Tuesday, November 30, 2010

An Exercise in Expression - Can You Do Better?

I wrote the following for no more reason than to describe something that means a lot to me.  I'm sure you can do better.  If you do, I'll give you your own post along with a dissection on what made your example so good.

When I listen to music I want to breathe it. I want to be surrounded. Cocooned. Feel the bass press into my skin and tangle with my bones. Sense the beat demanding response. Shift my limbs in time, perfect and precise.

I want to lift my voice with the melody. Follow its rise and fall. Soar into harmony. Be fused with the singer’s song. Then fall and be lost in symmetry again.

When I listen to music, let me not merely listen, but experience its depth.  Swallow the notes and chords and percussion until I'm carried into the composer's heart. I want to hear him bleed. I want to know his tears. His joy. His grief.

When I listen to music I want to be stirred to motion. To emotion.

Let me not merely listen.

*   *   *   *   *

Now it's your turn:  You get 150 words to express anything you please.  Let me feel something through your senses.  Paste it into the comments.  I'll repeat:  The best one gets its own post on the blog along with a reader discussion on what makes it so good.

DEADLINE EXTENDED:  You have until midnight December 2nd (USA).  Go!

Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Stephenie Meyer Effect

THIS IS NOT A RANT.  I'm really curious to hear what other writers think.  Please read and weigh in:

I've had a huge response to the videos in the last post - including several personal notes from authors disparaging Stephenie Meyer.  One even suggested the only reason she made the list was because she's made squazillions of dollars on the back of her book, not because her book was any good.

Well, um....yes.  Can we really believe a book that draws that kind of fanaticism is completely without merit?

I'll admit, I was hesitant to include her in that post because I know how irritated many writers get when she's held up as a successful author.  But I put her in there because she's achieved something only a few others have.  And I admire her for it.

Don't get me wrong, I don't like it when my read gets broken by a clunky sentence.  I am not suggesting the writing was technically stellar.  But I, for one, was riveted anyway.  I get why writers working hard at the craft are disappointed that a piece of work which lacks the technical savvy has been so successful.  What I don't understand is why they're angry about it. 

I want to be a really good, technically strong writer. To that end, I'm studying the craft, taking advice and learning more every day. But that's my desire for my writing. The whole point of being a writer is to find your voice, your stories and your passions, pursue them and hope someone else wants to come along for the ride. 

Let's be honest: When we write for publication, we write because we want others to read it.   Stephenie Meyer has created a world that literally millions of people want to be a part of.  How is that not something to applaud?

I think it's unrealistic to expect everyone to be an expert in the craft of fiction.  But that's great - because no one can be an expert in everything.  Just because I don't understand string theory and the AMAZING brain power it takes to explore it, does it mean I can't laugh at The Big Bang Theory?  (Which, by the way, has some of the world's smartest people consulting on its scientific content). 

For the purposes of this conversation, do we need to separate the skills of storytelling from the master craft of writing?  Admire some for what they've told, and others for how they've told it?  I've known individuals who are incredible technical writers, but can't weave a decent story for love nor money.  Literally.  Why can't some writers be known for a good story, and others be known for snazzy writing?   And why can't we recognize achievement even if we wouldn't have taken the same route ourselves?

Are we jealous? Afraid we'll have to write something equally clunky to be a success ourselves? Or afraid no one will ever read our (hopefully) technically stellar writing because they're getting used to this level of work?

What is it, people? Why does Stephenie Meyer draw the fans in droves, and repel the writers in equal quantity? And why do we think it's okay to slam a writer we've never spoken to - or worse, whose book we've never read?

If you've got an opinion, I'd love to hear it.  Please jump into the comments.  And please identify which book(s) you've read from the series?  I'm curious whether reading the books affects your stance.

NOTE: I adore a good debate.  But let's keep it about the subject and avoid just hauling each other through the proverbial knothole, okay?

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Tips from Those Who've Done It

Some easy viewing for your holiday weekend - words of advice from commercially successful authors:

Garrison Keillor on what writing is really about and how to do it well:

Stephen King on when you know you're a writer:

Neil Gaiman on what to do to become a writer:

Stephenie Meyer on why we should write:

Enjoy.  See you in a few days!

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Use Your Words

Your challenge for the holiday weekend:  Use your writerly words to tell the people closest to you how much they mean to you.

Then reward yourself by watching this, and smiling:

Happy Thanksgiving everyone.

Monday, November 22, 2010


Just hit 50,000 unpadded NaNoWriMo words. 

*Doing the Dance of Joy*

If you're doing NaNo, buddy me (AimeeLS), or comment with your nano name and I'll buddy you.  We can all cross the finish line together next week!

