Friday, July 3, 2015

Fiction Friday: The Writer's Staycation

The following blog post is a shameless plug for a series of classes being offered by Words Worth Writing Center, this summer, including one I'm teaching.

Words Worth is one of the really great things about Dayton, Ohio. Most of the big corporations have shaken my little town's dust off their wingtips, leaving us with few deep pockets to back the Arts, but somehow we've managed to maintain a thriving Arts community in spite of that. There are galleries to all tastes, a symphony orchestra, an opera company and two dance troupes, including DCDC, one of the most well-regarded African American dance companies in the world. There are several professional theater associations and a whole raft of community theater groups. Even without big corporate money, Dayton's art culture thrives.

Anyway, Darren McGarvey, teacher of English and Drama at Centerville High School and a writer himself, thought it would be a good idea if there was a place in the Dayton area where writers could commune with other scribblers and have opportunities to develop their craft. I've taken several classes there. It was through Words Worth that I met my amazing critique partner, Nicole Amsler.

Anyway, the Writer's Staycation classes are as follows:

A Swift Kick in the Pants 
Instructor: Katrina Kittle  
Whether you’ve been writing a long time or are just starting out, finding (and efficiently using) writing time is nearly every writer’s greatest challenge. This class is full of tips, strategies, and motivation to manage writing time, hold yourself accountable, keep your butt in the chair, and get some words on the page! Several writing prompts for those who are stuck and in need of inspiration will also be given.    

Writing YOUR Story
Instructor: Darren McGarvey 
Ever feel like your life belongs between the covers of a book? This workshop will help generate ideas and teach some of the basic techniques of writing journal entries, personal essays, and memoirs. You’ll leave with a few starts, a number of ideas, and will be ready to put thousands of words on the pages.    

Putting a Little (or a lot) of Mystery in Your Fiction
Instructor: Sharon Short 
Your fiction may well be beautifully written and populated with interesting characters... but is it compelling enough? Mystery writing techniques will help you create suspenseful, compelling, page turning fiction... for any genre of fiction. This workshop, appropriate for mystery writers as well as writers in all other fiction genres, will explore the techniques used to create mystery novels and show how you can apply them to your own work. Writing exercises and prompts will help you discover how to make your story as deliciously page-turning as the very best who-dun-its.    

Queries and Questions About Traditional Publishing
Instructor: Katrina Kittle 
This 2-hour class will give a Traditional Publishing 101 overview, explaining the sometimes complicated and convoluted process of getting a novel published through this route. We will look at how to research agents, how to write a strong query letter, and how to construct a pitch. Participants will look at and critique sample queries and will “rehearse” a pitch for feedback.    

Building a Short Story from the Ground Up
Instructor: Erin Flanagan 

You’ve got great characters and a great idea, but how do you set them both in motion and keep the momentum going? Looking at structure and causation in short stories, we’ll discuss strategies to avoid common pitfalls in a story’s beginning, middle, and the ever-crucial end.

Plotting 101: Goal, Motivation, and Conflict
Instructor: Jeanne Estridge  

You’ve got a fabulous premise and you’re totally in love with your characters, but somehow your story isn’t shaping up to be the riveting tale you envisioned. After reviewing goal, motivation and conflict—the keys to writing compelling fiction—we’ll discuss class members’ works-in-progress and apply the techniques we’ve learned to help each other solve plot problems and ramp up the action.    

More info (like When? Where? and How Much? here.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Writer's Wish List

This isn't a list of things like a MacBook Air or Scrivener or a thesaurus, but a list of characteristics that I'm starting to believe are essential for becoming a successful writer.

1) Persistence
Probably the single most important character trait for a writer. You need to be able to persist through writer's block, through dry spells, through self-doubt and family-and-friends' doubt, through rejections and contest losses and sudden and ill-timed changes in what the market wants to read.

2) A Thick Skin

If you're going to get down in the dumps and quit writing or querying every time you get rejected, or even every time you get rejected after you were given reason to get your hopes up, it's going to take a very long time to get to the finish line. Not everyone is going to like what you write, but don't let that slow you down. Keep writing, Keep submitting. Keep moving forward.

I took a class with local writer Katrina Kittle a while back. In past lives, she was a dancer and an actress. She said those careers, which include a LOT of rejection, were great preparation for being a writer.

Learn to repeat this little mantra: "Not my audience." Just like people don't all like the same food or the same clothes or the same television shows, not everyone likes the same kinds of books. (Some people don't like any books at all, but they're barbarians who would destroy civilization given the chance.) The fact that someone doesn't like your book doesn't mean you're a bad writer, it just means your book is not for them.

