Thursday, March 28, 2013

Feel Like a Failure? Or just Afraid? This is For You...

Does the fear of failure have you in its grip?

- Do you sit at the keyboard (or page) determined to write, yet equally convinced your words are worth less than the empty coffeecup next to you?

- Have you finished a manuscript, yet find yourself paralyzed when it comes to querying?  "I'll just read it throught one more time..."

- Do you attend a writer's group and engage in passionate conversation about other people's books, but figure you'll let them read yours next week... or maybe next month....

- Do you read all the industry blogs, enamoured by other authors who are clearly more talented, more accomplished, more deserving than you and your little book? 

- When you tell someone you're a writer, does your heart sink when they asked you "So, what have you published?"

- Are you sitting on a great idea because you can't figure out how to deliver it - certain no agent is going to take you on anyway?

If so, I want to help you clear away the cobwebs: 

The very worst thing that could happen (in this equation) is that you could spend months or years polishing up a manuscript, send it to every agent in the known world, and end up with nothing to show for it except an inbox full of "Sorry, not for me."

What then?  You'd be left with a story you love that no one else cares about.

But if any of the statements above are true of you, then that's already happened.  You're already living your worst-case-scenario.  You already have a story no one else cares about you.  You already have a nothing.

You're living your worst nightmare.  Right now.

That means the only possibility from here is for things to stay the same (which you already know you can survive), or for things to get better.

So... go finish the story.  Gird your loins.  Let other writers tell you how to make it better.  Revise.  Polish (and maybe repeat all of that half a dozen times).  Then get advice on how to properly and effectively query an agent.  Then send your baby out into the big wide world.

Because the worst thing that could happen has already occurred.  But maybe it's time for the best thing you can imagine.

Your Turn: What's your greatest failure to date?  Are you letting that hold you back from succeeding now?

(Note: This post original appeared in June 2011)

Monday, March 25, 2013

Are You Interested in Guest Posting on Seeking the Write Life?

I'm looking for writers and readers to guest post in April and May, and agented writers to contribute to a series that will be posted over the coming months:

General writers / bloggers / readers: 300-500 word Guest posts on plotting, characterization, writing How-To's, observations or commiserations on the writer's life, solid book reviews, I'll consider anything! I don't mind if something has been posted on your personal blog before, but I'm looking for quality content, so either send me a summary along with a link to something else you've written, or send me the suggested post in full.

Agented writers: I'm interested in posting your stats on projects / queries / timeframes it took to garner an agent, along with the answers to five interview questions regarding your experience thus far.

In either case, if you're interested, contact me on aimeelsalter (at) gmail (dot) com.

And if you're not, please spread the word on twitter or pass this link: on to your talented blogger friends.

Thanks all!

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Just For Fun: Ode to the Self-Impressed

(NB - For humor purposes only. Please, dear reader, don't take me too seriously. Ever.)

To the Semi-Famous and Self-Impressed Author
Who Unfollowed Me on Twitter Yesterday
A Poem in Haphazard Verse

Beware ye touter of self and same,
Whose work hath ‘chieved a whit of fame,
For those who in your shadow lay
Will come upon our own gold day
Of pub and strub and contract. Nay?
You say?

Hark, yon heart of gleeful pride,
Doest thou doubt I’ll dance and fly?
Mistake is thine my snubnosed ‘friend’,
For when we reach the distant end
Of road-less-travelled, I’ll not bend.
Or lend

My sparkling star to thee,
Whom saw fit to poo and pee
‘Pon it when I were just ‘aspiring’ –
A hidden gem, a tarnished ring,
A twitter-itch. A nothing,
You mean?

Yea, when thou dost next consider
A twittering mess, a constant jibber,
Think on this, ye once-lauded scribe:
Your star my fall, your star may rise
Or flap, or float, or glide.
But, time?

