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.

Deliberate Practice and Writing

A few months ago while driving home I caught part of a Freakonomics radio episode and I’m still thinking about it – specifically, how to apply it to my own writing and to my work with other writers. It’s called “How to Become Great at Just About Anything.” Link here: http://freakonomics.com/podcast/peak/.

The description of the episode reads:

What if the thing we call “talent” is grotesquely overrated? And what if  deliberate practice is the secret to excellence? Those are the claims of the research psychologist Anders Ericsson, who has been studying the science of expertise for decades.

Go have a listen or check out the transcript if you have time. The episode is excellent. Host Stephen Dubner interviews researcher Anders Ericsson and author Malcolm Gladwell, as well as a few people who have had success using deliberate practice to achieve inspiring goals, including Susanne Bargmann, a Danish psychologist who, in her 40’s, returned to her childhood dream of becoming a famous singer.

When I first tuned in, all the talk about practice reminded me of the theory that Malcom Gladwell made popular in his book, Outliers – basically, that it takes 10,000 hours to become great at something. It turns out that theory actually comes from this same research of Ericsson and his colleagues, but – and here’s the key – Ericsson says that it isn’t just the volume of practice that’s important – that is, that “there’s really nothing magical about 10,000 hours.” Instead, it’s “the quality and the nature of the practice” that matters.

First, there’s purposeful practice. “Purposeful practice is when you actually pick a target — something that you want to improve — and you find a training activity that would allow you to actually improve that particular aspect.” To me that sounds like writing with specific goals in mind, maybe taking a class, reading craft books, or doing revisions or exercises aimed at improving a specific aspect of the work. It’s the difference between just sitting down and writing, versus writing with the goal of improving in a specific way.

And then there’s deliberate practice. Ideally:

  • it includes working with an experienced teacher
  • you receive feedback so you know what kind of adjustments to make
  • it “involves well-defined, specific goals”
  • “it is not aimed at vague, overall improvement”
  • “it takes place outside one’s comfort zone and requires a student to constantly try things that are just beyond his or her current abilities”

Sound familiar? This is exactly the kind of work that writers can do with a book coach, developmental editor or mentor. Perhaps even with a critique partner, if you have a good one. But whether you work well with a coach or want to go it alone, every writer can take away important lessons from this research. Write with purpose, with specific goals. Get feedback from someone who knows what they’re talking about, if you can. Push yourself outside of your comfort zone and strive to improve. And always remember in the darkest moments of doubt to keep working. Practice and hard work do make a difference. A breakthrough is just around the corner, but it will only come if you’re doing the work.

5 Commandments of Beta Readers

Cross-Posted from Michelle Hazen's blog.

Hi everybody! In honor of today’s #CPMatch (thanks, Megan Lally!), and all the people polishing their ms for upcoming #PitchWars, it seems like a good time to talk about how to work with beta readers or critique partners. Really anybody reading your writing and giving you feedback. For my definition of CP vs beta reader, see ** at the bottom.

At the bottom of this post, I included a cheat sheet of potential questions to send to your betas/CPs with your manuscript. If you’ve worked with betas before and don’t need tips, feel free to scroll down to that. I’ve found that talking to beta readers is sort of like running a therapy session as a counselor: You get a lot out of what people volunteer, but you get more out of them if you ask the right questions. So look forward to that. In the meantime, let’s talk the Five Commandments of what you should do for your betas. Not ten, because ten is a lot and I don’t like rules that much.

1. Thou shalt not Lie

Find a way to be positive. But if you didn’t like their ‘Jeremy rides a giant squid’ scene, DON’T say you did. This will help no one.

2. Thou shalt be specific

Don’t just say, “You know, Darla’s reaction just didn’t read true to me.” Where? FOR THE LOVE OF CHIPMUNKS, WHERE? It is a 450 page book and Darla has at least 350 different reactions to things in this book. Also, don’t say: “Your grammar sucks. Your punctuation needs work.” Say where or how, or something they can grab onto like a lifeboat in a storm. Make sure they know what to fix, and how to start.

3. Thou shalt not be a d*ck.

 

Find something nice to say. Did you like that one funny line of dialogue in Ch 5? Did you like the way they had an aunt character because nobody remembers that fictional people have aunts until the parents are killed in a horrible accident? Did you like that their grammar was strong and consistent? Find SOMETHING to compliment. In any piece of writing, no matter how rough, there’s something good, and if you tell the writer what that is, they will find something even better to show you. And folks? Stick around for that moment because it feels reeeeal good. Don’t you like making people happy?

