Category Archives: Writing Process & Tips

The Purpose of a Critique Group

Earlier this week, Katherine from my critique group, sent a link to a post by Rachelle Gardner about developing a thick skin as a writer. Gardner points out that it will likely never happen, but that you will survive. 

I’ve been in the Raintree Writers since 2003 and myself and author, Patricia Stoltey, are the only original members (we’ve obviously scared everyone off). We’ve had to learn to not only take criticism, but to give feedback in a constructive way. Over the years, there might have been a tear or two shed by members (and it’s not because someone ate the last piece of chocolate on the table). It’s because writing is a personal endeavor and when you’re first starting out, it’s like watching your toddler trip and fall on the playground for the first time. You want to yell at whoever left the little dump truck half buried in the sand for your two-and-a-half foot tall cherub to trip over. Then you want to cry (which you probably will do). 

There’s no crying in critique group. Unless they’re tears of joy, no one should cry. You’re there to give honest, but constructive feedback. Always include positive comments interspersed in  your critique and approach your concerns with sensitivity. Chances are, if it’s something that needs addressing, others will chime in, too, so don’t channel your inner Simon Cowell. I also think it’s important to never should on anyone. You should have the aliens invade before the birthday party, or You should make this character funnier.

Laura Powers, one of our critique group members, said it best:

“You can’t let others dictate your story. Fellow writers are great for offering another perspective, spotting problems, sharing techniques, and helping you through creative blocks, but we are just passengers on your ride. You are driving the bus.”

And I’ll leave you with that. 

Happy writing.

Baby Shoes Half Price Today

Baby Shoes Anthology

Due to some weird Amazon glitches, Baby Shoes wasn’t half price as expected last week, but it is today. Such a deal! This is a fantastic read: 100 stories, 100 authors, 1000 words or less. Short, sweet, and to the point. 

TheWritingBug

You can also click on over to The Writing Bug where I talk about not creating likable characters in “I’m Not Here to Make Friends.”

5 Reasons Why Your Manuscript Gets Rejected

Being a writing contest coordinator and having been a judge myself for several writing contests, I’ve seen why many manuscripts don’t win. They’re the same reasons agents and editors pass as well. These 5 manuscript killers are what usually separate a winning manuscript from those that fail to make the cut.

Rejected

1.) No beginning hook. It also needs to be sustaining. Some authors try to open with a bang on the first page because they know it’ll grab the agent’s attention, but then it fizzles, and they dive into backstory. It seems as though they’re toying with the reader, saying, here’s my fabulous hook, then yanks it away and goes into backstory. Nice try, Sparky. A brief opening hook will wear thin if the subsequent narrative slows down. The reader may resent the maneuver, and thus, put the book down . . . for good. A strong opening with great pacing is what will keep the book in your readers’ hands.

2.) Too much backstory. We’re writers: we have a story to tell and characters to introduce—who have history. Sadly, most aspiring authors drop it all on the reader at once—in long narratives. Get to the action and weave in the backstory through dialog, inner thoughts, and character mannerisms. You have a whole book, so spread the information out and only use what’s important to the story and to the character. The last thing you want is for the reader to start skimming and miss that one crucial tidbit you threw in. Good novelists will space out these details, periodically feeding you just enough breadcrumbs to keep you reading.

3.) Passive voice. This is usually a big killer. Do a word search for “to be” verbs, especially “was” and “were” and replace them with active verbs. Check out my post for The Writing Bug yesterday where I discuss how to eliminate passive voice. Passive writing is one of those things that can out you as an amateur pretty quickly, so be discriminatory when it comes to “to be” verbs.  

4.) Bland characters. I get that it’s a challenge to create fleshed out characters without diving into backstory, but it can easily be done through dialog; character gestures and mannerisms; their inner thoughts; and how they react to their surroundings, as well as others. Don’t tell the reader every detail about their childhood in order to tell us why the character has this one particular habit. You can show that through other more concise ways, rather than going into his/her past right off the bat. Dialog is a fantastic way to accomplish two things: it reveals character traits, quirks, and history, while at the same time, it moves the story along.

5.) Poor Dialog: Dialog should always have a purpose, so leave out conversations that won’t lead anywhere, or don’t have a point. It’s there to move the story along and to create tension. It’s okay to have your characters say hello to each other, or to have a line or two of formalities once in a great while, but keep it to a bare minimum. Dialog must serve a purpose by moving the story along, and ideally, creating tension and conflict. While we’re at it, mainly use “said,” and “asked” as tags, and remember, “smiled,” “laughed,” “grimaced,” and “smirked,” are not tags. Another big mistake is that punctuation often gets overlooked. Don’t forget that a comma goes before a name. For example: “I don’t know what you see in her, Bob. She’s can’t conjugate her verbs.” Same with: “Hi, Phil, you look dashing in that track suit.”

Bonus: Overusing certain words. I think just is the most overused word. Ever. Even manuscripts that are otherwise well written, have a plethora of justs. Stop it. Most of the time, the word adds nothing to the sentence, so take it out. Also look for really and very.

Bonus Bonus: (sorry, I can’t help it) Poor formatting. Lots of entries show up with poor indentation, two spaces between sentences (the standard is 1, but at least pick one or the other and do it consistently), improper punctuation, and typos. These should be freebies! So many authors get marked down for these mistakes and unfortunately, can ruin an otherwise strong submission. There’s no excuse for poor mechanics—there’s typically one way to do these things. Learn them, so your story doesn’t get rejected. It’s like losing the game because of a missed free throw.

There you have it. 

Happy writing!

Write What You Don’t Know . . . Sort of

internet research photoWe’ve heard it so many times: Write what you know. It’s good advice. But don’t we usually interpret it as, write what you already know? Of course, that’s a good start for any writer—sit down and write something you’re familiar with. But what if you have this great idea for a novel that involves mutant sea life and a brave oceanographer who has the brains and courage to stop the rogue whales from attacking kayakers? (I’m almost certain this nearly happened to me while kayaking off Victoria Island two years ago. True story.) Anyhow, you’ll probably need to brush up on your marine biology, not to mention deep sea diving, in case that’s not your forte either. In this day and age, with information at our fingertips, it’d be hard not to find what you need to write that future bestseller. 

A few years ago at the Jackson Hole Writer’s Conference, I got a chance to hear bestselling author, Margaret Coel, whose novels take place on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming. She said that twenty-some years ago, she didn’t know a lick about Arapahoes, but with a desire to know, she hit the books (pre-internet! *GASP*). She is now considered an expert on Arapaho culture. With this, comes a word of caution from author, Anita Diamant, who incidentally, spoke at the same writer’s conference. She said that it’s easy to get caught up in incorporating everything you learned into your manuscript. She writes historical fiction, and when she got a little heavy handed with the details, her editor said, “Your research is showing,” as in, “Psst . . . your slip is showing!” Your job as a writer isn’t to tell your readers everything you learned; it’s to give them a vivid picture and general understanding of the details in your story. At the same time, leaving them with unanswered questions and fuzzy math isn’t good either. You don’t want anything to distract your audience from the story you’re trying to tell.

When writing the book, you don’t have use everything you learned, but you should know it. You may not describe in detail the impact mutant whales may have on mankind, but you should at least have a damn good idea, so that you understand which details you can leave out and which ones are crucial for the reader. 

A few days ago, I came up with a novel idea that involves a teeny-tiny thing called physics, specifically, quantum physics. Since childhood, I’ve had a fascination with physics, but the right side of my brain won out and I took a much different path. The interest, however, never went away. But interest in a subject, doesn’t equate to knowledge of said subject. Plus, understanding quantum physics isn’t enough; I need a grasp of the fundamentals of physics. Via a Nova special on YouTube, I came across Brian Greene’s The Fabric of the Cosmos and it’s been off to the races since. 
ResearchI also found the online courses that Greene teaches (for free!) at World Science U. Because it’s something that has always fascinated me, I’m enjoying it (although I don’t exactly comprehend it very well at this point). But even if I decide to not write this particular novel, hopefully, I’ll retain a few things about quantum physics that I toss around at my next dinner party.

How have you used research in your writing?

Literary Contest Tips & Etiquette

first placeAbout five years ago, I approached Kerrie Flanagan, director of the Northern Colorado Writers, with the idea of incorporating a book contest into the association’s annual conference. Other conferences around the country have similar contests, so why not have our own? As a writing organization, the NCW loves recognizing high quality fiction and nonfiction, and thus, the Top of the Mountain Book Award was born. I’ve been the contest’s coordinator since and am blown away by how much it has grown in these last four years. During that time, I’ve learned a lot. I’d like to share my tips and suggestions on submitting to fiction and/or nonfiction contests.

