Thursday, December 31, 2009

What I've learned in 2009, Part 4

The greatest lessons I learned in 2009 was that good writing comes from the heart. I spent a good part of the last month discussing contradictions that aspiring writers come across. There are plenty of them, but do they really matter? To an extent, yes. But the most important thing about writing fiction is that it has fire. The rules are secondary. In other words, I've learned not to sweat the small stuff, but to embrace the fire within in me and try to transfer that passion onto the page. Now I'm not saying to throw the rules to the curb, but you should learn when to break them--learn when to let your passion overpower them. A couple of months ago, I did a series of posts on The Fire In Fiction by Donald Maass. This book truly changed the way I approach writing, and I have to say that it is the best book on the craft that I've ever read. I highly recommend it for any writer at any stage of the game. The series can be accessed by clicking on The Fire tag in my sidebar. Here is the first of these posts: As I mentioned yesterday, last weekend, I read two books on the craft of writing by literary agent Donald Maass: Writing The Breakout Novel and The Fire In Fiction. Both were excellent reads, but I'm going to focus these discussion on The Fire In Fiction. In this book, Mr. Maass points out that there are no truly original ideas. "Every novel has antecedents. Every author has influences. It is impossible to be wholly original; even so, some novels feel fresh and shake us with their insight." So, if this is true, what makes the difference? Look carefully at that quote. Mr. Maass states that 'Every author has influences.' That, my friends, is where the fire comes from. It doesn't come from the plot, the characters, the setting, or the voice. It comes from the author's passions, which have developed over time because of life experiences. How do we find that passion within ourselves and transfer it to our writing? This is exactly what Mr. Maass answers in The Fire In Fiction. He talks about two types of writers: the status seekers and the storytellers. The status seekers start out with all kinds of passion, the main goal being publication. They settle for good enough. This kind of passion fizzles out over time. The storyteller, on the other hand, has one goal at heart: making his novel the best it can be, and each successive one even better than the last. This passion never goes away. I think, it's possible to be a little of both. Don't most of us writers dream of the day we will be published? Of course we do. But this can't be our only motivation. We have to strive to become better, stronger writers, and we have to be passionate about the art of writing, not just about the dream of publication. I'm guilty of being a status seeker at times, but I want nothing more than to be a storyteller. What about you? What kind of writer do you want to be? This is obviously my last post for 2009. I'll be back next week to talk about what I hope to learn in 2010. For now, my good blogging friends, Happy New Year!

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

What I've learned in 2009, Part 3

These boots have thick skins. When we put our work out there to be critiqued, our skin needs to be just as thick. One of the greatest lessons I learned over the past year is that my mom and my daughter telling me my writing is fabulous means nothing. An objective eye is key. Having fellow writers read my work was the best thing I ever did. Here is a post I did after putting my writing out there for scrutiny: Do you remember the episode of Seinfeld when they go visit a couple who has just had a new baby? The parents gush over how beautiful the baby is, and Jerry, Elaine, and George are polite and agree, even though the baby is the ugliest baby they've ever seen. Finally, Kramer says the truth. Now, I'm not saying our writing is the ugliest thing ever, but it is flawed, and we all need a Kramer to read it--someone honest enough to tell us the truth (perhaps in a kinder, gentler way than Kramer), even if it isn't what we want to hear. This is what our critique partners are for. That being said, we need to be prepared for the negative. We need to thicken up our skin and be willing to take the bad comments right along with the good. I'm not going to lie here; the first negative comment stings like the devil, but after you step back for a little bit, you can look more objectively at it. Without the negative comments, we can't improve. Those are what drive us to do better, to try harder, to pay more attention to our weaknesses. The negative comments are what make us better writers. For those of you who have been involved in a critique group, do you embrace the bad comments? For those who haven't hit the critiquing stage, how do you envision yourself reacting to the negative?

