writing goals

Tropes, Neurology and Pop Music

Cross-Posted from Michelle Hazen's Blog.

Today, I’m writing about neurology because I’m a NERD! And I’m writing about tropes because I just got back from a romance novel conference (RT16 FTW!) where cowboys and Navy SEALS were roaming the hallways and gracing the covers of the books stacked on the tables. On one of my nights off, I hit an erm…adult entertainment show involving dancing and oh my! Turns out cowboys and Navy SEALS and firefighters were all over the stage there, too. This got me thinking about tropes.

What’s a trope?

A lot of people think a trope=stereotype, and that’s not true.

A trope is something universal that always appeals. A Cinderella story. A daring rescue. A wounded but tough hero healed by love. These are things that have been appearing in stories since they were told by the light of a campfire flickering on the cave walls.

Tropes also include person types as well as story types: the athlete, the meek heroine who finds her strength, the firefighter.

Where does neurology come in? Well, first you have to understand how the brain communicates. It’s basically like a forest with a lot of pathways beaten into it that converge and split apart again. Our neural pathways MAKE our brain.

Now, humans like novelty. We all know that. The people who made the Ashley Madison website (Match.com for marital affairs) know that. The men who buy a doctor’s coat to role-play with their wives know that. The people who lease a new car every year know that.

We also like the familiar. The smell of our mother’s kitchen. The Princess Bride movie, played for the thousandth time. That one MOVE that only your husband knows that works every time. More importantly, brains know how to process the familiar, and so you avoid confusion and anxiety.

What tropes know is that if you take something familiar, and give it a novel twist, that’s the best of both worlds. In terms of brain chemistry, we’re taking those familiar paths and forging new ones in between. We’re not bushwhacking through the wilderness the whole way, making an entirely new trail. No, we’re taking advantage of the reward circuits that are tied to familiarity by using the paths that are already there, and we are taking advantage of the reward circuits that like novelty by taking thrilling new shortcuts in between the established paths.

Pop songs know this, which is why every song is made up of verses (new) that return to the refrain (familiar).

What does this mean for writers (and readers)?

It means you want to take a familiar trope and twist it in a new way. Take somebody’s catnip (Spec Ops warriors!) and give it a personality. Make it a real person, and then give it a twist (Spec Ops warriors who are also all members of a band and working out of a tattoo parlor where they specialize in covering scars for burn victims).

If you’d like to read more about how to do that, author Katie Golding has a brilliant post on twisting tropes here.

Here’s a great example of my point in a single picture:

one-to-take-book-cover-200x300.jpg

Hopefully Tia Louise won’t mind me using her book cover, because I saw it in a Facebook ad and loved it. Why did I love it? Because it takes the cowboy (a trope I love!) and makes it REAL. One look at this image and you can tell that guy is a real person with a story. He’s strong, and he’s got ranch roots, but at some point he went urban enough to get those tattoos, and he’s got a look on his face like a few things in life haven’t turned out the way he planned. I want to have a conversation with him.

Now, what if the book cover had something I’d never seen before on it?

monster.jpg

In that case, it might grab my eye, but I might not have as immediate or as positive of a reaction, because my brain doesn’t know how to PROCESS that. That’s why, in books, it’s best to start with something universal and find a way to make it new, not try to reinvent the wheel so it looks something like this:

9 Ways to Ruin a Writing Conference

Cross Posted from Jennie's Blog

I just came back from four days at the San Francisco Writer’s Conference, where I played a number of different roles: authoraccelrator.com was an event sponsor; I taught a featured course and participated in two panels; and I did 1:1 consultations with about 60 writers throughout the conference.  Like all writing conferences, this was an event filled with so much energy and so many opportunities for writers – and while I met a great many fabulously well prepared and well-intentioned writers, I was struck at the way others writers squandered their opportunity by making easy-to-avoid mistakes.

Here are 9 common ways writers squander writing conference opportunities – and what you can do to make sure you don’t follow suit.

1. You think you’re going to get “the answers.”

At several of the presentations I gave, writers expressed dismay (and even outrage) at the fact that they were hearing different advice from different experts. Some experts said a synopsis should be 500 words, others said 750. Some experts said a query letter should be personalized, others said not to bother. Some experts said you should finish a rough draft before you stop to edit, others said to stop to edit at regular interviews as you write forward. “What are the right answers?” the writers demanded.

The answer is that there are no right answers – and if you go to a writing conference to try to find them, you will be disappointed. If you troll the Internet looking for the right answers, you will also come up short.

Writing a book is a very complicated process, and publishing a book is a very complicated process, and all of it is an art, not a science. I suggest that what you look for at a writing conference – and in the online writing universe – are two things:

  • a path forward that resonates with your goals and your style
  • and should you need a guide, an expert whose advice you trust.

2. You think you already know all the answers

Worse than looking for the “right answer” are the writers who believe they already know everything. I was baffled on several occasions when people had the chance to ask me for 1:1 advice and their response was to argue with what I suggested or to defend what they had already written (which had already been proven not to be working for them). If you think you know everything – and you don’t really want to hear otherwise – don’t go to a writing conference.  Also don’t go to a writing workshop, don’t take an online course, and don’t seek out a coach or an editor or an agent.

Writing is a solitary endeavor to be sure, but at many key points, it also becomes a collaborative endeavor, as well. Learning how your work hits your reader, and listening to their feedback, and adjusting the work accordingly, are skills that will serve you throughout your career.

If you truly think you know it all, and you don’t want to take anyone’s advice on anything, stay home.

