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Monthly Archives: February 2012

Support from the obvious places

I have a reader who loves my stories.  Let’s call her Megan, she’s a reader reader, not a writer reader.  Now Megan read a novel of mine sometime last year.  I made sure she knew that I wanted her to point out what she thought was wrong with the novel, and told her it would be nice of her if she could point out one or two things she liked about it as well.  Just to keep a balance, you know?  I’m a fan of the critiquing sandwich rule.

Something you have to know about Megan, before I continue with this, is that I’ve known her for about three years.  We work together, we have our first cup of coffee in the morning together, and chat about the random things that happen in our lives.  We even indulge in office gossip, we’re females, what did you expect?

Yes, Megan is my friend and I asked her to read my novel and tell me what she thinks about it.  I know most of you are probably frowning with disapproval at what you just read.  I’m a writer with the hopes of becoming a published author and I gave my novel to a friend to read.  One of the very first things I learned when I decided to take this whole writing thing seriously was to never ever give your writing to friends or family to read.  Why?  Because they won’t give you an honest opinion.  They won’t want to hurt your feelings.  They’ll tell you how wonderful your story is and that it’s the greatest thing they’ve ever read.

I’m covering my head because you might throw stuff at me for what I’m about to say.

I don’t think it’s such a bad thing. Give your stuff to at least one person that won’t find anything wrong with it.  They’ll think it’s wonderful and ask if you have anything else they can read.

Before you start shouting and throwing things, allow me to clarify why I feel this way.

I choose to believe a lot of things in life. I choose to believe people are good before I believe they’re bad. I choose to believe that tomorrow will be better than today. I firmly believe that coffee was invented to make people more bearable before 9am every morning. And I believe that, if you’re a serious writer, you know the difference between what your friends/family members tell you and what your critique partners say about your novel.

I also believe that you need one person to believe in you and your writing, nomatter what.  It can be your husband, your best friend, a sibling. It doesn’t matter.  Because writing a novel really is like riding a roller coaster.  There are a lot of ups and downs, and we need those people who believe in us when that roller coaster is at its lowest point.  The people who read our writing and think it’s marvelous, no matter the obvious flaws, they shouldn’t be underestimated or disregarded so easily.

That one person could be the difference between you giving up on your writing when you feel that it’s not worth the effort anymore, and writing a novel that will end up on bestsellers lists.

That one person will give you the encouraging and motivation and support you need to get things done, it’s their part.  You part is to realize that there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done and to make the changes necessary to get to where you want to be.

Megan read my novel before I sent it to my CPs, before I gave it a new first chapter, and before I attacked it with a red pen and tore it to shreds myself.  She loved it and said she didn’t have any major issues with it. I loved her for that.  But I was also realistic and took it from where it came.

So when the bad, negative thoughts start kicking in, I focus on Megan and what she represents.  There will always be people who don’t like or understand your story.  We can’t take that personally.  But I’m also pretty sure that there are more people out there who will like you story than dislike it.

This post isn’t about the writers who don’t pay attention to the rules or disregards it when somebody tries to help them make their writing and story better.  This is a post about the people who support and believe in you, no matter where you find them or who they are.  They come in all shapes and sizes.  It’s what you do with what they tell you that will make the difference.

Maybe one day I’ll reveal Megan’s true name and send her a link to this post, just to tell her that I’m grateful for what she did for me without even realizing it(or maybe she’ll find it on her own). She made a difference. The novel she read has since been trunked because I realized it just wasn’t special enough but I still appreciate her kind words and enthusiasm.

So tell me, do you have a Megan?  Or do you disagree with me completely?  I’m open to arguments thoughts.

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Posted by on February 29, 2012 in Motivation, Support

 

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What Kind of Writer Are You?

I’m in a place in my writing career where I’m spending a lot of time trying to understand exactly who I am as a writer. What genre do I write? Who is my audience? Am I writing to send a message or for entertainment? Maybe you’ve asked yourself these questions from time to time. I think we all have. But a couple of weeks ago, I came across a question I hadn’t even thought to ask.

When setting my goals at the beginning of this year, I decided to not only set productivity goals (write this, edit that), but to also set a goal to improve my writing craft. I’ve been writing for a while and though I’ve grown vastly simply by continuing to write, I also wanted to focus my attention on something I’d needed to improve for a long time: my character building.

To get the year started off right, I ordered the book Characters and Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card and had it in my mailbox before the first week of the year was over. I held it in my hands like it was paper gold and began to consume it with voraciousness. It was everything I needed to know about characterization but had never been able to find all in one place before. The way he writes, too, makes it all so easy to grasp.