3) A clinical eye

In order to get better, you first have to realize you suck. Until you're willing to set aside your ego ("Look at this marvelous thing I've created!") and really see your writing for the flawed exercise it is, you're probably not going to get any better.

4) A love of reading
I frequently hear the following from people who have just learned that I'm a writer: "I've thought about writing a book." I just smile and say, "I think you should." Then afterwards, get back with me and tell me how it went....

The people that fascinate me are the ones who say this but are not themselves readers. How in the world can you expect to create something that you don't know anything about?

Read in the genre you want to write in--it will help you understand the expectations of your prospective readers. Read in genres other than the one you want to write in--it will give you fresh perspective. Read craft books. There are a lot of tricks of the trade that aren't apparent to readers. A few fortunate souls are born instinctively understanding things like point-of-view and plotting, but most of us need to be taught.

4) A love of writing

If you truly want to become a writer, you will spend a lot of time sitting in a chair in a room by yourself. According to Malcolm Gladwell, it will be something in the region of 10,000 hours to become an expert at anything. Or, to put it another way: your first million words are just practice.

Once you've gathered together these character traits and experiences, we'll talk about that MacBook Air.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Family Friday: An Alternative View of A&F

Abercrombie & Fitch has (deservedly) received a lot of bad press  over the past few years for their exclusiionary practices. This led to their CEO being fired last December. Since then, they've worked hard to replace the corporate culture with one that is more inclusionary.

Even before the transition, though, there was one area where this company led the way in diversity and acceptance in corporate America--the treatment of gay employees.

In the second interview in this video, my daughter-out-law (someday to be my daughter-in-law, God and the Supreme Court willing) explains what this meant to her and her family. The beautiful young woman to her left is my daughter and the adorable little tykes are my grandkids.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Fiction Friday: Making the Most of Your Contest Dollars

Entering your romance novel into contests is a great way to get feedback. If you're polished enough and lucky enough to become a finalist, contests can also get you in front of industry professionals who might be interested in representing or publishing your book.  So far, from the five contests I entered, I've received three requests for full manuscripts. I've also learned that several of the judges wouldn't read my book if I paid them, but that's another story....

Many of the local RWA chapters around the country sponsor contests as fundraisers. I counted 11 upcoming contests on the RWA website in June alone. Most have entry fees in the $25 range.

Since most of us don't have unlimited funds, how do you choose a good one for your work? Here are some questions to ask:

1) Does the contest guarantee feedback, or just a score sheet? Learning that, on a scale of 1-5, an anonymous judge thought your conflict was a 3 may not be all that helpful. Hearing that it wasn't clear that your protagonist had a goal, or that there was no sense of urgency to that goal, is much more useful.

2) Who are the first round judges? Does the chapter set any baseline requirements to qualify as a judge? Are they published authors or romance readers? Either one can provide useful feedback, but it may be different kinds of feedback. Readers can tell you if they love your book or not. Published authors are more likely to be able to tell you why they love your book--or why they don't.

3) Who are the final round judges? In many contests, final round judges are industry professionals. Some contests provide specific names. Others only specify a role--"agent" or "editor." Final round judges may also be librarians, book clubs and booksellers--all lovely people to hear from, but not a step toward getting your manuscript published.

4) If the final round judges are identified industry professionals, do they work for organizations you're interested in partnering with? A lot of us, as we take our first steps toward publication, believe that we'd work with the devil himself to get published, but even if that's true, he's probably not our first choice. It's worth taking time to figure out who your dream agent and editor are. You may not get the partner of your wildest dreams, but if you know what you want, your chances increase.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Fiction Friday: Writing What You Like

"To thine own self be true," Polonius tells children in Hamlet, "and it must follow, as the night the day, thou cans't not then be false to any man."

The problem with this advice, of course, is that Polonius is as false a man as exists in all of literature, a conummate politician whose eye is always on the main chance, who's willing to prostitue his daughter if it means winning a bigger role in the government of Denmark.

Still, if you take his advice as it exists on the surface, it's good counsel.

One of the reasons it took me so long to really start writing was that I was embarrassed by what I wanted to write: romance. Tawdry, pulpy, emotionally adolescent romance.

When I told people that, they'd say, "You can do better than that. You're smarter than that."

But when I tried to write other genres, my heart wasn't in it, and my efforts went nowhere. The fact is, I love the sunny optismism of a genre where the promise of happy ever after is implicit. I love stories that feature people who manage to change in fundamental ways that make their lives better.

One of the lovely things about growing older is you come to realize that, regardless of where you graduated in your high school class or how high your SAT scores were, you're actually not that smart. By the time you turn sixty, you have a history that makes it clear you're really just a step up from a pet rock.

