Sunday, December 13, 2015

What I Learned this NaNoWriMo: Death of a Pantser

I participated in NaNoWriMo last month, for the fourth time; as you can see from the widget in my sidebar, I ‘won’—I hit 50,000 words on November 16th. I purposefully tried to finish ahead of schedule because I had my own personal goal of 75,000 words for the month, and I knew the second half of November was going to be a bear; I made it to 75,002 words on the evening of November 30th. Huzzah!

Since then I’ve worked on it in between coughing fits and bursts of unconsciousness (I promptly got sick shortly after NaNo ended); I have two scenes left to write, and then my first draft of Accidental Revelation, the second book in my tarot mystery series, will be done. Huzzah again!

So NaNoWriMo was a success for me in terms of output, for sure. But, I’ve come to look forward to NaNoWriMo as a conduit for learning about my writing process as well. And this year I learned that I’m not quite the pantser I thought I was. Or maybe, at all.

I’ve never been 100% pantser—I’ve always had some basic structure in mind with every novel I’ve written, even if it was just knowing the premise, the conflict, and how the book would end. Last year during NaNo I took a completely new idea and self-scaffolded it as I went along; I used a blend of discovery writing mixed with pauses to reconceptualize and insert blank scenes into Scrivener where I knew I would need them (I’ve previously described this process as ‘Pl-antsing’, here). 

This year, I went into NaNoWriMo as an accidental plotter. I came up with the idea for the book back in June, and put it into my queue of goals as the manuscript I’d write during NaNo. I went on an overnight trip to the location that inspired my setting, partly as research for the first book, and partly to gather ideas for the second. As time passed, I continued to be excited about the book and so did a few brainstorming sessions to come up with ideas about how the plot would unfold; I created a Scrivener project so I could write down research information and create blank scenes for the plot points I would need. There were only a few at first, and they had only basic titles with nothing written—I’m talking stuff like ’Murder occurs’, ‘Semarra investigates clue’, and ‘Murderer comes after X’. As ideas percolated out of my brain, I added to the scenes, and by the time NaNoWriMo rolled around, I had four major divisions in the book with several important plot points in each one. 

Without realizing it, I’d created a basic outline for my novel. Before I’d ever written a word. Whaaa??

During each of my three previous NaNos, I had difficult days where I hated what I was writing, or was at a loss for what to write next. I was ready for that to happen again this time when I started on November 1st. I started at the beginning (I hear that’s a very good place to start), and it felt good to sink my teeth in. Then I switched to the end, and wrote out the scene where my protagonist explains who the murderer is and why the murder occurred; that helped me work out the remaining questions I had in my head about everything. And then I wrote the rest of the novel, jumping around where inspiration took me, adding scenes as needed. And those days where I hated what I was writing and had no idea what to write next never came.

Yes, there were days where I knew what I was writing wasn’t my best work, and would need to be heavily revised. But I knew where it was going, and I knew what section I was excited to work on next. And the next thing I knew, I had 75,000 words in the bag.

I was surprised to find that the magic of discovery writing still showed up, in spades. While writing a scene for my intended purpose, an additional possibility would rear its head, and poof, I had a deeper, richer story. I never knew what I’d stumble onto with each new writing session; every bit of the fun was still there, with the security of having an overall plan.  

So, it’s official. I’ve been pulled over to the plotting side. Who knows, for my next novel, I might even write out a full, complete outline…


Happy Writing,

Monday, October 19, 2015

Review: Write-A-Thon: Write Your Book in 26 Days by Rochelle Melander

Today I’m back with the final NaNoWriMo-related book review I’ll be doing this year; if you missed the first two you can find my review of Fast Fiction by Denise Jaden here, and Book in a Month by Victoria Lynn Schmidt here. Today we’re going to look at Write-A-Thon by Rochelle Melander; this book is a better fit for the ‘pantsers’ or ‘discovery writers’ out there among you. 

If you’re new to NaNoWriMo, you may not yet have heard the terms ‘pantsers’ and ‘plotters’ yet. ‘Plotters’ is fairly intuitive—it refers to people who like to plot at least the basics out before they begin writing. ‘Pantsers’, on the other hand, are people who like to just dive in, or write by the seat of their pants. Another term for this (one I prefer) is ‘discovery writers’, because you’re discovering where your story will go as you write.

So if you’re a just-dive-in kind of person, there’s not really much prep to do, right, and what help can a book be? First of all, wrong. There’s all sorts of prep you can do, but it’s more along the lines of getting past your writing demons and making sure you schedule your life to set yourself up for success during NaNoWriMo. There are also lots of tricks and tips that can help you keep going while you’re writing your book, so you’ll successfully reach the end. These are the kinds of help you’ll find in this book. 

Write-A-Thon has three parts. The first takes you through some training: attitude training, writing training, course training (plotting your book—don’t worry, this is in a very basic, pantser-friendly way), and life training. Each of these will help you find the time, energy and head space to help you succeed when you do sit down to write your book. The writing training session will also introduce you to some basics about writing a book, with the assumption that you’re fairly new to this. 

The second part of the book is designed to be a companion during the writing process; Melander suggests you use it as a ‘writing coach’ of sorts. It’s broken up into 32 vignettes with different tips; you can read them all before you start, read one or more a day to get your mojo flowing, or she suggests you can even just flip at random when you need an extra push and see what you get. If you have an ereader this part is a bit hard, but you can always use a random number generator as a way of flipping through. There’s a lot of good wisdom in these sections, from avoiding ‘monkey mind’ to overcoming perfection, to ways to get past writer’s block. 

