Monday, May 14, 2012

First Loves Blogfest



in which we post about our first loves –
first movie, first song/band, first book, and first person.

Four loves, one blogfest!

This one is both easy and hard for me.  Hard because I’m in the latter half of my life and the view back through all those previous years is cluttered with a sundry of memories, all clouding the origins of my first loves.  But here goes, at least to the best of my dim recollection:

First Movie Love:

As a high school senior in California back in 1982, this film encapsulated my life.  It’s the story of a group of California teenagers who enjoy malls, sex, and rock n' roll!


First Song/Band Love:

What can I say?  It’s frickin’ Led Zepplin, for God’s sake!


First Book Love:


I loved this book so much, I couldn’t put it down.
I was reading it during a lecture in geometry class and started crying when Johnny died.

First Person Love:
My husband, Eric!


Wasn’t he hot?  Still is, too!

I was 17 when I met him.  He was 15, but looked a lot older.  It was lust at first sight!
It took us awhile, but we finally married 8 years later,
and we’ve lived happily ever since!

Laugh all you want, but big hair was the bomb back in 1990!


So what were your first loves?


Sunday, May 6, 2012

A to Z Challenge: Reflections Post




Well, I’ve had a week to rest up after the 2012 A to Z Challenge, and boy, did I ever need it.  I never expected the Challenge to be so…well…challenging.  It wasn’t having to write all those blog posts either.  For me, that was a snap compared with all the reading and commenting I did.  That’s where all my real energy went.  And I suppose that’s where most of my complaints lie, as well.

Don’t get me wrong, I did enjoy the Challenge, it’s just that I don’t think I reaped what I sowed.  I’m not sure how many new followers I gained, but in comparison to how many new connections I made, to how many new blogs I followed, it was a pittance.  I chock that up to the number of newbie bloggers I followed overall.  I want to believe these neophytes don’t understand the concept behind returning the favor. 

Yes, I know what you’re thinking, and I certainly do not expect every blogger I follow to answer in kind, but when a blogger only has a handful of followers and someone shows up, reads their post, then comments on the content, I think they should at least stop by for a return visit.  But, it is what it is, and I can’t change how others respect the principles of etiquette.  No hard feelings.  I just sometimes wish it was as easy to find and unfollow blogs as it is to do the same on Twitter.  Maybe someone should come up with a Blogger edition of ManageFlitter.


I will say, though, that I did meet a lot of wonderful people, mostly other writers like me.  I found their blogs informative, funny, and educational.  Some just wanted to make a connection, like me, to someone who was interested in the same things they were.  I like those folks, and I loved the generous spirit of their blogs.  Ultimately, that’s why I chose to participate in the A to Z. 

I must say, though, that there were a lot of irritating things about trolling through the list of participants.  For one, that list?  Yeah, way too long!  Insanely unmanageable.  I think I would have liked to see some way to classify the blogs.  I mean, personally, I was searching for writing or writer blogs, folks like me.  I wasn’t too interested in the knitting or crocheting or quilting blogs or what have you.  Yet I often couldn’t tell just by looking at the blog title.  So I tuned in only to take a quick peek around and dash on back out if it just didn’t interest me.  It would be time-saving to have the blogs listed by content, nature, or subject.

Other than that, the things that were like a burr under my saddle were:
  • Google Friend Connect not allowing me to follow and constantly having to re-sign in
  • Music that starts blaring the moment I tune into a new blog and then not being able to turn it off.  (Hey, not everyone likes your taste in music, so why alienate people?)
  • Bloggers NOT turning off that blasted Word Verification feature…argh!!
  • Double Word Verification for each blog I want to follow after following more than a certain number during that day.
  • Bloggers who didn’t take the Challenge seriously and keep up, only posted a few times, or didn’t post at all even though they were listed.
  • Listing a blog that was private and would only allow invited guests to read.  Why enter the Challenge if your blog is private?
  • A blogger not attaching their blog to their profile so I could visit and possibly follow back.

Each and every one of these items made me sigh and roll my eyes.  I’m not sure what’s up with Google Friend Connect or if anyone else had the same problem I had, (and still have) with following blogs, but I found it very frustrating not to be able to connect with a good blogger.  But overall, I had a good time and I met some extraordinary people.

The big question, of course, is will I do it again?  At this point, I’m not sure.  Probably not if there isn’t some way to classify the blogs by subject.  But then again, I’m always up for a good party and the A to Z is the biggest of the year.  I do want to thank all those who dropped by and left comments, whether or not you followed.  I love comments more than anything. 

And to the one man who came back every single day without fail and left a kind comment—Alex Cavanaugh—my crush is stronger than ever!!


Thursday, May 3, 2012

Extreme Makeover - Blog Edition!