Follow Contest Guidelines to the Letter. It sounds simple, but you’d be amazed at how often people don’t do this. (I have a better appreciation for what agents and editors gripe about.) Most contest rules, especially with formatting, mirror what agents and editors ask for, so it shouldn’t be difficult to tailor your submission to a contest. Some of the rules may not make sense to you, such as how they want the document saved as, but trust that there’s a method to their madness, and go with it. They have specific requirements for a reason, so if they ask for a 3-page synopsis; it’s a 3-page synopsis—not a 2 or 2-1/2 page synopsis. Agents and editors expect the same guideline considerations. And if you’re not sure about something, email the contest coordinator and ask. It’s much better than submitting and finding out later your overall score suffered because you didn’t ask about something first. 

Don’t Ask for Exceptions or Special Treatment. Rules are rules, man, what can I say? If we let everyone submit an extra page because “that’s where the action starts,” then first of all, maybe you should rewrite your opening, and two, we’d have a bunch of submissions of varying length and it wouldn’t be a level playing field. Most rules are going to be pretty general, so unless they’re asking you to send a vial of your first born’s blood with your submission, there shouldn’t be any rule you can’t adhere to.

Only Send Your Most Polished Work. Again, probably a no-brainer, but also a reminder that if you want to win, or even be a finalist, your work better be the best it can be. Even if you’ve had your entire critique group look it over, I suggest having one other person—who has never read it before—have a gander at it. You’ll be surprised the typos or plot issues a fresh pair of eyes can catch; it can make or break your submission.

Be Open to Criticism. It can be difficult to send your work out to be judged. Some contests will offer written critiques, and some will not. If they do, be open to hearing what they have to say, but at the same time, remember that it’s all subjective; it’s one reader’s opinion. Judges for the Top of the Mountain are instructed to leave constructive feedback and to offer practical advice, but not all contests are like that, so be prepared . . . or don’t send anything out until you’re confident your work is the best it can be.

Do Not Pitch a Fit. You’d think I wouldn’t have to mention this to adults, but sadly, it happens. Last year, we had a very disgruntled author who didn’t make the cut and after several threats, the police had to get involved. Yeah, not fun. Do not pull a Kanye West. Not only would you likely be asked to never submit to another contest of theirs, word may get around that you don’t like to lose, or have your work critiqued, and you don’t want that following you around. A contest is a contest and if your ego can’t take rejection, well, you’re in the wrong business. So be nice. Be gracious. Keep learning the craft. And keep submitting.

Other things to consider:

  • It’s perfectly fine to send a follow up email to confirm your submission was received. If a contest coordinator has a problem with that, then it’s not a  contest I’d want to be associated with. If you’re paying a fee, you should be able to find out if your entry arrived safely.
  • Don’t end your submission with an unfinished sentence. Tie it up for the judge, otherwise, it shows you didn’t take the time to polish your submission, and that you just saved the required number of pages and sent it off.
  • Judges are often donating their time and efforts. Entry fees typically go toward the cash prizes, PayPal fees, and other admin costs. 

That’s about it. Literary contests are a great way to get your work recognized and grab the attention of an agent or editor. So follow the rules, submit your best work, and wait for the prize money to roll in.

Got Your (Writing) Hands Full?

When my son was around two or three-years-old, we figured it was a good age to teach him simple card games like Old Maid and Go Fish. At that time, the only cards we could find were these jumbo playing cards . . . made specifically for children 3 and up. The package even said, “Jumbo Cards for Little Hands.” 
Jumbo Cards for Little Hands

It was no wonder someone later came up with a card holder. Have you ever seen a toddler try to hold these giant cards in their hands? It may be comical (to parents) for a few minutes, but eventually, the cards end up spread out on the floor, or jammed back in the box. I also didn’t understand the jumbo Crayons and markers thing, either. Jumbo blocks and puzzle pieces, yes. I’m sure there’s a bunch of science behind overwhelming three-year-olds with these ill-proportioned toys, but now that my son’s sixteen, I don’t care. 

There are days I feel like my hands are so full of tasks, that I want to stomp my feet and throw a temper tantrum—even at the grocery store. These days, I’ve got a lot on my plate, so I have to be organized and stick to a plan. Here’s a few tips if you’re feeling like your hands are full of “jumbo cards.”

Get Organized. It sounds simple, and essentially, it is. I have a big white board in my office that lists everything I need to do. Buy several markers and color code projects  by importance. If possible, have it on a wall facing you, staring you down, so you have no excuse to ignore it. This is a great place to list top priority items and their deadlines. Identify the tasks that might have flexibility, or ones you might be able to get an extended deadline for. Also, keep a filing system that separates documents and other papers that pertain to the tasks.

Estimate time needed. If you have a general idea of how much time each project will take, plan your day or week accordingly. I suggest overestimating a skosh to allow for unexpected interruptions. This is a good opportunity to really see how much time you spend on social media and checking email, etc. Is it all necessary? Chances are, you could streamline those activities and carve out extra time for these tasks. To avoid burnout on one project, you might want to switch between tasks. I find that I can approach certain projects with a clearer mind if I step away from it for a while, even if it’s just an hour or two. 

Say Uncle! if you need to. Don’t be afraid to ask for help, especially if what you’re working on is a group effort; it’s better than producing rushed, poorly-executed work. Plus, talking through the project with someone, might put it in a new perspective that’s easier to work with. And don’t be afraid to say no in the first place. It’s hard for me to turn down writing and/or creative opportunities, but sometimes that’s the way it goes. Otherwise, I’d irritate myself and make my family crazy with my meltdowns. 

What are your tips for keeping your sanity when your hands are full?

Which Came First: The Character or the Plot?

Oh, the age-old question . . . or something like that.

When you started your fiction work-in-progress, did you begin with your character? Or your plot? Maybe both? My forthcoming novel, Bobbing for Watermelons, began with a quirky housewife and I left the rest up to her. “Do your thing, you crazy lady. Make a story.” From there, I wrote the book chapter by chapter, with no road map or compass. I was having fun putting her in sticky situations, but where was it going? If I wasn’t careful, her antics would wear thin with the reader. I quickly learned that characters need direction—a place to “do their thing.” Fortunately, I got it together and gave my character a path to follow in a fun world I created just for her. 

Conversely, if you’ve come up with a unique plot with twists, turns, and an ending that kicks ass, do you have enough left in you to create a memorable character who’s thrown into your well-thought out story? For another novel I started working on last year, I came up with the plot first and my characters last, who frankly, are as boring as watching golf. (Yes, I said that, and yes, I meant it.)

Based on my own experiences, I’m theorizing that the first born tends to be stronger. It used to be we heard the terms, “character-driven,” and “plot-driven,” when it came to books. Perhaps we still do, but it seems to me, readers want both, and why should’t they? Some believe plot is more important in an action-packed thriller (who cares if the guy in the midst of the action hasn’t an emotional marble in his head, he sure looks good in a suit). He’s only there to carry out the action, right? 

Well, I’m no expert, but I’m getting the feeling that readers want it all: character and plot, packaged together and wrapped with pretty paper. Quality writing notwithstanding. (That’s another blog post.) So,what’s the point of all this? I’m not entirely sure, but I’d like to know which came first for you: the character or the plot and is it stronger than the other? 

 

My Space

My Space -- April J. MooreA fellow writer recently asked me what I need to write. I need to channel Stephen King or Ivan Doig and write as often and as well as they do. But alas, that ain’t gonna happen. For now, I’ll take my little rituals and little space in our guest room and click-clack away. Notice the space heater . . . this is Colorado and The Husband and I are on opposite ends of the thermometer. I keep my room at a roasty-toasty temp and no one can tell me to turn it down. (It also keeps anyone from bugging me while up I’m here writing.) I found a table at a flea market, painted it, and wedged it in the corner. On the oppose wall, is a closet full of supplies and books.

Books -- April J. Moore
On my crookedly hung bulletin board (I have no idea how I managed that), I have notes, a picture my niece drew, a newspaper photograph I’d like to paint someday, and various little things. (Yes, that’s me on the Big Wheels.)
My Space -- April J. MooreThese are a few things that I don’t necessarily need to have in order to write, but they make me smile: a ceramic bird I received after my father passed, my prayer flags from the Shambhala Center, and the creepy, faceless figurine called the “Angel of Hope.”
MySpace -- April J. MooreI don’t know that I really need anything other than a pencil (mechanical, please) and paper, in order to write, but this space works for me. It’s peaceful and allows me to do what I love. The rest is up to me.

Do you have any writing rituals? What do you need to be a productive writer?

So, You Say You Want to Write?

