Thursday, December 31, 2009

Happy New Year!

I found two perfect quotes to celebrate the start of 2010:

"Be at war with your vices, at peace with your neighbors, and let every new year find you a better man." ~Benjamin Franklin

"Tomorrow is a new day; begin it well and serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense." ~Ralph Waldo Emerson

Happy New Year to all my fellow writers! May this year bring you a flood of inspiration and creativity, and may those of you who desire publication GET IT (myself, included, lol). Cheers! *clinks virtual glasses*

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Cliches: Avoid Them Like the Plague

"A cliché is anything you have ever heard before, and it's have to create your own language." ~Janet Fitch

I love this quote. It's strong, it's concise, and it's spot on.

It took me awhile, as a writer, to realize the danger of cliches - WHY it's not a good idea to use them. I tell my students now that it's "lazy" writing. To rely on a cliche, on something you've heard before (especially over and over again) is easy. Too easy. The reader wants something fresh, something new and original. Something different.

Avoiding cliches is easier said than done (<--See? *giggle*). Because we're not only to avoid the obvious phrases: "dead as a doornail," "blue as the sky," "hard as a rock," but also cliched plot devices (those storylines/characters you tend to see over and over again). Right now, an example I can think of is the wave of "chick lit." I actually enjoy chick lit, but am seeing a lot of the same cliched plots/characters, a la Bridget Jones. They all start to "sound" the same to me, after awhile - same (usually overweight and insecure) heroine, same jerky romantic lead, same clever/witty friends who surround the heroine, etc.

I realize as I'm typing this that I'm a complete hypocrite. I write women's fiction (less "spunky" than chick lit) which tends to have predictabe plots, in terms of having the lead girl and lead guy fall for each other in the end (if the plot is romance-related). But, I try my best to be original and unpredictable in the "getting there" process. Actually, I think predictability is a bit different than a cliche. Predictability is comforting to many people and is used often (in any romantic comedy, you KNOW they'll get together in the end; in any action story, you KNOW the good guy will win and the bad guy will be brutally killed).

But - even in those predictable genres, I think there's room for originality. And that's what any writer should strive for, no matter what the genre.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Kindles. Hmm....

So. I just read today that Kindle (digital) books actually out-sold hard/softback books on Amazon last year. Wow. Really? I find that very interesting. I knew Kindles were popular, but had no idea they were that popular.

My thoughts on this: I don't own a Kindle, though I've contemplated jumping on the bandwagon. But the purist in me much prefers feeling the texture of a page with my fingers, smelling that "new book" smell, reading a printed page in front of me. I don't know that I will ever prefer reading a screen to reading a physical book.

But, if Kindles will make reading more accessible to people, I'm excited about that. If there are non-book-loving people who start reading because of this new technological advancement, then, great! As long as actual hardcover books don't eventually go the way of the dinosaur, I'm happy.

What does all this mean for the writer, though? Does the new popularity of the Kindles affect our chances of getting published, or change the way the agents/publishers handle manuscripts? Since I'm not any kind of expert in this area, I'm posting a link to someone who is - The Rejecter (an anonymous literary agent's assistant). I love her blog. Very insightful, snarky, and honest. Here's the link.

So, any thoughts on the Kindle? Do you own one? Love it, hate it? Think it's just a passing fad, or here to stay?

**edit - since the 2 hours that I posted this entry, The Rejecter posted this link to a VERY interesting article that could give a preview to the MESS that could occur in the publishing world over e-books (Kindle): LINK

By the way - I hope everyone had a Merry Christmas! I simply cannot believe it's already over. Went wayyyyy too fast for me. :-P

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Merry Christmas!

A little bonus post here, as I probably won't be blogging again until next week. I wish all my readers a VERY Merry Christmas. Stay safe, enjoy your family/friend time, and let the diets go out the window, lol.

Here's a beautiful, poetic passage from Isaiah that, for me, sums up the spirit of the season:

Isaiah 9:6 --For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

Peer Evaluation

To wrap up my unintentional "series" of posts on sharing one's work, today I thought I'd post the questionnaire I give to my Creative Writing students on the day they're to exchange their work with someone else in the class. We do this three times a semester, for a small grade. Because I don't want a peer evaluation being a free-for-all (and because I need something substantial to grade), I give them this form (below).

I also tell the students that ultimately, when sharing their work, THEY are the one who decide what to take and what to leave, when it comes to someone's critique. I tell them not to feel pressured or obligated to incorporate someone else's changes. Because if they do that, the changes won't ring true - they'll feel forced.

So, I tell students to take each comment, positive and negative, and toss it around in their mind a bit - ask themselves if THEY agree with their reader-partner. If they don't, they should shrug it off and listen to their gut. But, if they do agree, they should be humble enough to accept that the person was right, that they might need to change a few things. Because ultimately, it's the work itself that's the most important. The writer's goal is to do everything in his/her power to make it the very best it can be. So, here's the form (many other questions could be asked, but due to time constraints, I decided to narrow it down to these):

Name of Reviewer: _________________________
Name of Writer: _________________________

Directions: Read the student’s chapter TWICE - the first time, read it at a normal pace, and the second time, slow down and read it very carefully. Keep these evaluation questions in mind as you read the second time. Then, fill out this form honestly but sensitively. Offer any necessary advice and help in a constructive way.