Time flies on wings of lightest air
And takes with her your laissez faire.
And when your star doth crash to ground,
You twittering mess.  When I’ve found
Somewhere inside my round,
Your pound
Of flesh, I’ll un-follow you right back,
You seething pit of crit and flack.
That’s right, you heard,
Though p'rhaps not learned
That people are still people, were
They semi-famous here
And now
Or not.

(c)  Aimee L. Salter 2010

Monday, March 18, 2013

Do Critics Know What They're Talking About?

Saw this on twitter:

"A critic is a man who knows the way but can't drive the car." ~ Kenneth Tynan

At first I kind of snorted and went "yeah". Then I got to thinking about it. The tone of the quote is condemning. But should it be?

Are navigators to be derided because they can't use a stick-shift? It is possible that someone can gain an understanding of what makes a story work, without having the skills to build a successful story themselves?

I think I'd have to answer that question with a resounding "Yes."

You see, whether or not I agree with critics and reviewers, there is a skillset they have personally honed: reading. They know what they like. They know what works for them. And the really good ones have identified what works for a big slice of the population. So, yes, I believe it's possible for an analytical mind to become adept at identifying a good story, whether or not they're capable of creating one.

I think the real reason many writers get up in arms about critics and reviewers is because, let's be frank, they criticize. They tell us our babies aren't perfect. They imply (or bluntly state) that we could have done a better job. And they pull our flaws out of the piles of all our carefully constructed words, flapping them in the wind for all to see.

Never a pleasant experience.

So, here's the thing: While I'll never condone a reviewer or professional critic who slams a writer personally (seriously, how does that even come into the equation?), I think we have to give at least passing consideration to genuine critique.

Note the phrasing there "...give at least passing consideration to genuine critique." I'm not suggesting we try to please everyone. That's impossible. And it's unlikely we're all going to perfect techniques for a flawless finish. But a negative review is an opportunity to be honest with ourselves and potentially improve.

After all, even if we consider their feedback and determine that it isn't work the paper (or screen) it was written on, at least we've opened ourselves to the possibility of improvement. And when we do that, it means we'll be more open next time useful feedback comes in.

So, yes, in my world there is definitely room for negative reviews, and definitely time for critics who aren't themselves "successful" writers.

Of course, at this point all my negative reviews have occurred behind closed doors. Maybe I'll feel different if (when?) my literary undergarments are flapping in the breeze?

Your Turn: Is there room in your world for negative reviews? How do you feel about critics who inform the masses, but aren't writers themselves?

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Three Irrevocable Truths About the Writing Life

My name is Aimee, and I'm a Writer.

(Hi, Aimee!)

It's been exactly 32 seconds since I last mentally complained about the industry I've chosen to break in to.


I'm here today to make sure you're aware of three irrevocable truths about the writing life.

(Uneasy murmuring)

Irrevocable Truth #1 - It Will Probably Take SERIOUS Time

Putting aside childhood dreams, and early false starts, in May of this year I will have been writing with the goal of publication for four years. In 2010 I got an agent, but wasn't able to make a sale before she left the industry. It took almost two years (including three months on submission and a different book) to get another agent. I'm facing weeks -- probably months -- of waiting while on submission to editors. Even if I get a publishing contract this year (NOT a given), it is likely I will have been pursuing the goal of publication for at least five -- possibly six, or even seven -- years before I actually see my book on the shelf in a store.

Five to seven years, my friends. And if that were my story, it would be pretty standard.

If you're early in this process, are you ready and willing to keep working, keep learning, most importantly keep writing, for several years before you reach that milestone? Does it mean that much to you?

Irrevocable Truth #2 - There WILL Be Rejection

I'm friends with a lot of published authors. Some have gone the traditional route from day one. Some have taken their future into their own hands and self published. Others have self-published first, and used their success to leverage a traditional publishing contract.

No matter what route they took, every single one of them has experienced rejection.

The traditionally published authors received negative critiques, then rejections from agents, then rejections from editors before they finally found a fit.

