Thursday, May 31, 2012

Just Tell the Story

Just tell the story.

The other day I was in a panic. In order to meet the deadline for my next book I was having to slam down 1000 to 1500 words a day. 1000 words is fairly doable if you don't get a brain cramp or if the dog doesn't decide to have gastro-intestinal problems. But, if any major or minor intrusion thwarts your productivity, you're in trouble. If you only get 800 words done then the next day you have to do 1200 or 1700 words, and then the next day you have to do 1400 or 1900 words. You get the picture, right?

In my pursuit of word count, my novel suffered a terrible fate--loss of story. Why had the characters become flat and lifeless? Why was the plot lost in no-man's-land? Why was the pace like walking through tar? Worrying about the word count threw me into the land of the left brain. Numbers live on the left side of the brain, while word pictures, emotion, and color live on the right.

Ahhh...pretty colors!

I set my computer aside, went for a walk, and ate some chocolate. When I returned to the house my brain was full of sights, sounds, and oxygen.


I picked up a pencil and sat down with an old friend--a piece of paper. For the next three hours I swam in the rich world of imagination. No word count, just  plunging into the story. It was a spa day for my creativity.

I'd love to hear some of the ways you get over writer's brain freeze, or just fun ways to get over the doldrums. It would be great to have a list of remedies to pull from the next time the word count gets in the way of the story.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

My Kind of Book

I'm currently reading The Awakening by Stuart Meczes and enjoying it very much. I'm enjoying it because not only is it well written, but it's the genre I most enjoy. Thanks to Amazon I have just learned that that genre is called "Urban Fantasy". It includes thing like Twilight, The Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy, Harry Potter, the Xanth series by Piers Anthony, and Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch (in which a London copper finds out that part of his duty is keeping the river gods in line). Books set in (at least partially) a world we understand and see every day, but including elements we don't. I love that. In a bookshop or library, I automatically drift to the sci-fi / fantasy shelves, because those are my kind of books.

The book I am currently hawking round agents, Emon and the Emperor, is urban fantasy, but strangely it's the first time I have written in the genre that I most enjoy reading. My first two books could probably be best classified "general women's fiction". My husband has read my first book, Haven, a gentle tale of the love and faith of one woman and how it alters the lives of those around her. I asked what he thought. He said it was "a little light on the wizards and battles."

My third book, Easterfield, is historical fiction. My fourth and fifth books are romantic thrillers. None of these are books I would usually choose to read. Someone recently asked me why I wrote No Escape, my latest novel, when I had already admitted to her that "I don't like that sort of book".

Good question. The obvious answer is because a friend asked me to (and I dedicated the book to her) but the real answer is more difficult. Maybe I knew that it would be more palatable to my publisher than the novel I wanted to write. (As evidence I point to the fact that No Escape is on shelves in bookstores now, and Emon has been doing the rounds of agents for over a year.)

The real answer, though, is that I recognise that other people like other books. I like other books. Just because I wouldn't necessarily choose a romantic thriller or historical novel for holiday reading, it doesn't mean that I don't enjoy them once in a while, or believe that those who do love them above all else shouldn't be catered for. Thanks to my book club I've found myself reading - and enjoying - lots of books I wouldn't normally have bothered to pick up. (Of course, I've hated many of them too.) I have bought books I wouldn't normally buy simply because I met the author (Michelle Cunnah and Stephanie Black are just two) and I have loved those books.

There are books I won't ever read, including misery memoirs and erotica, but I am open to reading and enjoying all sorts of books, and similarly I can write books in genres other than the one I love the most. In fact, my current work-in-progress isn't urban fantasy either.

But the book I most enjoyed writing, by a mile, is Emon and the Emperor. Because it's my kind of book.

What's your favourite genre? Do you write in that genre? What genres do you refuse to read?