Quite often, I’m approached by people who are either just getting into writing, or have a finished manuscript, but don’t know what steps to take next. I’ve talked to retirees who are finally getting around to that story in their head, and the stay-at-home mom whose kids are now in school full-time, so at last, she has quiet time to write. So how do I get started? How do go about publishing my book? Ah . . . as many of you know, those are very loaded questions that require more than a quick chat over coffee. But they need to start somewhere, so I have five pieces of advice that will hopefully point them in the write direction.
The End (Now What)

1.) Connect with a local writing organization. Some people think that you can either write or you can’t, and for those who think they can, they don’t necessarily see the value in attending writing workshops and classes. Well sure, we all like to think we can handle this writing thing on our own, but quite frankly, even seasoned authors are constantly improving on their craft. There’s always room to grow and improve as a writer—especially with help from other writers. Writing doesn’t have to be a solo venture. The support and camaraderie between writers is a beautiful thing—we learn from one another, not only about the craft, but the business of writing as well. Plus, when your short stories, articles or book comes out, you’ll already have an audience ready and willing to read, Tweet, and review. Networking is just as important in writing as it is in any other occupation.

2.) Join a critique group. Vital. I can’t reiterate enough how important this is. This is also another great reason to join a local writing organization—they will likely be able to hook you up with a group that would fit your needs. Don’t subject your friends and family to your “shitty first drafts,” as Anne Lamott calls them; that’s what your critique group is for. Plus, a critique group will be more honest with you and have the writing chops to help. Another great reason to join one is that they keep you on track and accountable when it’s your turn to submit, otherwise, it’s easy to veer off the writing path. And besides, it’s fun to get your name in the acknowledgements page of their books (because your feedback was so valuable!)

3.) Perfect your query letter (for fiction). There’s a special place in hell for query letters. Many writers say that the query letter is harder to write than the damn book. Your amazing story is relegated to 1-2 paragraphs that has a killer hook in the opening. But it can’t be cliche. And it shouldn’t open with a question. Or can it? But you have to include the word count and some want it in the opening paragraph and some want it in the end. Oh, and don’t forget the brief bio and what other writing credits you have. And most important: never, ever, forget to . . . um, hmmm. . . . can’t remember. See what I mean? They suck. Luckily, there are a number of sources out there to help—though they all vary to some degree. I recommend Give ‘Em What They Want: The Right Way to Pitch Your Novel to Editors and Agents. Also check out Query Shark to get very blunt, to-the-point advice on writing a query. For some new writers, finding out that agents are practically the gatekeepers to traditional publishing, is like a punch to the gut. “You mean, you don’t send the manuscript and cover letter to Simon & Schuster?” Nope. That’s why I also recommend Agent Query when it comes time to start the glorious process.

4.) Perfect your pitch or book proposal (for nonfiction). These are usually just as heinous as the query letter. For most book-length nonfiction, a proposal is often sent with . . . brace yourself . . . a query letter too. I know, I’m sorry. (And that’s if you’re lucky!) Sometimes agents will take a proposal right off the bat (check their online guidelines). Oftentimes, you have to query the book proposal! Plus, the book doesn’t need to be finished, like it does with fiction. Many agents and editors want to be able to move things around and tweak a nonfiction manuscript, but you still need an outline and sample chapters to present in your proposal, which is often 30 pages or more. Fortunately, there’s help. Check out How to Write a Book Proposal by Michael Larsen. For pitching magazine articles, Kerrie Flanagan, freelance writer and director of the Northern Colorado Writers says that in your query, open with a catchy hook; give the editor a brief description of the proposed article (and how it ties to their guidelines); tell them what their readers will get out of reading it; and finally, tell them why you’re the perfect person to write it.

5.) Set up a blog. For some, this is more daunting than the query letter. When an agent sees promise in your query or book proposal, they want to find out more about you. And what better way than Google? A lot of agents and editors believe that you need a web presence, no matter how stellar your book is. It won’t sell itself. You don’t have to be a Super Blogger like some of those in my previous post, but you have to let people know that you and your book exist. You’ll also need a page where you post links to any online clips so that magazine editors can get a feel for your writing style. Blog a couple of times a week—the key is quality, not quantity. Start building your audience, especially if you’re an expert in a certain field and are shopping your nonfiction how-to, for example. It’s a necessary evil. But wait, there’s more. Follow other writers’ blogs and comment! The more you put yourself out there with quality content, the bigger the audience you’ll build—agents and editors will love you for it. 

So there you have it: my 5-step, Get Published Quick Scheme. Well, more like writing scheme, and sometimes, that’s all you need to get going.

What’s your best advice for a new writer? (Besides turn the other way and run?)

Writing Blogs to Follow

I know, all of you probably only follow me and hang on my every word, but I’ll let you in on a secret: I get my wisdom from other writers and industry professionals. Here’s my top 8 writing blogs I like to follow:

  • Make a Living Writing Carol Tice is a freelance writer based in Seattle and her posts are full of amazing advice. 
  • Jody Hedlund Hedlund is an award-winning author who offers tons of advice from creating strong characters to how to navigate the publishing industry.
  • Terrible Minds Chuck Wendig . . . I’ll let him tell you what his blog is about: “novelist, screenwriter, and game designer. This is his blog. He talks a lot about writing. And food. And the madness of toddlers. He uses lots of naughty language. NSFW. Probably NSFL. Be advised.”
  • Helping Writers Become Authors K.M. Weiland is a bestselling author who talks about (among many topics) common writing mistakes, how to structure a book, and writing inspiration.
  • Writer Unboxed Focusing on the business and craft of writing fiction.
  • Write it Sideways: “Write It Sideways’ has been helping you see the world of writing from a fresh perspective. Our experienced team can help you learn new skills, define your goals, increase your productivity, and prepare for publication.” Need I say more?
  • Live Write Thrive Get your grammar on here with novelist, copyeditor, and writing coach C.S. Lakin.
  • Quick and Dirty Tips from Grammar Girl Mignon Fogarty is a true grammar maven. She makes remembering grammar rules easy.

What are some of your favorite writing blogs?

Being a (Productive) Stay-At-Home Writer

I originally posted this back in July 2012 for my critique group’s site, but I wanted to share it here because I sometimes find myself falling off the writing wagon and need a reminder. Hopefully, I’m not the only one . . .

I think many writers relish in the idea of a secluded place to work; a long retreat, free from interruptions and time to master our craft. However, this concept never seems to end well for Stephen King’s writer characters. Before you head to a vacant mountain hotel, or a remote cabin in upstate New York, consider these work-from-home tips that won’t involve axes, poltergeists, or dead bodies.
The Stanley

First, Take Care of Distractions

I’m easily distracted, whether it’s something shiny or a pile of laundry. Sometimes, no matter how determined I am to get several pages written, even small things can veer me off the creative path. Working from home poses a plethora of distractions that can keep you from settling into work mode. Combat them by dealing with those things before you flip on the laptop. Wake up early and take care of that load of laundry, pile of bills, or a sink full of dishes. Schedule your chores and writing time. Perhaps designating one day to household tasks can enable you to work the rest of the week. Another distraction is the internet. Aren’t you curious about your blog stats, Twitter updates, or the latest viral Facebook video? If you don’t need internet access to write, then turn it off. What about noises? One word: Earplugs.

Get Organized

Treat yourself to a shopping spree at an office supply store. They say if you buy great workout gear, you’re more likely to get your butt to the gym. Same goes for writing. If you want that fancy pencil holder, get it.  Do what you need to do to create a productive work environment. For my first book, organization was critical for me since I had 93 dead guys to keep track of. I bought a few file boxes with hanging folders and together, my label maker and I went to town. Each inmate had his own folder containing absolutely everything pertaining to him: transcripts, newspaper articles, and even critiques from my writers group when I submitted his story to them. If your work is disorganized, you may not feel motivated and driven. Get the right tools to help you.

Go To Your Room

If I had known how much I could have accomplished as a kid when my parents sent me to my room, I’d have a seven-book series by now. Today, I treasure alone time in my room where instead of plotting revenge on my sister, I actually get quality time to write. Claim your own space, whether it’s a room, a corner, or a table. Your area should also consist of only what you need to write. Don’t work at a desk where you pay bills, or do other hobbies. You need to focus on writing. My area is the guest bedroom. I found a small desk at a flea market, painted it and parked it by the window. The closet, situated behind the desk, houses my weapons of writing: reference books, research, and all those extra office supplies I stocked up on. (You can never have too many Post-Its.) Make the space inviting—but only to you. You need to be left alone, so politely inform your spouse, your kids, and your dog (who’s holding the leash in his mouth) to not bother you while you are in this special space of yours. 
redrum

Break it Down

I tend to freak myself out thinking about the amount of work I have ahead of me. Nothing like a bit of fear to kill your motivation. I must remind myself to take baby steps. I tackle one task at a time, sometimes two. If your project feels like deciphering the Dead Sea Scrolls, then break it down. Work on one scroll at time—or half a scroll. Don’t put more pressure on yourself than you need to. Shoot for a certain number of pages a day to get done. Maybe it’s one chapter at time, or one article a day, or the introduction of your book proposal. You will feel more accomplished and productive if you take on only what you can handle that day. When I applied this method, I had those scrolls deciphered in no time.