3. You forget that reality that writing is a business

Publishers make their living by acquiring books they believe they can sell to the reading public. Agents make their living by selecting writers whose books they believe they can sell to publishers. Freelance editors and book coaches make their living by helping writers bring their work up to a commercially viable level so that readers will love it. No one is doing this work just because it’s fun. It’s totally fun – no question – but at the end of the day, publishing professionals are in the business of helping people write books that will sell.

It’s a business – and yet I was shocked at how unprofessional some writers were. They were pushy and demanding, and in a few instances, actually rude and obnoxious. Many of these people felt they didn’t have to follow the rules the conference had set up, or the rules of our profession, or the rules of polite society. I suppose they thought they were above all that – but none of us is above all that.

It’s fine to be persistent – but imagine that everyone you interact with at a writing conference might one day be a customer or an investor or a business partner or a mentor, and behave accordingly.

I had one writer tell me that he didn’t think the advice I had just given to an audience of 75 people was valid and then asked if I could give him feedback on his book pitch right then and there – which was an odd way to ask for a favor. When I politely explained that I couldn’t because I had 8 minutes to get to another room for another presentation, the writer stood in my way, shoved the written pitch at me and said, “Take it and you can email me what you think.”

Wow. Really?

I actually looked at the pitch later out of curiosity for what kind of person would do such a thing – and I was not surprised that the pitch didn’t hang together. It didn’t follow any of the clearly defined rules for pitching, didn’t deliver what a pitch needs to deliver, and was unfocused and poorly written. Of course I didn’t take the time to reach out and tell the writer this – but I feel certain that the universe will let him know in the way that the universe so often does. He will be rejected time and time again – and along the way will probably complain about how mean and unhelpful experts at writing conferences are.

Most people who are trying to get their work into the world are doing it as a side gig. You have other jobs and other responsibilities. I get that. Your writing is an “extra-curricular” activity today, but treat it as if it will be a profession tomorrow – and your odds of having that actually come to pass will increase exponentially.

4. You pitch before you are ready

Don’t plan to pitch at a writing conference unless you are ready to pitch. I know some writers believe that a conference is a good opportunity to “try out their pitch” on experts and agents, or to “just see what might happen,” or to “get a sense of whether their idea is any good” – but this is a waste of everyone’s time.

Agents and editors do not take on good ideas or nice writers or promising concepts. They take on ideas that have been awesomely executed and are ready to go out into the world. Yes, of course, they might help a writer take their project over the finish line, but you have to actually be steps away from the finish line, not back at the starting gate, or just rounding the first bend.

What does it mean to be ready to pitch?

  • You have a finished, polished manuscript that is ready for agents to evaluate. It doesn’t have to be ready to send tomorrow, but should be close enough that you can feel confident sending it within a few months. You should, in other words, be in the final stages of your final edit or poised to get feedback that will get it there.
  • You know your genre, your audience, your word count and your title. In other words, you understand the marketplace and how your book might fit into it.
  • You know what your story is about – what it’s REALLY about. For fiction, this is NOT just the plot. For non-fiction, this is NOT just whatever your area of expertise is. You need to know why anyone would care about your story and you need to be able to articulate that.
  • You know what you are looking for in an agent. You know what agents do, how they work, what they need from you, and you have done your homework on these agents in particular.

I’m all for practicing your pitch – but do so with your writer friends, your roommates, your colleagues, or your workshop buddies. If the conference offers the chance to hone your pitch before you give it, by all means take advantage of that. But wait to pitch until you are ready to pitch.

5. You ignore the other writers.

The writers who get the most out of writing conferences are the ones who pal up with other writers. They sit and have coffee with them, they share their woes and their words, they go out to dinner and help each other strategize. The people who only focus on getting “face time” with the experts and agents miss half the fun – and half the power of a conference. You could find a critique partner, a writing group, a mentor, a mentee, or just a friend who gets your particular obsession with words and story.

6. You compare yourself to other writers and come out feeling “less than.”

It’s easy to look at other writers and think they have made in the shade – especially when everyone is gathered together in a room to pitch to agents and some writers are getting showered with attention and you’re not. It’s easy to feel that those writers are the popular ones getting all the party invitations and you are the outcast no one wants to invite to the ball.

Luck and timing play a role in publishing success to be sure and it may well be that at this conference, luck and timing are not going your way. Instead of comparing yourself, think instead about one thing you can do to improve your craft, or improve your connection to your audience, or improve your odds of success. Think of one thing you can take away to make you a better writer – and forget the comparisons.

Remember that everyone is on the path to becoming the writer they are going to become, including you. You have no idea how many setbacks other writers have faced, how hard they have worked at their craft, or what else they have going on in their lives that might make them poised for success on the day of the conference. Similarly, you have no idea if you will find success today or tomorrow or next year or in ten years.

Your path as a writer is unique to you, and the best thing to do is to keep learning, keep growing, keep working, and keep moving forward.

It probably wouldn’t hurt to celebrate the other writers you meet along the way (reference #5, above.) One of my favorite moments during this conference was when one writer who had bombed in her pitches gave a new writer friend some advice for how to avoid that fate, and then said, “I’ll be sitting right here waiting to hear how it goes for you. Good luck!” It was lovely and supportive and sweet and kind. I have no doubt that some good writing karma will eventually come to her.

7. You step out in your PJs – or worse

During one of my presentations, there was a young woman writer sitting in the front row with a shirt so low cut, it was alarming. I don’t care if she was writing about the history of décolletage or a steamy romance, it was flat out inappropriate. During the Q&A, no one called on her. I think we were all afraid what might have happened if she stood up to take the mic!