The self-published authors who have made that their vehicle experienced negative critiques, negative reviews, and (sometimes, sadly), negative input from people who think they've take the wrong course for their careers.

The self-published authors who've experienced success still had negative critiques, negative reviews, and (sometimes, sadly), negative feedback from people who believe they've taken a short-cut, or their success isn't "deserved".

Do you have what it takes to stand up in the face of criticism, keep going in the face of rejection, and keep writing when people don't catch your vision?

Irrevocable Truth #3 - There WILL Be Rewards

The thing with writing is, the more you learn about it, the more you're aware of your flaws. But the better you get at overcoming them.

Despite the endless waiting, the rejections, the casting your hands to the sky and asking "WHY?!", there will be days when your story is so vivid, so consuming, that it becomes your entire world. There will be moments when you read a scene you wrote and you will transport yourself into the hearts and minds of the characters that no one knows better than you do.

Most importantly, if you're willing to wait, and willing to stand up in the face of criticism and rejection, the day will also come when someone says "I want that!" then someone else says "I love this!" and that someone tells their friend, who loves it too and tweets you with gushing fan-praise. Then they tell their friends, who tell their friends... and on and on it goes. Love will abound in your life even more than the criticism and rejection. The time it took to get to that point will seem like a whisper.

You will share the world you created and the people you love with other people -- who will love them too. You all become part of a unique community, drawn together by a shared affection or emotional experience. You will belong. And it will be wonderful.

So if you're asking yourself if it's worth it, I personally think it is. But then, I'm a writer.

Your Turn: How do you feel about the long waits, and the negative input? Are you in writing to stay?


Monday, March 11, 2013

Mighty Heroes REQUIRE Mighty Villains

Every Novel Needs a Mighty Hero

Hero, heroine, anti-hero... whichever approach you're taking, you're molding a story around someone your readers will learn to love, admire - maybe even envy.

But no matter whether your protagonist is an underdog, an overlord, or an everyman, there's one element to their character every protagonist needs: Strength.

I've done a previous post about strength - about how strength shouldn't be defined purely as physical, or a fearless desire to kick a$$, especially in female characters. Strength in a character can be demonstrated through intellect, moral nobility, a willingness to sacrifice for others, problem solving, perserverance in the face of extreme danger or opposition... the list is endless. 

But in my opinion, there's one aspect of building a strong hero that's easy to overlook - yet, without it your book risks disappointing readers:

No One Looks Strong When the Opposition is Weak

I'm about to over-simplify to make the point. But go with me...

Your hero is a grown man, physically strong and mentally adept. If you pit him against the average weedy teenager in an arm-wrestling competition, there's little tension. The way the world works, the man is expected to win - and in fact, if he took too much pleasure in beating a young guy, he'd look like a jerk.

So, in order for the grown man's success to be cheer-worthy, he has to win an arm-wrestling competition over someone who, at the very least, is evenly matched in strength and skill.

Easy, right?

And yet... so many villains I read (especially in early drafts of manuscripts, or novice stories) are dim-witted, weak or easily defeated in comparison to the hero / heroine. They make stupid decisions, put themselves into situations that make it easy for the hero to thwart them, and reveal their plans without being asked. And that's a huge, huge problem. Because as a reader I want to admire the hero! I want to feel satisfied by his / her win. I want to feel like we diced with death to achieve it.

I don't want to walk into a conflict thinking "can we just get this over with...?"

But in one published book I read, that's exactly what happened. I'll lay this out for you as an example:

Fantasy hero in medieval-esque world finds himself faced with a supernatural being which has a physical body, but doesn't appear to be restrained by simple things like physics. It can move like lightening, slip through tiny holes, kill a human with it's bare hands easily, and has zero conscience. It also can't be touched by the supernatural power used by some characters in the book.

In fact, on a physical level, this thing appears to significantly outweigh our admirable and amusing hero.