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

What I've learned in 2009, Part 2

If you are wondering why I chose clogs for today's picture, I really don't have a reason, other than the fact that "clogs" rhymes with "blogs", which is what I'm posting about. Another thing I learned during 2009 is how much I love blogging. It started out as one thing, but has turned into something entirely different. I've also learned the benefits of blogging for aspiring authors and, therefore, the importance of being professional. An agent actually visited and commented on my blog, so please put thought into your blogging. You never know who might be reading. That being said, I thought I'd share with you something I posted way back when I first started blogging. Back then, I had no idea that blogging meant anything more than making new friends, which I still think is the best thing about blogging by the way. Anyway, here was my take on blogging a few months ago: So, why am I doing this? Because I like to hear myself talk. No, seriously, there are two reasons why I'm doing it. #1: It's a diary of sorts. It is a tale of my journey through the publishing jungle. In other words, it's a place where I can vent my frustrations, and hopefully, some day, celebrate my successes. #2: It's a chance to share with other writers (if they should visit my blog) my experiences on the road to publication. If I ever reach my final destination, it's a testimonial of what I did right. If I never make it there, it's an example of what not to do. Either way, it could be useful to someone. Today, I have to add a couple more reasons. #3: I love connecting with people who have similar interests. I learn so much from my fellow bloggers, and this on-line community has become a support system for me. #4: It's free entertainment. I laugh at your blogs. I cry at your blogs. I am inspired by your blogs. Your blogs make me think. Bottom line is: I LOVE YOUR BLOGS! So why do you blog?

Monday, December 28, 2009

What I've learned in 2009, Part 1

I've never made the mistake of wearing two different shoes, but I've made plenty of others. I'm posting a little late today because my internet has been down. Go figure. It's my first day back to blogging, and my internet doesn't work. Anyway, I'm glad to be back. I missed all my blog friends, and I look forward to catching up with you today. Before my break, I was posting about contradictions aspiring authors come across. I was going to pick up where I left off, but I've decided to spend this week recapping what I've learned in 2009 by re-posting some of my older material. The first lesson I learned this year was not to query too soon. Back in January, I sent out my first round of queries. Big mistake. I wasn't ready. My work wasn't ready. And, obviously, my query letter wasn't ready. Here's a post I did a while back about some of my query mistakes: I'm a night person and always have been. I hate mornings, and it usually takes at least three cups of coffee before I can function. My wake-up-at-the-crack-of-dawn husband just doesn't quite understand this, but we manage to get along anyway. At any rate, I often find myself querying after midnight. Apparently, my head isn't as clear as I think it is at night. Here are some of my late-night query mistakes: I sent three chapters in the body of an e-query to an agent whose guidelines specifically state: QUERY ONLY. I knew this, but I meant to send the query to a different agent. I indicated that I was enclosing a SASE for the agents response in an e-query. It's kind of hard to send an envelope with an email, wouldn't you say? In my defense, when I checked the agency guidelines, they specifically asked for snail mail queries, but upon further investigation, I learned that this particular agent preferred queries by email. So I copied and pasted my original letter from Word into an email. Unfortunately, I forgot to take the part about the SASE out. I sent five e-queries with the same typo. Keep in mind that I read, re-read, and re-read again without catching the mistake. That is, until I hit send on the last one. I addressed and e-query to someone named Mitchelle. Yeah, it was supposed to be "Michelle". Again, my midnight mind didn't catch it until the next morning. By the way, did I mention this query also contained the same typo discussed in the previous example? Now, here's one about a snail mail query. I enclosed an SASE or, actually, an SAE. Yes, I forgot to put a stamp on it. How do I know? Well, because I was out of stamps before I even wrote the query. Now, why I didn't realize it until after I went to the post office, bought stamps, put them on the query to mail, and stuck it in the drop box is anyone's guess. Apparently, my head isn't so clear in the morning either. So, what about you? Care to share any of your mistakes?

Friday, December 25, 2009

Merry Christmas!

Hope you all have a wonderful Christmas!

Friday, December 18, 2009

Too Many Shoes, Part 2

So, we've talked about exclamation points and adverbs this week. We also need to be careful about using too many dialogue tags, especially non-said ones. But, like we discussed with adverbs, some authors get away with the overuse of dialogue tags, so why can't we? Again, it's another one of those contradictions. The use of tags like 'he screamed' or 'he demanded' is in a sense telling rather than showing. The dialogue itself, in most instances, can be worded so that the reader gets the idea of what tone the speaker is using. If the dialogue doesn't quite get it across, then the characters actions might be able to do so. For example, you could say this: "I don't want to go to school," she screamed. Or you could say this: "I don't want to go to school." Her face reddened as she clenched her fists. Both sentences portray the same meaning, but the second one shows instead of tells. Don't get me wrong; there will be instances when a non-said dialogue tag will be the only way, or the best way, to get the meaning across, but like with adverbs, their use should be limited. Now, on a final note, I will be unplugging next week, but will be back the week after for a few more posts on contradictions. I want to thank those of you who have given me awards recently, and I hope you all enjoy whatever holiday you celebrate. See you on the 28th!