As an author racing towards launch day, I’m taking small steps to “establish my brand.”  That means creating a unique trade identity that effectively represents my product—my book(s). 

When I first developed my blog, it was all about my “hopeful journey towards publication.”  But now that publication looms a few short months away, I need to refocus and accurately characterize my professional label.  And so, since I write rather dark, twisted psychological thrillers dealing primarily with revenge and redemption, I felt a new look was in order. 


I first had to create a slogan that embodied my work, then devise a web page that graphically demonstrated it.  At this point, I don’t have the funds to pay someone to do that, so I did it myself, but with the help of a generous friend and supporter, writer Carrie Butler.


As one of my talented critique partners, Carrie completely understands the concept behind my soon-to-be published novel, The Mistaken.  And last night, as a way of congratulating me for my recent book deal, Carrie sent me a gift.  She designed the banner at the head of my blog.  I am blown away by her generosity, not to mention her extraordinary talent, both as a writer, and now as a designer. 

Thank you, Carrie, from the bottom, the top, and every side of my heart!

So, what do you guys think?  Isn’t it hot?  Haha, pun intended!


Wednesday, May 2, 2012

IWSG: Weebles Wobble



It’s the first Wednesday of the month, time for


I was busy posting for the A to Z Challenge last month, so I forgot to write for the IWSG.  The last time I posted for the group in March, I was deliberating whether or not to concede to a major revision in order to get my book published.  Well, as most of you know, I did concede, and I got my book deal, but does that make me any less insecure?  Well, in some ways, yes, but in many others, no, not at all.


I suppose what made me most insecure was not landing an agent with my query, and I still haven’t achieved that, even if I did manage to land the bigger fish—the publisher.  I never really liked the idea of a gatekeeper anyway, but still, having the approval of one is a mighty form of validation, one which I desired.  So in that sense, I am still insecure. 


And I still worry obsessively, too, just about different things, things that are more or less out of my control.  But when you agree to publish, you have a very limited amount of control.  I’m an artist, so I have definitive ideas about my book’s cover, and while my publisher listened to my ideas, they are still the ones to decide what it’ll be.  I’m also worried about the edits, which are coming soon.  Though I’ve been assured there isn’t much to change, I know I’ll still have to kill a darling here or there—words, not characters.
 

Of course, my biggest insecurity is wondering how well my book will do once it’s released in October.  Its success will ride mostly on word-of-mouth.  Sure, there will be marketing and blog tours and reviews and all that, but you and I know that most books are made or broken by word-of-mouth.  And my audience is adult, a most discerning crowd. 

So while I’ve had my own brand of validation from my publisher, it’s all still a crap shoot.  Sure, I’ve had my share of accolades, which I am greatly appreciative of, but while many of those are from writers, they have since become my friends, so there’s some built-in bias there.  Come October, what are total strangers going to think?  Now there’s the true rub.  At this point, I feel kind of like one of those Weebles.  I wobble a lot, but I haven’t yet fallen down.  I just hope it stays that way.  

    

Monday, April 30, 2012

A to Z Challenge: Z is for The Omega




Z is for The Omega:  the omega Ω is the very last letter in the Greek alphabet.  It signifies the last, the end, or the ultimate limit.  (Wikipedia)

As a child raised in the Roman Catholic Church, I remember hearing the phrase during Mass, “I am the first and the last, the alpha and the omega.”  For some reason, this always stuck with me.  And so, as we come to the end of the A to Z Challenge, I can’t help but think about this:  the omega, the end. 

I wasn’t going to participate in this challenge.  It just seemed like too much work, and don’t get me wrong, it was, but I’m not sorry I did it.  The challenge pushed me to do something I didn’t really want to do, but somehow found the strength to do anyway.  And best of all, it brought with it many new followers and those for me to follow, as well. 

It wasn’t always smooth sailing, and I do have a gripe or two or twenty to complain about on May 7th during the Reflection Post, but for the most part, it was a good thing.  It took a lot of planning to figure out what I was going to write and get my own posts up, but mostly it was endless hours spent trolling through nearly 1800 blogs.  I figure I probably hit well over 600.  I didn’t connect with all, of course, but I found a lot of truly fascinating people.  Can’t say many returned the favor, but what’re ya gonna do?  It is what it is.  But as I write this last post, I can’t help but feel relieved, because…

I.  AM.  EXHAUSTED!


So…are you as wiped out by the A to Z Challenge as I am?  Did you manage to post all 26 days?  Will you do it again next year?

Thanks so much for joining me during this incredible Challenge.  I may be taking a short break while I dive into my next novel, I’m not sure.  But if I do, I won’t be far, and I’ll still be dropping by your place. 