Contrast that woman’s appearance with another young woman I met who gave the most fantastic pitch during a practice pitch-a-thon. She nailed the pitch, but when I suggested one way she could make it even better, she nodded, confirmed what I had said, and thanked me for the advice. She was, in other words, acting professionally.

I was betting that she was going to KILL it at the real pitch event on the last day of the conference, which was set up like speed dating. Sure enough, when I saw her after the pitches, she was bouncing off the roof about the positive responses she had received – and of course she looked put together and polished in a great dress that was age-appropriate and professional.

Just because we write in our PJs doesn’t mean you get to go out in your PJs.

8. You don’t seize the opportunities you have earned

I met a writer at this conference who had also been to it the prior year and received 11 agent requests. Over the last 12 months he had acted on none of them.  He was too scared to risk getting it wrong or getting rejected and so he took those requests and just sat on them.  

This is the flip side to being ready to pitch. This is being paranoid.

If you have done good work, and received invitations to send in your work, by all means send it in! Seize the chance! Do your final edit, and send it off!

No one wants to hear no – but as hockey great Wayne Gretzy said, “You miss 100% of the shots you don't take.”

9. You believe that one day can make or break your career

A writing conference is a wonderful opportunity to connect to agents in person but it is not the only opportunity you will ever get. It’s just one moment, one day. There will be other days to shine if this opportunity doesn’t go your way – so there’s no reason to panic.

I had writers coming up to me all weekend who were paralyzed with nervousness about pitching their book to agents, and after the pitch, they were freaking out that they’d blown it, or missed their chance, or failed. If you think your writing career can be made or broken in one day, you have the wrong idea about a writing career. It’s not a one-day thing or even a one-book thing. It’s something that unfolds over years, with many ups and downs, just like any other career. One day is not going to make or break it, and panic will only decrease your odds of success.

Landing an agent at a conference is only one path to writing success. There are many, many others – including the fact that you may decide that an agent and a traditional publishing deal is not the best choice for your book.

Take the long view of your writing career and you’re much more likely to have a long and fruitful one.

Leave Room for the Holy Ghost: Tension in Writing

Cross-Posted from Michelle Hazen's Blog.

My PitchWars mentee said something really smart the other day, in passing. Yeah, I know, I’m supposed to be teaching her things, but if you do it right, it always goes both ways. The thing she said was about always leaving little moments open in her writing like fanfiction prompts. Because “the key to inspiring fanfic writers is leave them wanting more.”

This reminded me of that old saying about “Leave room for the Holy Ghost” at church dances, so the boys and girls don’t get too close to one another. Presumably because boy/girl friction calls up the devil, though in practice we all know that space for the Holy Ghost might as well be magnetized because all it does is make the people on both sides wish really hard that it weren’t there.

Which brings me to fanfiction. Fanfiction is born of dissatisfaction. It is a love child created specifically BY that space between dancers. By that longing for them to close that space, to finally declare their feelings, to KISS ALREADY for the love of puppies. (I won’t even tell you how many thousands of words of fanfic were inspired by the above near-touch dance scene. Several thousand were written by me). That’s why TV shows spawn such great fanfiction. With no end in sight, every romance is a slow burn. Every potential kiss is interrupted to keep the tension up.

Fanfic is frequently about providing that satisfaction, whereas tension is created in original fiction by dissatisfaction. AKA leaving room for the holy ghost. There’s something nice about seeing two characters kiss, yes, but it’s all the more mouthwatering to see their lips hover so close but NOT QUITE THERE!

As a fanfic writer who has since transitioned to original fiction, it’s a constant struggle for me to remember I need to keep conflict and tension high by not allowing reader satisfaction…just yet. My PitchWars mentee’s comment was a perfect reminder to me, because by thinking of writing in near touch moments as a prompt for fanfiction writers to later expound on, it changed my focus.

It helped me to feel positive about not writing what I wanted (KIIIIIIISSSSSS!), it stroked my ego a little (look, maybe someday people will write fanfic of my books! I should be so lucky) and it reminded me to leave room for the Holy Ghost. To leave a gap between their hero and the goal, whether it’s the girl, a magic sword, or their own self-respect. Because leaving that space is what keeps people flipping the pages, hoping for more.

How to Turn a Partial MS Request Into A Full

Cross-Posted from Michelle Hazen's blog. 

So, your partial manuscript request just turned into a rejection rather than a full. Don’t worry, I have a plan. First, smash some shit.

Look, I spent ten years in the counseling field, and I’m telling you, there IS no therapeutic modality equal to dressing like a panda and wrecking something loudly breakable (and hopefully cheap and easy to clean up). But once you’re done whacking ice blocks with a sledgehammer, your manuscript will be in exactly the same shape it was when you sent it to that last agent or Pitch Wars mentor. Note: Step away from the matches. AWAY.

What next? Let’s break it down logically.

If an agent requests a partial, it means they like your concept, they like your writing, and you passed all their auto-no red flag warnings. There are a ton of factors that determine whether a query and sample pages will get you a partial manuscript request. But as for what will keep a partial manuscript from turning into a full? There’s really only one.

If they read your partial and don’t want to read more, it’s probably because the story didn’t go anywhere. The conflict did not drive the action forward fast enough for them to keep reading.

This might mean you need to tighten your pacing. Namely, make sure every scene is fully necessary, moving the plot forward, and doing it in as few words as possible. Do you really NEED that scene where your main character plays World of Warcraft and makes a sandwich? I know it’s character development, but maybe you could blend character development into a scene that also moves the plot forward. Kill two birds with one sandwich, that’s what I always say. Which may be why my husband seems so eager to do the cooking lately.