The final part, ‘Recovery’, focuses mostly on why you should revise what you’ve written during your write-a-thon, and gives some basic suggestions for beginning that process. It also talks a little bit about editors and queries. 

This book is particularly well-suited for people who’ve never tried to write a book before, and are thinking of getting their toes wet in the NaNoWriMo pool. It’s very user-friendly and terminology-friendly for people who haven’t really thought about doing something like this before, and for whom the thought of plotting or outlining an entire book makes them break out in a cold sweat. It’s also a good resource for people who have tried NaNoWriMo before but had a hard time seeing it through—it gets to the root of a lot of those problems that can derail you. I wish I’d had something like this my first year to use as a daily mojo-stoker. 

Another thing this book has going for it is that it's designed to help writers of all sorts. It has a dedicated section on non-fiction books, and the advice it gives applies to all. Increasing numbers of people are using NaNoWriMo to write books other than novels (even dissertations and short-story collections), and this book is a good resource for all, not just the fiction writers among us. 

So, if you’re a NaNoWriMo newbie, a pantser/discovery writer, or someone who needs a little extra something to help them win this year, go have a look at this book. It might be just the thing to help you get through those 50,000 words, and beyond. 

Happy writing!  

Sunday, October 11, 2015

NaNoWriMo Review: Book in a Month by Victoria Lynn Schmidt

(Purchased by me; affiliate link)

I’m back with my second NaNoWriMo-relevant book review, this time Book in a Month by Victoria Lynn Schmidt. If the thought of 'pantsing' it gives you night terrors and you’re looking for something that can help you write a book with structure, direction, and developed characters all in a month, this may be the book for you. If you like order, exercises and worksheets, this book is definitely for you!

Book in a Month has a clear structure designed to guide you part by part, and even day-by-day, through the construction of your novel. There are two main parts to the book; the first section is designed to help you break through mental barriers you might have, such as problems with resistance and time management. It’s broken down like this:

The five secrets of BiaM
Time management
Setting and keeping goals
The Book in a Month system (an overview of the rest of the book)

 I personally have watched lots of very well-intentioned writers set out to write their book (both inside and outside of NaNo), only to be side-lined by fears they aren’t even aware they have, and time-management issues that can easily be overcome (that are probably also related to those fears!). In psychological circles, we call these issues self-sabotage and self-fulfilling prophecy, and they’re deadly. This section talks you through common pitfalls and gives you strategies & worksheets to help you deal with those pitfalls. For example, many people allow their fears to manifest in a need for perfection—they’ll go back and rewrite or rework a section over and over trying to make it perfect, and never make any actual progress on the novel. BiaM provides you with a worksheet that allows you to write down everything you need to go back and fix/research/build on later, so you don’t have to obsess about it now. This is a strategy that the successful writers I know use in one form or another to help keep their minds clear and their work moving forward. 

The second part of the book tackles the structure and content of the novel itself, in four sections: 

Week 1: The outline and Act I
Week 2: Act II, part 1
Week 3: Act II, part 2
Week 4: Act III

In each of these sections, Schmidt guides you through structuring your book with daily exercises and worksheets. You start small and build to big during week one; on day one you write a one-sentence summary, and put your raw story ideas into a ‘story idea map’ worksheet that helps you figure out the stakes, how your character and setting fit in, and what your inciting incidents and turning points are. As you progress, you will develop scenes for your ideas, and finally, an outline. You’ll then turn your attention to your characters development and backstory. By the end of week one, you’ll have fleshed-out characters and a basic outline to put them into. And yes, during this time, you write, so you aren’t falling behind on your daily word-count for NaNo. 

During weeks 2-4, you will continued to write as you buttress your story. You’ll fill out that outline with exercises that help you hone your theme, craft excellent cliffhangers and reversals, spice up your story, continue to improve your characters’ motivations and arcs, and identify plot holes.

I love the questions and worksheets in this book; the worksheets aren’t crazy complicated or overwhelming, yet they have power. In fact, I have a manuscript I’ve put on the back burner to so I can get some distance on it; when I’m finished with my current projects, I’m going to pull it out and use all the steps in this book on it. Yes, it’s already written and it doesn’t map on to the typical three-act structure, but I believe the questions this book asks will help me get to the heart of what isn’t quite working right with it. 

So if you’re looking for guidance, especially if plotting is a must for you, check this book out and let me know what you think! I’ll be back next time with another option to help with NaNoWriMo that’s a little more free-flowing. 

Happy prepping!

Saturday, October 10, 2015

My computer meets Windows 10: A tale of operating system mayhem and horror

The day I installed Windows 10 was a day just like any other. Beautiful skies, acceptable dinner, some light-hearted TV sitcoms that left me in a happy, optimistic mood. I’d heard whispered rumors in the corners of the internet about Window 10 fails, but really, what were the chances it would happen to me?  

So I clicked the button to install it, albeit with apprehension nipping at the edges of my consciousness. The installation went quickly and easily; all was well. Sure, a few little tweaks of preferences here and there, but nothing more. A remarkably smooth transition, in fact.

For two blissful days, Windows 10 and I got to know each other—long afternoons relishing the joy of discovering one another’s quirks. Easier access to system preferences? Lovely. Default photo display doesn’t show the file name? Hmm, I can figure out how to make that work, not a problem, you nutty little OS. 

But. Unbeknownst to me, a silent, insidious force contained in a Windows 10 update was patiently waiting to strike, like a diseased cyber zombie ripping at the core of my computer’s brain. And on the third day, I finished my work for the evening and compiled it, then went to put it into Dropbox. But Dropbox wouldn’t open. 

These things happen from time to time in my laptop’s world, and I have developed a series of troubleshooting steps to deal with them. I initiated the first, a system reboot—the fatal mistake that allowed the cyber-zombie herd to overrun my beloved electronic fortress.