And this is how I came across a concept Mr. Card introduced to the writing world: The MICE Quotient.

MICE stands for this–

M = Milieu (where the story takes place and the culture it includes)
I = Idea (the problem or question of the story)
C = Character (the person trying to change his/her role in life)
E = Event (restoring a world that is out of order or starting a new order)

He explains that every story has a balance of all four of these elements but that most novels are heavier on one while the other three factors supplement. He gives Lord of the Rings as an example of a Milieu-heavy story and murder mysteries as Idea-heavy.

Somehow this simple explanation reframed every major problem I’ve had since I started writing novels.

Because while I understood Card’s points in regard to story, they hit me on a deeper level. I also understood them in regard to who I was as a writer.

My new question? Which of the four elements of this quotient did my stories most often lean toward?

Since I began writing seriously in 2008, I’ve started 4 novels. Two of them I completed, two of them I didn’t. After reading about the MICE Quotient and giving it some serious thought, I now knew that two of them were Character-heavy and two of them were more about the Idea. Can you guess which two were the ones I finished and which two were the ones I didn’t?

Yes, it was an aha! moment. I always knew I had a knack for writing character-driven stories more than plot driven-stories but before reading this book, I didn’t fully understand why my other two novels fizzled out. The Character stories were the ones that motivated me to finish while the Idea stories left me wondering if I knew what I was doing at all.

The answer? Idea stories just aren’t my forte. And far from being upset by this (I really did love those ideas), I feel so relieved.

Now I can finally stop trying to force those stories into something they aren’t. And now I can hopefully prevent future fizzle novels by recognizing this quotient in my outlines—before I spend months on a first draft I’ll probably never finish.

So here’s the question I have for you: Do you tend to write stories that are heavier on one side of the quotient? Are others harder for you? Are there unfinished stories in your desk drawer that you could rework to better suit your forte? Or are there stories, like me, you might decide to set aside once and for all?

If you’d like to find out more about the MICE Quotient so you can apply it to your stories or your career, I highly recommend Characters & Viewpoint. Orson Scott Card does a beautiful job of explaining how much of each of the four factors to include in your novel based on which type of story you’re writing. And maybe somewhere within those pages, you’ll find your own aha! moment.

Photo by Marco Bellucci

 
26 Comments

Posted by on February 27, 2012 in Writing

 

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Filtering Filter Words in Your Writing

image from Wikipedia

Editing. Is it painful? Yes. Is it necessary? Yes. I’ve been an editor for seven years and counting. I’m still learning about the craft of writing and editing on a daily basis. One thing that’s really helped make my writing stronger is taking out filter words.

What are filter words? You know when you’re reading a story and you just can’t connect to the characters? You want to like the story, but there’s something about it keeping you from experiencing the story with the character.

On Writing by Janet Burroway has a good section on filter words. “Filtering is when the writer forces the reader to look at rather than through the point of view character’s eyes” (Burroway 2010). Deleting these words shows the reader what’s going on instead of telling. They distance the reader from the story. It’s one extra step the reader has to take in order to experience action with the character. Only use filter words when it’s critical to the meaning of a sentence. Here’s a list of filter words I’ve compiled over the years. Look out for these in your manuscript (this is for past and present tense):

  • can
  • to hear
  • to look
  • to realize
  • to notice
  • to feel
  • to touch
  • seem
  • to know
  • to start
  • to sound like
  • to seem
  • to think
  • to see
  • to decide
  • to watch
  • to wonder
  • begin
  • to try

Here are some basic examples. Of course you’ll want to add some flavor with the sentences, but this is just to help you get an idea of how filtering out distance words make a sentence stronger.

With filtering word: The white cat started licking its paws.

Without: The white cat licked its paws.

Why would the cat start to lick its paws? Why not have the cat just lick its paws? Make it immediate. Take that extra step out of the equation.

With filtering words: I heard the woman scream for help.

Without filtering words: “Help me!” the woman screamed.

Why did we have to be told the woman screamed instead of shown? Do a search for these words in your manuscript. Delete them and replace them with more vivid imagery to make it more immediate.

Can you think of any other filter words I can add to my list?