Reward Yourself

What does your little heart desire? (Think small for this, okay?) Maybe it’s a new book, a nice bottle of wine, or going to the theater to see a movie. Now, choose the task or project you need to do and set a deadline. When you meet that deadline, reward yourself. I know this may sound simplistic, but it works. Yes, you could give yourself the reward anyway, but show some willpower, because trust me, that reward is way less satisfying if you truly didn’t earn it. Write your deadline and reward on a board or post it on the refrigerator to keep you motivated. Get the family involved to help support you on your journey because it’s even more rewarding when others can share it with you.

With a bit of creativity, it’s possible to be a productive writer without fleeing to deserted beach house, or a lonely cabin in the mountains.
Secret Window

Sneaked vs. Snuck

You may have noticed I get a little uptight about certain usages of grammar, which is strange, because I’m not at all a grammar expert. However, there are a few things I feel confident about ranting about. One of them is the word “snuck.” (For the record, in admin mode, WordPress underlines it in red, indicating it’s misspelled.) So ha. 

For me, this goes way back . . . to the classic movie, White Christmas. That’s right. This is where it all began. You see, there’s a scene (30 minutes into the movie) where the Haines sisters have to explain to the famous Wallace and Davis why the sheriff is in the office with a warrant to arrest them both! *GASP!* 

Sisters--White ChristmasJudy: “Oh, the landlord is claiming we burned a hole in the rug and he’s trying to hold us up for two-hundred dollars.”

Phil: “Oh, no. Not that old rug routine.”

Betty: “On top of that, we sneaked our bags out of our room.”

(Another thing I’m confident about: The dialog is spot on. It’s sad cool that I know every like to this movie, right?) That’s what happens when you grow up watching this movie nearly every day from Thanksgiving to Christmas for about 20 years. I remember asking my dad, who really was a Grammar God, why Ms. Clooney said “sneaked” and not “snuck.” (Again it got underlined in red, just so you know.) He explained it was the proper usage. Good enough for me.

If you need anymore convincing, Brian Klems at Writer’s Digest agrees with me. So please, stop using “snuck” (I LOVE that red squiggly line!) and follow Betty’s lead. Smart lady.

Writing Prompts: You Gotta Start Somewhere

Blank Document

Look familiar? That’s right, it’s a blank document. For many of us writers, that’s the stuff of nightmares—you know, the one where you’ve been paper cut to death by a swarm of rejection letters? That’s the one. Well, it’s an all-too common problem many us could live without. Oftentimes, instead of having this wordless screen stare back at me with a “Uhm, hello? I’m blank. You going to write something on me, or what?” I’ll close the laptop. Ha! Take that! Although that’s typically unproductive . . . unless I pick up  a pen and a pad of paper. At times, I find I’m more productive when I go Old School and write on paper; it’s less intimidating than a blank Word Doc. But then what? 

Get writing. Dennis Palumbo, author and former screenwriter, who spoke at the Jackson Hole Writer’s Conference a few years back said, “Writing begets writing.” Turns out, he’s right. However, when you need a hand to get going, story starters or writing prompts can help wake the muse. Here’s a few to try out:

  • Emma knocked on the door and immediately regretted it.
  • Ben hated what he had to say next.
  • Had he been conscious, he probably would have said . . .
  • “It won’t hurt a bit,” she told him.
  • Most of the time I keep my promises, but . . .
  • I thought I had more time, but the doorbell rang . . .
  • She held out the box. “No, you open it.”
  • She/He/It slipped in through the front door unnoticed.
  • They didn’t believe me at first. 
  • Daniel thought she was crazy when she first told him . . .
  • I tried to give back [fill in the blank] but he told me to keep it/them.
  • Eric wanted to take the words back the second he said them.
  • It went completely against his nature, but he had no choice but to . . .
  • He walked in and saw her sitting with . . .

The following two prompts come from The Pocket Muse by Monica Wood:

  • I could have avoided all that trouble if I had only remembered to . . .
  • Seven days ago [fill in the blank]. Now, no one will talk to me.

Okay, now it’s time to take my own advice and write.

Do you have some writing prompts? Please, do share in the comments below.

Write it Down!

Dad's notebook

Today is my father’s birthday; he would have been be 64. I inherited my love of writing from him, so it’s no wonder I’ve adopted his method of keeping a small notebook with me at all times. I know he didn’t invent this practice, but it’s surprising to me how many of my fellow writers aren’t in this habit. My father would not only have these small spiral notebooks in his shirt pockets, fishing vest and among his camping stuff, but his lunchbox from work usually contained slips of paper with story ideas, quick dialog exchanges, and random words jotted down on them. When I compiled all of his writings in a book after he passed away in 2007, I included many of these “snippets”—they were too good to leave out. These are just a few of my notebooks over the years:
Writer notebooksThere are so many times when I’m sitting in my car, standing in line somewhere, or at a restaurant, when I hear something I could use in a story, or essay. In fact, the notebook on top are my notes about an incident that had happened moments earlier and became a published essay. Nothing’s worse than a writer without paper and pen, especially when inspiration hits, because we all know that a muse can be an elusive S.O.B. Another reason to buy cute little notepads, is to jot down words and phrases that catch your attention while reading. I have been wanting to do this for ages and I finally designated a notebook for it, aptly named . . .
Word.It gave me an opportunity to get down with some ’90s slang, but I also got to use my coveted label maker. Anyway, I can’t tell you how many times I’ll be reading Ivan Doig, and think, “Ooh, great word!” “Nice phrasing.” (And the occasional, “Geez, I suck.”) Doig is a true wordsmith who creates these incredible characters and settings; his work always makes me pause and admire his way with words. My father was an Ivan Doig fan as well, so I’m grateful to him for introducing me to this amazing author. I wish I had started this practice years ago because so many words are a dime a dozen; you want the uncommon ones that will make readers  say, “Damn, great word!” Buy these little notebooks in bulk for all those big ideas (and words!); you never know what short story, essay or novel will get its start on those pages.
Oh, and happy birthday, Dad! Write on.

Retreat, Revise, Repeat

Writers RetreatThis was my view for the last four days. I just returned from 3 nights in Estes Park for the annual Northern Colorado Writers retreat. As opposed to previous years, this retreat for me did not include drunken nights of playing Bananagrams. I must be maturing. Instead, I tallied 27 hours of writing time. Well, editing and revising time. I decided to wipe off the 10 years of dust and grime of an old manuscript and get it up to snuff. I started Bobbing for Watermelons (women’s fiction) back in 2004. Miraculously, (and I say miraculous because holy crap, did it need help) it became a finalist in 2008 for the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writer’s Colorado Gold Contest. I thought I was golden . . . (see what I did there? I love puns) . . . I figured agents would be clamoring to represent me, but alas, after a round or two of unsuccessful querying, I stumbled into the research for Folsom’s 93. Bobbing got shelved. This retreat turned out to be the perfect time to revitalize the manuscript. I’m certainly not the same person I was ten years ago, let alone the same writer (thank goodness). Here’s what I learned from revising the first 34,000 words (over a third) of the manuscript:

1.) With age, comes new perspectives and insight (ideally), which you can apply to your writing. For instance, my main character is a 41-year-old mother of teenagers. At the time I started the book, I was 27 with a 6-year-old. I feel like now I can relate to my character in ways I couldn’t before, plus, I can add /delete/revise scenes, dialogue exchanges, and subplots based on these new perspectives and insights.

2.) Rookie mistakes are just part of the writing game . . . and man, did I make them. I sent this to agents?! What was I thinking? But hell, aren’t you glad you can catch these mistakes and correct them easily? I can’t tell you how many times my character “nodded her head,” and “shrugged her shoulders.” My critique group calls these “outrages.” So, for you rookies out there, lose “her head” and drop “her shoulders.”

3.) I was able to spot issues much easier than before. Stepping away from a writing project, whether it be 10 days, or 10 years, can give you the time you need in order to see major issues, such as bland characters, wonky pacing or stilted dialog. I zeroed in on major mistakes that my eyes glazed over before because I was just too close to the project.

4.) My humor was pretty bad. (Not that it’s much better now) but it was really lame 10 years ago. I promise, my jokes are new and improved in this revised version.

All in all, the retreat couldn’t have gone better. In addition to getting in some quality writing time, we got up close and personal with some Estes Park residents:
ElkGot to experience the first snow of the season:
First snow, Estes 2014And I also learned that  Sarah Reichert is not only a very talented author, but a skillful mashed potato volcano builder as well.
Mashed Potato VolcanoI challenge you to unearth an old manuscript, breathe new life into it—perform CPR if necessary—and see what happens. You might surprise yourself.