A barrage of error messages pounded the screen: my computer’s screams of virtual terror in the form of incoherent messages about ‘bad images’ with strings of random numbers and letters. One after the other they named the programs that had fallen victim, whose byte-ridden corpses were now strewn dead over my laptop. Dropbox. Google Updater. Chrome. Skype. And so many more. 

I tried to initiate my virus scanner.
Another error message.
I tried to reinstall Dropbox. 
Another error message.
I scrambled to write down the error messages, and clicked to open Chrome so I could look them up.
Another error message. 
I tried Firefox. 
Another error message. 

Luckily, the new Microsoft browser ‘Edge’ opened up (go figure), and I was able to Google the problem—I wasn’t the only one who’d been hit by the cyber-zombie affliction. Microsoft forums had offered several suggestions to the others, and I rushed to try them out. I scrolled down the pages, tried them one by one, and read other’s feedback; other users determined the source of the problem to be a Windows update, and asked for it to be fixed, but were met with silence. And still nothing seemed to be solving the problem: Admin command prompts. Sfc scans. DSIM restore health scans. Reinstalling programs. Multiple reboots. I tried them all, to no avail.

I continued to scroll, desperate for answers, and watched the thread thin as each person succumbed to the inevitable terror when the solutions wouldn’t work. There was one final set of suggestions from the Microsoft representative that involved two pages of nightmarish instructions on booting in safe mode and troubleshooting each application/program individually; at the sight of that, the last hold-out gave up, and I was left alone, staring at an eerily quiet ghost town, surrounded only by the memories of those who had come before. 

My mind grappled for something to hold on to. I was surrounded: the problem clearly wasn’t in any single program—everything was being hit by something else, and hard. Reinstalling the programs hadn’t worked; the victims were beyond help, and the solution would have to eliminate the cyber-zombie king itself. I couldn’t see how it made sense to boot in safe mode to troubleshoot and reinstall the programs one by one; at the very least, that would take hours and hours and hours, with no assurance that there would be any point to it at all. No, it was becoming clear there was only one thing that could be done.

Nobody can ever anticipate what it’s like to be faced with it: the need to look into the eyes of something we once loved and had high hopes for, now turned foul and hopeless, and to know that the only solution is to reach down deep and find the courage to put a bullet right between the zombie’s eyes. At first it seems unthinkable, but inevitably resignation must come. 

I clicked to open my settings, navigated to the right place, took a deep breath and--then I did it. 

I clicked the ‘Return to Windows 7’ button.

That’s right, I did it. I did it. 

And dammit, I’d do it again if I had to. 

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

It's beginning to look a lot like NaNoWriMo...

That’s right, my favorite time of year is rapidly approaching—National Novel Writing Month, aka, NaNoWriMo. This will be my fourth NaNoWriMo; I made it to about 25,000 words on my first attempt, and then ‘won’ the next two. I’ll be trying my hardest to make this my third win in a row. 

Why do I love it so much? I wrote a blog post answering that question last year, which you can find by clicking here; if you’re still deciding to give it a try, check that post out. The quick summary is, NaNoWriMo gave me permission to just let my hair down and write, no judgments, no inner critics, just me and whatever my muse sent me. And along the way I learned a lot about my writing process, and gained a lot of confidence. I ensconced myself in writing habits that serve me to this day, and for that reason alone, I highly recommend the experience.

But today I’m going to assume you’ve already decided to take the leap, and share with you a few things I’ve learned the last three years about prepping beforehand

“But wait!” I hear you say. “You’re not supposed to start before Nov. 1st! Isn’t that cheating?”

Not at all. Yes, you do the actual writing between Nov. 1st and 30th. But there’s plenty more you can, and should, do well before Nov. 1st rolls around. Some involve time management planning, and some involve novel planning.

Time-management/mental preparations

  • Decide on a basic ‘ritual’ for your plan of attack. 
By this I mean something like ‘I’ll set the alarm 20 minutes earlier so I can write first thing everyday.’. Be honest with yourself here. Are you a morning person or an evening person? I know that if I set my alarm clock earlier, I’ll just throw the clock across the room and go back to sleep; my extra writing time needs to come at the end of the day, not at the beginning. 

Can you take advantage of times when your energy peaks? If you know you’re most creative at lunchtime, plan to scarf that lunch down and pound out some words during your lunch break. Are your weeks jam-packed, but your weekends more leisurely? Find small bits of time to keep your momentum going during the week, and plan longer stretches on the weekend. Figure it out now instead of thinking that writing time is going to plop into your lap when the time comes. 

  • Find some stuff to cut. 
Can you DVR your second-favorite show and use that time to write (and then look forward to a mini-binge on Dec. 1st to celebrate your win)? Will your house seize up if you go an extra day or two between vacuuming? Maybe half as much Candy Crush? It’s not forever…but who knows, maybe you’ll find you don’t miss those extra games of CC as much as you thought you would.   

  • Evaluate your obligations for the month, and plan around them. 

For Americans, Thanksgiving is one of the biggies here, especially if you host it. Don't think it will take care of itself--putting your metaphorical fingers in your ears and singing ‘I’m not listening’ isn’t going to do anything other than derail you once it gets here. If you know you’re going to lose 2-3 days to family time during that week, and still only plan to do 1,667 words a day, you’re going to find yourself behind. Take it into account ahead of time; write a little more each day, or give yourself an extra couple of hours one afternoon to bust some word count out. And whatever you do, don't rely on making it up after--the psychological weight of that word deficit is heavier than you think. 