The hero can't use the power. His weapons are a long spear he uses as a quarterstaff, an innate and extremely accurate ability to throw knives, general athletic ability and speed, along with a deep-seated survival instinct.  He is also in possession of an medallion that, when it touches the fantasy creature, burns its skin.

Now... over the course of THREE BOOKS this thing has hunted our hero. It's shown up at the most inopportune moments, demonstrated incredible power and stealth, and always been turned away at the last possible moment, the hero only surviving by the a miniscule thread of luck and skill.

This thing has vowed to kill our hero -- is under the instruction of the darkest power in the land -- and has recently revealed that he knows about the hero's secret wife and adopted son and vowed to kill them too.

So you can imagine after THREE BOOKS and tremendous forshadowing, not to mention several close calls in the last few chapters, the final confrontation between this thing and the hero is a highly anticipated read.

But you know what happened?

After three books of threats, dozens of secondary murders, and a relentless hunt drawing ever closer to the hero, the creature takes one look at a weapon the hero produces, whines "HOW?!" and runs - right in the direction the hero wants him to go: Right into a room where the hero has arranged for a power-drawn precipice.

Hero gives a couple pithy comments, then tips the creature over the edge into an endless nothing.



I waded through THREE BOOKS of encounters to watch this thing go all wide-eyed and shaky at the end?

No!  No, no, no, no. I did NOT.

I waded through three books to watch this thing go mental. I waded through three books to watch it almost win, then be defeated by the narrowest margin possible - with the hero almost dying in the process. I waded through three books to watch A REAL, FRIGGIN' FIGHT TO THE DEATH.

I waded through three books to be convinced that all was lost, the hero would lose, his much loved wife and son would be killed too -- and then to jump for joy when the hero pulled it all out of the hat in a way I could never anticipate.

I did NOT wade this far to watch this apparently indestructable, undefeatable, undeniably evil thing turn into a trembling coward of dubious intelligence.

I. Did. Not.

So, dear writer friends, take this advice from my reader self: If you want me to admire your hero, make sure he / she is facing off with a truly frightening villain who puts everything they have into winning. Because unless I feel like victory is hard won, frankly, it doesn't feel like victory at all.

Your Turn: Have you ever been disappointed by a villian's villainy? Or have you read a truly TERRIBLE villain who provided the perfect foil to an admirable hero?

Note: This post previously appeared in January 2012

Thursday, March 7, 2013

My Nomination for Best. Book. EVER

A couple weeks ago I had the finest reading experience of my life to date. The Sea of Tranquility by Katja Millay won't be to everyone's taste. But for this reader it was so close to perfect a knat could starve on the difference.

I'm not going to summarize the plot because, frankly, I suck at that. But, I will say that if you're a fan (or writer) of raw, contemporary YA, then The Sea of Tranquility is a Code Red Must Read. Buy it now. Then start reading it and try to stop. I dare you.

But I don't want to spend today expounding on TSoT (though, trust me, it's tempting). What I do want to do is get my analysis down on why I enjoyed it so thoroughly. Because I just read the book that achieves what I always wanted to achieve as a writer. So I'm going to pick it apart to see if I can replicate the result.

Below is my personal notes to myself about the reading experience. The Elements of Awesome I'm able to identify in the vain hope that one day I'll be That Good...

Element of Awesome #1 - Characters We Haven't Seen Before

This is pretty straight forward, but worth noting. As a reader, these characters are very, very real to me. Not just because I loved them, but because the writer achieved what I believe is the perfect balance between recognizable traits, and a unique blend with depth. I haven't seen Josh or Emilia before. Even Drew, who seems cookie cutter on first appearance, demonstrates actual depth (more on this later).

In other words, if I want to write a book like this, I can't just take these characters and make them my own. I need to find my own people, my own set of talents and fears and flaws for them. I can't rely on tropes, or just flip them over. I have to design real people.

