowerbed. Many plants that would traditionally die off returned with spunk and vigor. I love this defiance of genetic nature. It's what I strive for in my writing.

So tell me, fellow scribes, how do you create your characters? What factors influence their growth and development? Are you conscious of the natural traits you give them and the outside influences that impact their overall personality and motivation? Do you have a reason behind the long hair and nail-bit fingers? Have you ever planted a flower character in ideal conditions and had it die anyway? Have unexpected marigolds bloomed against all odds?

Curious minds want to know.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Censoring Books for Kids

by Jemi Fraser
I've been teaching MG and lower YA aged kids for a lot of years now. The first day of every school year, I tell the kids that if they don't already love to read, they will before winter break. They always prove me right.

One of the keys to encouraging kids to read is to have a lot of books available. Not just a lot of books, but a wide range of genres, levels and styles. You have to find the 'home run' book for a reluctant reader if you want to create a lifelong reader out of him or her.

In every class there are always a few kids who read way ahead of the rest. Kids who read voraciously and devour every book in sight. These kids almost always read books that are 'too old' for them. In my classroom of 10 and 11 year olds, that means they're reading books most 13 and 14 year olds read.

Is it a problem? Should we be censoring what they read? What they have access to?

For the most part I believe the answer is no. I think parents should have lots of conversations with their kids about what they read and make those choices together. At school I do the same thing. We talk a LOT about books. But to take away their freedom of choice, stifle their interest and curiosity because we're afraid of what they might read? No.

I think most adults would be surprised at what kids read when there is freedom of choice. They don't automatically head to the books that have sex and swearing and violence. In fact, most of the kids avoid these. Even when an advanced reader raves about a mature book, most of the kids totally ignore it. Kids gravitate towards books that match their emotional maturity. They don't enjoy books that are above it. If they're not ready for the book, no matter how popular it is, they just don't read it.

In my class, I've got my books sorted into buckets. The buckets are identified on the front by genre and some buckets by author. They also have labels: At Level, Below Level, Above Level. I explain this indicated reading level and that reading level and subject matter match. They choose their reading material accordingly.

I've taught hundreds of MG & YA aged kids over the years and I've NEVER had a kid read more than 2 or 3 pages of a book they're not ready for. NEVER. EVER. On the other hand, I've had dozens and dozens of kids give up reading certain books because they were 'boring'. You guessed it, those 'boring' books are the ones with the sex and swearing and violence. If they're not ready to read it, they don't.

I think we need to trust kids & teens to make choices. They're much smarter than many people give them credit for.

Emotional readiness and maturity are the #1 factors for kids in choosing books. They make great choices. Trust them.

So, what's your opinion on censoring books for kids?

Friday, July 8, 2011

Adding Some Heat Between the Sheets

by Calista Taylor

Though I love coming across a steamy hot sex scene in a story, I can honestly say that, for me, a sex scene is by far the hardest thing to write. I agonize over every word. But no matter the difficulties, when done right, I think an intimate scene can add a lot to your story if you choose to add one in. Here are a few things that help me...

* Avoid repeating yourself. —Often, easier said than done, in this type of situation. You need to make sure that things aren't getting repetitive, not only in what the characters are doing, but also in your choice of words. And that is where some of the difficulty comes in, since there are only so many ways to refer to one's anatomy. If your manuscript is set in a different time period, you're further restricted by the language that's appropriate for that period, leaving you with even fewer words in your arsenal. However, some things can be assumed. If you've already referenced a particular body part, and the action has not strayed too far, then you can often skip another reference. Another way is to reference a different area in close proximity, as long as it's clear where the action is headed.

* Think about the small details. —By doing this you pull the reader into the scene. I'm not normally one for a lot of details, but this is where you need them. How does her skin feel to the touch? Does he taste of whiskey when he kisses her? Can he smell her perfume? Is his stubble rough against her soft skin? Does the firelight cast a golden glow across her skin? Does that same light catch the planes of his muscular form? The details will help your reader visualize the scene and pull them in. Even if you choose to remain pretty vague about "the act" itself, by including the little details you still keep the scene intimate.

* Use their thoughts and emotions.—Sex is an intimate act (even if your characters are not necessarily intimately involved) and there are bound to be thoughts if not emotions. Too often you come across a sex scene and it's just the physical act. By adding thoughts and emotions, we again keep the reader involved in the scene. Furthermore, emotions can often up the stakes with such an intimate act.

* Make sure the scene is not confusing. —I think this very important. Too often when the writer tries not to get too explicit or if the writer is trying something a little "creative" *ahem* things can get muddled in the process. Nothing pulls a reader out of a scene faster than having to figure out what just happened, or trying to account for all the body parts during an acrobatic feat. This can be especially difficult to do if there is more than one person of the same sex involved, since you can no longer say his/her or he/she and have it be clearly understood.