 
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Posted by on February 24, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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Learn to Love Writing Queries

The very thought of writing a query used to make my stomach feel as if I’d ridden Alton Tower’s Nemesis twenty times in a row. Sweat would appear on my forehead and I would break into hives at the very mention of the Q word. I would do everything I could to avoid working on mine. But there’s no hiding from it. If you want to get an agent or editor, it’s a must. You better get used to writing them, because this is how you’ll sell your book. And you, indie author, yeah you. Don’t walk away just yet. Don’t think that just because you’re self-published that there aren’t some valuable lessons to be learned from query writing. Learning to capture the essence of your book in a clear and succinct way will help you pitch to your readers and boost sales.

So how do you go from hating writing a query to loving it? It’s all about confidence. It’s about practice. It’s about learning how to write them. Yes, there is a formula, and once you learn it, they are so much easier to tackle. Here are a few tips that I’ve learned along the way.

1)      Hook ‘em Danno- and reel them in. Agent and editors are looking for reasons to say no. You have to catch their attention from the first sentence of your query. You want them to WANT to read a partial or a full. It must grab the reader and compel them to read on.

2)      It about the Quality of the words you choose, not the quantity. You need to coax the maximum impact out of every sentence so make sure the words you choose to use pack a punch. This way you can cover more information with less words.

3)      Stay focused. What do you really REALLY need to know about the story? Don’t get caught up in trying to explain everything. Focus on your main character, the inciting incident, what they want, and what’s at stake. Give enough basic detail so they can understand the stakes of the plot. All the backstory and subtle nuance will come when they read the manuscript.

4)      Find some fresh eyes. If you’re feeling stuck, have someone you trust take a look at it. Sometimes you can work on something so long that you can’t see the forest for the trees. Having someone else look at it can spark fresh ideas and lead you in a new direction.

5)      Read blurbs from already published novels. Yeah, I know you’ve heard this one before, but it really helps. Looking at examples and trying to emulate how they did it can really help, especially if you’re struggling.

6)      Don’t be afraid. Stop hiding and get started. Just put something on the page and start playing with sentences until you get the right combination. It’s a lot of trial and error at first.

I decided to post two examples of my query for Touched by Darkness. The first one is an early draft. The second is my final draft. I thought it might help to show the evolution. It’s a lot of work, but it’s worth it when you start getting some interest. The final draft has led to several requests.  Yours can too.

Version 1: Too Much Information

Staying awake is taking its toll on Quinn Taylor. She’s on academic probation, benched from cheerleading, and popping caffeine pills to keep the dark dreams away. To make matters worse, Kerstin is taking over her once perfect life, stealing her boyfriend, Jeff, and taking Quinn’s spot as team captain. Now the dark visitors are growing more powerful. Awake or asleep, these demons materialize everywhere and only she can see them. When the whole school starts spreading rumours about Quinn’s weird behaviour, Aaron, a mysterious boy with a secret ability, comes to her defence. He enters her dreams and seems to read her mind. She wants to tell him about the demons, about unearthly shadows and leathery beasts crouched on her shoulder. But she’s afraid he’ll turn his back on her, that he’ll confirm her worst fear; that she’s crazy.

Aaron Collier has returned from the dead after being in a coma for over a year. Devoid of memories, he’s spent the last three years using his new psychic abilities to piece together his life by invading the thoughts of those closest to him, and he hates himself for it. His whole life is a lie. When a touch from Quinn ignites a mysterious connection and stirs a real memory from his subconscious, he can’t let her go. He’s the light in her darkness and she holds the answer to his past, but can he win her trust and her heart before the demons and Jeff destroy everything? Jeff wants her back. Her demons push her to the edge. Who can she trust? In the end, it’s Quinn’s choice: Love or lies, faith or fear, darkness or destiny.

Version 2: Hook, quality not quantity, clear and focused.

Seventeen-year-old Quinn hasn’t slept in 23 days. Not since the demons killed her Sentinel. Without his protection they freely enter her dreams, whisper of her death and feed on her fears and self-doubt. Now, she’s on academic probation, benched from cheerleading, and popping caffeine pills to keep them away. The demons are ruining her life until Aaron, an amnesiac with a psychic ability, accidentally enters her thoughts. He’s the light in her darkness and she’s the key to his past, but the last thing the demons want is for them to be together. If Aaron remembers his life as Kaemon, Quinn’s dead Sentinel now living inside the stolen body of the boy known as Aaron Collier, their combined power could tip the scales for good. To keep them apart, the demons must convince Quinn that Aaron will turn his back on her, that he’ll confirm her worst fear; that she’s crazy. Quinn must learn to trust her heart before the demons lead her to her death. In the end, it’s her choice: Love or lies, faith or fear, darkness or destiny.