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Another Side to Becoming a Writer

There's a side to writing that has little to do with words, punctuation, or grammar.  Many of us start out thinking of writing as a solitary profession with little connection to actual people.  Some of us are introverts who imagined writing would involve  some kind of interaction just between "me and my computer". We express our thoughts better on paper than vocally, we're shy, we're easily flustered in social situations, and far more comfortable around imaginary characters than the real deal. Who knew writers were supposed to become salesmen, public speakers, and plan launch parties?  Surprise!  Writing has a great deal to do with connecting with people---not only the reading public, but with other writers. 

Early on most writers discover people watching is a useful tool.  But more is needed than just watching people, their language, and their reactions.  Feelings, empathy, hurt, loneliness, love, hate, disgust are just the beginning.  We can't write what we can't feel.  Taking this a step farther, let's think about the relationship of writers with each other.  At first we may wonder why we should concern ourselves with other writers.  That's another one of those surprises.  Call it networking, critique groups, a guild, or just friendship, but I have found other writers essential to doing my best.  All the way from mentioning that the door of a restaurant in New York I wanted to use in a story happens to be red to a couple of mentors who taught me that we sell more books when we tout each other's books than when we try to push our own.  Writers understand writers and sometimes that makes all the difference.

I really hate driving in Utah County, but over the past two weeks I've made four trips down treacherous, under construction I15.  Each of these trips has had something to do with interacting with people in the name of writing.  First there was the Whitney Gala, an opportunity to honor some of the best writers around who also happen  to be LDS.  The conference and the gala highlighted the efforts of writers to help other writers while honing their own skills.  This was an opportunity to form networks, build friendships, and applaud the success of those who excel in a field important to us. Though each writer would like to be standing at the podium, award in hand, there's little jealousy between writers. We truly aren't competitors.  Even the greatest of egos amongst us sees him or herself deserving of honors also not instead of because we each see ourselves and our gifts as unique.

The second trip involved a meeting with my editor.  The writer/editor relationship is of utmost importance.  Both the writer and editor have a big stake in the success of any writing project and want to see the best product produced possible.  Fortunate is the writer who has a strong, knowledgeable editor who not only knows how to edit, but is a friend.  I've been blessed with several such editors over the years and am about to lose one of the best to law school.

Unfortunately books don't sell themselves.  There are many, many books to choose from which means writers have to become involved in marketing.  And in today's market there are many formats both for our books and for marketing them.  The third trip south to Utah County involved a group of bloggers and reviewers. We met over lunch and discussed the power of reviews and blogs to inform the public of what's available and to establish working relationships between writers and reviewers.

Since I write reviews for Meridian Magazine, I was invited to a dinner sponsored by one of the major LDS publishers for my fourth trip.  This was a relaxing social event meant to further friendships and award in-house high achievers.  Which brings me back to writers benefitting from befriending other writers.  When one of these writers needs a special bit of research, they're going to think, "Oh yeah, I met so and so once who writes about dutch oven cooking.  We hit it off and I bet he'd be happy to help me with some camping questions I have in the suspense novel I'm writing."  It also boosts spirits and rejuvenates drive to hear words of praise from a fellow writer. 

Royalty checks are nice, achieving approval from the reading public is wonderful, but one of the best things about being a writer is the friendships we form along the way.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Really Important Things

