Friday, October 30, 2009

Ever feel like you're drowning?

“A writer should always feel like he’s in over his head” by Michael Cunningham.

I am so happy a writer of more importance, talent and accomplishment than I’ll ever have admitted this. I suppose it validates that I am truly a writer.

While in the throes of a writing project, I nearly always feel like I’m in over my head. I’m not especially gifted. I’m definitely under educated, and reputedly out of my league among my writing counterparts. So when one proclaims that a writer should feel exactly the way I do year after year, manuscript after manuscript, I breathe a sigh of relief.

Writing takes a lot out of a person. I think the hardest part of writing is to make it look effortless. Readers don’t care about the blood, sweat, and tears that went into creating a project. They want to get lost in the story. They want it to flow as if it magically flowed out of the writer’s pen…or keyboard.

Our role as writer is to create an exciting, restless, and unquenchable curiosity in the reader that compels him to keep reading through until the very end. It's not to make the reader aware of our anguish and toil.

A friend once told me of the difficulty she put into finishing a college paper. She said, “I’m not like you, Teresa. It comes easy to you. You don’t have to belabor every word like me.”

That was the greatest compliment I ever received. Of course, I had to go and ruin it by telling her she couldn’t be more wrong. I agonize over every word I write. I have been known to spend an entire day rewriting one paragraph where the hero tells the heroine he likes how her hair catches the light.

So no, it is never easy. But our readers should believe it is. Our egos cry out to let the world know how we toil over every word. We want them to know how we suffer, how we struggle, but yet, we overcome. Let’s face it. They don’t care. They don’t want to know. They just want a story.

This writing thing isn’t about us. Don’t kid yourself, dear writer. It’s all about the story. Every word, every carefully crafted sentence, every beautifully scripted page. It’s about the story. Let us not disappoint our readers. We should fascinate them. Intrigue them. Bewilder them. Enchant them. Even terrify them. But let us never be accused of disappointing them.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Criticism--Helpful or Hurtful

I was asked today by a new writer how one can tell if her writing is truly publisher worthy. Naturally she thinks her stuff is pretty good. Her family and friends believe she is gifted. But those sources aren't exactly unbiased. So how does one know if he/she has talent, or just a loving, supportive core group who will love anything that comes out of their pen?

There's nothing wrong with showing your writing--or other gifts--to those closest to you. It's often difficult to resist the temptation when we are excited about our work and simply must celebrate it with someone. Our mistake comes when we believe that because Mom thinks we are the next bestselling author/recording artist/American Idol, the rest of the world will agree.

If you are serious about taking your talents to the next level, you must subject your work to an unbiased critiquer. Join a critique group at your library. Easier still for many people, join online groups of similar writers and ask for advice, help, and of course, critiques. This is very hard for a novice to do. In the beginning we see our work as perfect as is.

An aspiring writer once told me she would never let an editor near her work. She liked it as is and she wasn't going to change one letter to suit anyone. Needless to say, she is still unpublished. As far as I know, she is no longer writing at all.

Develop a thick skin and don't be afraid of criticism. I have a very good writer friend who is currently dissecting the first few chapters of my current WIP line by line before I send it to my agent. And believe me, some of her comments have been brutal. I would love nothing more than to hear what I write is brilliant. I would love to receive a letter from a publisher saying; "Teresa, we can't find a thing wrong with your manuscript. We are going to pay you an obscene amount of money to publish it just the way it is."

Instead of holding my breath while waiting for the grossly unlikely, I will open my heart and my mind to my friend's suggestions. Both of us want to see this book published, regardless of what it may do to my ego.

Every multi-published author I know--myself included--believes her work is better now than early in her career. I am almost embarrassed to open my first few books because my writing has improved soooooooo much since those early days. I think any writer worth her salt can see her weaknesses and wants to continue to grow, no matter how many books are on the shelf. We always have room for improvement.

Develop a thick skin before you send your baby into the world. There will always be someone who doesn't like it. Don't let this discourage you. Keep growing. Keep submitting and studying the market and you will have success.

Get back to writing!

Monday, October 26, 2009

Make NaNoWriMo affect your writing output

If you’ve been around the writing circuit for very long, you know that next week marks the beginning of the annual NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month. If you aren’t in the middle of a project or facing a deadline, I suggest you hop over to the website and sign up. There’s nothing like accountability to get the old juices flowing.