* Be creative. —I know this goes without saying, but it can be easy to start repeating things. Try for a little variety, especially if you have more than one sex scene in the manuscript. A quickie or an all night affair, slow and sweet or fast and rough, fun or tender. Even within the one scene, change things around a little.

* Take into account the character's personality and history. —This is something that will keep the reader involved beyond just the sex scene, as it can add insight and often lend a bit of surprise. Is your character normally shy and timid, but a fierce and dominant lover? Or do they stay true to their personality? Did something happen to them in their past that causes them to react a certain way when intimacy is involved? And most importantly, what's at stake when these characters become intimately involved? All these personality quirks will lend depth to your characters.

It can be difficult to write a sex scene, but I think it's well worth the effort and can add another dimension to a story. Do you write sex scenes into your stories or is it something you completely avoid?

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Is It Dark In Here, Or Is It Just the YA?

By now I'm sure anyone remotely involved in the YA market has heard of this article published in the Wall Street Journal, which lamented the prevalence of dark material available for teens. There were reactions aplenty, one of which involved the hashtag #YAsaves on Twitter, as well as a plethora of blog posts from writers, readers and agents alike.

A lot of the reaction involved people addressing the obvious—hey, there's plenty of lighter material as well. And I don't have a lot of add to that other than ... uh, yeah. Instead, I want to agree (to a point)—there IS a lot of dark stuff going on in YA these days. And you know what? Good.

I admit, when I first started my job as a YA librarian I was more than a little taken aback by what I could find in the pages of the books I was processing. Then I took a look at my patrons and began to understand. My best readers are what people would term "troubled kids." They need to escape from God knows what is going on in their lives, and part of that escape involves relating to what's going on in the pages. So they connect with that first, dark story that mirrors their own lives and (in my experience) a few things come from this.

1) They find out that reading isn't all dry Victorian classics or kiddo stories about hiding a puppy in your basement and hoping your mom doesn't find out. No—there are books about sex, drugs, & rock n' roll. There are also books about sexual abuse, addiction, and getting wasted way too often with your band. If my librarian senses ring true (and they often do) the kid who said, "I hate reading. Books suck," will come back a little shame-faced and ask, "You got any more like that one?" Yeah, baby. Sometimes that dark material is a gateway drug—to a new habit called reading.

2) They find out that whatever is going on in their life—be it abuse, addiction, depression, questioning their sexuality, or self-harm—it is NOT unspeakable. There are books about it. People talk about it. I can't tell you how often "dark" books have opened a door for kids, a door that leads to a room where they can TALK.

One of my jobs involves inventory. At the end of the year, I tally up what's on the shelves, what's checked out and what's ... "walked off." Without fail we've lost a few really popular series books here and there, and many, many titles of a darker nature.

Books like IDENTICAL by Ellen Hopkins and SUCH A PRETTY GIRL by Laura Weiss, which deal with parental sexual abuse, or SPEAK by Laurie Halse Anderson, SAFE by Susan Shaw, STOLEN by Lucy Christopher and LIVING DEAD GIRL by Elizabeth Scott, all books that center around rape victims. Gutsy authors like Brian James and Kathleen Jeffrie Johnson deal with the still-taboo subject of male rape with their titles DIRTY LIAR and TARGET, respectively.

Lauren Myracle's KISSING KATE and KEEPING YOU A SECRET by Julie Anne Peters, as well as David Levithan and John Green's WILL GRAYSON, WILL GRAYSON deal with teens who are questioning their sexuality.

HANGING ONTO MAX by Margaret Bechard, THE FIRST PART LAST by Angela Johnson, and AFTER by Amy Efaw all deal with teen pregnancy—go walk down a high school hallway and tell me those aren't necessary.

Drugs? Yeah, we've got those (or rather, by the end of the year, we usually don't) in the form of SMACK by Melvin Burgess, CRANK & GLASS by Ellen Hopkins, SHOOTING STAR by Frederick McKissack, BOOST by Cathy Mackel—the last two dealing with teen athletes looking for an edge.

SCARS by Cheryl Rainfield and CUT by Patricia McCormick address the very real problem of self-harm among teens.

BLACK BOX by Julie Schumacher and the now famous autobiography of Susanna Kaysen—GIRL, INTERRUPTED, deal with depression, and apparently kleptomania is a side-effect because I keep having to mark them "Lost" in inventory.

And that's alright. If a kid is too ashamed or embarrassed to check a book out because of the topic, it's okay. Go ahead and steal it.