Sometimes in our haste to get the story we are excited to tell on the page and out the door, it's easy to forget some really important things. I just read the first two chapters of a book a friend wrote that had been rejected by a couple of editors. I told her I'd see if I could discover why they hadn't wanted to publish it. It didn't take long to figure it out. I'm sure they didn't read beyond the first page. That was their loss, because the story was delightful and her characters interesting people. But the author had neglected to edit well. In the first paragraph, she had left out a word so you had to read it again to see what she meant. There were grammatical and punctuation errors. I made several bright red edit marks on the first page alone which led me to believe the editors must have just stopped there. One other problem was improper formatting. The author had not followed (if she had read) the guidelines of proper font, chapter heading, page numbering, etc. The things a publishing house requires are readily available on line and are SOOO important for an author to follow. It was frustrating to see all the little things that so easily could have been fixed with a careful read-through of the manuscript before it was sent off. If it was off-putting for me as a reader, I can imagine how an editor must have felt. The sad thing was, after about the third page, I was really into the story, and I believe an editor would have been too. Those seem like such little things, but they are so important. Every author must have another set of eyes study the manuscript before submission to an editor, and better yet, several. We simply can't catch every error ourselves because our brain will fill in the left out words, or skip over missed or wrong punctuation or grammar because it knows what we were trying to say. A couple of months ago I read another ms. for a different friend. Again, the story was absolutely delightful, told from the point of view of a young boy. But again, the punctuation would have prevented an editor from getting beyond the first page. I think he was trying to tell the story in the way a boy would talk---running his sentences together in a breathless string of comments with no punctuation. Hopefully he corrected that. One other problem with that ms. was the erroneous use of dialogue tags. I did the same thing with my first book. I went through the thesaurus and used a different tag for every sentence spoken. Then I attended a writer's conference and discovered that was a no-no. I had to go back through the entire book and remove them all---all those wonderful, clever ways I'd devised so I wouldn't have to use the word said, when that was what the editor wanted all the time. So to all aspiring authors, please learn correct grammar and punctuation, and make sure you've complied with the author submission guidelines before you send off your precious book. Rejection letters can be devastating and can be prevented. Good luck!

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Alice in Writing Land

Writing is an odd business. Sitting down alone in a quiet room with pencil and paper, or at the kitchen table with a laptop, or on a commuter train with a notebook, you go off into your wondrous world of imagination, and write down the scenes. And, for a time, this land of make-believe becomes real, and everything in the "real" world becomes fodder for that "other world."

I pass a woman wearing a large red sun hat. She carries a small white dog who also wears a red sun hat. What an intriguing character for my book! I wonder what she eats for breakfast. I think of names for the dog.

I see an ancient statue in a park and think of a mysterious meeting scene between two bitter enemies.

I hear the gentle sloshing of waves on a New England beach and conjure an entire world of fishing villages, a man lost at sea, and his woman cooking lobster bisque as she waits for his return.

It's all about storytelling. And for anyone who writes, it's all about falling down that rabbit hole. 

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Making the Most of Microsoft Word

I've recently been thinking of buying some software designed especially for writers. But after investigating Scrivener I decided that I was perfectly happy with the word processing package I already have, on which I have written all five of my published novels and four unpublished ones.

I've used Microsoft Word in various incarnations for years. And it may not be designed for writing novels, but there are some features I've found very useful.

  • Thesaurus. I use this for virtually every sentence. Add the Thesaurus button to your toolbar, or hold down Shift and F7, and up pops a list of synonyms.
  • Word Count. You can have it displayed on your status bar or simply ask for the word count as you go along. That way you can set yourself writing goals. You can also highlight sections (say, the part you wrote today) and find out how many words are in that section.
  • Track Changes. I don't use it much when I'm writing, but it's standard in the editing stages. Combined with comments, it enables you and your editor to easily work on your manuscript.
  • Font colours. I use a code. Red means that a section of text is plot outlining which hasn't yet been written up. Blue is a sentence or section I'm not happy with and want to come back to. 
  • Cut, copy and paste - Ctrl X, C and V - are, of course, completely invaluable.
  • Find and replace. Want to see all your chapter headings? Simply Find the word "Chapter". Want to change a character name? Just use "replace all". (Although it may be more sensible to go through them all individually. I once changed a character name from Jack to Steve and later found that he wore a Steveet and Steveed up his car to change the tyre.)
  • Spellchecker. Of course. But it's not infallible, so you do still need to know the difference between your, you're and yore.
If you've tried writing the old fashioned way recently (you remember, with a pen and notebook), you'll know how lucky we are to have these wonderful tools available to us. I'm sure Scrivener, and similar, are wonderful, but I feel very blessed just to have all these amazing facilities at my fingertips.