Have a query you’re struggling with? Need fresh eyes? Look to the Hugs and Chocolate community for feedback. Post your query in the comments and lets work together over the next week to make it better. We can all learn from one another.

 
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Posted by on February 22, 2012 in Craft, Personal Experience, Query, Writing

 

What if…

Once upon a time there was a cottage nestled deep in the woods. It didn’t remember anything before the day its front door opened for the first time and a young man carried a young woman across its threshold. It felt like it had taken its first breath when the shutters on the window were thrown open and life flowed through its hallways and rooms. Laughter and love filled the space and the house didn’t think it could be any happier. That was until the day a squalling new human burst into existence. Pride filled the house as it kept watch over the littlest one. Soon the empty rooms were filled with their own occupants as more children were born to the family.

The years passed and the house protected the laughter and love that was the hallmark of the family who lived within the safety of its walls. It witnessed the arguments, the first crushes, the whispers, the first heartaches, the tears and hope. It listened to the secrets that were whispered in the darkness and the words muttered under a breath in anger. The time seemed to fly and when the first child left home, the little cottage couldn’t suppress the creak in its floors. It wasn’t ready to say goodbye. Without knowing how, the cottage knew things would never be the same. By the time the last child was gone, the windows squeaked and the stairs groaned in protest. Nothing seemed to fit right anymore. The silence was so loud. It watched as the now older couple continued to age. Sometimes the children would come back with their children and once again the cottage would be filled with noise and chaos. Those were the happiest of times. However, they always left and again, the cottage would be filled with nothing but the aging. It saw the secrets of the couple and the changes in them that no one would ever know. One day strangers came and carried the man away. He never returned. The woman’s tears filled the days and endless nights. The children came back, but there wasn’t a lot of laughter. Things had changed forever.

It tried to keep the old woman company. It groaned when she did and tried to let her know she wasn’t alone. The children came back and tried to talk the old woman into leaving the house, but she’d shake her head and lovingly stroke the wall. The cottage would have purred if it could have. It didn’t want her to leave. Time passed in a blur until one morning it just seemed to stop. The old woman was in her chair, but the cottage had witnessed her last secret. Her husband had walked through the door and called her name as he had so many years ago. The cottage had watched as the woman jumped from her chair and ran to his embrace. Her body in the chair had slumped over and the cottage knew it was alone now.

Its grief was profound. The shutters closed and in its own way, it wept. It listened as the children discussed what they were going to do. No one wanted to live in this house out in the woods. It needed too much work and wasn’t worth the time and money. They agreed to sell it. The cottage tried to protest, but its groans only earned looks of irritation and disgust at more work. A few people came to visit and the cottage was excited at the possibility of having company again. It was overjoyed and its noises of welcome were louder than ever. Over time though, people stopped visiting. Occasionally, visitors would come in the night and the cottage would feel the glass shatter as a rock found its way through a window. It didn’t understand this hatred and anger and it closed itself off, wrapping itself in the memories of happier times. It knew no one would ever run down its stairs, laughing and happy just to be in there. Without having someone to protect and watch over, the cottage gave up. It could feel the mortar becoming brittle and the stone walls loosening, but it didn’t care. Someday soon it was going to crumble to the ground and that was okay with the cottage. The shudders sagged and the outside started coming in. The cottage held its breath and waited.

~

When I saw this picture I knew I wanted to incorporate it into a post. I think it’s a beautiful picture and I hope you don’t mind indulging me in the story I wrote. There are stories everywhere. They’re all around us, just waiting for someone to give them a voice. If you’re stuck or have writer’s block, look at a picture, any picture and write the story you see. Start with the background and describe it if you can’t think of anything else to say – a story will come and only you can tell it. Go, get busy and start writing again! The world needs to hear your voice. I wish you lots of love, along with many hugs and extraordinary amounts of chocolate. You’re not alone.

 
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Posted by on February 20, 2012 in Inspiration, Motivation, Writing

 

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The Story of Your Life

    

 

“A moment’s insight is sometimes worth a life’s experience.”
~Oliver Wendall Holmes

 

 

              “What’s the theme of your book?”

     I choked the first time someone asked this of me. I did what I do best; I read. Blog posts, craft books, and within my genre. I write Young Adult. I found themes in this genre just as passionate as any other genre. Family, hope, love.

     As I read the rough draft of The Lonely Girl, I discovered not only its theme, but a few things about myself. Things I like.

     I rediscovered values I give little thought to in everyday life. But they are prevalent, the kind of morals I encourage in my children. Without intensive thought and deep in the throes of intensive NaNoWriMo sessions, the best and worst parts of my personal experience,history, and quirks were ever-present. I thank my muse for this.