By the way, don’t be shocked to see a new look to my blog coming soon, that is if I’m brave enough to implement it.  My publisher has suggested I brand myself and this will be a part of that.  The content won’t change though.  I’m still the same as I’ve always been, still learning, still making friends, still reading all my favorite blogs.   

Saturday, April 28, 2012

A to Z Challenge: Y is YA Fiction




Y is for YA Fiction:  young adult fiction is fiction written, published, or marketed to adolescents between the ages of twelve and eighteen.  (Wikipedia)

I don’t read a lot of YA, but the first book I ever remember reading, the one that turned me onto literature in the first place, was YA.  I read it at the age of fourteen as a freshman in high school.  It was S. E. Hinton’s The Outsiders.  That’s the first time I remember falling in love with a character—Pony Boy Curtis— and crying at words on the page—when Johnny died.  Afterwards, I gobbled the remaining two books in the series, That Was Then, This Is Now and Rumble Fish, in a matter of days.  But that was the end of my love affair with YA.  From that point, I turned to—don’t judge me now—historical romance. 

Looking back, I don’t know why I read those bodice rippers, and it didn’t last long before I converted to my one true love, the adult thriller.  But then came the Twilight series.  I remember a few years back scrounging through Powell’s Books in Portland and seeing it on a table and remembering there was a lot of hype about it.  It really didn’t interest me, but I wanted to know what all the hubbub was about, so I bought it.  And I really liked it.  So I bought the rest.  And I liked them, too. 

Yeah, I know.  Say what you will about the writing, but at the time, when I knew nothing about the craft, I really enjoyed those books.  I’ve tried to pick them up and read them since.  No dice this time.  Just can’t stomach it.  But since then, since I wrote my own novel and became a blogger, I’ve met a great many writers, most of whom write YA.  So it’s no accident that I’ve picked up a few YA novels along the way, most of which have been recommendations touted on popular blogs.

Stolen was the first one I read in a very long time, and I really liked it even though it was written in second person.  Then came Divergent and my first taste of dystopia.  Yeah, I didn’t really like that one too much.  The whole book felt like backstory, like it was just a setup for the next book.  After that, I read Hate List and I loved it!  So I tried Shatter Me next, another dystopian.  This book almost ruined me for all YA.  I can’t tell you how much it bothered me:  the overly grating melodramatic voice, and, once again, that it read like backstory, another setup for the second book in a series.  Only in YA can you get away with that.

I was a bit reluctant to try YA again after that, but I picked up Everneath, and I am so glad I did.  That book was a joy to read.  Then I tried Shine, but found it too slow.  I recently started The Dust of 100 Dogs, but I’ve been distracted by other books, most notably The Hunger Games, another dystopian which I ‘m reading now and positively love.  This book shows you can have a dystopian with a female lead and not be whiny or snarky, just strong. 

Overall, I’m finding a groove for popular YA.  I do like the young voices, as long as they’re not too snarky or melodramatic.  Yeah, I know, teenage girls tend to be melodramatic, and they probably love that, but not me.    
                                                
So considering all that, do you have any YA books you can recommend to this lover of thrillers?

Friday, April 27, 2012

A to Z Challenge: X is for X-factor




X is for X-factor:  the [unknown] variable; the value that may change within the scope of a given problem or set of operations.  (Wikipedia)

As a writer, I’m in control of my story, the characters, and their world.  I love being a creator of new souls and throwing those souls into turmoil and chaos.  Must be what it feels like to be God.  But just like God, once those souls are created, fleshed out from beginning to end, I have very little control over what happens next.  Not if I want to go the traditional route anyway.  And I do.  I am. 

When a writer wants to be traditionally published, he or she usually needs an agent.  (Not always though.  I didn't.)  That entails months, if not years, of querying, where you acquire loads of rejections and feel that it’ll never happen for you.  If it does happen, you have to go through it all over again, trying to find a publisher and an editor who’ll champion your book.  Even if you do, said editor has to take it through a panel to be judged by all the other editors to see if it’s good enough for that publishing house.  And once it does, how will the story emerge after the editing process?  Will it be recognizable to the author? 

And then, after all that—the writing, the revising, the querying, the searching, the editing, the design process—which takes years, there is no guarantee that the book will succeed.  There are just too many unknown variables, x-factors that influence a book’s success.  Many great stories, those with massive financial backing by its publisher, have utterly failed.  And others, some self-published the first time around, find tremendous success, regardless of the quality of the writing, let alone the story.  Just look at 50 Shades of Grey. 