Monday, May 14, 2012

The Greatest Director of All

Today I'm going to touch on something that has been a weakness in my life, the fact that I often care too much about what other people are thinking or saying. This tendency is difficult when one is a writer, because criticism is rampant and even if the evaluations are just, it still stings. Learning to rise above all of that, and using the criticism to improve writing skills is crucial to being a successful author. It can be difficult, though, figuring out what to heed and what to ignore since some "helpful" opinions are less than that. ;)

Years ago, when my husband and I were first married, a woman in the community came up to me and said, "You are so lucky--your husband must really love you since he married you even though you're a diabetic." Ouch. I'm sure this person meant that comment as a compliment, but it wounded my pride all the same. It took a while for me to move past what that observation implied.

A couple of years went by and I was called to serve as the youngest Primary president our ward had ever experienced--to that point in time. Once again I faced an onslaught of criticism, and comments like: "She's too inexperienced!" "So and so would have been a better choice," & "What was our bishop thinking?" Feeling a bit worthless, I knelt down and poured my heart out to my Father in heaven. After that prayer, I climbed into bed, tossed and turned, and finally drifted off to sleep. I was blessed with the following dream, something that has helped me keep things in perspective ever since.

I was involved in several dramatic productions in high school and college. I'm certain that's why this particular dream began with me onstage. There I was, surrounded by the cast, ready to share my one and only line in the production. I uttered the small sentence, then ran down into the audience to see if everyone approved of how I had performed. "Did I enunciate clearly enough?" "Was I loud enough?" "Should I have said it a different way?" I asked these and other questions, hoping for positive feedback.

It took a while, but eventually I realized that the entire production had come to a halt because of my  interruption. Mortified by what I had done, I turned my back to the audience and hurried onto the stage so the play could continue. When it was over, I ran into the "green room," off stage and did my best to hide in the corner, still embarrassed over my blunder. Suddenly, it was announced that the Greatest Director of all was coming in to talk to us about our performance. Overwhelmed with humiliation, I tried to make myself as invisible as possible.

When the Greatest Director appeared in the doorway, a reverent hush fell over the room. We all knew who He was, and knelt in deference to our Savior. One by one, He talked to the entire cast, except for me. I continued to press myself into the corner, hoping He wouldn't notice me. He noticed. After He had spoken to everyone else, He approached my hiding place and gently pulled me from the corner. His eyes were filled with compassion and love as He helped me straighten in place. Then He looked directly into my heart and said, "I am the only one you need to please." He handed me another script and assured that I could handle the role I would now play. The dream ended and I woke up, filled with a strong sense of peaceful love.

I've reflected on that dream quite often in my life. It helped me survive my years as the youngest Primary president in our ward (even if we were dealing with 121 kids and new policy changes from SLC, like having to cancel the traditional Cub Scout Rodeo). It eased things for me when I served in other callings that stretched me in various ways . . . and when my first book was published and I faced a new round of interesting comments. ;) It comes to mind every time I've faced a difficult challenge. I often remind myself that even if I can't please those around me, if I've tried to do my best, keeping an eternal perspective in mind, then that's what matters most.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Three Mother's Day Books

With Mother's Day coming up Sunday, I had planned to review Mother's Day books in my Meridian column this week, but since I review fiction and none of the books that came my way in honor of the day are fiction, I decided to talk about three non-fiction Mother's Day books here on my blog instead.  Any one or all three books will make great Mother's Day gifts or be a thoughtful token of remembrance for any woman.

The first is probably the most popular book in LDS bookstores at the moment, Forget Me Not by Dieter F. Uchtdorf. President Uchtdorf  uses the five petal forget-me-not flower to illustrate five areas women should remember for happier, more fulfilled lives.  They include being patient with ourselves, to distinguish between wise sacrifices and foolish ones, to be happy now, to focus on the "why" of the gospel, and to know that the Lord loves us infinitely.  As only he can, Uchtdorf charms, informs, and gently teaches women to value themselves.