Has anyone tried this before? Someone challenged one of my writing groups to a similar exercise in June. It worked out perfectly for me. I was at stalled 25K words in a novel that was going nowhere. My premise was great. The key characters were hashed out. I knew where the book would end up. Yet nothing was happening. The challenge was exactly what I needed. By the end of the month I had added 52K to my original writing. The first draft of the book was complete! And guess what? It didn’t stink.

I solved all the major problems that had left me stymied up to that point. When you free yourself to just write and not worry about how it will come together, your subconscious mind has no choice but to take over.

What about you? Do you have a book idea that’s been pestering you for months but you don’t know where to go with it. Or you are too intimidated to tackle a project like a novel? Or you’ve had a few false starts but can’t get past the first fifty pages? NANOWRIMO might be exactly what you need to kick your output into high gear. You might surprise yourself. If nothing else, you will have the satisfaction of knowing you can do it. You can pump out 50K words in a relatively short amount of time and they may actually be something to build on.

Like so many other writers, I wonder why the powers that be chose November to begin writing a novel. November couldn’t be a worse time for most people to tackle something as daunting as a novel, with Thanksgiving and Black Friday and all the things that go into planning a holiday season.

But maybe that’s why they chose November. This way we prove to ourselves that even amidst the busiest season of the year—with a little planning, discipline, and commitment—we can still write a novel. Or at least get a pretty good handle on it with 50 thousand words of a first draft.

The key is fastening your rear to the chair and staying there. The best thing about writing 50K words in a month is you don’t have time to edit, you don’t have time to second guess yourself or agonize over the best way to describe your setting. All you have time to do is pound out the scene and move on.

Quite liberating really. So take up the gauntlet and go for it. What have you got to lose? At the end of the month you can either be right where you are with your novel, or you can have a solid first draft with the potential to become something worthy of submitting to a publisher.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Author Reaches 1.5 Million Sales Mark

(THE WOODLANDS, TEXAS) On average, more than three hundred and fifty books by DiAnn Mills have been sold every day since the author released her first novel in 1998. With over forty novels, novellas, and works of nonfiction to her credit, it is not surprising that the author recently surpassed the 1.5 million sales mark.

How did she do it and what can I learn from her?

“This milestone in DiAnn’s career reflects her ability to connect with readers and build fans for her stories," says Karen Watson, Associate Publisher of Fiction at Tyndale House. "Beyond that, DiAnn is a model of professionalism and hard work for up-and-coming writers. She is a gracious woman blessed with a fun kick of imagination!”

Mills has often garnered recognition in her career, including multiple nominations for the American Christian Fiction Wrtiers Book of the Year; multiple appearances on bestseller lists, two Inspirational Readers Choice Awards, and a mention for the ECPA's highest award, the Christy. Colleagues state what lands Mills these accolades is hard work, perseverence, and the ability to write a book readers love.

"DiAnn has the ability to tell a compelling story, whether it be a romantic suspense or a historical, that just won't let the reader go. Unstinting in her research, she visits the settings she writes about and then brings them alive for us, her readers. Every DiAnn Mills book is a stimulating reading experience, which is how she has garnered so many copies sold," says Janet Grant, Founder of Books & Such Literary Agency.

Not content to merely gather accolades, Mills has plans to release several new novels in the coming months. Sworn to Protect the follow up to her March 2009 suspense novel Breach of Trust from Tyndale House Pubishing's Call of Duty Series will be in bookstores in the spring of 2010. Her historical, A Woman Called Sage from Zondervan Publishing is slated for a March 2010 release.

Sue Brower, Exective Editor of Fiction at Zondervan Publishing is especially excited to offer Mills' next novel to readers. "DiAnn is a joy to work with and I know her fans will be captivated by Sage."

When DiAnn was asked about this milestone in her writing career, she responded with her usual graciousness. "I'm truly honored and grateful to the many readers who have made this possible. I remain committed to my goal that readers can always Expect an Adventure."