Also, amount of positive feedback: this is different for every writer, but take whatever amount of positive feedback you THINK they need, and double to quadruple it. They know what they did right, you think. I don’t need to say it, do I? You do. In fact, most writers don’t know their strengths and even if they do, they’re probably afraid that they’re wrong and are in fact a fraud and a sham and should probably burn their laptop and take up knitting or perhaps sitting very still in the corner of a dark closet. You need to mention more positives than you think you do in order to convince them they’re wrong.

4. Thou shalt not take everyone

Seriously, don’t sign on with everyone who wants to beta read or CP for you. Try them out first. Trade a chapter or two. See their writing, see how helpful their comments are to you. It’s okay to shake hands, say, this is fun but let’s just be friends. You know? Because first, you want somebody that’s close to your level of skill or better. If they’ve just written their first Post-It note and you’re on your fourteenth epic fantasy cycle, you’re not going to benefit much from the relationship. Which is fine. There is a time and a place for helping out writers and it can be super rewarding and fun and help you organize the knowledge you didn’t even know you had.

BUT. For a really quality beta relationship, you want somebody close to your skill level who writes in a moderately similar style to you. That doesn’t mean you can’t go outside your genre (I have one CP who is a romance writer, and another who writes fantasy. They have different strengths and I need them both to make me whole.) but it does mean just because another writer is good doesn’t mean that their style will be close enough to yours for you to help each other. Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Stephenie Meyer would not be great beta partners for one another, even though they’re both seen as fairly successful authors. Similarly, John Green and Tolkien might not be a superb pair. Also, some people are great writers but they suck at giving feedback. They’re snooty or they tear you down to feel good about themselves or they just don’t know how to articulate how you need to fix your book. There, I said it, so you don’t have to.

5. Thou shalt remember thy purpose.

Sweet, you think. My purpose is to make them better and I told them all the stuff that’s wrong with their book. They’ll thank me later.

WRONG. Your first purpose as a beta is to make sure that writer doesn’t quit. They will be a better writer tomorrow than they are today. In ten years, you won’t even BELIEVE the stuff they’re pulling off. And if you discourage them so much today that they quit, the world will never see any of that. Trust me, you don’t want that kind of karma hanging over your head. Also, I will find you, and I WILL kick you in the shins. I have literally nothing better to do than find people who discourage writers and give their shins a good kicking.

So your first purpose as a beta is to encourage the writer and make sure they know what they’re doing right and what their potential might be so they don’t quit. Your second purpose is to help them get better.

And now, because I hate rules and I’m sort of tired of them, let’s talk questionnaires. This isn’t a comprehensive questionnaire. It’s just one my CPs and I made up, to make sure your beta reader notes will cover all the bases. I encourage you to add questions for your specific concerns for each manuscript. Like, “Does Jeannie look like a bitch when she steals Tommy’s pet roll of toilet paper?” “Is it too slow when you watch Kent sort his coin collection or is it good character development to see his precision?” Whatever you’re worried might not be working but you want to make sure it’s not your self doubt talking. Also, I added some happy questions in there because you need to know the good stuff, not just the bad. One of my fave lessons from fanfic writing is that your readers’ favorite parts aren’t necessarily your favorite parts. It’s super fun to see what’s working for people.

The Questionnaire

-Does the ms have a strong hook at beginning? Does it start in the right place?

-Strengths/Weaknesses of the ms?

-How is the characterization? Was there any place where you felt you couldn’t follow the motivations, or didn’t buy them? Were there any places your reactions to the characters undermined your enjoyment in the story (not that they pissed you off so you turned pages faster- that’s positive)?

-How is the pacing? Were there any places where it slowed down?

-When did you feel the most/least engaged with the text? At what point did you start getting bored/distracted?

-Were there any scenes you didn’t get the point of, or felt that they didn’t serve the story as a whole?

-How was the imagery/description? Do we need more, less, just right?

-What did you think were the overall themes of the book? How would you strengthen them, if needed?

-Did anything in the book seem fake/unrealistic to you?

-What are issues you see agents/editors/other readers having with the book?

-Was there enough conflict? Did it feel natural to you? Were there any points where it felt contrived or forced?

-How was the romance? Did you like both characters? Did you care if they got together, and when they did, did it feel realistic and believable to you? (This should be genre specific. For fantasy: how was the worldbuilding, etc.)

-What was your favorite part/thing/scene of the book?