For me, one big obligation I can't ignore is my nail art blog. I'm making sure I have posts scheduled throughout the month so I don't have to worry about that content when I need to be focusing on my book. I've also planned out the product reviews I've agreed to do, so I can finish them before NaNoWriMo begins.

  • Plan extra time in the beginning of the month. 

Nothing will keep your mental momentum better than having a word-count cushion. Unexpected things happen, and rarely do they create extra time. Being behind the word count can be disheartening; finding out that even though you had to spend the whole day replacing your kamikaze microwave you’re still 1,000 words ahead of the game is divine.  I personally stay up on Halloween, and at the stroke of midnight I start writing—I’m so excited to begin and have so many ideas swirling around my head that I have no problem busting out 1,000-2,000 words before bed. And I wake up on Nov. 1st ahead of the game, which is exciting…and on it goes.

  • Investigate some support options. 

If you have friends doing NaNoWriMo, you’re already golden: set up times to write together in person or virtually, and set out some solid ways you’ll keep each other accountable. But if you don’t know any other NaNoers, never fear! There are many options for building a community of support for yourself. One of my favorites is the virtual write-ins that NaNoWriMo holds on their YouTube channel—they talk about writing, do sprints, give prompts, and more. If you watch them in real time, you can chat with other people watching. But you don’t have to watch them as they happen—the videos stay on the channel, and you can watch them anytime; you can even find the videos from previous years. NaNoWriMo also holds twitter ‘parties’ and sprints, and of course, check out the forums

Writing preparations

  • Buy a notebook to carry during November. 

Claim those wasted moments in your day. Scribble while you’re in line at the grocery store or the pharmacy or whenever—you know, all those times you’d normally spend checking Facebook on your phone. Those minutes = words, and those words add up. They also keep your brain working on your manuscript even when you aren’t. Choose one you can’t wait to write in and you’ll be excited to seek out those moments whenever you can.  

  • Do some very basic (or more!) outlining. 

Are you a pantser who loves to set out with nothing but an idea and a cup of coffee, blissfully following wherever the muse leads you? Awesome, I’ve done it that way and love it. But I’ve also come to understand the value of having some sort of very basic skeleton in place, even if it’s just a general idea of what you want to happen in the beginning, middle, and end (basic three-act structure) of your book. This year I’ll be starting out with a basic plot idea fortified with the main divisions I know I’ll need. I’m writing a mystery, so I know I’m going to need a set-up, an initial murder, etc., and I’ve worked out the basic structure I want for those events. Calling it an outline would be optimistic; I’ve created empty chapter folders for each of these in Scrivener, but it gives me some pegs to hang my metaphorical hats on when I hit those roadblocks.

  • Get to know your characters. 

Even if you just have a glimmer of an idea, you know of at least one character that’s going to be present in your book, probably more. Spend a little time with them. Do character interviews, ask yourself questions about who they are and why. Most importantly, what’s the goal that’s driving them in this book? What do you want them to learn? When it comes time to write your book on Nov. 1, you’ll have developed characters to take charge of that plot. 

  • Start some basic research. 

Do you know your book is going to be set in 1600s Spain? Are you writing a murder mystery that involves poisons? You can do a little reading about the relevant topics and have that information ready to go when it comes time to actually write. And it’ll probably get you all jazzed to get going, so that when Nov. 1st rolls around, you’ll have a surge of momentum that’ll get you off to an awesome start. 

  • Check out some resources that can help you on your journey. 

I’ve already reviewed Fast Fiction by Denise Jaden (you can find that review here); I will be reviewing two more books designed to help with the book-in-thirty-days concept. The pros at NaNoWriMo itself have also put out several items that can help you. If this is your first time doing NaNoWriMo and you have no idea where to start, check out No Plot No Problem; it answers a lot of questions about how to make NanoWriMo work for you. If you’re more the plotter sort, Ready, Set, Novel! is for those who want to set up some structure, but aren’t quite sure how. 

No matter what, remember this: Any word you write is one more word than you had when you started. Even if you don’t come anywhere near to the 50,000 word mark, NaNoWriMo is a great way to get yourself writing. Never let your word count discourage you—focus on how much you’re accomplishing rather than fret over how much more you have to go. Write what you can. Revel in what you’ve written. 

And have fun! 

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Review: Veronika Layne Has a Nose for News

(Review copy provided for honest review; affiliate links)

Hello! Good to see you again! I’ve been away for a few weeks both finalizing my second novel, now called Deadly Avatar, and jumping deep into the query process. But that’s a post for another time, and I’ll be back with more about that soon.

Today I’m back with a review of the second Veronika Layne book (click here to see my review of the first book), Veronika Layne Has a Nose for News, by Julia Park Tracey. This review won’t contain spoilers for the new book, but will contain a few soft spoilers for the first book, so if you want a virgin reading, go read that book first!

Okay. So. Veronika Layne is an independent, opinionated, environmentally-conscious twenty-something journalist who has recently been merged into a large media conglomerate; in the process she has been knocked down the the bottom of the corporate ladder, relegated to covering the fluffiest of fluff pieces. She wants two things out of life: to report real news, and to bask in the affection of her new boyfriend, Aidan.

Too bad that Aidan is flying off to Columbia University to get a Master’s Degree in journalism, while Veronika is stuck behind in California. Veronika is not the sort of woman to tie her identity to a man, and is horrified to find herself pining over him. She throws herself into her work, and while covering a local city council meeting she stumbles on a celebrity house flipper; he seems to have a disregard for local laws, and Veronika’s nose tells her his motives aren’t pure.