We all know that word-of-mouth is the best, most efficient and influential tool used to market books.  It’s not something you can buy or Tweet or post about.  It’s a slow build-up of satisfied customers who tell other people how much they liked your book.  It is “one of the most credible forms of advertising because people who don't stand to gain personally by promoting [it] put their reputations on the line every time they make a recommendation.”  (Wikipedia) 

You can’t buy this, and you can’t artificially generate it either.  Why it happens with one book and not another is a great unknown.  It’s all a matter of timing, of what strikes a chord at any particular moment.  You can’t touch it, smell it, feel it, or even see it.  It just happens.   It is the epitome of the X-factor.                                            

Does this great unknown scare you as much as it scares me when promoting and selling your book?

Thursday, April 26, 2012

A to Z Challenge: W is for Waiting




W is for Waiting:    a period of inactivity, as until something expected happens; pause, interval, or delay.  (Dictionary.com)

You’ve heard the expression before.  My writer friend and blogging buddy, Heather M. Gardner even named her blog after it:  “The waiting is the hardest part.”  And damn, if that ain’t that the gospel truth! 

As writers, we spend our days…well…writing, of course, but we also spend an inordinate amount of time waiting.  Waiting for the perfect idea.  Waiting for the right words to come.  Waiting for our critique partners to get our darlings back to us.  Waiting to hear back from agents we’ve queried or from editors our agent has queried.  Waiting to get our cover art, our content r line, and copy edits, our ARCs, our books on the shelves.  It’s unending. 

Wait, wait, WAIT!  Ugh!!!

There can be, and often is, many years between the time we started writing the book and the time the public can buy it.  As an architect, I found it very unfulfilling how long it took me to see a project through to construction and finished product.  That’s why I turned to interior design.  It’s much more satisfying to see your hard work realized in a few short months. 

But writing…  Well, writing is much, much worse.  The mere frustration of it is completely overwhelming.  And it’s all out our control.  There’s nothing we, the authors, can really do to speed it up.  It is what it is.

The best—the only thing really—I can say to alleviate it is:  keep on working, keep on writing, keep your writing friends close and commiserate with them.  They’ll understand.  They’ll help you stay focused on the prize.  They’ll keep you going and motivated.  And lastly, don’t give up.  It’s the tenacious who see a project through to the end.  Waiting is hard, but really, what do you have to lose?                                         

What stage of waiting are you in?  Does it drive you nuts?  What do you do to alleviate the stress of waiting? 

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

A to Z Challenge: V is for Voice




V is for Voice:   the sound(s) uttered through the mouth of a living creature, especially of human beings in speaking, shouting, singing, etc.  (Dictionary.com)  Also, the literary term used to describe the individual writing style of an author [specific to a story.]   (Wikipedia)

Literary voice is probably the single most difficult concept to explain in the craft of writing.  I think it’s that feeling the reader has that there actually is a person and a personality speaking the words written on the page.  It’s like you’re sitting around a campfire with the narrator and you can see and feel, as well as hear him.  It’s the very flavor of the story. 

Every voice has its own style that comes from deep inside the character.  It’s his way of speaking, his syntax, jargon, or particular vernacular.  Even his opinion is laced throughout the voice.  It is the intimate details of that character’s life experiences that make his voice unique, that call to the reader to come close, have a seat, and sit a spell while he tells you a story. 

Several mechanics help construct the voice, such as the point of view or who exactly is telling the story, which tense the character is using, first, second, or third, and the chronological order in which he shares the tale—whether it is linear or out of sequence.  In addition, the story’s voice comes from what drives the author to tell the story, what the author’s own unresolved inner conflicts may be.  Even though it may not be the author’s personal story, she assists the voice by filtering it through her own experiences.

Jami Gold recently wrote an interesting post on voice that gets down to the nuts and bolts of what it is and how to use it.  While I don’t necessarily agree that it takes a lot of practice, what I do think is that it takes a keen understanding of who exactly is telling the story and why.  The voice is the embodiment of that spirit.  And in the end (as well as the beginning), it is what keeps the reader reading. 

No matter how good the plot, if the voice falls flat, the reader loses interest.  Same holds true for too much voice.  I notice this a lot in YA novels.  Too many authors feel the need to make their protagonists—especially the female ones—overly snarky, sarcastic, acerbic, or just plain too dramatic, which drives me up the wall.  Shatter Me anyone?  That book drove me mad with its melodrama.  

But even adult novels can have irritating voices that keep me from bonding with the main character.  The Descendants comes quickly to mind.  While I did enjoy it in the end, all throughout the novel, I wanted to smack the protagonist, Matt King, upside the head for being such a dimwitted dumbass.  He was so clueless, it was hard for me to believe he was supposed to be an attorney in charge of his vast familial fortune, not to mention the husband of a supermodel wife who lived life by the seat of her pants.  So while voice can pull the reader and tuck him in, it can also chase him away.                          

What kind of voice most attracts or distracts you from getting involved with a story?  How important to you is the voice in relation to the plot? 