-What was your least favorite part/thing/scene of the book?

-What is the one problem with the book that you are hesitant to bring up, possibly because you’re not sure how to fix it?

That’s it, folks. So now go forth, get betas and CPs, and be very very nice to them, because your writing future depends on their wisdom.

**Definitions. Many people have different definitions of beta reader or CP. Whatever works for you is fine, just talk clearly to the other person about what you expect from them and what they can expect from you. For me, a critique partner (CP) = somebody who gives you line by line feedback (Wouldn’t ‘dick’ work better here than ‘manroot’? Or ‘add a comma’. Or ‘You spelled schnitzel wrong again.’) and also big picture feedback on pacing, characterization, plot, conflict, whether your story is working, etc. A beta reader is someone who reads and JUST gives you big picture feedback, not line by line comments.

On Writing Emotion

By Julie Artz - Book Coach

Recently, one of my clients asked me for pointers on writing character emotion without falling into telling or cliché. As I wrote my answer, I realized it would make a great blog post because, let’s face it, writing emotion is hard. Here’s a technique I’ve come up with over the years that I hope you’ll find helpful.

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A good place to start is with the Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi. The book catalogues the physical responses, mental responses, and sensations associated with each of a broad list of emotions. A lot of authors (including me when I first started learning this technique) stop there. That's why you get a lot of anxiety describes as sweaty palms & thumping hearts in books. But instead of just telling us the character's palms are sweaty, try showing the character wiping her hands on her skirt or shying away from shaking hands with someone, hiding those sweaty palms behind her back. Show her wiggling an eyebrow because she's in a cold sweat that's tickling her as it drips down her face. It's OK to do some physical cues--face getting hot, skin prickling, electricity running up the back of her legs--but don't only do that.

Once you have reviewed the entry/entries for the emotion you’re trying to convey, put yourself into the character's body and conduct a character interview. Why are you doing what you’re doing in this scene? What does it mean to you? How does it make you feel? Then dive deeper, leveraging your own experience with these emotions: How do your legs feel when you’re scared/nervous/angry? How does your stomach feel? What gestures might you make (tugging your hair when nervous, biting your lip or the inside of your cheek, shoving your hands in your pockets, tugging at the bottom of your shirt)? Different characters may tend to feel emotions in different parts of their bodies, and this can be a great way to differentiate voices in a multiple-point-of-view story.

Description also plays a role in getting emotion on the page. What your character notices about the world is influenced by how she’s feeling. For example, if I'm sad, and I look outside and see it's raining, I might feel the rain is heavy and depressing and awful. But if I'm happy, I look out the window and see how the water glistens on the leaves or how the intense green reminds me of my honeymoon in Belize. So you write the emotion not by putting feelings on the page, but by showing how the character's feelings (and their backstory) influence how they perceive everything in the world around them. The details you as the writer choose will help convey the character’s emotions without ever naming that emotion on the page.

Same goes for dialogue. An easy crutch to fall back on is using dialogue to convey emotion such as, “Mom, you make me so angry when you talk to me like that!” I’m not saying you can never do that. In fact, it can be very effective, especially when it’s more voicey than my example, but make sure it’s not the only way you’re conveying emotion.

If you can identify the emotions you want to convey, and then convey them with a mix of gestures, physical sensations, description, and dialogue, you’ll be well on your way to writing emotion that will keep your reader turning pages.

Next time you’re reading one of your favorite authors, pay attention to how they do this.Two of my current favorites,Leigh Bardugo and Maggie Stiefvater, are masters of showing emotion without naming it on the page. Their styles are very different (Bardugo is more lush and Stiefvatermore sparse in style), but they both end up delivering gripping stories in part because of how they write emotion.

What tips have you learned about conveying emotion in your writing? Which authors do you think do it particularly well? This topic could fill multiple books, so feel free to continue this discussion in the comments.

The Story of a Growly Dog and a Not-So-Growly Writer

The Story of a Growly Dog and a Not-So-Growly Writer

One of our current students in the Story Genius novel writing workshop is a successful indie non-fiction author. Beverley Courtney is the author of seven books dedicated to improving communication between owners and their dogs, including Why is My Dog So Growly? and the amazon bestselling book, Calm Down! Step-by-step to a Calm, Relaxed, and Brilliant Family Dog. I don’t have a dog (as anyone who has been following along my slowly developing new novel knows!) but if I did, those titles would delight me. Just the words Growly Dog delight me!

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
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  • 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.