Booze & Caffeine: The Creative Combo

According several studies, including this one from researchers at the University of Chicago, booze creates big ideas and caffeine makes them happen. Crap. That means as a writer, I could be screwed. You see, I gave up caffeine back in February (hello, sleep!) and 37 days ago, I had my last glass of wine (goodbye, social life)! When I had to finish up Folsom’s 93 and get it to the publisher, I took a break from booze and enjoyed a month with less brain fog (imagine that). Once the book was out of my hands, however, I practically leaped off the wagon with a box of wine under each arm.

Now, my creativity red light is flashing and it’s time for a refill. Is it really from the lack of my favorite Malbec? Do I take a cue from the famous drunk writer Ernest Hemingway who said, “When you work hard all day with your head and know you must work again the next day, what else can change your ideas and make them run in a different plane like whisky?” I don’t know. I’m not entirely convinced that alcohol made me more creative (as evidenced by previous blog posts) so I’m not going to race to the liquor store (where everyone knows my name), but I will try—what some writers may call—the less fun approach: paper and pencil. A little help from my friends doesn’t hurt either. Write Away: A Year of Musing and Motivations for Writers by Kerrie Flanagan and Jenny Sundstedt is a great book filled with ideas and advice for writers who need to refill their creativity tank. Kerrie’s excellent writing advice and Jenny’s wit is the perfect combination for getting sober writers like me to “stay drunk on writing,” as Ray Bradbury advises.
Write AwayEven though I can practically hear Edgar Allen Poe and Truman Capote guffawing at my teetotaler ways, I’m going to stick with being the designated driver for a while. Besides, someone has to recount (and retell) the events from the night before, which always has the potential to become the script for Hangover 3.

Someecard Rant Irony

Because of my Pinterest addiction, I come across many Someecards where folks have something to say, but unfortunately their message gets lost in [grammatical] translation. With hundreds to choose from, it was easy to find some gems:

Grammer/Grammar . . . what’s the difference, right?
irony
Knowing singular from plural is NOT your forte.

Plural, singular

Again, vein/vane . . . what’s the difference, right?
vein, vane

Hmm. Who’s calling the kettle black?
your, you're

Perhaps he left because of your bad grammar.
your, you're
The following all feature my biggest pet peeve: placing punctuation outside quotation marks. Okay, I get that in the UK, this is how it’s done, but I see American journalists, bloggers, professionals and even teachers violate this rule. If you live in the US, there is no excuse to get this wrong.
quotesAnd technically, there should be a comma after “hey.” Way to go, dumb ass Grammar Nazi.

your an idiotSigh . . .

punctuation
So, before you hit “save” on that hilarious Someecard that you’ve just created, check your grammar. And if you haven’t had enough of my own grammar rants, check out my guest post at The Writing Bug about why I blame social media for the poor grammar epidemic.

A Writer’s Retreat a.k.a. Naptime

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I just returned from the NCW annual writer’s retreat held at the Shambhala Mountain Center near Red Feather Lakes, CO. Maybe it was the soothing incense wafting about, the 8,000+ feet in altitude, or that the staff and other visitors seemed to peacefully float about with serene expressions on their faces, that I found myself to be rather sleepy on this particular retreat. Despite this, however, I only took one 90-minute snooze, which I chalk up to hours of vigorous writing, part of which, took place outside in the warm mountain air. Although my toasty room, equipped with a comfy bed, may have contributed.

Retreat1This was the first time the retreat had been held at the SMC, but I had visited the center once before. There were some rules to follow . . . one of which, was removing shoes when entering the housing facility. It took me two days, but I finally learned in the end, to strategically plan my outings to ensure the least amount of shoe removal. But up until then, I repeatedly forgot which entrance I left my shoes at. But I survived. The highlight of the center is of course, The Great Stupa of Dharmakaya that stands 108 feet tall and took 13 years to construct. It is considered one of the largest and most significant pieces of sacred Buddhist architecture and said to “promote harmony, prosperity, longevity, good health and peace.” Sounds good to me.

Retreat2All zenful shenanigans aside; I did get a good amount of writing done. Even though I came there with a 20, 653 word manuscript and left with a 20, 875 word manuscript,  I still accomplished quite a bit: an outline (that otherwise did not exist) and I rewrote the first 4 chapters because originally, they sucked. I came away with a much better WIP and I was able to work out some plot issues so that I could move forward with it. Had I not gone on the retreat, I imagine the only writing-related thing I would have accomplished would have been playing Words with Friends and maybe a kick-ass grocery list, complete with clipped coupons . . . while burning incense. I needed this time away to focus on writing and get re-energized with this book I’m working on. Plus, it never hurts to be around other writers, snacks, and wine…just don’t forget your slippers.

20131109_083348A selfie with the Stupa.

Inspiration Passing You By

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As writers, we often hear our fellow kind talk about finding material by eavesdropping on conversations in coffee shops, restaurants, etc. Maybe I’m too busy inhaling my latte while focusing all my attention on Pinterest actual writing. Sure, if I happen to overhear great little tidbits of potential story dialog, great, but I don’t make it a point to listen. However, this weekend, I learned that I could inadvertently gather inspiration by just walking through a little touristy town, minding my own business. I didn’t have to feel bad about listening in on anyone; these are folks passing by. They were worthy of jotting down in my little notebook.

“We’re tourists; tourists do stupid shit.”

*

“Remember that cotton candy phase you went through?”

*

Wife: “Honey, look . . . I found something I can buy.”

Husband: “Imagine that.”

Sometimes, some of the best stuff comes completely out of context from people passing you on the street. Use them as a writing prompt for a story, create a character based on one, or simply construct a conversation based on one and work it into your WIP. This made me think about if I’ve said something that caused a passerby to think, “Did I just hear that?”

Meet Jason Brick

Guess what? I found someone who actually makes a living writing! Really, I’m not kidding. And lucky for us, we can learn how to do the same from his new book, Mastering the Business of Writing: How to Earn a Full-Time Living as a Writer. Jason was kind enough to answer some questions and bestow some of his writer wisdom upon us mere mortals. Thanks, Jason!

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1.) In addition to being an freelance writer, you’ve also published a travel book, short stories, and from what I hear, penned a young adult novel. Does your passion for writing reside with one more than the others?

It’s more a matter of what I’m passionate about at any given moment. One of the things I love about writing is I can bounce between one project and another as the mood suits me. I have lots (LOTS) of interests and this lets me chase them all down. 

 2.) You’re also a writing and a martial arts coach. Do you find many similarities between the writing clients and the martial arts clients? Is one group easier to coach than the other?

The process is almost identical for both, even though the details of what I’m coaching change. In both cases, what I’m really teaching is how to take control of your life and support the things that you hold dearest. Martial arts students are way easier to teach, I think because there’s more of a culture of listening and trying something out in the martial arts world. Writers resist more before trying stuff, and they tend to be a little more fragile. 

 3.) During your years of coaching, what’s the toughest thing to teach writers?

To think of writing as a business. A lot of writers don’t seem to want to do that. Some are afraid of the organization, marketing and self-discipline it takes to run a business. Some don’t want to “sell out.” But I have to ask…what constitutes selling out your talent? Turning out a few hours of work for pay every day, or spending those hours working at Home Depot and writing nothing at all?

 4.) You recently e-published two writing books, Mastering the Business of Writing: How to Make a Full-Time Living as a Writer; and 9 Steps of Highly Profitable WritingDid you learn anything surprising during the process of writing those? And what’s one important thing you hope readers take away from these books?

Full Disclosure: I had a publisher — TKC Publishing out of Hawaii — do the actual e-publishing. Working with them, I learned that promoting an ebook is way more complex than I imagined. But TKC has it to a science — Mastering hit #1 on the Amazon chart for books about writing for a day an a half last week. The most important thing I hope readers take away from either book is that this is the best time to be a writer in the history of the written word. Don’t let Scott Turow or a bunch of scared agents tell you otherwise. The door’s wide open for anybody willing to put in the work. Walk through it, already. 

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5.) You’ve also written some dark, yet humorous short fiction under a pen name that has received great reviews on Amazon. Wingman in particular is said to be “like [The] Hangover, but funnier.” You’ve proven that writers don’t have to stick to one genre or style of writing; do you find it easy or difficult to keep them separate? Do you recommend it to other writers?

I find it necessary to bounce between genres. Otherwise, I get bored. And being bored does not keep my coat glossy. I recommend it to other writers who feel inspired to write in different areas. If you want to, you should. If not, you shouldn’t. I should also say that the industry says it’s a mistake. You spend energy in areas you don’t already have a following, and have to duplicate a lot of effort. That’s changing with the new face of publishing, but it’s still something to keep in mind. 

 6.) What do you think is the most common mistake that writers make?

Not treating your writing like a business. If you want to be a professional writer, you have to approach it professionally. If you want to just write a little and publish from time to time, though, it’s probably not that important. 

 7.) What, in your opinion, are the downsides, as well as the advantages, of digital publishing?