Element of Awesome #2 - There Are Surprises

The character I mentioned above, Drew, is the primary example of this, but the book is full of them: People or plot points that you think you can anticipate. BUT YOU CAN'T (trust me on this).

Drew walks on to the page in typical Man-whore style -- and lives up to that trope the first few times we meet him. But by the end of the book I just want to squeeze him and sit on a couch with him and bask in the brilliance of who he is. And he isn't even the hero of the tale!

So if I want to write a book like this, not only do I have to keep my characters unique, I have to take people and story points in directions no one would anticipate after they'd read the first six chapters. And I do mean no one.

Element of Awesome #3 - Technical Brilliance

There's no way around it, Katja Millay has a turn of phrase, a wit and a vocabulary (on both ends of the mannerly scale) that provide a shiny vehicle for this story. And maybe this is what sets TSoT apart from other stories that have grabbed me by the shoulders and shaken me until I finished the last page: The writing is stellar. It's clever. It's funny. It's emotional. There's no telling. No explanations. No over-emphasis of important points, no faux ex machina. My OCD internal editor didn't even cough.

So, if I want to write a book that engages readers the way this one does, I've got work to do. No more short cuts. No more "hope for the best". No more giving up on a difficult paragraph. I have to get good. Real good.

Element of Awesome #4 - The Plot Vehicles Didn't Rev Their Engines

Let's face it, in every story there are elements of the plot that just can't occur unless some other circumstance is in place. In YA it's usually the marginalization or removal of adult authority figures.

Katja does that too, but in such a way that the removal of those figures drives the entire book. The motives and circumstances of this story aren't just convenient, they're critical. Literally, the story couldn't occur unless these unique circumstances were in place.

So if I want to write a book that feels this solid, I've can't just figure out the shortest route from A to B. I've got to identify The Imperative. What set of circumstances must be in place to force this story to happen?

No more leaning on traditional, expected vehicles. I've got to find the real life equivalent and use it to drive my characters from beginning to end.

And last, but not least: Element of Awesome #5 - Emotion

I'm not sure I can explain this, but I'm going to try.

At one point, about halfway through the book, when the characters were firmly ensconced in my heart, and I was wholly invested in their lives, a very quiet, very unobtrusive paragraph opened a new chapter.

Six or seven lines. Nothing dramatic.

And I wept. Literally.

It wasn't because the author had thrown down a literary gauntlet and pulled the tears from my eyes. It wasn't because a massive, emotional reveal had just occurred. It was because she'd used the pages before that moment to make the characters so real to me, that when one of them told me an anticipated event had occurred, I cried for how I knew the character must feel. My emotions were so completely engaged, I reacted to this character just as I would have a true, dear friend.

I was moved.

Frankly, I don't have a clue how to replicate this impact. It is the part of this book that blows my mind into the next solar system. But I have a feeling it has something to do with depicting your characters in such a way that they look, sound, and act like real people. Like people I could run into on the street any day of the week.

So that's it... those are the things I learned from reading this incredible book, then thinking about it for five days straight afterward.

Like I said, the story itself may not be your cup of tea. But if you're writing YA, I'd seriously consider it an important part of your study of the craft of fiction.

This book rules.

Katja Millay is my new hero(ine).

Your Turn: Have you read anything lately that achieved what you're aiming for in your book? What did you learn from it?

Monday, March 4, 2013

Keep Your Writing "Active" - PART II: Motivating Stimulus and Reaction

Last week we talked about Scene and Sequel as a structure to keep your story driving forward, your characters moving.

This week I want to drop into the details of each scene written in that structure, and talk about Motivating Stimulus and Reaction.

Motivating Stimulus: Anything external to the focal character to which he must react.

Reaction: An appropriate response to the motivating stimulus (through feeling, action, and / or speech).

Again, I'm going to keep this simplified for the ease of understanding, but here's a few cues to help:

Read the rest at YAtopia.