DiAnn Mills is a founding board member for American Christian Fiction Writers, a member of Inspirational Writers Alive, Romance Writers of America’s Faith, Hope and Love, and Advanced Writers and Speakers Association. She speaks to various groups and teaches writing workshops around the country. DiAnn is also a mentor for Jerry B. Jenkins Christian Writer’s Guild.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Shake Things up in Your Fiction

Want to write something awesome, read awe-inspiring books. I’m currently in the middle of rewriting a manuscript I wrote way back in 2006. Ever wonder if you are growing in your craft? Go back and read something you wrote a few years ago. Don’t despair if it makes you cringe. That means you are growing, evolving, becoming better with every book, every page.

My book has lots of potential. I love the story. But alas, there are a few things missing. It’s a romantic suspense. Sadly there is little romance. Worse, there is virtually no suspense.

Back to Square One.

In order for a book to be suspense and not women’s fiction or contemporary satire, the element of suspense must be integral to the plot. The hero or heroine must be in clear and present danger. My characters are not. They learn a lot through the course of the story. They grow into more compassionate individuals. But no one is in any real danger, and the romance is minimal at best. Not good if I intend to market the book as romantic suspense.

I just finished reading a romantic suspense by a prolific writer whose books I enjoy. Throughout the course of the story, the characters kept getting deeper and deeper in trouble. Suspense mounted with each turning of the page. The villain became more twisted and brazen while the hero and heroine kept discovering new reasons to survive and renewed determination to help them reach this end.

Now I need to figure out how to incorporate these methods into my own writing. My heroine isn’t the focus of a serial killer. She doesn’t have enemies from a past life bent on silencing her. Danger must lurk behind every corner. Suspense is always fun for me. I like coming up with twisted, convoluted situations. That’s my task for today. Delete mundane passages. Insert suspense.

What about you? Do you need to up the ante for your characters? Have they become content and complacent in their circumstances. Shake things up. Insert some suspense—regardless of your genre—and see what happens.

Happy writing!

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Discovery in Fiction

The other day I wrote about one of my bad habits I often revert to in my writing--head hopping. I tend to enjoy writing from the viewpoint of every character in the book, whether major player or one scene wonder. In writing for publication, this isn't a good practice.

A friend posted a comment that explained much better than I could about why this is a poor practice. She wrote that head hopping holds you back in selling. And here's why. "When you write from only one POV, you are forced to discover the story as the character does. It builds suspense and makes the discovery a page turner."

Wonderfully put, Elizabeth.

Discovery in anything--whether suspense, romance, or a weather report--is what keeps people tuned in. The reader needs to care where the story is headed and how you will get there. Head hopping provides too much information too quickly.

During read-thru's this morning of my current ms I found a spot late in the book where a character explained something that the narrator "ME" had divulged in the fourth chapter. That's sloppy writing. The information came across much better when relayed through a character with a big mouth and an unforgiving nature than by my shrieking voice in the background.

Editing can be fun and informative. Don't marry your prose. Chances are you will find something that totally bites and you'll have to begin the painful process of separating yourself from it. Approach editing, red pen in hand and prepared to hate everything. You may surprise yourself and find you have a modicum of talent after all.

Of course you can't believe a word I say. I still like Omniscient POV in small doses: "Little did he know..."

Monday, October 19, 2009

What's holding you back?

A few weeks ago I decided to reach my goal weight by Thanksgiving. I've been struggling with those last few pounds for a year now and I am determined to get keep them from following me into the New Year.

As far as my writing is concerned, there are a few other things hanging around that I believe have kept me from getting a contract from a major publishing house. One of my biggest offenders: Head hopping, according to a friend of mine who is helping me polish my latest manuscript. I have a tendency to write my story through the eyes of whoever happens to be in a particular scene. It doesn't matter if it's a key player or a one time Joe who delivers roses to our killer's next victim.

Only tell the story through the eyes of your hero and heroine, my friend told me. Occasionally you may get into the head of the villian, but do so sparingly. I don't know if I completely agree. As a reader, I like to hear the story through conflicting viewpoints. I think it offers a greater depth into each character. But I suppose the main character is the only one the reader really cares about. Don't share the love too much.

Regardless of how much I like to head hop, I want to get this book published. Even if I don't agree with every rule and nuance, at this point in the game, I should be willing to play by their rules. What's that old saying? He who owns the game, makes the rules.

I would be well advised to remember that.

So what about you? What last few pounds are holding you back from reaching your writing goals? Do you head hop? Do you rely too heavily on adverbs and adjectives? Do you prefer to make up your rules as you go along and hope to find a publisher willing to bend her guidelines to suit your manuscript?