Recently I did a booksigning with Connie Sokol.  She gave me a copy of her book, Motherhood Matters.  In a series of two and three page chapters she touches on three distinct areas that concern being a mother; The Divinity of Motherhood, The Reality of Motherhood, and the Rewards of Motherhood.  She quotes other well-known people, tells personal stories, and at times becomes deeply spiritual, and sometimes a note of humor creeps in.  She tells of loving a child when he/she is the least lovable, of those inevitable "mother moments" when mom's are less than perfect, of difficult choices between careers or wants and the demands of mothering, the workload shouldered by mothers, and the spiritual as well as physical responsibilities that go with being a mother.  Looking back over the years, Sokol says "I looked forward to a future date when I could actually get a full night's rest.  Then came teenagers.  At last I came to the conclusion that the underlying purpose of parenting is to ensure that we don't adequately sleep for the rest of our lives." She speaks of the intense spiritual rewards that come a woman's way as she struggles to teach and "train up" her children and the joy that a mother experiences when her child becomes a strong, competent adult with a testimony of spiritual truths. For anyone preparing a talk for Mother's Day this little book promises to be an incredible resource and will fuel memories and personal incidents to enrich any talk.  Since I'm one of those people assigned to talk in sacrament meeting this Sunday, I intend to make liberal use of this small gem.

Musings on Motherhood by Susan Corpany is only available so far for e-readers.  It's only.99 this week on Kindle.  This book is filled with humorous anecdotes and valuable lessons gleaned from her years as a young widow with an infant son, then her remarriage and divorce that landed her once again as a single mother, and the eventual successful marriage to a father with four children and her experiences as a stepmother.  And all this is followed by becoming a grandmother.  Corpany has a rare talent for turning every day happenings into humorous episodes and retelling the small tragedies that bring temporary pain and embarrassment  in a way that makes them funny, but often includes a significant lesson learned.  Most mothers need a laugh now and then; Corpany's book provides a lot of them.

I'll sign off by wishing all of the mothers  who read my blog a wonderful, satisfying Mother's Day.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

More Wonderful Things About E-Readers

[Update from my last post: I did indeed buy a car. It's ten years old, cost me £925 (about $1,400) and I love it.]

Jennie said something so perfect in yesterday's post that I feel minded to elaborate.

I do love books. There is something wonderful about holding your own book in you hands, and they are certainly much easier to flip through and get a feel for before you buy. They are generally more attractive to look at than ebooks, not only because of the glossy cover, but the occasional illustration or fancy chapter heading. A good display on your living room bookshelf tells visitors much about you, and they smell great too!

But there are many, many wonderful things about using an EReader. The obvious ones, of course, are that ebooks are far cheaper, don't need storage space, you can get a free sample before you buy and you never lose your page. But here are several other things which I have recently come to appreciate about my Kindle (other EReaders are available. I'm told. Never seen one.):

  • My Kindle has cured me of my habit of flipping to the end first. It's difficult on a Kindle to flip to the last page mostly because if you do you may not easily or accurately be able to get back to the page you were actually on. So dramatic surprise endings really are surprises now.
  • As Jennie mentioned, I can buy LDS books without having to pay $25 (Deseret Book's standard international shipping charge) for a book costing $4.95. That is just unbelievably wonderful. And that also applies to many other books published in the US or elsewhere, and now available for me to download here in rainy Essex in just a few clicks.
  • My wonderful Dad gave me his old iPhone a couple of months ago (he's the best Dad ever!). It was really easy to download the Kindle app and link it to my Amazon account, so now all the books on my Kindle are also on my iPhone, which means that I can read anywhere and everywhere on a device that fits in the palm of my hand. (And I do - I was at the queue at the checkout at Morrison's when I finished reading The Sealed Letter by Emma Donaghue.)
  • The devices sync, which means whichever I choose to pick up and read on, all the books on it open at the last page I read, even if it was on the other device.
  • I find it really good fun to see, as I read, what passages others have highlighted, and to highlight lines or sections which I think are particularly noteworthy.
I could go on waxing lyrical about my Kindle (or my car) but since I find new things I love about it every day, there's a risk I might never stop.