Nose for News is a fun, fast read, with smart writing. Julia Park Tracey explores the agonies of long-distance romance in the age of text messages, IMs, and mysterious Facebook photos with insight, wit, and humor. We can all relate, and want to both smack Veronika (stop checking his FB page obsessively!!) and hug her at the same time, because we know the pain. And while the story would have been an entertaining one just with the mystery and the romantic tension, the book goes a level above by allowing Veronika to grow from what she’s experiencing in a meaningful way. And this time around Veronika gets to work with an intern, Ingrid; Veronika converts her from a designer-label princess to a budding hippie in a funny-bone-tickling subplot.

If you’re looking for a strong female protagonist to spend your evening with, give Veronika a try. Just be prepared for the girlcrush you may develop. Right now the book is free if you have Kindle Unlimited, (so is the first book!) and I believe I've mentioned how much I love free. :)

Happy reading!

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Sountracks? For books?!

I’ve noticed two trends in Authorland lately: book trailers and book “soundtracks”. I’m on the fence about book trailers; I like the idea of reaching readers with the same sort of clips they’re used to seeing for movies, but a part of what I enjoy about reading is painting my own mental pictures as the tale unfolds in front of me. Negotiating that shared mental space is a lovely dance between author and reader, and I’m not sure how I feel about something cutting in on that dance.

But a playlist for a book—now that I can get behind wholeheartedly. 

Maybe it’s because I’m a child of the 80's and spent my childhood frolicking through the creative playground of mix tapes, I don’t know. But there’s something about pulling out just the right song to communicate a mood or sentiment that feels like a cool retro scavenger hunt to me. I’ve spent more hours than I can count sorting through stacks of CDs (or nowadays, iTunes playlists) and scouring lyrics to find the perfect blend of music for parties and sweethearts. Why not for a book?

So, I decided to put one together for the book I just finished, Deadly Avatar (Previously called MMORPG); it’s about a serial killer who hunts for his victims online in World of Warcraft. In fact, as I began I realized I already had a head start on my list; there are several songs woven into the book as part of the plot. I added those into Spotify first thing, and I was on my way. 

As I scoured my stash of songs for entries that would represent the different phases of my story, I discovered something very cool. Finding the right song to capture what I’m looking for is a lot like choosing just the right word or phrase to communicate the emotion or mood I’m targeting in my writing. In some instances it’s a case of tapping into a shared cultural vibe; for example, I chose ‘The Heat Is On’ to represent the police investigation in the book, because it comes with a web of instant preset associations. Other selections rely on lyrics that communicate something relevant to my story, or a mood set by the melody. And in most cases, when I chose song X over song Y, I did so because song X conveyed an extra layer of meaning; in some cases, that extra meaning is only clear once you've read the book, and I enjoyed adding in those little insider nods. So in many ways, the act of creating a playlist that conveyed what I wanted it to was an extension of the book itself.  

And that was just plain FUN to puzzle out. 

Here’s what I ended up with, created on Spotify:

If you haven’t tried this out yet, I highly recommend it. What better excuse to pull out a bunch of old tunes and listen to some great music? And nobody can say you’re procrastinating, because it’s all in the name of promoting your book! Therapeutic and productive, all at the same time, you can't beat that! ;-) 

Happy writing,

Monday, July 20, 2015

Is prose the ultimate measure of a book's value?

(Affiliate links)

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know that a couple of weeks ago, E.L. James (author of the Fifty Shades of Grey Trilogy) held a twitter event that took a turn toward the dark side. A number of people sent nasty tweets attacking her skill as a writer and accusing her of damaging women’s causes. I was disturbed by this, not because it happened per se—internet trolls are gonna hate, that’s no surprise—but because it seems to be the apex of a phenomenon I have a very hard time understanding, both as a writer and a reader.

Before I begin, I have two disclaimers. First: in this post I’m talking about the writing issue, not the abusive relationship issue, but I do not mean to imply this is an unimportant question.

Second: on the recommendation of a friend, I started reading the Grey trilogy shortly after it became a phenomenon. I made it halfway into the second book, and stopped; it just wasn’t my thing, and although my friend loved it, I just couldn’t get into it. No big deal—different strokes for different folks (no pun intended). 

I watched the backlash swirl around the books and have heard more than a few people trash the series. I’ve heard all sorts of jokes about how poorly written the series is, how cheesy, etc., etc.; I’ve seen the random generator that allows you to create Grey-like-prose-filled sex scenes. Before that, I heard people say similar things about how bad the Twilight series is, and before that, I heard people criticize the Harry Potter series with comments like ‘Let’s face it, it’s not great literature’ (interesting that such comments about the Harry Potter books have dwindled almost to nothing nowadays—but I'm quite sure J.K. Rowling remembers the early criticism all too well).  

When people snarked about the Harry Potter series, my response has always been: If it gets kids reading, I’m all for it.

When people slammed the Twilight series, my response was (and is): If it gets teenagers reading, I’m all for it

When people trash the Grey series, my response continues to be: if it gets adults to take time out of their busy days to read rather than surfing Facebook, I’m all for it. 

Still, it raises the question in my mind: is perfect, beautiful prose the end-all-be-all of writing a book? Is it the only form of talent and value? Sure, it’s important, and we should all strive for it. But is it the only thing that matters when it comes to telling a great story? Clearly not, if we agree that the novels mentioned above are not examples of transcendent prose. But it’s just as clear that those books have something that makes millions of people read them, some important IT-factor that pulls people in. There are so many other important elements to a great read that should be just as valued: Great story. Great plot. Great dialogue. Humor. Deep, compelling characters. Universally relatable themes. Excellent pacing. Expert world building. 

And, if I’m honest, I know that I’d much rather read a book that has a great plot and blah prose than a book that has a blah plot and great prose.