The biggest downside is that print still has all the cache. There’s something to holding the finished book in your hand, or being able to give a copy to a friend, that’s really special. Other than that, digital wins. Selling one copy or 10,000 copies costs you the same amount of moneyIt’s easy to fix typos as readers point them out to you. And you don’t have to wait a whole damn year between finishing the book and seeing it up on Amazon. 

 8.) As a busy father of two, how do you make the time to write full-time? (I’m assuming that after twenty years of teaching martial arts you’ve learned to stay focused and disciplined).

First, it’s my full-time job. I write from home, and it takes me only 3 or 4 hours a day to write enough to make my living. That alone gives me 5 hours (plus a couple theoretical commute hours) I wouldn’t have if I punched a clock. The focus thing is sort of true. I did learn how to create and apply systems to keep my time on track, and the martial arts helps me stick to those systems. Being systematic is a huge part of both of my books on writing. It’s an important habit to succeeding in any freelance endeavor. 

9.) What’s next for Jason Brick? Or for your alter ego, Jake F. Simons?

Jason Brick has three things in the hopper. My YA book about quantum mechanics and the zombie apocalypse should be finished up in the next few months. I’m also joining up with SEOWiSE, an outfit that teaches writers how to conquer the web to support their careers. But what I’m really most excited about is Precious Cargo. It’s a book I’m working on with some top martial arts, close protection and law enforcement guys where we apply bodyguard doctrine to family safety while traveling. I think it will be important, and it’s really fun to research.

As for Jake…Wingman’s sequel Train Wreck hit Amazon on July 31st. The next story in the series, Cluster*&$k, should be out before the holidays…just in time to buy grandma the trilogy.

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I encourage you to check out Jason’s website that is full of great information about freelance writing, writer’s conferences and more. Thanks again, Jason/Jake! (You can also check out my interview on Jason’s website)

Book Launch and What I Learned

welcome

Before I head out tomorrow for the California launch of Folsom’s 93, I held a book launch here in Fort Collins in the Tasting Room of the Fort Collins Brewery. The idea was not to sell a bunch of books, but rather, to celebrate with friends and family the long-awaited release of my first book. I guess I’d consider it more of  a “book shower” after the birth of the darn thing. I didn’t expect everyone to coo over the book and buy, buy, buy. It’s okay to just hold it, look it over, and hand it back to the parent. Not everyone is into babies like this, especially creepy babies. It’s about celebrating. Having never done a book launch before, I learned a lot, so I thought I’d pass along my thoughts . . .

KerrieApril

1.) First, I learned (well, was reminded) that I have the most amazing friends and family in the world. A BIG thanks to all those who came and supported me!

2.) Picking a venue: Free is usually best, but we decided to splurge a bit and rent out a section of a local brewery. Some things to consider: when they require a minimum in food purchases, find out if tax and added gratuity is included. (I was taken aback a little when they tacked on nearly a $100 gratuity to the bill for 2 bartenders even after they had put out 3 tip jars that were already filled). Don’t get me wrong, I have no problem with tipping—I insist upon it—just be aware of what will be expected of you in this type of venue. We purchased beer and appetizers for guests, so it was great to see them drinking, eating, and mingling. If you don’t mind paying a little bit, this is a great way to go, especially since all you have to do is show up. I also considered buying a keg and hosting the event at my house, but the added stress of hosting (including cleaning up) just wasn’t appealing.

brewery

3.) Invite ’em right: I figured Facebook was a good place to start by creating an event that goes out to the friends you invite. It was probably the easiest, fastest way, but it was the least reliable method. Many people didn’t see that they were invited because FB alerts people once or twice and events are posted in an out-of-the-way spot and can easily be missed. Plus, lots of people use this tool and if you have some very social friends, your invite can easily get lost. I suggest using Evite. It’s free and a lot more reliable. You’ll need everyone’s email address, but for those who don’t post theirs on their FB page, send them a personal message.

4.) Get an “event planner”: This may be your spouse or best friend who’s not afraid to run the show a little. People seemed to show up all at once, so it was a bit overwhelming. I had planned on saying a few words and thanking everyone for coming, but there was never a moment when I could get everyone’s attention. I was in constant greet-mode. This makes it hard when it’s a friends and family event—at a public reading or signing, it’s a lot easier to say your shpeal. Before the shindig, designate someone who won’t be afraid to let loose a whistle or tap a glass to get the crowd’s attention—and yours. Also, have a friend take lots of pictures, because you will not have time to! This reminded me of my wedding reception, so it will be helpful to have others in charge of making sure things get done and go smooth. They also need to make sure you have something to eat and a drink in your hand.

5.) Pass the Buck: If you’re selling books yourself, designate someone to handle all of the sales. My husband, obsessed with finances, was the perfect choice for this job. I suggest getting the Square so that you can take credit cards via your smart phone or ipad. The device is free—they’ll mail it to you—and all you have to do is download the free app. It takes 2.75% of each swipe and that’s it; no additional fees and the moolah is deposited the next business day. This is ideal because you should have a box of books in your trunk. (If you don’t, there’s something wrong with you, or you’re a NY Times best seller and you don’t need to). With the Square, you can take payments from anyone, anywhere, including the barista who you see every morning who you’ve developed a friendly rapport with who  will be delighted to now be serving the greatest local author ever. Also, make sure you can easily make change for those paying with cash. For example, I sold the book for $15, so we had lots of fives on hand because people paying cash were likely to pay with a twenty dollar bill.

6.) Say whaaat?!: Most people, when having a book signed, especially by someone they know, hope you’re going to do more than just sign your name. First, sign the title page. Always ask who they want it signed to and make sure they tell you how it’s spelled. (there are those few Apryls out there . . .) Find some signature phrases such as Many Thanks, Best Wishes, Much Appreciation, All the Best, Hope you enjoy the book . . .you get the idea. And think before you write. We had a small gathering a few weeks ago with good friends and one suggested I come up with something that has to do with prison, so I wrote “Stay on the straight and narrow . . .”  . . . to our gay friends. After I handed it to them, I realized how stupidly inappropriate that was, but we all had a really big laugh about it.

7.) Get Creative: I had taken in a CD of the mug shots, as well as the book cover, to a print shop to have them enlarged and mounted on foamcore. (Thank you, Megan from Print Cafe. And thanks for coming to the launch!) These were great for displaying on the tables. I propped up the book cover on the signing table. Be sure to bring book stands for stuff like this. (Thanks, Kerrie!) They were a hit, particularly Felix, who made his way around the room . . .

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8.) Open any gifts right away: If someone gives you a gift, particularly if it’s from your wonderful sister (who flew in from out-of-state to surprise you for the book launch), open it right then and there because it could be a beautiful, engraved pen that would have been perfect to use for signing the books. Things were busy and I didn’t open it until later. Don’t wait.

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Overall, have a good time and enjoy yourself.

signing

The company my husband works for is based out of San Francisco, so I decided to tag along this time. My son and I get to tool around the city while he works, then we’re off to Sacramento where I’ll be at the Folsom Prison Museum from 10-4 on July 20th. Next, catch me at Time Tested Books on July 24th in Sacramento at 7pm. Then it’s back to San Fran on the 25th to Modern Times Bookstore at 7pm. Wish me luck!

“So, how’s that workin’ for ya?”

Ah . . . the immortal words of Dr. Phil. I can hear his voice in my head asking me about my latest “Get-Writing-Quick” scheme that I started just over a month ago. You know, the whole Jar Idea.

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Well, I haven’t been able to utilize them the way I was hoping; too many tasks already on my plate. However, I am happy to say that I had an article accepted for publication in the April/May issue of Whole Life Times. Take that, Pinterest! Speaking of which, it’s been two days since my last Pinterest visit and I’m hoping I can stay on the wagon for a little while longer.

I have also made sure that I threw some fun into my schedule by attending a book signing by friend and fellow writer, Chuck Barrett while he and his lovely wife were visiting from Florida. Chuck’s third book, Breach of Power is scheduled for a mid-March release which I was able to pre-order (just like you can!) and picked up signed copies of his first two.

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So all in all, I haven’t been totally unproductive; I do have a writers conference to help set up after all . . . And, I’ve been receiving edits from my publisher of Folsom’s 93, so it hasn’t been all hammocks and margaritas here–I promise, Dr. Phil.

Dr.Phil

I’ve Been Jarred

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It’s obvious by my last blog post that I’ve had some trouble being productive. My lack of productivity really stems from the fact that I’m a bit out of sorts (a nice way of saying disorganized). This realization is particularly disheartening for me because I LOVE organizing things. My label maker and I are like this:

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And the idea of going to The Container Store gets me hot and bothered (and I swear I hear heavenly trumpets and cherub chatter when I walk into one). Sadly though, this unnatural desire to organize and label my life, has not translated to the projects and tasks portion of my life. Sometimes I stare at the list on my white board until I’m blue in the face, unable to decide what I need to work on, and more often than not, I’m distracted by chores and other “house stuff” that needs my attention. I then turn to Pinterest for consolation and there goes my afternoon.