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Too Many Shoes, Part 1

Some of you out there may argue that one can never have too many shoes, but I beg to differ. When your closet becomes so cluttered that you can't find what you're looking for, perhaps you have too many shoes. Most of us know that the use of adverbs in our writing is frowned upon. Yet we read many books (some of which have made their way to the NYT's Bestsellers list) that use adverbs in abundance. So why can't we use them? Well, it's just another one of those contradictions. In case you want to know, here's my opinion: Adverbs in and of themselves aren't bad. What makes them bad is when they are used to tell rather than show. In other words, if a sentence can be rewritten without using an adverb and still get across the same meaning, by all means, get rid of the adverb. For example, you could say this: I stepped lightly across the living room carpet. Or, you could say this: I tip-toed across the living room carpet. (Okay, I know not great examples, but I'm not quite awake yet.) Anyway, my point is that you can have too many adverbs. One way to avoid that is to try to rewrite sentences without using the adverb. I think you will find that your writing is stronger and is more likely to show and not tell. I'm not saying that every adverb needs to go, but I do think their use should be limited. What do you think of adverbs? Do you have a love/hate relationship with them like I do?

Monday, December 14, 2009

These Shoes Make a Statement

Kind of like the exclamation point. We've talked about the comma controversy, and I have to say that the consensus is, there is no consensus. As with many things, though, I doubt a misplaced comma is going to make or break you as far as signing an agent is concerned. The key is to follow the rules the best you can, and when in doubt, go with what you feel best. There are many other inconsistencies about punctuation including the use of the exclamation point. Most say that it shouldn't be used, and I'd have to agree. The words in the dialogue or the actions surrounding the dialogue should show the tone. In other words, the exclamation point isn't needed to make a statement. On a completely unrelated note, what about the spacing at the end of a sentence? Should there be one or two spaces? I learned two, but my kids have learned one. One agent's website recommended two, while another expected only one. So, which is right? I'd have to go with one. Why waste the room? I never did understand why there were two spaces. But, it is a habit which I must break. I automatically space twice. So, what do you think? Exclamation points or not? One or two spaces after the end of a sentence? I can't wait for your feedback.

Friday, December 11, 2009

The Comma Controversy

Based on your comments to my last post, issues over the use of the comma seem to be in abundance, so I thought I'd spend one more post discussing it. One of you brought up using the comma in lists such as this: I bought apples, bananas, and grapefruit. Is that last comma necessary? I learned a long time ago that it wasn't, but lately, I've heard differently. Someone else mentioned the use of the comma before a person's name in an instance like this: I spoke to my friend, Susan, and she said it wasn't true. Should the comma before 'Susan' be there? I always thought so, but maybe not. What about when you use a name as a direct address as in this sentence: I wouldn't do that if I were you, Susan. Should that comma be there? I say yes, but what do I know? And, lastly, there is the whole issue of conjunctions that separate two complete sentences like this: My son plays baseball, and my daughter dances. Is the comma before 'and' needed? I put it there, but not everyone does. I'd love to hear your opinions on these issues, and I hope you have a great weekend!

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Don't These Shoes Remind You Of Commas?

(Warning: This picture and the topic of this post are both repeats.) I've been discussing information we writers find on the Internet and how, often times, it's contradicting. The proper use of the comma is no exception, and the contradictions over its use expand beyond the Internet, especially when it comes to whether or not it should proceed the word 'too'. I've read on a couple of agents' websites or blogs that there should be no comma. Say what? I learned there should be, and after seeing this, I picked up several best sellers off my bookshelf and flipped through them. Some used the comma; some didn't; and some used it sometimes and not others. I also started paying attention to other agents' and editors' websites and blogs to see what they preferred, and although not specified, most used the comma in their own writing. Now, obviously, if I were submitting to one of the agents who specifically state not to use the comma, I wouldn't, but what about when submitting to others? I'm really not sure. What do you think? Should there or should there not be a comma before the word 'too'?