Pacing and conflict are very closely related. Go look at your conflict. Is there enough conflict? (Example: Does your MC want something? What stops them from getting it?) Is that problem introduced early enough? Without a conflict, you don’t have a story. You have people, doing stuff.

Yeah, that gif was boring AF, am I right? Would have been a lot better if a giraffe would have punted that bird, put a foot through his granny’s picnic basket, and spit on the sandwich.

So, more conflict. Faster pacing. Those are the heavy hitters when revising after several rejections on a partial, but there are a few more possibilities.

One: manuscript isn’t evenly edited. Don’t reel them in with your lipstick and miniskirt, and then show up to the second date in sweatpants. I’ve heard agents say for years that writers spend more time polishing their opening chapters than the rest of their book. People. STAHP. A polished opening will get you a partial request but it won’t get you an offer. You don’t just want a second date–you want a ring. Besides, if you don’t have an agent yet, you don’t have a deadline. Take as long as you need to polish your WHOLE book. You are not going to “trick” an agent into signing you with a really great opening and then a sagging middle that you didn’t revise as often as the first chapter.

Two: characterization. I think this is less common, because if your readers connected with your characters enough to get to a partial request, you’ve probably kept up the good work. But if the agent or mentor isn’t any closer to the characters after fifty pages than they were after ten, they will put the book down. So get out your favorite gel pen and make a list. What do we know about the characters after the sample pages the agent/mentor read? What do we know about them by the end of the pages requested in the partial? If the second list is short or nonexistent, you have characterization issues.

Three: synopsis. If the agent/mentor looked at your synopsis, go back and make sure your synopsis contains your conflict, stakes, and ending. Is it a good representation of your book? If this was ALL somebody knew about your book, would it be accurate or would you be scrambling to say, “Wait, but I didn’t tell you the cool twist with the robot-monkey or the part where the MC loses an arm!” The synopsis should not summarize every chapter, but if it doesn’t show what is unique about your book, it might be holding you back.

Take home message: If you’ve been querying for a while and you’ve gotten lots of partial requests but no fulls? Go back and take a look at the pacing and conflict. Then, polish the rest of the book to the same shine as Ch 1. Check your characters. Then, and only then, send more queries.

Also, buy an ice block. They’re cheap, fun to smash, and they melt so you don’t have to clean them up.

Busting the Myth of the Creative Muse: Harnessing the Power of Concrete Milestones

Cross Posted from John Robin's Blog

I live in the very wintry city of Winnipeg, and this winter has been particularly snowy. In the five weeks spanning December and the start of January, this city had five blizzards, accumulating as much snow as typically falls in a year in this city.

And it’s still snowing.

If weather predictions are correct, we are in for a very snowy February, as there is a major winter storm pattern headed our way.

As you might imagine, shoveling the sidewalk and driveway is becoming more and more laborious with each snowfall. While I try to see each jaunt as an opportunity for exercise, I find myself now wondering if this winter will ever end.

Writing is a lot like winter in Winnipeg.

Sometimes a project feels like it will never end. No matter how much you chip away at it, no matter how many hours you set aside to write, that same deep exhaustion settles in and writers (myself included) sit back and contemplate giving up.  Maybe motivation and energy will come to me if I just put it aside for few months.

Imagine if I treated snow shoveling that way.  It would pile higher and higher with every winter storm, until it would become so overwhelming, I’d just give up. Snow would reach knee-height (or higher, given how this winter is going) and I’d do my best to ignore this problem that confronts me every day when I leave my house, until I can no longer open my door.

That’s the risk we run when we put our books aside for lack of motivation, or when we give into the many other pressures that might tell us the great writing idea we really want to be investing our time in just isn't worth our while. The feeling of neglect, that we're really not doing what we should be doing with our life, will only get worse with every passing week.

What about the case of setting aside one project to write something else? That's an entirely different topic (because sometimes it has merit, especially if the project you're working on is something you'd rather not be working on), but for the sake of this argument, let's focus on the project you are truly passionate about, the book(s) you really want to write. Maybe you're not even writing it now and, like the recalcitrant shoveler, you're realizing just how dissatisfied you are by not writing what you're truly passionate about.

Bust the myth of the creative muse: you are your muse, and you call the shots.

Many writers believe they are at the whims of their creativity, often citing their "creative muse" as the source of whether they can write or not. I've been one of those writers myself. There is indeed validity to the fact that certain seasons of life, or certain emotional highs or internal nodes we might hit align just so and bring to the page something special that is not merely the result of mechanical novel-writing. It feels like magic. To this day, I still hold in my mind the memory of my greatest writing experience ever, an all-night adventure fueled by a French Press of coffee and discovering just how deep and alive a story can become. To this day, that is probably one of the richest chapters I've ever written (and was incentive to return to A Thousand Roads because that one chapter in the old manuscript captured just what the manuscript was, and for me, 2 years later, helped me understand what the next steps were).

But I've long since busted the myth of the creative muse. True, there have been many moments where deep intuition and a sort of magic align like constellations and bleed into my work. I can never predict when or how. I can only predict that I will continue to show up and do the work and put in a session, good or bad, trusting that the hard work— like shoveling snow to keep the paths clear— will add up.