     The heroine of my story, Evie, makes the worst decision a human being can make.  She gives up. I dangled her over the abyss, a place I am familiar with. But my belief in hope and redemption is strong. With this in mind, I can reconnoiter theme, clarify my voice, and layer muscle and flesh over characters. 

     My characters are, after all, compilations of my inner life and observations of real people I love, have met, or even those who’ve piqued my curiosity in grocery stores and coffee shops.

     I feel that my passions, opinions, and value systems should drive my stories, poetry, and articles. If I choose a moderate position, or withhold my own life experiences and insights, I fear mundanity. I don’t like the mundane. When I read a book, I want to know its author left a little blood on the page.

     How does a writer convey all of this energy without overwhelming the reader with hyperbole and someone else’s rigid belief system?

     It’s all about the characters.

     “The author of a breakout novel must make the choice to make her characters choose; must fire them, and then sustain them, with deeply held convictions.”  -Donald Maass, Writing the Breakout Novel.

          As a new writer, I struggle with not writing within the acknowledged status quo. The temptation is strong and I cringe when I see others trip over the need to fill market trends. Readers are savvy and unique. They don’t want oatmeal every day of the week.

      I know my strengths, and believe a dark story can illuminate a reader’s life, long after the final page has been turned.

     But I’m only speaking from personal experience.

     Writers, when did you discover your story’s theme? What impact do you think theme has on a book and its readership? Do you find echoes of your personal life in the tales you create?

    

    

 
 

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My (not so secret) love affair with characters

I had one massive post typed up, days ago actually, and every time I reread it something just didn’t feel right.  There’s nothing wrong with what I wrote but… Now you get this.

My love affair with characters started way before I knew what an impact they would have on my life. But that doesn’t matter when you’re so involved in what’s happening while you’re reading that not even an earthquake will bother you. I honestly can’t remember how old I was then I first started reading books on my own and really think about the world I found myself in. I do remember the first book that made an impact on me.  Not as a writer, but as a reader with an insane imagination.  The type of reader that could imagine the things happening in the story, happening in real life.

The book that started everything for me was a YA novel called Memoirs of a Dangerous Alien by Maggie Prince. At that age, I must have been eleven or so, I imagined myself completely in love with Dominic and the alien adventures he was having.  To date it’s the book I’ve reread the most and I don’t even own it(library).  I can’t remember if the writing was anything spectacular or the plot well done, but I remember the characters and the way they made me feel. Like anything is possible. Like my neighbor could be an alien, or if I pull at my ear a communication device will activate. Now that I’m all grown up I miss that feeling, BUT I get to channel the longing for that feeling into something else.

All my novels are first person and character driven.  I get to be my main characters and indirectly experience all their adventures, the good and the bad of it, through them.  They steer the story by the choices and decisions they make, most of them usually bad ones, because where would the fun be in doing everything right the first time round?  Even the second time around? What’s not to love about that! Dropping them into hot water and telling them to go left when they should go right. Those are some of my favorite moments.

I’m very single so I have a lot of love to give.  I pour all that extra love into my characters and the lives/worlds I build for them.  But then again, you have to love your characters, even the bad guys, if you’re going to spend between 65k-75k words with them.  Then you have to see them through rewriting, revisions, editing, critiques. Rinse. Repeat.  If I’m lucky, my characters love me back. Because all the love I’m pouring into my manuscripts isn’t for free, they have to work for it. Just like any normal relationship.

The same goes for any novel I’m reading.  The characters have to work to get me to love them  It isn’t an instant thing. When I read I like to imagine, even if just for as long as I read the book, that those characters are real.  The best part of putting that last sentence out there, is that you guys won’t think I’m completely insane for saying that.

Based on all of that, and yes I did tone it down a bit, I’m not at all reluctant to admit that I see no end to the character love affair I started so many years ago.  Why would I when it keeps things so interesting?  Of course they make me work for it as well.  I suffer with them, rejoice with them, and scold them when they do things they aren’t supposed to(this goes for writing as well but instead of scolding them, I grin and ask ‘is that all you’ve got?’).

As a side note, I want to wish all the single writers out there, myself included, a happy Singles Awareness Day for yesterday.  Brothers and sister, we suffer this day together.  Keep strong and carry on.

I know all of you have character love. Share some of it, be it your own or somebody from a favorite novel.

 
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Posted by on February 14, 2012 in Characters