Here are a few tips that might help you on your journey to achieving your goals this beautiful October morning.

1. Never ever, ever quit! Consistency and persistency are the keys to success!
2. Thoughts become things. If you think you can do it …you can do it!
3. Join a team. Find friends who offer support, accountability and motivation for whatever your goals are.
4. Don’t just sit there. Roll up your sleeves and get to work.
5. Have written goals. Use them to create your action plan.
6. Start with one new habit and build on that.


Friday, October 16, 2009

Grand Openings

I'm in the middle of editing my latest manuscript, so the importance of wowing the reader with a grand opening is foremost on my mind. Today I am posting an article on that very subject from my good friend, author Molly Noble Bull. I hope it will help you as much as it did me.

Openings Are Invitations: by Molly Noble Bull

Remember those birthday party invitations we all got as children? One that I recall had a cowboy on the cover, signaling that the party had a cowboy theme, and I will never forget what was written on the inside of that card. I call the cowboy on the cover a sort of hook, encouraging friends to attend special events, but the meat of the invitation was found inside.

The W Rule

What do party invitations have to do with writing chapter and scene openings? More than you might think. To make my point, below is an example of a typical birthday invitation.

Who? Tom Brown

What? His tenth birthday party

When? Saturday, September 25, 2009

Where? 308 Creek Drive, Rockdale, Texas

Why? Because we want to celebrate Tom’s birthday, that’s why.

Like the cowboy on the cover of party invitations, every chapter should begin and end with a hook, and every chapter and scene should start with a problem. However, successful chapter openings and scene changes are identical in many ways to the format used in writing party invitations.

As an author, my goal is to invite the reader to a party of words, my words. In order to do that, I must send him or her an invitation answering all the who, what, when, where and why questions--henceforth known as the W rule.

Full-Bodied Sentences

A full-bodied sentence is one that answers the W rule questions, but writing full-bodied sentences at the beginning of every chapter and scene opening might not be the best way to coax readers to taste one’s work. However, I have learned that when I include the information found in the full-bodied sentence, my scene openings become more inviting to the reader.
The man went to town is a simple sentence, but it can become full-bodied. To answer the “who” question, I gave the man a first and last name, Jim Cooper. Jim Cooper went to town. Naming my character improved the quality of my sentence, but more information must be added for it to became full-bodied.

The full-bodied sentence below answers all the W rule questions. Here’s how.

(When?) “Early on an October morning, (Who?) Jim Cooper (Where?) left his small farm in rural Mississippi and (How?) drove his team of mules (Where?) to Oakton Corners (Why?) to buy medicine for (What is the problem?) his sick wife and child.”

“How” is also an emotional question and optional. The reader might also want to know “what” the weather is like? The final version of this sentence, answers the “how” question and tells about the weather. “Early on a (What is the weather?) cold, windy morning in late October and (How is his emotional state?) trembling with worry, Jim Cooper left his small farm in rural Mississippi and drove his team of mules to Oakton Corners to buy medicine for his sick wife and child.

Openings vs. Scene Changes
Every novel is divided into three parts: the beginning, the middle, and the end. The beginning part of a novel ends when all the W rule questions have been answered. These questions can be answered easily in one full-bodied sentence. However, it often takes several pages for that same information to flow smoothly into the text.

Scene changes are different from chapter openings in that all the beginning questions need not be answered a second time. For example, if the reader knows all about Jim Cooper, scene two could begin with “An hour later, he finally got to town.”

All my manuscripts don’t have a cowboy on the cover to hook the reader, but I never fail to issue invitations. I have learned that when I invite the reader to choose my novels by beginning with a hook and a problem and then answering all the questions listed above, readers attend my parties and read my books.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Ideas for fiction outside the box

This weekend my husband and I traveled to the country to participate in an arts and crafts fair. I’m not a very crafty person. I crochet and make a few things that find a small market everywhere I go, but I won’t get rich this way. The main reason I set up is to sell my books. If you have a book and a free weekend in the fall, you may consider these venues. Most people show up at these events ready to spend money. And many will agree an autographed book makes a unique and fun gift.

It also helps if you live locally. Anything within a hundred miles is considered local as far as I’m concerned. Even though this one wasn’t far from home, I met readers who had never heard of me. Visibility is the goal here. So this weekend we enjoyed the fall foliage during our trip into the hills of southern Ohio. Selling a box or two of books was just the icing on the cake.