In fact…I hesitate to say this, but…

I love The Lord of The Rings. I currently own three copies of it, two in hard form and one on my Kindle. But, I find the prose nearly impossible to read without concerted effort. Yes, I hear your collective intake of breath and your declarations of sacrilege, but there it is. I personally find the prose mind-numbing, and in certain places am tempted to stab myself in the thigh with a fork just to stay awake. But I read it anyway, because I love the world that Tolkien created, and the epic battle between good and evil that he plots with such emotion and intrigue. And A Christmas Carol? One of my favorite stories; but that’s despite the prose, not because of it. And these are classics; nobody disputes their status, nor will they. Tastes differ. Styles change. But these books have something that keeps them alive, even for those of us who don’t connect with them stylistically.

Sure, I hear you saying ‘But shouldn’t we try to perfect all of these elements in our writing?’. Of course we should. But we also have to recognize that there is a time and a place for everything. For example, Dickensian prose in the Grey series would be silly and turn off more people than any of the purported transgressions James makes; it would just get in the way of whatever people are connecting with in the books. If the Harry Potter series was written in Steinbeckian prose or in the style of The Great Gatsby, how many six-to-ten-year-old children would have read it or listened to it for more than thirty seconds? We are always faced with these choices. And, all writers have strengths and weaknesses; few if any of us are masters of all aspects of the craft. 

And that, my friends, leads me to another question I struggle with: why do writers feel the need to tear each other down? Most of the harshest criticism I've heard leveled at books like the Twilight series and the Grey series comes from writers. I get that there is an element of professional competition (dare I say sometimes even jealousy?) in most fields. But I find it harder to understand when it comes to writing than with other professions. Clients may have only one general practitioner or one lawyer, may shop religiously at only one deli, but no reader has ever said ‘I only read the works of X’. Especially in this age of binge reading, once a reader is done with the works of one author, they move on to another, usually someone who writes a similar type of book. Because of that, I suspect Stephenie Meyer and E.L. James have done more to drive sales in the paranormal romance and erotica genres than just about any other single element in the past 10 years. So shouldn’t their successes be embraced and celebrated by writers in their respective genres, and across the board? Doesn’t it just give other authors the chance to demonstrate their considerable skill?

At the end of the day, who decides what is acceptable prose and what isn’t? Who decides which factors are most important in making a novel worth reading? Who determines if a book has that magic ‘IT’ that makes them want to keep reading and buy the next book in the series? Is it those of us who write? Is it the academics who study literature?

No. It’s the people plunking down their hard-earned dollars and investing their precious leisure time on the books. And in the cases of J.K. Rowling, Stephenie Meyer, E.L. James, and many others, they’ve spoken with resounding eloquence. 

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Review: Veronica Layne Gets The Scoop!

(Purchased by me; affiliate links)

Summer is in full swing, which means it's time for beach reads! There's nothing like hanging out on the beach or next to the pool or lolling under an oak tree on a beautiful summer day with plenty of time to read, read, read. And I have a fun read to add to your list: Veronika Layne Gets The Scoop, by Julia Park Tracey, the first installment of the Hot Off The Press series. 

Veronika Layne Gets the Scoop
Veronika Layne is a smart, sassy twenty-something trying to build her career as a journalist on a small San Francisco Bay Area island (modeled after Alameda). She’s doing pretty fine for herself until the paper she works for merges with a larger conglomerate (an all-too familiar situation for many of us), and has to face an unpleasant decision: work on cotton-candy feel-good crap, or quit. She decides to suck it up and pay her dues until she can convince her boss she’s been undervalued. So when she stumbles across what looks like the the desecration of Native American burial mounds, she decides to investigate. Predictably, all does not go well; Veronika struggles with the investigation and her very hot rival co-worker, while the reader reaps the rewards.

Veronika is the sort of female protagonist I love; she’s strong, she’s kind, and she’s flawed in ways that are highly relatable. She can take care of herself, thank you very much, and she can save the planet as she’s doing it (green is her watchword) but she’s simultaneously semi-clueless when it comes to men. I don’t know about you, but that sums up my previous dating life pretty darn well, so I find myself face-palming and wanting to hug her all at the same time. The closest comparison I can come up with is to say that if Stephanie Plum had a younger sister who was a little more tattoed, and a little more savvy, and a little more hippy-dippy, she’d be Veronika Layne.

The author herself was a journalist for many years, and her expertise shows. The book approaches the mystery through the mind of an investigative reporter rather than a detective; this gives it a fresh take and a less predictable trajectory. If you’ve ever watched old movies and wondered what it was like to be one of those guys with the press-pass in their fedora, you’ll enjoy taking this journey in Veronika’s shoes. 

This is Chick Lit, so there is romance threading through it, with some sex. Very sexy sex. And all I have to say about that is: Yum.

So if you’re looking for a fun, fast-paced, witty read to savor on a beautiful summer day, I highly recommend you spend some time hanging out with Veronika. Oh, and? The next book in the series (Veronika Layne Has a Nose for News) is scheduled to come out sometime in the next month, so if you fall in love with her, you won’t have to wait long for a second play date. In the meantime, if you’re an Amazon Prime member, you can read this first installment for free on Kindle Unlimited. I love free, I’m not gonna lie. ;-)

Happy reading,


Saturday, July 4, 2015

How not to make an apricot-blueberry pie

I am frugal by nature. So when my mother-in-law sends me a bushel of apricots and apricot products from her mid-summer harvest, I set about to use it.