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Finding the Heart of Your Story

If you're feeling a little like your story is dead in the water, or lacking spark, consider these words of wisdom from my favorite Mr. Swain:

...there, in a nutshell, is the whole issue of the duality of story movement.  External events have no meaning in themselves, no matter how bland or violent they may be.  Their inclusion or exclusion per se is completely inconsequential.  They aid in story development only as [your character] has feelings about them and reacts to them.

Therefore, we must have change in both the external world, your focal character's state of affairs, and his internal world, his state of mind.  Neither can stand without the other.  Only as they interact, meshing like finely tooled gears, will your story roll forward.  ++

Do you hear what he's saying? 

The world could explode and the reader find it meaningless, if your character doesn't care, or you haven't made your reader care about the character.

Conversely, the raising of an eyebrow, or eye-contact held, could spur a depth of feeling or need to read on so long as your reader understands how that tiny stimulus will make your character feel - and deeply.

To find the heart of your story, don't focus on the events, but use the events (big or small) that demand your character feel and respond.  Then your reader will do the same.

QUESTION: What's your favorite point of action in a book you've read?  How did it make you feel? 

++ Swain, Dwight V.  Techniques of the Selling Writer, University of Oklahoma Press, 1973

Friday, November 5, 2010

Life is an Analogy: Vacuum Cleaners = Fiction Craft

Just a writerly thought for your reflection (go with me on this):

Today I bought a new vacuum cleaner for the first time in many, many years.  It took a bigger investment than I would have liked, but it is strong, efficient and a pleasure to use - especially when compared with my old vacuum cleaner which was none of those things.  However, my old vacuum cleaner did do the job.  It took longer, complained louder, and didn't look as pretty... but it got there.

Given the learning curve I've experienced in the last year or so, I liken this to learning the fiction craft.  I'm not at the top of my game yet - not by anyone's stretch of imagination - but I've come a long way.  It's taken hundreds (thousands?) of hours of coaching, research, reading and writing things that didn't work, then revising, revising, revising (with more coaching, more research.... etc, ad nauseum).

Now, the investment is starting to pay off. 

I've written nearly 20,000 words this week (Nanowrimo anyone?).  Those 20,000 words are tighter, stronger and more effective than any I've written before.  It isn't that they don't need work, but the work from this point will be significantly less than book one when I wrote it eighteen months ago.  The payoff will come sooner.  And I can enjoy them more because of it.

Taking the time and humility to learn how to write well is hard.  But it's worth the investment.

Try it, you'll see.

I wish I could go back eighteen months and do the learning first.  But all I can do is look forward and learn from my mistake.

What about you?  Have you invested in your writing career?  How?  What steps were the most valuable to you?

Thursday, November 4, 2010

The Advertising That Isn't

First of all, AWESOMENESS!  (Some things deserve incorrect punctuation and words that don't exist):

Second: I used to work in branding.  What you've just watched is an example of viral marketing - that is, something people love so much, they don't care that it's advertising.  They send it on, tell their friends, share on their blog... *ahem*

No matter what your product, it's the single most effective form of marketing today. 

As a writer it might seem like Caving To The Man to try and come up with effective ways to market yourself or your book.  Or maybe you're afraid the cost would be unrealistic.  But here are some authors showing the rest of us how it's done... without an international telecommunication budget:

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Know When They're Saying "No"

The most common complaint I hear from writers in the query process is “I don’t know why I got rejected. Agents don’t give enough feedback.”

If that’s you, I may have something that can help. It’s a little website called WeBook.com **

If you have a legitimate novel that you've worked hard to polish, submission materials that have been redrafted and refined, and a willingness to make sure your work is putting its best foot forward, WeBook is second to none (at least in my opinion). Here's why:

1. The website identifies for you which agents are actively seeking your genre and points you to them - and ONLY them (assuming you've identified your genre correctly).

2. You ONLY submit to quality, verified agents (Writers House anyone?  Curtis Brown?), and each agent's submission guidelines are listed to ensure you're including the right materials.

3. The website is specifically set up for multiple submissions, so every agent on there expects your work to be going to other agents at the same time.

4. If you pay the six month subscription fee (currently $9.95), every submission you make is tracked. That means you know when an agent has viewed it, even if they don’t reply. When they respond, you know what materials they reviewed prior to contacting you. And, most importantly, if you’re rejected you know which part of your submission didn’t make the grade.

No more wondering if an agent has opened your email (or even received it, for that matter). No more wondering whether they read the pages you sent.

The reason I recommend WeBook so highly is because the first two rounds of submissions I made were a mix of WeBook and standard electronic submissions elsewhere. I found the submissions that went out on the wire were total crapshoots as far as my learning experience was concerned. A complete enigma. But an interesting pattern unfolded in my WeBook submissions:

Of the agents who rejected my submission via WeBook, only two of them had actually read the pages. Several hadn’t read past the ‘short synopsis’ WeBook uses to tantalize agents into reading your submission – meaning my project just didn’t appeal. A few read the query letter and rejected based on that (so maybe my letter was lacking?). The vast majority that took the time to read the attached pages requested a larger sample!