But the biggest benefits by far from this craft fair and many others like it were the tidbits of local folklore I picked up. Fascinating stories I’d never heard before that would make great additions to my books. One story in particular was a book in itself. Writers live for these moments.
I always warn people never to say anything in front of me they don’t want to end up in a book someday. What goes into my ears now belongs to me to do with as I please. So the next time a reader wants to bend your ear about anything, don’t pass it up. You may end up with an idea for the next bestseller.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Novel Checklist

Novel Checklist—and why you should have one.

Not long ago the members of one of my writers' groups were talking about a novel's checklist. No matter where you are in your current WIP, I believe this will come in handy. If you're just starting out and playing around with characters, this checklist will keep you aware of the reader who will someday lose herself in your masterpiece. If you are preparing to send your finished manuscript out into the world, go through the checklist to make sure you've crossed all your T's and dotted all your I's.

1. OPENING – Is there a hook to capture the short-attention-spanned reader’s interest? Does the book start in the right place, or is there too much backstory?

2. CHARACTERS – Are the hero and heroine vivid, likeable characters? Do characters have that “something special” that makes them come alive? Are they described well? Do they change and grow from beginning to end?

3. PACING – Does the pacing flow throughout the book? Does the reader want to keep turning pages?

4. DIALOGUE – Does the dialogue sound natural and realistic? Does the dialogue build characterization and move the story forward?

5. SECONDARY CHARACTERS – Are the secondary characters believable? Do they provide a valid addition to the story?

6. SETTING – Is a time and place established? Is the setting easy to picture without taking over the story?

7. POINT OF VIEW – Is the POV for each scene wisely chosen? Are the POV transitions smooth and important? Does the writer avoid head hopping?

8. STYLE – Is the author’s style unique and appealing? Does she have a voice all her own?

9. CLICHÉS – Does the writer avoid clichés in plot, characterization, dialogue and narrative? (This doesn’t mean tried and true plot devices can’t be used. But they need to be done in a fresh way that makes you want to read on.)

10. Would you recommend this book to a friend?

Print this off and keep near your workstation. I guarantee it will come in handy while you're editing your book.

Monday, October 5, 2009

What writers can learn from a friendly turkey and family reunions

Our neighbors have a pet turkey. Turkeys make better pets than you might think. This one is rather amusing to watch. He pecks around the yard, talking and garbling and intent on making friends with everything in sight. Unfortunately my dogs are not nearly as congenial with him as he is with them.

The other day while trying to enjoy a leisurely walk with the dogs, the turkey caught sight of us and ran out to greet us. While he saw potential friends, my dogs saw an early Thanksgiving dinner. As my husband and I tried to deter the turkey and keep my Lab from latching her jaws around his straggly turkey neck, my fingers became entangled in the retractable leash. If you’ve ever used a retractable leash, you know why they come with labels warning against getting your legs or fingers near the rope. The fingers of my left hand are seared top to bottom with rope burns that made writing nearly impossible all weekend.

The pain has subsided for the most part and I have mobility back in my digits. But Saturday and Sunday were a wash as far as accomplishing much with my writing. Losing a weekend writing and figuring out how to someday work a turkey encounter into a novel made me realize once again how inspiration can strike at the most unlikely times.

Sometimes a writer need go no farther than his front yard for ideas. Saturday before the turkey attack, we attended a family reunion. A niece talked with me about whether or not her boyfriend would propose and what she would say if he did. She loves the guy, and is pretty sure he’s the one, but what if she’s wrong. A husband and wife spent the whole time sniping at each other and drawing unwanted attention. I overheard a conversation about a cousin who disappeared about forty years ago. The family finally tracked her down in another state a decade or so back. She has children of her own and a life none of us know anything about. She emphatically stated she did not want contact from anyone in the family. Someone whispered about rumors of “incest” and knowing glances were passed around the table. The conversation quickly shifted to layoffs and unemployment and of family members who had died since the last reunion.

I’ve heard it said the best way to repair the sagging middle of a novel is to throw in a dead body. Since that scenario doesn’t work for every piece of fiction, you may want to pay attention to what the old folks talk about at the next reunion, wedding, or funeral. Or just walk your dogs around the neighborhood and see what kind of exotic pet captures their attention.