I'll buy another one.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Keeping Your Writing Fashionable and Functional

by J. Lea Lopez

Fake pockets are the bane of my fashionable existence. Nothing’s worse than going to stash my bank card or chapstick, only to encounter resistance. No pocket for you! It’s a disappointment, to say the least. Words can scarcely describe the letdown. Don't let this same thing happen in your writing! You should be aware of Fake Pocket Syndrome (FPS), to avoid irritating your readers and turning them off of your story.

Fake pockets promise, but don’t deliver. So your hero is a tough manly man who finds himself relying on the aid of a sultry vixen to accomplish his mission. The entire book is rife with sexual tension, but in the end the two shake hands and part ways like old drinking buddies. I call FPS! You can’t string a reader along like that and not follow through. I’m not saying you have to write a torrid bedroom scene, but they had better at least kiss, or you need to at least allude to what we’re all expecting to happen. If your significant other spends an hour getting you worked up, then heads to the bedroom and ... goes to SLEEP, you’d be pretty pissed, wouldn’t you?

Fake pockets have no function. Even their aesthetic function is questionable. If you’re going to do horrible things to the shape of my bum by slapping a set of flap pockets back there, there had better be some payoff—like a place to put my credit card and ID when I don’t want to carry a purse. If your book starts with a character going on for two paragraphs about what she ate the day before, there should be a good reason for that. And sorry, but “I thought it was funny” is not good enough. For example, maybe she’s a hypochondriac who woke up with a slight cough and is convinced that something she ate was tainted and has given her a horrible disease. Well now, that could be an interesting introduction to your character. But if her eating habits have nothing to do with anything, why are you boring the rest of us by detailing them? Also, just because a passage “sounds nice” doesn’t make it relevant. Sometimes you gotta kill your darlings. It’s up to you, though, and if you can really justify something, keep it.

Fake pockets take time and energy to create. Having no pocket at all would be quicker, easier, and more cost-effective. And in the case of the awful flap pockets mentioned above, it would also be much more attractive. Save yourself and your editor some time and effort, and be aware of FPS from the beginning, and avoid it at all costs. The less junk you put in, the less you’ll have to cut out later on.

So take a long hard look at your manuscript. Are you a victim of FPS? Fear not, with a few snipped stitches here and there, you’ll have those pockets functional in no time.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Keeping The Flame Alive: Staying Connected to Our Stories Under Trying Circumstances

by Lucy Marsden

I should be exasperated and cranky by this point.

It’s been catch-as-catch-can with my writing over the last two weeks: sickness, work emergencies, childcare juggling, etc., and that usually means a disconnect from my characters and my story that creates huge inertia once I’m finally able to sit down and write again. Teeth-gnashing for days until I re-establish the flow of the scene I’m working on has historically been guaranteed.

But not this time. This time, I’ve been able to finagle enough ongoing connection to my WIP so that even if I’m not actively writing the way I want to be, I’m still IN my story and feel as though I’m moving forward with it. Here, in no particular order, are my sanity savers:

Story Collages
Everything I know about collaging for a WIP I learned from author Jenny Crusie. When I can’t write (for whatever reason), I can still look for images, textures, colors, lyrics, and text that “taste” like the story in my head, and that enhance my experience and understanding of it. Once the collage is made, looking at it brings me back to the world of my book.

Story Soundtracks
Certain songs are for the vibe of particular characters, others are for the feel of certain scenes. Currently, I’m listening to a playlist called “Wizards and Time Lords” featuring a lot of Murray Gold’s work from Doctor Who Season 5. So good, and again, immediately evocative of the feel of my book.

Kick-Ass Movies and TV Shows
Sometimes, even if I’m too frazzled to concentrate on my story, I can switch gears and keep my writing skills primed by looking at how other writers have handled plot, character, pacing, and dialogue. Game of Thrones has been amazing, Doctor Who Season 5 I’ve already alluded to, and I just found the first two seasons of Moonlighting at Target for $9.99 (Score!). Quite the smorgasbord, but it’s keeping me engaged and invigorated about telling stories, and that’s the main thing.

Writing Podcasts
I’ve mentioned them before, but they are so worth mentioning again. The Popcorn Dialogues and Storywonk Daily are my two favorite places to go to listen to passionate, articulate discussions about storytelling. Jenny Crusie, Lucy March, and Alastair Stephens are currently studying episodes of Burn Notice, Life, In Plain Sight, and Leverage over at Pop D as the foundation for discussions about writing community. Lucy and Alastair keep the story-love coming over at the aptly-named Storywonk site, too: world-building, genre conventions, dealing with reader responses to your work, interviews with folks like Anne Stuart and NaNoWriMo founder Chris Baty--all this and more is available. I listen in the car during my commute; it’s just one more way to pull Story into my day and stay connected.

So what about you? How do you stay connected to storytelling in general and your story in particular under less-than-auspicious circumstances?