I also had in my possession a pint or so of ripe, sweet blueberries, so I decided to make an apricot-blueberry pie. I did a google search to see if recipes for such a thing exist, and lo-and-behold, they do. As it was 4th of July morning, I scanned the ingredients to make sure I had them all on hand, and found that I did, with one minor substitution. I did not have the necessary apricot preserves, but decided the homemade apricot syrup my mother-in-law sent would work well for the additional sweetness and flavor. Huzzahs all around, I would have the perfect complement to our celebratory independence day barbeque.

I sliced my apricots. I measured my ingredients. And last of all, I pulled out the apricot syrup to add to the pan of simmering fruit.

Dude. Really? 
I twisted the lid, and the glass sheared off completely, slicing through the flesh of my left hand as it did so.

(This might be a good place to mention that I’m left handed.)

It’s an odd sensation to have a glass jar twist apart in your hand, and as it did I thought ‘Huh. That can’t be good.”

I looked down at the big gash in the webbed area between my thumb and index finger, and confirmed that no, it was not in fact good.

(This might be a good place to mention that I don’t react well to the sight of blood).

My husband was in the backyard firing up the grill for the burgers. I ran toward the back door and yelled “Help!”

Annoyed, he turned toward me and said “Help with what?”

I held up my bloody, dripping hand in response, then sat down on the floor to keep from passing out.

As he got a towel to wrap around the cut so I wouldn't bleed all over the car on the way to the emergency room, an odd barrage of thoughts passed through my head:
At the scene 
(nope, this ain't fiction, folks)

Well, that’s going to need stitches.
Did I sever a tendon?
How do I keep the dog from trying to lick the blood?
What are we going to have for dessert now?
Did he put the burgers on yet?
I really should clean up all this blood before we go to the ER.

While he wrapped the towel around my hand, I relayed the thoughts that seemed relevant, asked him to turn off the stove and the barbeque, and put out the dog so she wouldn't lick up the syrup and the glass. Then I went into my bedroom to put on a different pair of shorts, because, you know, seriously.

And that's when I nearly passed out.

(This might be a good time to mention I’m prone to panic attacks.)

I was cold, my chest was constricting, I could barely breathe, and the world seemed three inches deep. I told myself firmly “This is just a panic attack, you’re fine, just breathe.” I forced myself to take long, careful breaths, and the world stopped closing in around me.

I grabbed a pair of shorts out of the drawer and realized I couldn’t close the top button with only one functioning hand. “That’s okay” I thought, “they tell you to loosen clothes on shock victims anyway.” So unbuttoned it stayed.

Although I don’t actually remember doing it, I apparently also grabbed my kindle. My heart swells with pride to know that even on the verge of unconsciousness, my priorities remain intact.

I walked out to the car and called to my husband to bring a bottle of water. He answered me; although he was only a few feet from me, his voice sounded very far away, like I was listening to him through a tunnel that had water whooshing through it. Despite the white fuzzy spots in my vision, I reached the car—only to realize I didn’t have my keys. I decided it was a good time to sit on the pavement and wait with my head between my knees.

When my husband came out, I got into the car and told him “If I pass out, let them know I was having a panic attack.” You know, because they wouldn’t have been able to figure that out on their own.

I don’t remember much of the drive to the hospital; I was focused on breathing and not throwing up. However, I do remember the moment when I thought he was taking the wrong exit and I yelled ‘NOT KAISER!!’, before I realized we were headed the other way off the off-ramp.

The intake nurse took one look at my pasty, blood-free face and buzzed me in immediately. She took my blood pressure and expressed professional surprise that I was still alive with numbers that low. She put me in a wheel chair and took me directly to a room where they plugged me into a miniature army of technology.

They asked me a bunch of questions that I now understand they are required to ask everyone, but which were very confusing in the moment:

“Do you feel safe at home?”
Yes, I don’t think the jar is going to come after me in my sleep.
“Have you been homeless or incarcerated in the last year?”
How the hell bad do I look? I made sure to change my shorts!
“Any medication?”
Aren't you supposed to make that decision? You’re the professionals.

Then they asked me what happened, and I explained that a jar of apricot syrup broke when I opened it.

“What brand?”

“My mother-in-law made it.”

“Oh, your mother-in-law.” They exchanged knowing glances and laughed. Apparently mother-in-law-induced injuries are not uncommon in the ER. I found this disconcerting, and started to wonder if I was safe at home after all.

They did their thing, very effectively and professionally, with grace and humor and top-notch care. It turned out I’d been extremely lucky; I hadn’t cut any tendons or significant nerves. They stitched me up and I left feeling well-cared for and excessively silly for succumbing to shock-and-or-panic-attack, taking up everybody’s time, and ruining my husband’s 4th of July.

So what’s the moral of the story? I think it’s this:

There’s a reason we have apple pie on the 4th of July.

Book review: The Writer's Digest Writing Clinic: Expert Help for Improving Your Work

(Affiliate links)

If you’re a writer, you’re a reviser, and if you’re like me, the revising is the hard part. I can produce rollicking piles of crappy writing in no time flat, but it’s a hard, laborious process to turn it into something anyone would want to read. And since I’ve spent half my life revising academic papers, at times it takes a concerted switch in mindset to edit my fiction. 

One of the best tools I’ve found for this is The Writer’s Digest Writing Clinic: Expert Help for Improving Your Work, by Kelly Nickell. The bad news up-front is this book is out of print; the good news is you can get ‘used’ new copies without too much problem. I originally found this book at my library and loved it so much I bought a copy for myself.

The contents

The book has divisions for fiction, non-fiction, and poetry, and then moves on to helping you get your writing published with divisions on writing queries, synopses, and proposals. Each division has sections that deal with a topic: opening hook, point of view, narrative voice, dialogue, exposition, etc. At the beginning and the end of the book there are sections to help you find writing groups, and to help you navigate critique groups effectively to get what you need and leave the not-so-great parts behind. 