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

A to Z Challenge: U is for Unforgivable




U is for Unforgivable:  [the inability] to grant pardon for or remission of an offense.    (Dictionary.com)

If you’ve followed this blog at all, especially in recent months, then you know my book is all about forgiveness.  Though I recently took the absolute worst part of my protagonist’s offense out as terms of my publishing deal, what remains is still mighty abhorrent.  The main character in The Mistaken commits a reprehensible act in retribution for the death of his pregnant wife.  But it’s not until after he has mistakenly exacted his vengeance against an innocent woman that he realizes just how far he has fallen from the honorable man he used to be, before grief, rage, and alcohol transformed him.  Afterwards, he realizes he must find a way to atone for his shameful sins. 

All along—since the very inception of the idea for this book—I’ve been searching for answers.  You hear all the time on the news about some ordinary, upstanding guy who, for whatever reason, commits an unspeakable crime, something that all his friends and family say is completely against his nature.  He couldn’t have done it.  They just don’t believe it.  George Zimmerman and the killing of Trayvon Martin comes to mind. 

So what makes a man (or woman) commit a heinous act, especially a good man, an honorable man who holds to the very letter of the law?  That is why I wrote The Mistaken.  All along, I wanted to show that a good man could be turned into a monster yet somehow find his back to the man he used to be, or a semblance thereof, anyway.  I wanted to show that the unforgivable could actually be forgiven. 

Most readers are pretty forgiving, though they do want someone to believe in, someone they can understand and associate with, so giving them a protagonist who commits an egregious act is risky, at best, and just plain crazy, at worst.  And though I did compromise slightly by taking out his most heinous offense, what he does is still pretty deplorable.  But I don’t think there is anything that is truly unforgivable.  Humans are complex, ruled not only by their hearts and emotions, but also by their circumstances.  Who’s to say they wouldn’t do something in the intense heat of the moment?  When their life, health, or happiness, or that of their loved ones, was at great risk?   Sure, we’d like to think, after years of conditioning, that we would never cross the line, but the truth is, it happens everyday, all over the world.  It could happen.  There is always that possibility.  We are human, and therefore fallible.  And then there’s that whole whoever-is-without-sin, cast-the-first-stone argument.  In addition, I’ll throw in the one about walking-in-their-shoes, because you just never know.  So it’s comforting to believe that forgiveness—even for what seems to be the most unforgivable—is possible                     

What do you think?  Could you cheer on a protagonist who is so flawed and damaged that he could commit the seemingly unforgivable?  Do you truly believe in redemption for those most in need of it?  

Monday, April 23, 2012

A to Z Challenge: T is for Tension




is for Tension:  mental or emotional strain; intense, suppressed suspense, anxiety, or excitement.  (Dictionary.com)

I've posted about this topic before.  If there is one hard and fast rule for writing a novel, it’s this:

Tension all the time, on every single page! 

After all, tension is what keeps the reader reading.  If it drags or slows down, the reader skims.  If it’s high, the reader slows down and reads every word.  It’s this moment-to-moment micro-tension that keeps the reader wondering what will happen next.  And this micro-tension comes from conflicting emotions.

A novel needs conflict in its dialogue, yet it’s not the information in the dialogue itself that creates tension, but rather the doubt about those facts and the apprehension of the character delivering it.  It should be emotional rather than cerebral.  The reader doesn’t want to know if the discussion will settle the argument, but whether they will make peace.  So dumping info via dialogue only works if it’s soaking in tension, if it’s a tug-of-war.  Zone in on the emotional friction instead of relying on the circumstances.  Allow emotions, especially contrasting emotions, to give force to the action. 

Same goes for exposition; use the conflicting passions of the characters to keep the reader reading to see if the conflict will be resolved.  A character wrestling with his own mind can generate dramatic tension, too, if you include contradictions, crises, opposing impulses, and clashing doctrine.     

Each scene in a novel should have its own mini arc: a beginning, rise, and a climax or reversal.  Afterwards, the hero may contemplate what just occurred before he moves on, but this inner dialogue or exposition should be used only to deepen the crisis and increase the tension, not to reiterate what the reader already knows.  Backstory is a common low-tension pitfall.  It’s acceptable to add it in as long as it’s not the goal.  Use the past to devise tension in the current conflict as it will make the reader curious and want to keep reading to find out what will happen.

Tension is not present in a setting or predicament.  Description does not create tension.  It comes from within those observing it, from the people inside the setting and circumstances.  One place is as ordinary as any other until you populate it with people and their problems.  And when you present the problem before the place, the setting may become a metaphor. 

I used this device in my novel.  The ever-shifting San Francisco fog became a metaphor for trouble.  Whenever something bad was about to happen, you can bet the fog would be swirling around in the background, creating a cue that the tension was building and about to explode. 

