Wednesday, January 2, 2013

What I've Learned About Writing That I Didn't Read Anywhere

Ok writers,

Those of you who are more experienced will react to my next statement with a mental no-duh.

HOWEVER, I do not remember reading anything about this anywhere.

Here's the most important thing I've learned (at least about trying to get published in the YA market):

Premise is #1.

Sure, some may argue and agents list on their websites and blogs that solid writing and 3D characters are important. But from what I've seen through agent contests lately is that agents are drawn to strong, original premises. Also, judging from what gets published sometimes, strong writing is NOT a must.

So, if I had to do this all over again, I would start with a startling title, then build that into a logline, query letter, short synopsis, long synopsis and THEN finally write the darn novel. That's not really how I naturally work but I think that may result in a more "sellable" product.

It's not that I blame agents for choosing on premise. It's a tough publishing world and everything is driven by what readers are more likely to buy. My story (while having great writing, characters and action - at least in my opinion!) is not the most original if judged purely on premise.

Geez, I wished I'd done my HW before writing. But, it's a story that I had to tell. Like they say, usually your first published book is NOT the first one you write. At least I'm learning a lot.

I hope this helps other writers out there.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Short Story Collection available for FREE on Amazon kindle for next five days

Hello World,

My new short story collection Orbiting Bananas and Six-Toed Cats is now available on Amazon for kindle. For the next five days it's free. After that it's still only $0.99.

The short story collection includes works from the last ten years or so - my favorite pieces. It's eclectic, funny and (I hope) entertaining.

Check it out and send me feedback! :)

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Developing Characters with a Character Trait Checklist

Are you sick of articles that prod you to develop strong characters but leave out the important part? Like…how to actually DO that? Just vividly portray each personality, they say. Do so in a manner that makes them flawed, realistic, lively, they say. Well, I say, DUH. You think I don’t already KNOW that? You don’t think I want my characters lively? I’d love for them to be lively. In fact, lively enough to crawl off the screen and write the freaking book themselves!

Ok, sorry. Hissy-fit over. I just hate it when articles give generic advice.

This is NOT one of those articles.

The method I developed for defining my characters is called the Character Trait Checklist.

Here’s how it works:

Step 1: List your characters

Step 2: Choose their traits
For each character, make a list of 5+ traits you want to emphasize. I don’t think I’m the only one who’s read a book, envisioning the character a certain way, only to be thrown for a loop in Chapter 9 when the author describes them as having red hair. But they have BLOND hair, I want to scream. Nope, I flip back to Chapter 1 and sure enough, they have red hair. But I’d forgotten! That’s why I think it’s important to remind readers of the physical or personality traits you think are most important for each character.

Choose physical, emotional and personality traits. You can even give your character an interesting quirk. Check out Anthony Owens’ list for some great examples.

Step 3: Differentiate your characters
When putting together these lists, try to make the main characters as different as possible. If one character is funny and light-hearted, make the other morbid and dark. And avoid clich├ęs. Even for minor characters. For example, in my novel, one of my characters interacts with a gas station attendant. In the first draft, the attendant grunted and wore a flannel shirt. In the rewrite, I made him a gushing fan of musicals. It’s weird, but it’s unexpected.

Step 4: Revise using checklist
Make a document that lists each character in each scene of your story, their traits listed below their name. Read through your scene and each time you recognize a trait being used, check it off by placing a descriptive bullet below the trait. Make sure you ask yourself if what you wrote is the best way to display this character’s trait. For example, when my drama queen found someone wearing a necklace she thought was stolen, she doesn’t just demand it back and cuss them out. She rips it off their neck and swallows it to keep it safe (cause that’s the way my little freak acts)!

The checklist document is helpful because it will also show you what traits haven’t been used. Not every trait has to be used in every scene, but examining this might inspire new twists that are consistent with the personalities you’ve created.

Don’t forget about dialogue. Use your character traits to edit your characters’ conversations. Not all your characters should talk the same way. This doesn’t mean start writing in dialect (we’re not all Mark Twain), but you can have characters use different words and different slang.

This method worked well for me in the revision stage, but experiment with using it to help outline a first draft.

I hope this helps! Let me know if it does!

Update on Agent Search

Well, I've revised my novel to death and decided that now is the time to find an agent. How did I go about choosing who to send it to? I work off the following criteria:

1. Submit first to agents who represent books I love that are similar to mine.

2. Submit to agents who represent books similar to mine as found on agentquery.com

Since July 3, 2012, I have submitted to 13 agents:
  • Jodi Reamer
  • Rosemary Stimola
  • Laura Rennert
  • Miriam Kriss
  • Ginger Clark
  • Laura Bradford
  • Holly Root
  • Jennifer Schober
  • Brandi Bowles
  • Suzie Townsend
  • Victoria Marini
  • Kristin Nelson
  • Jenny Bent
So far, I have received two rejection emails (from Jodi Reamer and Laura Bradford). Though the rejections were more like form emails, I have to say I was impressed that the agencies took the time to send a response at all. I understand that agents are incredibly busy (I couldn't imagine getting several hundred queries a week-or day!) so I don't expect a rejection email at all (most agencies have gone to the "no reply by certain time limit = rejection"). Getting one from these prestigious agents impressed me - they are extremely professional.