I’ve also discovered that creativity can be forced — if I sit down and force myself to write, it gets my creative mind going, and then the creativity flows from my fingertips and onto the computer. It requires the willingness to sit with my manuscript and accept that writing time might require time spent sitting in the chair, leafing around the manuscript, thinking about the story, or reading earlier chapters or related notes I've made on promises I need to fulfill. The act then becomes not throwing words on the page, but creative problem solving. I've learned, by rejecting the myth of the creative muse, that it's possible to be proactive about harnessing creativity, and the key is this:

Knowing what to write next is not about knowing what words to write next, but about asking deep questions about what the story wants from us. The answers inform then become our guide as we write forward, an intuitive counterbalance to hone our sense of if the story is on track or not on track, a bit like rails keeping a train on course.

Concretize your process: define incremental milestones for your project.

Every time it snows, I must go outside and shovel. If I just went outside whenever I wanted, I might discover when I do go out that there are packed layers of ice or uneven patches on the sidewalk that will break my shovel.

Likewise, having a regular discipline for your project, with concrete milestones, is a sure way to turn "I want to write this book and get it published" into a certain plan. This is important, because without developing a discipline that progresses in concrete forward units, you risk descending into relativism: the dreaded novel that you've spent years on, convincing yourself it's just "not right yet", when in fact, most of this time has been spent on lateral growth that hasn't advanced the novel. You're revising and changing, without moving forward so much as moving sideways, like a ship going in whatever direction the wind blows.

I'm not saying you shouldn't spend years on a novel. I'm also not saying those years blowing in many directions didn't add rich and unique layers that will make your book great; nor am I saying that lateral growth is not also a component of forward growth. What I am saying, though, is there's a more efficient way to do it that will take less time, and be more rewarding, if you develop a concrete discipline.

For myself, I've also found it helpful to have accountability. Not only am I a book coach at Author Accelerator, I also use the services myself.  Having a deadline, like needing to go out and shovel snow, for me makes the difference between spinning my perfectionist wheels and making clear-cut writing decisions that advance by one tiny, yet significant milestone my writing goals. It's helped me develop a concrete writing discipline of flipping into writing mode every weekend and putting in whatever time it takes (and that will vary depending on the specific story problems that come up) to deliver 20 pages. The process of doing this has defined for me the importance of committing every weekend to working toward a specific milestone with A Thousand Roads, and after I'm finished the second draft, I will continue to commit every weekend to further iterations through the manuscript, under a revision regime that will soon segue to pre-publication production with the editing team I have on board to help turn this manuscript into a finished book.

You don't have to write every weekend, but the idea is to define your end goal — the complete book in your readers' hands, amazing as you can make it be — then define achievable, incremental milestones that you can meet to get to that point.

And if you're snowed in and want to get back on track, maybe you need to bust out the ice-chipper and a blowtorch. Craig, our outreach manager here at Story Perfect, had a project he’d been putting off for months. I finally gave him a kick in the pants and told him to get it done. He sat down and wrote 16,500 words in one day. Talk about clearing away all the snow with sweat and fire!

Now, with that goal met, he's given himself momentum to take the next teps, and already has given it to his editor who is defining the process to publication so it can land well with readers.

The Tyranny of “Just”

Cross posted from Michelle Hazen's Blog

Writers have a real problem with “just,” and I don’t mean in the filler word sense. I mean more in the way we treat our dearest accomplishments as filler words.

I’m not a real writer, this is just my first book.

I write, but just children’s books.

I’m published, but just small press.

I’m a bestseller, kind of, but just USA Today, not NYT.

Of course, writers aren’t the only artists guilty of this.

I’m not an artist, I just like to take pictures.

I scupt, but just in plain old clay, not marble or anything.

Most of us have done it, and I wouldn’t be writing this blog if I weren’t one of the worst offenders. It’s a defense mechanism, this self-protective way we downplay our attachment to the things we actually care about the most. And okay, humility has its place because nobody likes a swaggering assclown. But this constant downplaying contributes to a society-wide attitude toward art that is incredibly destructive.

For instance, politicians are always trying to cut fine arts in schools in favor of science. Science builds cities, they say. Science saves lives. Not entirely true.

Emotion saves lives.

Without emotion, nobody would have cared about anything enough to invent science. And art, even more directly than science, is made of emotion.

It would be difficult to find a part of the literary world less respected than romance novels. But I keep writing about love because it’s the most powerful thing there is. People will kill other people for hate, but they’ll kill everything including themselves for love.

That’s why I don’t believe in “just” a zombie show. “Just” a kid’s book. I don’t think a 10-foot painting of geometric, razor-edged penises is more or less valid than a Play Doh elephant.

Literally thousands of lives were changed by Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series. It doesn’t matter what you think of that book, or that genre, or her writing. What matters is that book mattered. Measurably. To the people who worked on the movies and the YA publishing industry that flourished as a result. To every person it spurred into fanfiction who then moved on to a writing career. To every person who met a lifelong friend through a fan site. Stephenie Meyer can afford a private freaking plane because the way she wrote sparkly bloodsuckers mattered to a whole damn lot of people.

Evoking emotion isn’t petty, or frivolous, or just for entertainment. Emotion is the energy that drives the entire earth. It, not fossil fuel, is what powers the creation of literally everything. And art keeps that that moving, like the water in the turbines of a giant power plant.

Which is why I want to pause here to tell a story about a concert.

Concerts are my church. In the synergy of movement and sound and the upswelling of pure emotion generated by a crowd, I can experience transcendence brought by connection to other beings. And, rather unfortunately, smell their beer breath.

This particular concert was from a band that’s one of my go-to writing playlists. They’re just a mid-level band, popular enough in the Northwest to headline their own venues but not stadiums. I’ve written thousands of words while immersed in their music. Watching them perform those same songs, I saw that they were playing with such absolute passion and heart… The lead singer had to set his microphone higher because every line of lyrics kept drawing him weightlessly up onto his toes like he was straining a little closer to something above us all.