To every writer out there who's yet to achieve the lofty status of sexagenarianism, I say: give yourself a bye and just assume you're dumb enough to write whatever takes your fancy.

Live like you're sixty and write what you want.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Fiction Friday: Story vs. Premise

One of the things we studied at McDaniel College was the difference between a premise and a story.

A premise is an idea. defines it as "a proposition supporting or helping to support a conclusion." It comes from two Latin words meaning "to put before." So, basically, it's the underlying idea that supports your story--and has to come before you can build your story.

A story, according to Aristotle, has a beginning, a middle and an end. Stories also have characters, settings and plots.

Your premise asks the question, "What if...?" Your story answers that question.

L.M. Montgomery got the idea for Anne of Green Gables when she saw an article in her local paper about an orphanage that mistakenly sent a child of the wrong gender to a family looking for a child to help out around the house. (The adoption business was apparently pretty fast-and-loose in those days.)

Robert Louis Stevens once drew a map to pass the time on a rainy vacation. The map
inspired Treasure Island.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe came to 16-year-old C.S. Lewis as a daydream.

Jules Verne got the idea for Around the World in 80 Days from a newspaper advertisement offering such a trip.

A lot of my writer friends complain that it's tough to come up with ideas, but once they have an idea they can run a marathon with it.

I'm just the opposite. Premises grow like weeds in my brain (probably thrive in all that manure). It's story that's tough for me. Figuring out what kinds of characters and plot will allow my premises to blossom into full-blown stories is like trying to make fire from flint. If all I had to do was strike rocks together and generate sparks, it would be great. But there's that whole mess with tinder and twigs and small branches and making sure there's enough oxygen and.... Okay, that metaphor's getting away from me.

Not all premises (even really cool exciting ones) turn into stories. An idea may grab me, but investigation reveals that the characters don’t have what it takes to grow and change the way they need to for a satisfying story. Or, sometimes the premise has difficulties built into it that I’m just not smart enough to get around.

Fifteen years ago I started working on a historical novel set in Minnesota lumber country in 1894. The premise was that Lucy, my young protagonist, wanted to become a photojournalist. Her dream put her at cross-purposes with the conservative young editor of the town newspaper, so I had the conflict I needed for the romance piece. The technology to print half-tone photographs on rotary presses had just been invented, so I thought I could make it work. As I did further research, though, I discovered that, for a variety of reasons, photographs didn’t replace line drawings in newspapers for nearly 40 years. I love that character, (I love Lucy!) but I’ve never figured out how to give her story a happy ending.

I could list a dozen other stories that never got off the launch pad, but you get the idea.

What’s your process for turning premises into stories? Or do you even go about it that way?

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Fiction Friday: Confessions of a Contest Whore, Part 1

Since the first of the year, I've entered Demon's Wager in five contests. Each contest costs $25 or $30 to enter, so you may be asking, "Why did she do that?"

(If, in fact, you're asking, "how can she afford to do that?" the answer is: I program computers to support my writing habit.)

Why I did that was:

1) To get unbiased feedback from strangers, people who don't know me and therefore won't cut me any slack based on friendship or knowing how long and how hard I've worked on this book.

2) To find out if my story connects with readers.

3) To toughen myself up in preparation for the real world.

4)  To get a shot at getting the attention of industry professionals--agents and editors--who generally serve as final round judges.

I was doing pretty well against this list, except for item 3) until I got to the final contest.

Up to that point, the worst thing any of the first-round judges had said to me was, "I don't find devils and demons appealing, but your work is excellent and I can see it doing well in the future." Not exactly soul-crushing.

In another contest, one judge ran my pages through copyediting software and sent back the result, which pointed out every unneeded hypen and misplaced comma. Kind of nice, actually, since I don't own such software myself. I went in and fixed everything it found (including overuse of a few words that I really, really, really like).

And, two editors have requested to see my full manuscript based on the pages they read.

And then my scoresheets from the fifth contest came back. My scores were (out of 60) 59, 56 and 41. Ms. 41 had this to say: "I feel like I’ve read this story before.  The idea doesn’t seem all that original."

And "Would caution the writer to look deeper, even in this light, humorous story, in order to make it less cliché. "

And "I hope that author works more on this story and finds a way to lift it out of the cliché."

Snarl. Name me one other romance novel that begins with a poker scene in Hell.

Although, if I'm honest, I have to admit the story is familiar: it's the story of Job, retold as a paranormal romance. So, um, yeah.

Okay, looks like I need more work on 3).

Graphic courtesy of Stuart Miles and


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