So what did I learn? I learned that if I could get an agent reading, my writing was good enough to at least engage attention. Of course, we already know my book wasn’t ready – so don’t make the mistake I made and start submitting too early.

But when you’re sure your book is ‘cooked’ and your query is ready, don't miss the opportunity WeBook presents to learn about how you’re being perceived.

Two words of warning: 

- WeBook is easy enough to use that if your submission materials aren't top notch, you're going to burn a lot of bridges really quickly.  Don't get impatient, make sure your query and hook are hot!

- Be prepared for what you might learn.  If a lot of agents are reading your pages and rejecting you anyway, you might have to accept that the book isn’t right. You might need to go back to the drawing board.... But at least you know, right?

So, what do you think? Have you tried WeBook? Do you know of other sites that provide a similar service? Do you use submission sites, or do you prefer the personal contact of sending directly?

** I am NOT, in any way affiliated with WeBook. I gain nothing from promoting them here. I was lucky enough to stumble onto them at the end of last year, when it was brand new and absolutely free. It's now $9.95 for a six-month subscription, but I believe that's a very reasonable fee for what you're gaining.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

How Do You Know When Your Book is Cooked?

Simple Answer?  When someone with a proven track-record in publishing tells you it is...  but here's the long story:

In my naivete of being a first-time novel-writer, I started submitting my manuscript far too early.  Last year, only six months after completing the manuscript, I took a stab at submitting.  I was encouraged by a handful of 'Please Send's, and some requests for the full manuscript... but no offers were forthcoming.

I revised some more and in April this year, put out another round of submissions.

By June I'd heard back from everyone.  Of just over twenty submissions I'd had eight requests for the partial manuscript and four requests for the full.  But no offers of representation.

Why?  My book needed more work.   Of the agents who read only the partial the feedback was consistent.  Here's a quote from one agent that summed up the consensus:

"Although [the book] has an interesting premise, I can't offer you representation based on what I read. I judge on several levels, but the most important question is: do I have to read more? In this case, I couldn't answer with a yes. I'm sorry!"

And what about those fulls?  Of the four agents who read the full manuscript, three suggested they'd seriously considered offering representation.  And the reason they didn't?   Again, a quote from a top, New York agent that seemed to hit the overall tone:

"There is a clever plot here, and some real power in the writing. Unfortunately, I simply don’t have the time to work with you to take it to where I think it needs to be."

This and other emails were very generously filled with specific advice on what parts of the manuscript were lacking, offering some guideposts for revision.  But in the end, the message was received:  The manuscript needs A LOT more work. 

So I knuckled down this year.  No submissions between April and October, instead I made use of the resources available to me from professional writers with whom I'd built relationships.  I listened to advice on plotting, characterisation, grammar.... everything!  At each stage, I thought "is it ready?" and at each stage, a more knowledgeable, more experienced writer than myself would say 'no'.

And I'm glad they did.  Because now, having finished the final revisions, put the work (with serious help from a mentor) into those pesky sub-plots that just seemed like too much mental energy, taken instruction on (horrors!) grammar and punctuation, and cut out EVERY SINGLE NON-ESSENTIAL word... my book is ready.

How do I know?

I know because it finally reads the way I was always aiming for:  Tight.  Sharp.  Without rambling.  Without leaving anyone wondering what that sentence meant, or why the protagonist made that particular decision.

But most importantly, I know it's ready because people who have finished, submitted, edited and published books before told me it is. 

Like, my agent. 

So, here's my advice:  When you're reading through your 'finished' manuscript and you get that flash of an idea about how you might develop that second-tier character's story, or that maybe the protag's motivation in this scene is just a little flimsy, listen to that voice.  Those problems won't go away.  Doors aren't likely to open while they remain in place.  But when you put the work in, those same doors will fly open so hard and fast they rebound and catch you in the nose as you're walking through.

Here's the take-away:  Accept you don't know everything.  Accept you may not even  know much at all.  Find others who have proven themselves and let them tell you what you need to hear.  Put the work into taking their advice and the results will be worth it.

NEXT on Seeking the Write Life:  The website that will help you identify where and how your submission materials are lacking!

QUESTION:  Have you made submissions and found the doors closing instead of opening?  What do you think is at the root of the problem?  What are you doing to solve it?

Monday, November 1, 2010

Best. Writing Quote. Ever.

"Improper placement of adverbs grows from a failure to understand placement's effect on impact, probably."

Dwight V. Swain
Techniques of the Selling Writer