I could see on all the band member’s faces that they were getting caught up in the flow of it, the same flow I had found while listening to their music and creating art made of words instead of sounds.

And snagged by that crazy connection between strangers, I thought, “You know, for everything that’s wrong right now, we’re still doing a few things really right with each other, with our time here on earth.”

Their band name, Blind Pilot, is a two-word metaphor for faith.

Some days, I see a little more clearly than others how all the pieces of art in the world can intersect, ricocheting off each other in arcs of inspiration that create new things of ever-increasing beauty and truth.

Fan art always reminds me the most loudly of that, whether it is paintings, stories, songs…even a really epic cosplay costume. The most beautiful line I’ve written in my entire life is in a piece of fanfiction: inspired by someone else’s art.

Art is seeing the butterfly effect in action. Creation begets creation. Creation begets emotion. Emotion begets everything.

There was no “just” in that sentence.

Do you dare to Freewrite?

Do you dare to Freewrite?

If you’re a millennial like me, you might be more used to the slight tinking noise of your laptop keyboard. Perhaps it’s the click of your cell phone keyboard. But, when the developers of Freewrite decided to bring the past back to life (with a just a touch of modernity), they realized they’d capitalized on something people take for granted… nostalgia.

Writing Kick-ass Dialogue Using Fanfiction

Cross-Posted from Michelle Hazen's Blog.

Writing dialogue is important. Unless you’re doing a novel on a mute Russian burlesque group, in which case, all the luck to you. For the rest of us, even if you have the best worldbuilding ideas or the hookiest of book hooks, unnatural dialogue will be enough to make someone put your book down.

Dialogue must do three things:

  • Sound like a real person
  • Convey information quickly and naturally
  • Tell us something about your character (ie dialogue has to sound different for each character)

That’s a lot to ask of every line that comes out of your characters’ mouths, but lucky for you, I have a secret weapon.

No, not a chainsaw slingshot (I wish).

My secret dialogue weapon? Fanfiction.

Write fanfiction, preferably of TV shows, but books work, too. Every book and TV show out there already has a cast of characters with their own personalities, backgrounds and quirks. By watching closely, and then trying to emulate those patterns, you can learn a lot about what makes people’s speech sound different from each other. Now, grab a notepad and the remote control and get to work (you so love me right now, don’t you?)

As each character speaks, try to analyze HOW they sound different. Walter White from Breaking Bad doesn’t sound a bit like Lorelai Gilmore from Gilmore Girls, but why not? Here are some potential things to watch for:

  • Unique words that one character uses
Jesse-pinkman-300x177.jpg
  • Regional inflections or wording. Like y’all (apostrophe between the y and a, not the a and l’s, my southern belle CP informs me)
  • Sentence length (do they speak in long or short sentences)
  • Speed of speech
  • Patterns. Do they trail off a lot? Do they interrupt? Are they interrupted by others?
  • What about a character’s speech tells you their age? Is it their formality? Word choice? Pop culture references?

Now take your list of character-distinctive-dialogue qualities and TRY THIS AT HOME! Because believe me, all the pattern-noticing in the world won’t make a difference if you can’t put what you’ve learned into practice (just ask Dr. Frankenstein).

Another thing you can learn from writing fanfiction of a TV show is how to convey information in dialogue. You don’t just want your characters running around, thinking bulleted lists of things you need your reader to know.

  • Emily is bisexual
  • The coven of beaver-toothed witches lives two houses down
  • My mother ruined my self esteem by criticizing my shoe choices.

Instead you want them to get what they need to know by watching your characters go about their normal business. This makes it seem natural and doesn’t remind the watcher/reader that HEY THIS ISN’T REAL I AM TELLING YOU A STORY ARE YOU PAYING ATTENTION?

Some shows are better at information transfer than others. The Vampire Diaries, as much as I love them, are a great example of DON’T DO THIS verbal info-dumps. Info-avalanches. Mad Men or Breaking Bad can be good examples of subtle info transfer (sometimes too subtle), and shows like Better Call Saul are masters of using a prop or a conversation to show you what you need to know. Saul doesn’t say, “Well, parking lot attendant man, my law practice isn’t very successful.” Instead, you see an argument between him and the parking lot attendant over a few cents extra in un-validated parking time. A pointedly long argument. Saul doesn’t tell you he’s attracted to his friend, Kim. He just invites her over and then paints her toenails. In a self-deprecating, funny, totally manly way, of course.

Now that you’ve tried all this at home, test yourself (don’t worry, there will be cookies at the end). Call a friend who is also a fan of the book/TV show you wrote fanfiction for. Read them a couple lines of your dialogue out of context. Do you get a long pause, like, “Who would ever say that, Michelle? Seriously? I mean, when was the last time you used the word ‘pernicious’ when ordering Chinese takeout?”

Did you pass the “natural” test? Good.

Now can your friend name the character who is speaking without you having to tell them who it was? EVEN BETTER!

Congratulations, you can now graduate to trying your newfound fanfictiony brilliance in your original fiction, using your new tool box to make all your characters sound distinct, unique and (obviously) witty as hell.

And because I promised:

Wisdom from Writing Contest Hosts

Wisdom from Writing Contest Hosts

Cross-Posted from Michelle Hazen's Blog.

I love contests for writers. When I was in the query trenches, they were like an online party for those of us dying slowly while waiting for news. Once I stepped up into the mentor level of contests, I was shocked at how much was going on behind the scenes.