So my dear friend Kerrie, who is the director of the Northern Colorado Writers (it helps by the way, to have friends in the writing community to keep you going–glom onto those people) gave me the idea of sorting these tasks/projects into different jars. She too, is going to try this tactic. The idea is to write down what needs to be done on separate pieces of paper and devote time each day to “Jar Tasks.” Whether it’s 30 minutes or two hours, pick something from a jar and do what it says! If you have a couple of hours, pick one thing from each jar—it’s up to you.

My 4 jars: Illustrating, Writing, Home and Fun/Reward. Here’s a little sampling of my tasks . . .

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Now, I quickly learned that there are rules to this game. Yes, I know, no one likes rules, but if you want this to work, you have to play by the rules. The beautiful thing is you can make up your own, but might I make a few suggestions:

1.) Take care of projects that have a deadline first. These are things that have to be done a.s.a.p. As part of the Creative Team for the NCW Writers Conference in April, I have several things that need to be done, so I have to make sure I devote time each day or each week to those projects. Other things include working out, practicing guitar, and meditating. Be sure to schedule those things before anything else.

2.) Don’t put things in the jars that you’re not prepared to work on that day, week, or month. If you need to purchase items for a certain task, make sure you have those things ready to go should you pull that card out of the jar. If you don’t think you’ll be able to do that task the second you pull it from the jar, don’t add it. Stick to the things you are prepared to work on.

3.) You get what you get and you don’t throw a fit. Most parents are familiar with this saying . . . and it goes for adults too! If you get “clean toilets” then by George, you’re cleaning toilets. You can bitch and moan, but limit it to a minute and just get ‘er done.

4.) If it’s a reoccurring task, throw it back in the jar. No need to write ten of “write a blog post.” Merely toss it back in when the need for another blog post arises.

See? That’s not too bad, right? I do find it rather sad that I seem to have more items in my ‘Home” jar than the others, but I have a feeling that a trip to The Container Store will make it all better. Kerrie and I vowed to keep this up until the end of January, so wish me luck. I’d also love to hear some of your ideas and if you’d tried a similar method. Did it work? Or did you find it mildly satisfying to smash the jars against the wall?

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How I Retreated and Came Back with a Story to Tell

A couple of times a year, my husband takes a week off to go fly fishing in Montana. The days, sometimes weeks, leading up to these fish n’ beer excursions, he’s a little on the grumpy side because his mind is on the river and typically, there’s a lot to wrap up at work before taking off. Just a couple of weeks ago, he returned from those healing Montana waters, a new man. Little did I realize, that I myself had begun to morph into Oscar the Grouch the days leading up to my writer’s retreat. With a lot on my plate (not all of it appetizing) I haven’t found much time to write, let alone, relax. I had been struggling with starting a new novel, so the retreat called to me, not unlike the way trout call out to my husband.

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This was the third consecutive year I’ve gone on the Northern Colorado Writers retreat up at the Sylvan Dale Guest Ranch, and each time, I made great progress on whatever project I had going. This year, I didn’t have anything in particular to work on since I’m in between projects. For the first hour or so, I sat in my room and stared at the wall. Another one of the attendees suggested I try these story cubes . . .

They may be geared toward kids, but they’re worth a shot. I ended up jotting down some short story ideas from them, but resumed my wall-staring for a while. Then, thanks to a few writing prompts from Writer’s Digest, I hooked into a story. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist). I hand wrote several pages of ideas, then  plotted out the structure using the Plot Line Skeleton.

Based on the skeleton plot line, I then wrote a three-page outline. Before I left, I had nearly the first two chapters written. Since I’ve already started the book, I’m obviously not participating in NaNoWriMo, but I’m going to certainly write like I am. My goal is to reach the halfway mark by Christmas. So what’s the moral to this story? If you find yourself wanting rip the heads off kittens, please don’t. Take a time out to recharge and regroup. Your friends and family will thank you, and you’ll most likely end up with a new project that you otherwise wouldn’t have come up with.

It also didn’t hurt that we had plenty of wine to help reduce those high stress levels:

2013 Writing Planner

For most writers, scheduling time to write is essential. It doesn’t hurt to have a spiffy calendar to help organize that time and to hopefully inspire some ideas. This is the second year in a row that I’ve collaborated with my friend Kerrie Flanagan, director of the Northern Colorado Writers, to put together an amazing (and helpful!) planner.

It is filled with inspirational quotes and will feature 12 different illustrations and a full-color cover. We sold out last year, so don’t miss out! You can pre-order one today for $12.50 and it will be shipped to you after November 27th. (What a great Christmas gift)!

Jackson Hole Writers Conference

I just returned from the Jackson Hole Writers Conference with my dear friend, and director of the Northern Colorado Writers, Kerrie Flanagan. We decided on this conference frankly, because of the location. Kerrie’s husband is a pilot and the idea of piling into a 4-seater and getting to Jackson in half the time it takes to drive was well, scary at first, but simply perfect.

Me and Kerrie

Kerrie has put on seven successful writers conferences with the NCW and I have been helping out as part of her Creative Team for the last two, so of course we were anxious to see how the JHWC stacked up.  We’ve also attended other conferences such as the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers Conference and Pike Peak in Colorado Springs. The JHWC is in its 20th year and had a great lineup of presenters, so it really was a no-brainer. Now that I am starting a new novel, it seemed like the perfect time to take in a conference. By the way, I should point out, that no matter where you are in your writing career, whether you’re a beginner or an established author, you will benefit immensely from attending conference workshops and hearing presenters. Every writer could use a kick in the pants to get started (or to keep going), so I highly recommending attending conferences when you can.

We weren’t sure exactly how large attendance typically is for this conference and were pleasantly surprised to find that it was certainly on the small side, about 100-125. It was held at the Jackson Hole Center for the Arts, located near downtown. Luckily, we were able to find affordable lodging in walking distance to the center. A lot of conferences are held at hotels which is nice when there is downtime between conference events. There seemed to be a lot of downtime between sessions at this conference. The conference schedule was posted on the JHWC website, however, workshop descriptions were not, so we expected the program to be more detailed. It wasn’t. We received a folder with a one 2-sided piece of paper with the schedule, but no description of the workshops—sometimes a title, but no description.

The conference opened with a fabulous keynote from freelancer and author, Michael Perry. Perry’s humor and witty presentation got the conference going. Up next was a an author panel with Anita Diamant, Margaret Coel, and Alyson Hagy. Then it off to the one and only “craft class” of the day. So you had your choice: Poetry, Fiction, Social Media, and Nonfiction. You basically picked which presenter you wanted to hear because there was no description of the workshop. I write both fiction and nonfiction, so how do I make my decision? Not only was it difficult to find a person to ask, the workshops were difficult to find. I ended up taking Margaret Coel’s Plot Your Way to Success. I figured since I’m starting a new novel, this would be a good place to start. I’m glad I did. She provided some great tips on outlining a novel—she’s the author of 17 novels for Pete’s sake! Here’s some highlights:

  • Look for ideas everywhere, i.e. newspapers and real life
  • Then ask the what if questions
  • Know your characters! What do they want? What drives them?
  • When it comes to outlining, start with note cards. Write important events, one on each card and start arranging them.
  • For pacing, make an action graph by rating each event 1-10. If you find you have a straight line at 5/6, then you know you have to beef up the tension a bit.
  • Let your characters go off on bunny trails; readers like to be surprised.
  • Characters must be proactive. Don’t just have them react to things that happen to them. Have them cause events, as well.

The session ended at 4:30 and the next event wasn’t until 7:00—the cocktail party. Since we stayed close to the conference, it was fine, but for those who did not, I could see how that much downtime would be difficult…unless you’re a shopper. There’s certainly a lot to see in Jackson if you’re up for it. We met some great people during the cocktail hour, but decided that after the early morning flight and long day, we knew we’d unfortunately never last for the 8:00pm talk from Naomi Shihab Nye.

Day two opened with a presentation from Margaret Coel. She authored three nonfiction books before diving into fiction, so it was nice to hear that it’s ok to genre jump! She also said, “Don’t write what you know. Write what you want to know.” She knew very little about the Arapahos when she got an idea to write about them. 17 books later, she’s an expert. Write what you’re interested in—you don’t have to know it—you just have to have the desire to know it.

Next up, Anita Diamant, author of The Red Tent, spoke about why she writes historical fiction. I was excited to hear her speak since I’ve decided to tackle historical fiction myself.

She joked that her editor, after reading one of her drafts, said, “Your research is showing,” as in, your slip is showing. It’s essential to do research for historical fiction, but don’t bog your reader down with every historical morsel or tidbit you’ve come across. Historical facts are less important compared to the characters; weave in those details little by little.