Is the tension in your story immediate, credible, personal, unavoidable, and most of all, urgent?  What tricks do you use to keep the reader reading?   

Saturday, April 21, 2012

A to Z Challenge: S is for Stakes




S is for Stakes:  to risk something, as upon the result of a game or occurrence or outcome of any uncertain event or venture. (Dictionary.com)

When writing a story, plot is of utmost importance, but the plot means nothing if there isn’t something of high value at stake for the main character.  My favorite writing guru, literary agent Donald Maass, asks in his book on craft, The Fire in Fiction, “If your protagonist is not successful, so what?” meaning, why should anyone care what happens to him?  You see, life and death stakes are meaningless unless they are tied to an underlying human worth.  The character’s life must have meaning, purpose, and value.  Simply put, the reader needs to care.  In building his value, you’re building the stakes.  But how do you do that?

Give your protagonist high principles and an ethical code of personal conduct.  This will make him more compelling.  Then test those principles to the extreme.  Make him struggle to remain loyal to his personal belief system.  And this struggle should not just matter to him, but to others, as well, because stakes work on two levels, public and private, and those stakes should be high on both. 

Tune into what society might lose if your protagonist fails.  To do this, Maass suggests beginning with a grain of truth that lends itself to high plausibility.  Deepen that by going inside the character’s mind, attend his ideas of right and wrong.  Grant him the American Dream, build that dream into an empire, then put it all at risk.  What would devastate him to lose?  What disaster would leave him feeling insecure, lost and alone, shaken and fearful?  Build your protagonist’s story around that disaster.

His stakes will feel stronger if he is sympathetic in some way.  So let your reader know the main character as intimately as possible, as much as you do.  And if the protagonist cares passionately for his own life, the reader will feel invested, too.  

Maass writes that every protagonist needs:  “an aching regret, a tortuous need, a visible dream, an inescapable ambition, a passionate longing, an exhaustive lust, an inner lack, an unavoidable obligation, a fatal weakness, an iron instinct, a noble ideal, an irresistible plan, an undying hope…that in the end, propels him beyond the boundaries that confine the rest of us and brings about fulfilling change.

So as writers, we must escalate those stakes, “…make our characters suffer, kill his closest ally, take away his greatest physical asset, undermined his faith, shorten the timeline he has to solve his problem.” 

How high are your protagonist’s stakes, and what forces can you put into motion that will raise them even higher?   

Friday, April 20, 2012

A to Z Challenge: R is for Rename




R is for Rename:  [to reassign] a word or combination of words by which a person, place, or thing, a body or class, or any object of thought is designated, called, or known. (Dictionary.com)

Back on Day 14, letter N of the Challenge, I wrote a post about name, about how, as a writer, your name is your brand, and brand means everything.  But even for the least notable among us, we still have a name, an identity that is all ours. 

This is the same for our characters.  We create life when we birth a character and set him in a world we’ve fabricated from nothing.  We breathe spirit into him as he struggles to right his destroyed universe.  We fall in love with him.  He feels real because we’ve spent so much time struggling right along with him, feeling every emotion he’s felt.  He has a name, an identity, one we’ve researched and put a lot of thought into, that sounded and felt just right for our story. 

But what if, somewhere along the way, long after you’ve fallen for your hapless hero, someone says his name is all wrong, that his name is usually seen as a female’s name?  And what if that someone is a literary agent of staggering experience and note?  What if she told you she enjoyed everything about your story, except your protagonist’s name?  What if she suggested you change his name?  How would you feel?  And more importantly, what would you do?

This is the predicament I found myself in last fall.  You see, at the time, my main character’s name was Skylar.  I researched this name and found this definition:  “as a boy’s name (also used as a girl’s name,) is an English variant of Schuyler (Danish), meaning ‘scholar, protection; fugitive; giving shelter.’”   This was perfect for my protagonist and his story; fit like a glove. 

But this agent, whom I greatly respect, gave me pause.  She put a worm in my ear I couldn’t get out.  What if every agent I query feels the same way?  Sure, if they truly loved the story, they’d look past the name, maybe ask me to change it.  It certainly wouldn’t prevent one from representing me.  But still, something as fundamental as a name could sour the reading experience from the very first chapter, and that certainly wouldn’t be a good thing.  So, even though it felt very much like renaming my child, and Matthew MacNish said it was an “awesome name” in his critique on The QQQE,  I decided I would go ahead and change it.  Just to be safe.