Finding Time to Write

One thing that many writers (and other creative types) with day jobs kvetch about is finding the time to write. How the heck are you supposed to write the next Great American Novel (or Young Adult Dystopian Adventure Set in a Not-So-Distant-But-Bleak Future Where Kids are Pitted Against Kids and Centers Around an Empowered Teenager Girl Who Not Only Has Special Powers but also Has Cancer and Must Choose between the Two Boys Who Don’t Know How to Live and Love and only Learn to Do So Through the Limited Yet Caring Time Spent with her in Her Final Days) if you work 9-5 and juggle other responsibilities like a spouse and kid(s)? I mean, it’s hard enough to squeeze in exercise and home-cooked dinners, let alone find time to write a book. I can’t say I have the end-all-be-all answers to this dilemma, but I know what works for me. At least, I know what works for me today. If I can find at least one, quiet hour a day to devote to a writing project, that’s a win. But it’s a struggle for me, a target that refuses to stay in one place. I try to write every day, even on weekends, and I wouldn’t be able to do it if I didn’t have a few tricks up my sleeve

1) Write early. As my semester progresses, I get slammed with papers to grade. That’s not a bad thing—I love that my students are completing their work, but it means all of my daytime hours are monopolized by grading. To get my writing in during these times, I’ll start early and write before Josh and Virginia get up to start the day. For me, this means a 5 AM wake-up, which takes some getting used to. My New York Pitch Conference friend, Monique, who not only works full time, but is also a mom to four kids and a wife. She’s writing a memoir and is up and in front of her computer, coffee in hand by 3:45 AM. Mad props to her—that takes a level of commitment and discipline not shared by everyone including myself.

2) Write late. My husband can do this. He’s a night owl and can often get as much or more accomplished after dinner than a lot of people can during bank hours. And often this strategy can work for many writers. Like writing early, the house gets quiet after everyone else goes to bed. This can be an ideal time to concentrate and rack up your daily word count. If I wasn’t nodding off to Dancing with the Stars by 8:30, I might be scribbling something down, too.

3) Write anytime, anywhere. An opportunity to write can spring up when you least suspect it, and it’s often in our best interest to know when to take advantage of these moments. I don’t know what it is, but it seems like I come up with my best ideas when I’m running, a time I don’t carry around a notebook and pencil. Instead, I jot or record ideas down into a notebook app on my phone. Although I look like I’m talking to myself, more than a few times that notebook app has been my savior. An old writer friend of mine said that she used to write in her car at stoplights. She was a single mom of an infant and chipping away at a master’s in journalism. Car trips were the only few times she would be able to be alone with her thoughts, because that’s when her daughter would nap in her carseat. She’d have her spiral notebook open on the passenger seat next to her, and when she’d come to a stop, she’d scribble down a sentence or two before moving on to the next stop. That’s some bad-ass determination.

A lot of this is tied to me just trying to keep to some sort of a writing schedule, even if my kid comes down with the stomach flu, or the hot water heater conks out and I’ve got to scramble to find a plumber. It’s a commitment to fitting in time for all the work that goes into creating something you hope to share with an audience at some point. When Josh and I lived in L.A., we knew a handful of unemployed actors who sat around complaining they never got any acting jobs because they didn’t have an agent. They weren’t doing anything in the meantime, i.e., auditioning, putting together a reel, taking improv classes. They simply pointed to the fact that they had no agent and used it as an excuse to do nothing and whine about it. We were also friendly with another bunch of actors, who hustled every day and put themselves out there relentlessly so they could make themselves available for their big break. They just went for it.

Sometimes I think that a big difference between creative people who eventually make it and those who fall by the wayside is a sense of stick-with-it-ness. Going for it even when there is no tangible reward other than the work itself. There’s no easy way to do it. You just work harder at it and become better, find the time because it won’t necessarily find you. And with a bit of talent and a dash of luck, eventually it’ll pay off. Fingers crossed. 

New Adult: Too New for Its Own Good?

Cross-posted from Michelle Hazen's blog. 

In my last post, I talked about how YA is overtaking the adult fiction market. Books for 13-17-year-olds are gaining ground even faster than adult books are losing it.

So what are we supposed to do when we love the immediate, beautiful voices in YA books, but we’re ready to get rid of the parents and head for edgier themes? What about twenty-somethings struggling through student debt, trying to find their place in a world and an economy that all of a sudden seems to have no place for them. Where are books for them? What if (God forbid) our stories are partially told through sex?

I’m absolutely one of this demographic: I moved to YA books because I was tired of gratuitous sex scenes in adult romance novels, and the stilted third person voice so prevalent in that genre. It never really sounded like a real person to me.

Let’s take a moment and compare a line from Pearl Moon by Katherine Stone (one of my old faves in the adult romance genre):

“For a wondrous moment, Eve’s haunted blue eyes bid adieu to all their ghosts and hope–and gratitude–fairly shimmered.”

With a line from Swap Out by Katie Golding, a great sample of the down-to-earth, colloquial style exemplified by New Adult.

“I am Home Depot’s bitch.

The purveyor of hardware and the wielder of hammers, the hauler of tables and builder of beds.

But mostly, I am a grunt.”

Can you see the difference? I–and many other people–are dying for books that actually sound like us! The way we really talk. And one day, POOF! The publishing Gods smiled upon me and created New Adult.

It’s for ages 18-24 and it deals with so many of the problems I’ve faced myself: the reality of how to turn your dreams into reality in a world where most people’s dreams are creative pursuits and most paying jobs are NOT in creative pursuits. NA also deals with heavier issues like disability, rape, college, leaving home, having to move back home, starting careers, etc.