Next up came Q&A with the agent panel. Alex Glass, Lisa Bankoff, and Robert Guinsler answered various questions from the audience, but we didn’t feel there was anything said that we hadn’t heard before. It comes down to subjectivity and pure luck.

The Craft Classes were next and again, there was only one and our choices were Poetry, Fiction, Nonfiction, and Going Digital. I decided to stick with fiction and attended Alyson Hagy’s workshop called Physical Fiction. Again, I had no idea what that entailed, but I wanted to stay with fiction. She provided a one-page handout about creating realistic and engaging characters.

  • Don’t forget to use all five senses in your fiction: “…use of smells, tastes, sounds, and textures in your work can really create authority with readers.”
  • Remember that your characters have bodies. We tend to just describe our characters’ faces, hair, or height. “…don’t present a reader with every physical detail about a character all at once. Parcel it out in the early pages or scenes of a piece. Then remain aware of your characters’ bodies—and how they might change throughout the kinds of niche fiction.
  • Think about the careful use of physical gesture in dialogue. Best to use “he/she said” but every so often, let your character do something with their hands, or show where their eyes are looking when they say something.
  • Read and Observe. Analyze characters from authors you love. “Borrow from them. Improve upon their strategies…you want to be a writer who is known for being evocative, for drawing a reader so deeply into your written world that they forget the real world…for just a while.”

Individual conferences, or pitch sessions began after the workshops. Since neither of us planned on pitching anything, we sat this one out and attended A Conversation with Anita Diamant. A moderator posed questions to Diamant and it was certainly fun to hear about her processes of researching and writing. I love that she said, “Breaking rules makes things interesting.” This seemed to be a theme throughout the conference.

We decided to attend the wine and cheese walk with cowboy poet, Jayme Feary who did a poetry reading. It was a great chance to enjoy the outdoors with fellow writers.

I also got to see what a half-ass looks like…

Her name is Big Mama.

Next up were some more craft classes, but frankly, by 7:15, we were exhausted. The poetry workshop went to 9:45pm, another until 9:30, and one to 9:00. After the wine and cheese event (and I don’t eat cheese!) it left little time for dinner, so we decided to call it quits for the night.

Saturday opened with a presentation from NY Times bestseller, Brandon Mull, who wrote the middle-grade series, Fablehaven and Beyonders. I was looking forward to hearing him speak, as my son and I really enjoyed reading the Fablehaven series. He’s a great speaker and a lot of fun. I’ll paraphrase some of his gems of advice:

  • To get published, you have two audiences: You and your readers. Please both.
  • Write something that fits squarely into an existing category, which allows publishers to know who your audience is. BUT, it has to be different—in a cool way.
  • Like Margaret Coel, Mull said to look for ideas and writing prompts in real life. Constantly keep your eyes open for ideas, then ask the what if questions. The cooler it gets, you’re on a roll. Be a good observer.
  • He builds roller coasters with his books, creating twists and turns.

Dennis Palumbo, a former screen writer, and “psychotherapist to the stars” talked about The Three Cosmic Rules of Writing. We really enjoyed Palumbo and learned a great deal from his talk.

  • Rule One: You Are Enough. The fact that you are writing is enough to get you published. “Everybody thinks the party is happening somewhere else. It isn’t. This is your party.”
  • Rule Two: Work With What You’re Given. This goes to write what you know. “No one else has your perspective.” He said that there is more inside of us than people can see, so look for those things and write about them. Focus on what readers want: Feeling, consequences, conflict and stakes. “Your feelings are the root of your writing.”
  • Rule 3: Writing Begets Writing. This is certainly my favorite. “Writing anything is better than writing nothing at all.” It doesn’t matter what it’s about—write it down because it can lead to something. “It doesn’t have to be good, just there,” and waiting for inspiration is just plain stupid. Write. “Keep giving [publishers] you, until you is what they want.”

Editors, Sarah Bowlin from Henry Holt,  and Denise Scarfi from W.W. Norton & Co., took the stage next for some Q&A. Here’s what I took away from them:

  • Publishers are looking for original and surprising voices in fiction. Voice is so important at getting their attention. They are looking to be transported from their world to your character’s world.
  • Editors are looking for authors to be their partner in the publishing and marketing processes.
  • If an author feels forced when it comes to publicity, it will appear forced. Marketing your book has to be authentic to you and what works for you. It’s a myth that authors have to do all the work once the book is released.
  • Editors are reading literary journals and magazines, so write those short stories and submit, submit, submit! They find clients through magazines.
  • The jury is still out on whether or not social media really sells books.

Sticking with the fiction theme, I attended Kyle MillsMaking Sure You Get the Easy Stuff Right: The Nuts and Bolts of Novel Writing. Mills focused on the basics of novel-writing. Much of it was review, but it doesn’t hurt to hear it again:

  • Tell the story through dialogue as much as possible; avoid data-dumps.
  • Follow correct grammar as much as possible; avoid trying to get fancy with accents and dialects, or spelling phonetically. It will distract your readers and pull them out of the story.
  • Recommends past tense, unless you have a compelling reason for present tense.
  • Research is at your fingertips! You have no excuse when it comes to getting facts wrong.
  • Don’t get heavy on description based on your research, especially because your reader may not share the same passion.
  • When it comes to repetition, Mills chalks it up to a lack of confidence. Trust that your reader got it the first time. If you did it right the first time, there should be no need to reiterate a point.
  • Breaking rules is fine, as long as you know the rule and know how to properly break it. Understand what you’re doing and why.

The last day involved more individual conferences, so Kerrie and I attended Mark Hummel‘s Learning to Listen to the Voices. This was about developing your characters, which was ideal for me. You really can’t write or even know your story until you know your characters—as real people, Hummel suggests. It was the only workshop I attended that actually involved writing exercises, which I love. Hummel had us pick a character we’re working on and ask him/her questions, in which your character would answer—in their voice. 1. Ask your character about their mother. 2. What does he/she fear? 3. What do they desire? And ask questions you don’t want to be asked yourself—you’ll get to the heart of your characters. Don’t let them off the hook, make them answer. I found this exercise extremely helpful.

The conference went on to Student Readings (with beer apparently), book sales and signings, and then a buffet dinner from 8-10pm. We decided to forgo these and enjoy dinner with our husbands who spent their weekend fly fishing. Overall, the conference was a lot of fun. I don’t know that it was worth the hefty $390, but I still came away with bits and pieces of great advice and with a fire lit under me. Nothing like a writers conference to get you inspired to write!

The Plot Line Skeleton

I recently had the wonderful opportunity to take a class from author Bonnie Ramthun at the Northern Colorado Writers. I had always known I wanted to return to fiction when my nonfiction project was completed, so taking Bonnie’s class was exactly what I needed.

The author of 8 successful novels, Bonnie knows a thing or two about plot structure. She dissected bestsellers and found that they all follow the same plot line structure. She showed us that The Silence of the Lambs, The Hunger Games, The Da Vinci Code, and even children’s books like Where the Wild Things Are, all have this plot structure.

“Every great story contains a great beginning, some sort of a turn around, or catalyst, a number of pinch points, a second turn around or catalyst that leads to a climax, and then a final wrap up of the plot.”

-Bonnie Ramthun

“Each one of these elements is balanced, like a see-saw, on the strong midpoint element of the plot. The exciting beginning is matched by the exciting ending; and each element doesn’t overwhelm the others. In stories as short as children’s picture books or as long as a complicated thriller, a strong skeleton supports a great novel.”

Bang!: Obviously, a strong opening is critical.

First Turn Around: A big event or catalyst that’s not only going to propel your story along, but your main character as well. What’s at stake? What challenges is your hero facing?

Pinch Points: You can have several pinch points, but you must have at least 2 major ones AND they must relate to one another. Oftentimes, these two pinch points involve the protagonist and antagonist. For example, in the Harry Potter books, the first pinch point usually is a confrontation between Harry and Voldemort, and again before the Second Turn Around.

Midpoint: This is what keeps everything in balance, like Bonnie said, “like a see-saw.”

The Second Turn Around: Also called the “Hero’s Choice.” This is where your hero has to make a decision and whatever he/she decides, it leads to the climax of the story.

Bang! (#2): Is the climax of the story, such as a battle scene. Typically, this is between the protagonist and antagonist.

Wrap up: Tie up all those loose ends. Make sure everything you’ve brought up, has a resolution.

After seeing this structure, I now know why the first manuscript I wrote has pacing issues. I didn’t use an outline. Now, I can’t imagine trying to tackle a novel without implementing a plot structure like this. Now that my nonfiction manuscript is in the hands of the publisher, I can finally start something new and the process isn’t as daunting as before. A bestselling novel can only be supported by a strong skeleton; once you have that, it’s a matter of adding the meat of the story.