Monday, December 7, 2009

Yep, that's right. You've seen this picture before.

I warned you that during the month of December you'd be seeing recurring shoe pictures. We've been discussing information writers come across on the Internet, and like these shoes, it doesn't always match. When I first started to query my manuscript, I had no idea what I was doing. (And, I probably still don't, but I'd like to think I know more than I did back then.) I did a ton of research and found that everyone had something different to say. And, now, even the things I thought were consistent turn out to be questionable. I've focused my last couple of posts on manuscript formatting, so I'd like to continue with this topic before moving on. I've heard that a chapter should start halfway down the page, and I've heard it should start one-fourth of the way down. I've also heard that a scene break should be designated with one or three asterisks, one or three number signs, or with just a blank line. I, personally, start the chapter one-fourth of the way down, and I mark a scene break with one asterisk. Who knows if I'm right, but that's just what I do. So what do you think? Where should we start a new chapter? How should we indicate a scene break? I'd really like to know what you think.

Friday, December 4, 2009

My Son's Basketball Shoes

Why do I have a picture of them on my blog? No worries. I'm going to tell you, and I will tie it into writing. My thirteen-year-old son, Cody, tried out for his Junior High basketball team this week. Big deal, you might say, but oh, it was a big deal. You see, Cody stands six inches shorter than even the smallest kid in his class, and he's at least a foot smaller than the boys who tried out for the team. Eighth grade is hard enough for a boy going through puberty without the added pressures of basketball tryouts. Not to mention being little. But, I'm happy to say, he made the team. No one thought he would. Everyone thought he was too short. He proved them all wrong. Why did he make it despite his size? Well, I'll tell you why. The coach saw past his small stature to his heart and his stellar ball handling skills. (I'm his mother, okay. Let me brag just this once.) His size didn't' matter because he could still play ball. But this post isn't just an excuse for me to talk about my personal life. I have a point to make. I started this series about contradicting information we writers find on the web, and before I continue with the topic of manuscript formatting, I want to point out that, although there are many conflicting requirements out there, I don't think any of them are going to make or break you. If an agent or editor sees the heart and the stellar writing skills, how you submitted it to them isn't going to matter. That doesn't mean we shouldn't try to put our best foot forward, but it does mean that we shouldn't get too hung up on these little details. That being said, I'd like to summarize what everyone thought about page numbering. It seems the majority feel that the number should go in the upper right hand corner. I'd have to agree. Others added that they also put their name and working title up there. I agree with this too. The top of every page of my manuscript is headed with this: Susan Mills/TICK-TOCK/1 (It's right justified and the number coincides with the page, of course.) Now, my friend, Shelli, commented that her agent, who happens to be Alyssa Henkin of Trident Media Group, prefers 11-point Times New Roman font. Huh? I thought 12-point was standard. See ...even the font size is up for discussion. Go figure. So, what do you think? Will agents forgive less than perfect manuscript presentation for a good story? And, what font do you consider standard?

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

A Perfectly Good Pair of Boots

Too bad they're covered in mud. No one will want them in this condition. Well, I take that back. My sons wear boots that look just like this every time they go to work on the farm with their dad, and they never complain. But cut me some slack. I'm trying to make a point here. A perfectly good manuscript might be overlooked if it is muddied by poor presentation. The problem is, there is so much conflicting information out there about proper manuscript formatting that it's hard to decipher exactly what 'proper' is. There are some things that remain constant, though. A manuscript should be double spaced. There should be a header with the working title and author's name (unless you are submitting for a contest). The pages should be numbered. There should be at least a one-inch margin on each side. And it should be typed in at least a 12 point font. Pretty straight forward, right? Not so fast. There are plenty of discrepancies, too, so I thought I'd start my discussions about contradicting information off with the topic of manuscript formatting. Because this post is already long enough, let's talk about page numbers today. It seems the issue that will require the least amount of discussion. Some say the page number should be at the top right corner of the manuscript in the header, while others say it's okay for it to be centered in the footer. One thing that's for certain, though, is that each page should be numbered. What do you think? Where should the page number go?