I plan on submitting a few more queries today. When doing my research on an agent, I ran across an incredibly helpful site, Literary Rambles, that does Agent Spotlights. These are incredibly detailed posts on agents with links to interviews they have done on the web. Basically, these posts summarize everything found on the web about this agent and does a wonderful job cutting down on my research time. Definitely check this blog out.

Do you have helpful tips on researching/submitting to agents?

Writing prompts

Here’s a list of writing prompts to inspire you:

1. Write a dialog between someone very ticked off and the unfortunate recipient of their fury.

2. Describe an item from your childhood without using adjectives.

3. Limit yourself to 10 words to do the following (via post-it note):
  • write a note left on a car you hit
  • break news to a guy that he is NOT the father of your baby
  • break up with someone
  • tell someone you killed their pet fish
  • write a tagline for the worst book you’ve read
4. Write a romantic scene that takes place between two characters at the DMV.

5. Describe a human face from the perspective of an alien.

6. Write a scene in which a character wakes up to find that he is absolutely alone.

7. Describe a character whose life sucks. Make it as bad as possible.

8. Write a scene in which the luck of the character from #7 changes.

9. Adapt a fairy-tale or myth to modern times.

10.Make a list of unexpected things someone might do after winning the lottery.

I hope this inspires you!

Attention Shoppers

Here’s a little trick for inspiration: look through your old files. I did and found this weird, quirky short that I wrote after my little brother (the cartboy) came home from work one day, venting about shoppers. Maybe it will inspire a new character for you – enjoy!

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

So far, I’ve been content to shuffle behind you in my red apron, your groceries under my arm, head up just far enough not to lose sight of you in the parking lot. Now, I have a list of complaints.

(1) It’s NOT ok to stuff your unwanted items into the candy racks at the checkout line. You’d think that business men would be able to decide whether or not they want Tabasco-flavored mayo, but what do I know, I’m only the bagboy.

(2) It’s NOT ok to forage in the produce section. You know who you are.

(3) It’s NOT ok to discard a cart just because it has a flyer in it. You walk in, grab a cart (neatly arranged in perfect rows), sneer suspiciously at a flyer in the bottom, ditch the cart wherever it stands and grab another “cleaner” cart, probably imagining you have narrowly escaped contamination with terrorist pathogens. You then wander into the store, making sure to grab several fliers you won’t take with you. I’ve seen you do this so don’t object. Just quit it.

Adjective Abstinence

The best piece of writing advice I ever received was this: cross out all the adjectives and adverbs in your writing. Then, take a second look and only keep the ones that are absolutely necessary. Originally advocated by Mark Twain and highlighted in Josip Novakovich’s Fiction Writer’s Workshop, this simple task has dramatically improved my writing.

Instead of saying that someone is angry, describe an action that would indicate their anger. Let the reader do some work in interpreting your prose. I think writers, myself included, can make the mistake of thinking if they don’t explain the appearance of the setting or characters in their stories, then readers will be left with faceless shadows wandering around an empty box.

Consider the following example. In this scene, a teenager watches as his mother comes home from work.

She opens the door quickly and steps into the kitchen, looking professional but tired. She takes one look at the messy kitchen and laughs.

Now, scan the passage for adjectives and adverbs. You will find “quickly”, “professional”, “tired”, “messy” and “angry”. Ask yourself if these words are necessary to the plot and the feeling you are trying to evoke in this scene. Depending on the rest of the story, probably nothing will be lost if you delete the word “quickly”. So, delete it.

Before you decide to keep the other words, think if you can describe the scene in a different way that gets the point across. Consider the following rewrite:

She opens the door and steps into the kitchen. There are wrinkles in her suit and she carries her heels in one hand.

It is not necessary to delete adjectives from your writing entirely, but you may be surprised what happens when you force yourself to keep them to a minimum. I did.

So, take a step in the direction of literary purity. Sign the Adjective Abstinence Pledge below.

I, ____________, pledge to resist the pull of overusing adjectives even if my friends do it and even if my writing partner pressures me to do it. I will remain free from excessive adjectives until I am committed to a long-term book contract when I will then be free to write any way I darn well please. Adjective abstinence is the only proven way to escape the social diseases associated with this activity, including enraged editors, apathetic writing partners and an increase in the frequency of rejection slips. I am worth the editing time.

Even though studies find that the pledge is not always effective, it has been shown to discourage the overuse of adjectives (at least for me and Mark Twain).

Happy writing!