Writing Away the Winter Blues

 

Cross Posted from John Robin's Blog

I don’t know what weather is like in your part of the world, but here in Winnipeg, we’re in the midst of extremely cold temperatures, and have just had four blizzards in the course of five weeks. Thus, I’ve been spending a lot of time indoors and am grateful to finally have a desk for a proper ergonomic chair in my office now. Days spent editing are often accompanied by a recording of a yule log, with a space heater keeping me warm.

The holidays have come and gone and, like a lot of people, I’ve made a few resolutions for 2017. I try to keep my resolutions achievable, but still lofty. If a resolution is easy to achieve, then it’s not a challenge. However, if a resolution is impossible to reach, then it just becomes frustrating.

One of my resolution is to keep my weekends devoted to writing time, while focusing the week days on honing my professional editing skills. I will finish writing the second draft of a novel by March with this discipline, and plan to keep the weekends free for meaningful writing projects after this. This way, while I continue to hone my professional skills as an editor, I continue to improve my skills as a writer. There is personal value in this for me, but from a professional standpoint, becoming a better writer makes me a better editor as well, because I believe that one necessary quality of a good editor is the ability to empathize with the writers I work with.

Many writers make finishing their book their resolution for a new year. While this is good, it can sometimes be a trap because it’s a goal, and not necessarily the definition of a solid process by which that goal will be attainable. So instead of saying, “I want to finish my book this year,” try exploring answers to the question, “If I want to finish my book this year, then what regular discipline will I try in order to do this?”

Be experimental! Some writers must write every day. Some writers set weekly milestones (myself included with my weekend routine). I didn’t arrive at my routine until after I tried writing every day, writing in bursts, then finally separating work weekdays from writing weekends and realizing that was just right for me.

In answering the question on HOW you are going to create a regular writing practice through which you will get your novel written, you might notice a shift away from finishing your novel. You might realize that, when you begin a regular writing discipline, you’re on your way to getting your novel done, but guess what? That’s just a milestone, a midpoint on a bigger journey.

For 2017, see if you can find the writing discipline that will not only help you finish your novel, but kickstart a writing habit that will be the cornerstone of your writing career.

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.

Teen Takeover: Why is YA overtaking Adult fiction?

From Michelle Hazen's blog:

Right now, YA is the blonde cheerleader of the publishing world. We all hate her a little bit for being so popular, even though we don’t want to admit we love her just as much as everyone else.

The evidence is clear: The Young Adult shelves in our local bookstore growing from one stand, to two, to an entire aisle. The movie theaters are full of lovely 20-something actors pretending to be in the first acne-flush of puberty.

There are some incredible, standout stories in the category, but wait? Who decided that teens, who frequently communicate in language like: OMW, gr8, tfnt, u, and <3 would drive the literature market? We don’t think they’re mature enough to choose to drink, join the military, get married, get a tattoo, or pay their own bills, but we ABSOLUTELY think they have the right idea about what to read. How did that happen?

First, let’s look at the numbers. YA wasn’t always a thing.

In 1997, The Atlantic reported that only 3,000 YA books were published. By 2009, that had added an important zero to jump to 30,000. By 2014, that trend had only gained strength and started to eat into every other major category. In 2014, Publisher’s Weekly reported that Adult fiction had lost 8% of its market share in the last year while Juvenile fiction had gained 12%. Adult is still selling more units overall, but YA is closing that gap fast, as is evidenced by what is being turned out by not-yet-published authors. The popular Twitter pitch contest #PitchWars was 47% YA entries in 2015, compared to only 23% adult entries.

What did I just say? Fiction for a single demographic of ages 13-17 might soon sell more than for all people aged 18 to 100? How on earth is that even numerically possible?

Turns out, what we thought looked like this:

 

Looks a whole lot more like this:

 

That’s right. 55% of YA books are bought by people older than 18, and the vast majority report they aren’t exactly buying for Junior.

Which brings me to my main question: what draws us about YA?

Are the kiddos just doing a lot more interesting things than those of us who have to fit laundry, diapers, or a 9 to 5 into our daily to-do list? Do we like the idea of stepping out of our responsibilities and into a simpler life, when we just had to worry about doing well on our history final and if Jimmy thought our training bra was attractively padded enough?

I would argue no, since the fastest growing segment of YA is sci-fi and fantasy.  Hard-hitting, fast paced stories like Hunger Games, Divergent, and the brand new Illuminae, where responsibility for saving hundreds of lives or the entire world rests on some very young shoulders. Most argue that the YA trend started with some big names that attracted more attention to the genre, especially now that they’re all getting movie deals.