The approach

For each topic, the book has an introductory explanation of the basic issues involved, and then takes a piece of writing and edits it right in front of you—all the marks an editor would make, along with annotations that explain why the changes were made. 

Then, at the end of each topic, there is a ‘your turn’ section that walks you through checking for this issue in your own writing. For example, '(1) Take a look at your first three scenes. Write ‘PI’ next to the points where your main character’s personal intentions become clear. Do the intentions propel the scenes forward and add insight into your character? Are they consistent with your intended storyline? (2) Now chart your character’s journey. Write ‘j’ next to thoughts and actions that are inspired by your character’s personal intentions. Is your character’s journey apparent in each scene? Do the marked points move the scenes forward?

At at the end of each division (fiction, non-fiction, poetry, etc.) is a general editing checklist for quick reference. 

My take-away

I’m a very show-me sort of person; telling me that too much description is slowing the pace of my scene is one thing, but showing me before-and-after examples makes it far more real for me. And when you’ve got annotations along with those changes, well, now we’re talking. Something about getting a look at something through an editor’s eyes helps the information penetrate my thick skull more effectively.  

I think this is an excellent book whether you're new to revising your own stuff or you've been doing it for a long time--I periodically flip through it to refresh my memory. 

If you're looking for other good books to help you with revision, check out my review of Rock Your Revisions by Cathy Yardley here
Happy revising!

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Let's talk about rejection, baby

(Affiliate links)

So this happened:

I recently wrote a flash fiction piece I was pretty darn happy with, and submitted it to several publications. I got two responses back. The first said my story had been rejected because my protagonist’s mental state and behaviors were completely unrealistic, that nobody would ever react the way my protagonist had reacted. The second also rejected the piece because they weren’t accepting fiction pieces, but said that my story felt very true to life, and was highly relatable.  

Confused? Understandable. But don’t be. 

This anecdote illustrates two important truths I’ve learned about rejection: much of the time it has nothing to do with you or your piece, and most of the time it’s based on highly subjective opinions. 

A reader’s reaction to a piece is subjective. The first rejection felt my piece was unrealistic. The second felt it was relatable and true to life. Who was right? They both were. For the first reader, the piece didn’t work. For the second reader, it did. We’ve all read stories that we loved and our dear friend hated, or vice versa. There are different styles and tastes out there, and that’s wonderful! So why, when we get a rejection, does our mind tell us that our piece must be bad, rather than just not right for that particular publication? 

Which brings me to that second truth: so much of this is about fit and timing. Even if a publication loves your piece, it may not be the right fit for them for other reasons. Maybe they’ve just published five pieces about mindfulness meditation; if so, yours could be a masterpiece of perfection, but that ship has sailed. Maybe they’ve met their quota of short stories and only have room for flash pieces this month. Maybe the reader has been throwing up after eating the wrong street meat and didn’t have the capacity to appreciate your masterfully realistic descriptions of the thanksgiving dinner preparations in your story. You just never know. 

I like to think about it this way. When you go into a restaurant, you have room for one meal. You look at the menu, and  you pick something, then you eat it. That doesn’t mean everything else on the menu was unacceptably bad and the chefs that prepared those dishes should go out back and shoot themselves. It just means at that moment in time, chicken parm was what you wanted. Same thing with publications. They can’t publish everything, so they have to take what works best for them at that moment. That doesn’t necessarily mean the pieces they turn down are worthless. 

Absolutely no piece of writing, no matter how perfect and amazing, can possibly be a good match for every publication out there. I think that bears paraphrasing: the most exceptional piece of writing created on this earth will get rejected somewhere. Lots of somewheres, in fact.

Of course, this doesn’t mean you should just ignore the feedback you get. In the time between the first and second response above, I took a careful look at my character’s motivations and choices. I looked at my reasons for writing the story the way I did (I have expertise related to the theme of that piece), and I decided I believed in the story as it was. In other cases, I’ve made changes based on feedback I’ve received. In fact, if your piece has been rejected numerous times, you should get a new pair of eyes to look it over and be open to making changes. How do you know when to take that advice and when to leave it? Well, that’s a blog post for another time (although you can find a really good discussion of this in Jordan Rosenfeld’s book A Writer’s Guide To Persistence, see my full review here). For now I’ll just say that I try to be honest with myself and listen for advice that strikes a chord in me. If nothing sounds right after I’ve considered it with an open mind, I will choose to keep my original vision. Never make a change just because someone suggests it, always stay true to your vision for the piece. 

But what it does mean is you should never tell yourself that rejection = failure, and you should never quit. The great Wayne Gretsky once said this: 100% of shots not taken don’t go in. To put it another way, if you don’t submit the piece, you’re guaranteed it won’t get accepted. The odds are better the moment you submit; the probability of acceptance can only go up. And no hockey player expects every shot they take to go in the net; they know plenty are gonna miss and they’re gonna have to keep taking more shots. Writing is no different. 

One member of our writing group (thank you, Julia) reminds us often that rejection is a sign you’re putting yourself out there, that you’re being a writer! So many people never work up the courage to do that, and instead let their fear of rejection stop them from trying to achieve their dreams. If you're getting rejected, it's because you're overcoming those fears.

So submit. Get rejected. Revise the piece if you think it will help. Submit again. And wear that rejection as a badge of honor that only the working writer can claim. 

Oh, by the way. That piece that got those conflicting rejections? It was accepted the next time I submitted it. And in the meantime it taught me a lesson I'll hold near to my heart through a lot of future rejections.

Keep submitting, my friends.