Now, instead of Skylar, his name is Tyler, which, by design, sounds very similar, but it has a completely different meaning, borne as an occupational name for a worker in roof tiles.  Not too bad considering he’s a general contractor, but still, not nearly as romantic.  At the very least, most folks recognize this as a guy’s name, as well as a girl’s.  So I’m cool with it.  I guess.  Funny though, my critique partner and bff, Lisa Regan, still calls him Skylar, or Sky, even though she’s read the Tyler version.  Just like me, she will always think of him as Skylar.  It’s hard to let go.   

How much thought do you put into your characters’ names?  Has anyone ever suggested you rename one?  What do you think about me renaming my protagonist?  Which do you prefer: Skylar or Tyler?   

Thursday, April 19, 2012

A to Z Challenge: Q is for Query




Q is for Query:  an inquiry from a writer to an editor or agent regarding the acceptability of or interest in an idea for an article or book, usually presented in the form of a letter that outlines or describes the projected piece. (Dictionary.com)

Excuse me but…queries are a total bitch.  I mean, how in hell is a novelist supposed to simmer an entire 90,000 word document down into 150 words?  It ain’t easy, I can tell you that, yet I’ve done a total of twenty-seven of them.  Writing a good query became my obsession.  I wrote my first one in January 2011 then sent out the first batch of ten via email and got a request for a full from a superstar agent within one hour.  I thought, I got this.  A solid query. 

Mm yeah, not so much.

I worked on fine-tuning my query, even put it up for review on Deana Barnhart’s Gearin’ Up to Get an Agent Blogfest.  That was fun.  I had some outstanding input and modified my query, but while I learned a lot about getting down to the very heart of the conflict, it had become too bare.  So I worked on it some more then entered a query critique contest at literary agent Suzie Townsend's blog.  She gave me some great advice which I then incorporated before I had Matthew MacNish critique it on his blog, The Quintessentially Questionable Query Experiment.  By that point, I felt I had it down.  It just needed a few tweaks.  Afterwards though, I couldn’t face the whole querying process.  I’d done it for three one-month-long periods early in the year, and while I had my fair share of requests, nothing had panned out.  So my heart just wasn’t in it. 

BUT…I decided to try one publisher and see what happened.  And that’s all it took.  After some back and forth, we struck a deal, and now I’m due for publication on October 18, 2012.  Looking back though, I realize I did learn an awful lot about writing queries.  I came up with a solid formula, one worth sharing.  One thing you should know first:  though you love your characters and their backstory, all that really matters in a query is the heart of the conflict.  Zone in on that and you’ll have a great place to start.  So here goes my formula:

First paragraph: First sentence (or two, at most,) introduce your main character and his normal world in as few words as possible, then for the hook, show how that world is irrevocably broken.  Next sentence, show how this has changed your MC’s life and what he must do (his goal) to get back to normal. 
            
Second paragraph:  In two sentences, show the main complication and how it interferes with the MC getting back to normal.  This usually requires a small bit of setup and the introduction of one, maybe two (at most) additional characters.  Avoid throwing too many names into the mix.  Try using their titles or positions instead.  It’s less confusing. 

Third paragraph:  Show the choice the MC must make in order to achieve his goal.  Lastly, show what is at stake, what the MC will lose if he doesn’t achieve that goal.  And that’s it. 

Last paragraph (the housekeeping):  The book’s title (all in caps), the genre, and the word count first, then a little bio, but only if you have verifiable publishing credentials.  Wrap it up very simply by explaining why you chose that agent (without kissing her ass,) then thank her for her time and consideration.  The end.  NOTHING ELSE!  Sign off with your name, address, phone numbers, email address, and your website or blog.           

So what do you think, could you write a solid query using this formula?  Do you have an alternative method?    

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

A to Z Challenge: P is for Plot




P is for Plot:  Also called the storyline, it is the plan, scheme, or main story of a literary or dramatic work, such as a play, novel, or short story. (Dictionary.com)

What’s a novel without a plot?  Even character-driven tales that focus more on the cast—rather than the overall story itself—have a plot, however vague.  In its most basic sense, the plot is how the events in a story directly and emotionally impact the main character, how it transforms him.  This dramatic action affects the character’s emotional development in thematically significant ways. 

There are five basic elements to a plot: 

Conflict—the very essence of the story.  It raises questions and gets readers involved in such a way as to make them care.

Engage the reader’s sympathies—this is done by grounding the reader in knowledge of the character and enriching the story with personalizing details.

Complications—the conflict must twist, turn, deepen, and grow, sustaining the reader’s interest through constant development and escalation.

Climax—the highest point of dramatic action, when the thematic significance becomes clear, when all the major forces come together for a final clash with the main character, who is able to use his new awareness and skills to confront and conquer his enemy. 

Resolution or Denouement—this is the sum of the character’s actions, an end and a new beginning, where those actions have relieved the pressure, providing a cathartic release.  The protagonist makes peace with his past and returns to the world around him.