It is categorized by the honest, immediate voices we all love in YA, and it can tell stories that sometimes take place through sex. It makes perfect sense that now is the time for NA. Books used to be categorized as for Children or Adults. YA came about when we realized that adolescence is its own time in life, with challenges specific to the age.

But the world, folks, it is a’changing, and the early twenties look very different now than they used to. More people are going to college and even more are finding that they need a master’s degree or even more to go after the careers they want. College is a very specific environment, with dorms and apartments, flexible class schedules and frat parties. Even after college, the changes in the economy are changing lives for people in their twenties. They’re overqualified for so many jobs, and underqualified for many more, and in most cases, end up underemployed. Many are finding it difficult to find jobs equal to their student loan payments, and some folks are being forced to move back home with their parents.

The early 20’s are an all-new adolescence, as validated by books like “The Quarter-Life Crisis.” and “Twenty-Something, Twenty-Everything: A Quarter-life Woman’s Guide to Balance and Direction.” We can no longer think that the experience of a 22-year-old and a 60-year-old are the same and should be categorized only as “adult.” Just as we once drew the line between fiction for nine-year-olds and fourteen-year-olds.

“Yes!” I can hear you all saying. “That’s what we want! Sign me up!” But before you run out to your local Barnes and Noble to raid the NA shelf, stop. It isn’t there. As a society, we’re there. We know the 20’s are their own special period of development, AND adults are buying the heck out of YA books, even the ones that are really adult in disguise. Or like Rainbow Rowell’s amazing “Fangirl” which takes place in college and is a perfect example of NA but is sold as YA. In 2013, we were starting to see articles from big papers like USA TODAY and The New York Times about how NA was the next big thing. More people are writing it: NA is showing up as a genre in many Twitter pitch contests, and some mid-level publishing houses, like the very successful Entangled, are snatching it up.

But even trendy independent bookstores like Powell’s Books don’t have a section for it yet, much less the giant bookseller Barnes and Noble. Worse, some publishing houses and agents are starting to turn NA away because they’re finding it a hard sell, such as Mandy Hubbard’s new agency, Emerald City Literary, who will now only accept NA if they can change it to third person and sell it as adult. The popular website, NA Alley even changed its name to Next Lit: Coming of Age Fiction for the New Generation, and began to encompass YA as well as NA.

So wait, you might ask. Is this blog just wrong? (Pshaw, the blog says in response). Is there truly no demand for the new age category of NA?

The one place that has a shelf for NA (you guessed it, Amazon.com) has hopeful news: NA is selling! The top-selling NA book on Amazon right this moment is #8 on Amazon’s bestseller list as a whole, nipping at the heels of the top-selling YA book, which is #7. However, most of the NA out there is self-published and a lot of it is…how shall we say this delicately? A quick peek at the covers in the top 20 reveals a lot of what my CP calls “Man Torso” books. A representative example from the top 10:

These sorts of books don’t deal with issues specific to NA so much as they’re just another facet of the growing erotica market. (No offense to my example book. I haven’t read it, but a whole lot of someone elses have). But hey, I guess at least we know that there are plenty of people looking for racier storylines than YA allows.

So is NA just YA with sex? Do we really need a category for that, when we already have one helpfully titled, Erotica?

To me, the truest answer of that can only come from the intended audience, and over the past year I’ve talked to many 18-24-year-olds about what they’re reading. I didn’t hear anyone say, “Ah, I tried NA but to be honest, I still like YA better.”

In fact, what I heard over and over and over again was, “What is NA?”

And to me, that’s the truest answer to the question of where the genre is at right this second. Is it the next big thing, or just the fad of the moment that will fade into the background? Only time will tell.

~

In the meantime, if you’re looking for some amazing NA books to try out, I recommend the following:

Maybe, Someday by Colleen Hoover: a deaf musician learning the maturity to deal with disability, love and infidelity. Also, this book has its own soundtrack of the music “written” by the two main characters. If you don’t realize that that is the coolest innovation in publishing history, I don’t even know what’s wrong with you.

Easy by Tammara Webber: a college student dealing with rape on campus and how Greek culture, the police, and peer pressure only make things worse. This has one of my all time favorite book boyfriends, the tattooed artist/engineering student Lucas.

Lost in Oblivion series by Cari Quinn and Taryn Elliot: This is a story of a bunch of musicians trying to put a band together and make it in the competitive music industry, similar to my own work in progress. This has a bit too much sex for my taste, but it’s well-written sex and others might feel differently. I ADORE the camaraderie of the band members.

Trust the Focus by Megan Erickson: This is a superb, heart-tugging road-tripping M/M romance of a MC searching for his own identity and the courage to come out after college graduation.

Full Measures by Rebecca Yarros: This is a story of a college-aged girl suddenly responsible for most of her family after her father dies in combat. Meanwhile, she’s falling for a soldier and she wants nothing to do with the life of an army wife. Ouch.

Order Up by Katie Golding: This is the cute and funny story of a pizza delivery guy who falls in love with a dancer who is younger than him. They have to surmount disapproving parents, a long distance relationship when she goes to college, and he has to confront his own lack of ambition and feelings of being lost to finally find the career that’s right for him. Finally, a romance that’s not about a billionaire!

Hierarchy of Needs by Rebecca Grace Allen: This is a perfect example of New Adult. It’s a girl who wanted to be a fashion designer who ends up back in her parent’s basement and teaching swimming instead. Her love interest wanted to be a photographer and ended up running his parents’ mechanics shop instead. I love the unvarnished truth of this book, how she takes a hard look at economic realities and lost dreams, and gives her characters the hope and courage to go after a middle ground that still pays the bills but doesn’t taste so much like giving up.