But now that YA is well-established, we’re stuck trying to decide between these two things:

Do we love YA on its own merit, or do we love YA because that’s where great authors are writing if they want to get publishing deals?

YA differs from adult in some major thematic ways: it tends toward fast-paced, immediate narratives, often told in first person present tense. It takes place in a time in life where EVERYTHING is new. The characters are just discovering romance, drugs, their own identities. That kind of novelty is fun to experience all over again through books, and everything is brighter the first time vs. the thirteenth.

However, I’ve also noticed that some of the incredible writing in YA isn’t YA at all. The lyrically written, epic-in-scope Daughter of Smoke and Bone Trilogy by Laini Taylor is about an angel who fell in love with a devil, and how the fate of the entire world ended up hanging in the balance. Of course, the MC is 17 and going to a special art school that she never really has to attend. There’s not a parent in sight, she has her own chic apartment in Prague where she can have boys stay the night and throw other boys through the window with impunity.

Maggie Stiefvater’s superlative Raven Cycle has similar issues. The plot is so gripping I’d read it until I went blind, and the writing is so good I wish my Kindle had the ability to double-highlight. But it’s about a bunch of teenagers who live together in this gorgeous, hipster old Warehouse. One character has parents, it’s true, but they’re a bunch of psychics who don’t exactly give her a curfew. High school is mentioned, so I suppose there’s that. But they’re off looking for ley lines and a lost Welsh king’s grave, a plotline more suited to a paranormal researcher or an archaeologist than a motivation for a teenager.

Which begs the question: are we all reading YA now because publishers are aiming their best authors toward a category they already know will sell? I read a YA ms the other day where the chapter opened on the character drinking cynically in a dive bar. That’s not YA. I don’t care how many times you type the number 17. And this kind of fudging isn’t all the publisher’s fault: they’re just guessing at what might sell a year from now when they make their contracts. Nobody wants to see great writing lost in a category no one is going to look at.

So what are those of us supposed to do when we love the gorgeous, immediate, honest style of YA, but we want to get out of high school and deal with some of the bigger issues that we adults ACTUALLY face? Turns out, there might just be an answer. Stick around for my next post to find out more.

Character as our Way into Story: A Gilmore Girls Case Study

From book coach Lana Storey:

Gilmore Girls got a lot of attention at the end of 2016 with its Netflix revival in November. But I want to take a minute to talk about the original series and how watching it at two different times in my life helped me understand how character really does function as our way into a story.

In her book, Story Genius, Lisa Cron writes that the protagonist is the reader’s “avatar,” or “the portal through which we enter the novel. Remember, when we’re lost in a story, we’re not passively reading about something that’s happening to someone else. We’re actively experiencing it on a neural level as if it were happening to us. We are – literally – making the protagonist’s experience our own” (p. 55).

Gilmore Girls first aired in 2000. I was 15, lived in a small town, and went to high school. Rory Gilmore was 16, lived in a small town, and went to high school. As far as I was concerned, the show was about Rory: her friend problems and boy problems and school problems and big ambitions. Her mother, Lorelai, was there only as a peripheral character. She talked faster and was quirkier and knew more about pop culture than any mom I knew in real life, but she was still just Rory’s mom. She had no real storyline or emotions or interests of her own, at least none that I could see.

Fast-forward 16 years to 2016. I’m 31, a busy mom of a daughter, and I start rewatching episodes from the first season. It dawns on me very quickly: Lorelai is 32. Lorelai is a busy mom of a daughter. Lorelai still talks really fast and is quirky and knows about pop culture but now I see she has work problems and guy problems and a complicated relationship with her parents. Lorelai has an entire storyline, personality, and life I never noticed before. I see that I’m not Rory anymore; I’m Lorelai.

After getting over the minor identity crisis that came when I realized sixteen years had passed in the blink of an eye and I was no longer the teenage character but the mom, finally I understood that the show really is about the Gilmore Girlsgirls, plural. It seems so obvious now, but back then I had become Rory so completely that I couldn’t step back enough to think about the concerns of the other characters. Now, with the benefit of perspective and a little help from Story Genius, I see exactly how important character is as our way into a story. Not only do we identify with the protagonist; we become that protagonist. I’ll never write my characters the same way again.

Have you ever had the experience of returning to a story years later and finding that you identify with a completely different character? Finding that your old way into the story is closed to you, but a new portal has opened, one you didn’t even notice the first time?