In addition to the main plot, each story should have at least one or two subplots, and each of these subplots must have these same five basic elements.  These subplots lend a sense of connectivity to secondary characters.  A novel’s texture is made richer when these secondary characters and subplots connect to the protagonist and the main plot.  Subplots create complications and deepen the main plot and can create range when the characters jump between the subplots and main plot. 

There are several basic plot structures which have been used over and over: 
-  The Quest (Catcher in the Rye)
-  Revenge (The Count of Monte Cristo)
-  Love (Gone With the Wind)
-  Adventure (Huckleberry Finn)
-  The Chase (The Fugitive)
-  One Against (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest)
-  One Apart (Casablanca)
-  Power (The Godfather)
-  Allegory or symbolic narrative (Lord of the Rings.)

My novel, The Mistaken, is a combination revenge/power/chase plot structure. 

What about your novel’s plot structure?  Have you included all five basic elements in your plot and subplots?    

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

A to Z Challenge: O is for Outline



O is for Outline:  a general sketch, account, or report, indicating only the main features, as of a book, subject, or project. (Dictionary.com)

There are two camps, if you will, two trains of thought in the writing world.  One—of which I am not a member—is the pantsters.  These are the folks who write organically, by the very seat of their pants.  They might have a general idea of the plot and characters and where they want them to go, but then again, maybe not.  They don’t plan.  They just write.  There’s no map, only a seed of an idea that they allow to germinate, sprout, grow, and flower.  When I was stuck on where to start one of my WIPs, I couldn’t even figure out where to begin an outline.  So a friend suggested I just write what I knew at that point, to get it down on paper, so to speak, in hopes it would generate a flow.  I did just that, and it really helped.  Better yet, I found it liberating. 

Still, I am staunchly of the other camp.  I am a plotter, a narrative outliner.  I first jot down notes in my iPhone as they come to me, but eventually everything is written longhand in a spiral notebook.  My notes are pretty complete, only missing descriptions and dialogue.  From there, it’s easy for me to just read along in my notes and expand while I type away on my computer.

Some outliners write a mini synopsis, cover blurb, or summary statement to get started.  Some use index cards, others the headlight system, in which they have an idea but can see only as far their “headlights.”  Then they “drive” to that point and see a little farther.  Still others generate ideas for scenes and chapters by asking themselves questions:  What’s at stake?  How will the protagonist react?  What will happen when he does?   Do I need more characters?    

There are as many ways to plot and write a novel as there are writers who write them.  While I prefer to outline, so I know exactly where I’m going, I still write in the moment, meaning I write whatever comes into my head at that moment.  So while I am a plotter, I use many of the freebird pantster techniques, as well.                      

What type of writer are you?  Have you ever tried doing it the other way?  

Monday, April 16, 2012

A to Z Challenge: N is for Name



N is for Name:  a word or combination of words by which a person, place, thing, body, class, or any object of thought is designated, called, or known; a distinguished, famous, or great reputation. (Dictionary.com)

Shakespeare wrote in his most famous play, Romeo and Juliet, "What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet."   In short, this means that what truly matters most is what something is, not what it’s called.  For most things, I think this is true.  But when you’re a writer, your name is your brand, and that means everything.

Most of the writers I’ve met in the last eighteen months are using their true and legal names to query and publish under.  One of the first questions my own publisher asked me is if I plan on using my real name or a nom de plume, which is a literary double or pseudonym.  I’ve met only two writers I can think of who are using pseudonyms.  They don’t even blog under their real names.  And I can’t help but wonder why. 

Are they embarrassed by what they’ve written?  Do they want to retain some anonymity?  I understand some women use initials or a more masculine semblance of their name to compete in a male dominated genre.  Some writers use pseudonyms to cross over into a new genre, one which they’ve never been published under before.  This could be because they want to retain a clean brand from their previous name, or maybe because their titles didn’t sell well under that name and they need to start fresh. 

One of my favorite authors, James Scott Bell, is now writing under a pseudonym because his new series of books is so different from his normal fare.  Even some famous writers have written under pseudonyms:  Stephen King, Agatha Christie, Dean Koontz, Nora Roberts.  Just look at one of America’s greatest writers of all time, Mark Twain.  His real name is Samuel Clemens. 

I have nothing personal against using a pseudonym; I just feel that I’ve put so much time and effort—my blood, sweat, and many, many tears into writing and polishing my novel—why wouldn’t I want everyone to know exactly who had written it?  Though it does deal with some provocative and horrific events, and people often stare at me and ask how on earth I came up with all that, I want them to know me, to recognize my name, to say, “Oh, you wrote that book, The Mistaken.  I know who you are.”  Call me vain, but I want people to know and remember my real name.           

What about you, do write under your real name, and if not, why?