1. Is the opening paragraph interesting? Does it make you want to read further?

2. Did the writer use any dialogue? If so, was it effective? Did it feel "natural"?

3. By the end of the chapter, is there at least the hint of an upcoming conflict given?

4. Is the plot (thus far) convincing? If so, why? If not, what might be the reason?

5. Does the chapter have smooth pacing? Are there places in the story that are slowed down by too much dialogue, description, or exposition?

6. Are there any spots that contain too much "telling" and not enough "showing?" What would you suggest for these areas?

7. Does the chapter contain the correct format? (Are indents used with each paragraph? Is the chapter double-spaced? Does the dialogue have correct punctuation and correct paragraph format?)

8. Is the writing smooth and free from cliches, wordiness, passive voice, too many run-ons, etc?

9. What are the strengths of this chapter? What did you like best about it?

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Darker Side of Sharing

I've talked recently about the importance of writers sharing their work with others - for feedback, for objectivity. Today, I wanted to talk about the down side of sharing, the risk that writers always take when they make themselves vulnerable to someone. If you're new to this sharing thing, here are two types of people to avoid as readers of your work:

*note - for even more insight on this topic, take a look at the comment Gayle just posted - very spot-on and eloquently-written.

1) Plagiarists. This sounds like an obvious one to avoid, but it's tricky because at the time, you don't KNOW they're stealing from you. These people look at your work, decide it's pretty good, and rip it off from you - an exact passage, a central plot, a quirky character, a specific idea. Maybe in their minds, they're only "borrowing," but it's stealing, all the same, and you need to protect yourself. These people are difficult to recognize until after the fact, after you've already trusted them. Bottom line - unless you fully TRUST the person, don't share your work (or even your brainstorming). Better to be safe than sorry. Now, I don't want to fill you with paranoia or make you start questioning your most trusted friends (because, most likely, if they're trusted, you can indeed trust them). But it never hurts to be careful with whom you share your work. For instance, if you post a poem on the internet for all the world to see, there's a high chance that someone will read it, like it, and post it as his/her own. Just be smart about where and with whom you share your work.

2) People who give extremes in criticism. If the reader you've chosen is overly-flattering, it could be disingenuous. On the other hand, if the reader is overly-critical, with nothing positive to say, you might even question his/her motives. Perhaps that person is envious of you and wants to knock you down a few pegs. Perhaps he/she is just a negative personality type and simply can't see the good in things. If that's the case, you won't get the full picture of your work, anyway. You'll only get a narrow view. Because sometimes, it's good to know what someone likes about your work, so you can know that you're "doing it right," that a particular plot/character/piece of dialogue works.

So, do your best to avoid the "dark side" when selecting a reader. It's a shame that trust has to be an issue between writers - there should be a code of honor that stands with all writers - but this is the real world. So, we have to be smart and protect ourselves the best we can, while still being open enough to share. A delicate tight-rope balancing act, but it can be done. And, it's worth it to try.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Words of Wisdom...

I found a great little article the other day that might be of interest to others: 7 Reasons Agents Stop Reading Your First Chapter

The paragraph before the "7 Reasons" is this (an interesting way to "test" that first chapter!):

I recently attended the Writer Idol Event at Boston Book Fest. I t was not for the faint of heart, but for those willing to brave public ridicule, it was a great way to get helpful feedback. This is how it worked: An actress picked manuscripts at random and read the first 250 words out loud for the panel and the audience. If at any point a panelist felt he would stop reading, he raised his hand. The actress read until two or more panelists raised their hands, at which point the panel discussed the reasons they stopped, or in cases where the actress read to the end, they discussed what worked.

As for the 7 Reasons, I agree with all of them, surely, but avoiding them is easier said than done. Because writing a novel or short story is so much harder than non-writers will ever know. It's hard, in terms of hitting that "sweet spot" - getting the writing, the plot, the characters, the conflict just right. Stirring and mixing all the "ingredients" together in the proper order, in the proper amount - then, not over-mixing or under-baking (which, now that I think about it, reminds me of my "stew" post a few weeks ago).

Still, it's helpful - crucial, in fact - to know the pitfalls, to be highly aware of them. Because, how else will we avoid them?

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Money Where My Mouth Is...

Yesterday, I talked about the importance of sharing one's writing, getting a "second opinion."

In class, I give the students the option to read their work aloud (I never put them on the spot - I don't want them to associate "fear" with writing). And at the end of the semester, I tell them, "You all have shared your writing with me for weeks and weeks. Out of fairness, I'll shove down my own nerves at sharing my work publicly, and read you a couple of paragraphs I've written."

So, in the spirit of sharing, putting my money where my mouth is, I'll offer a couple of paragraphs of my novel here to you, the lovely readers of my blog. *deep breath* Here goes:

*a quick background synopsis - the main character, Brooke, has inherited a cottage from her great aunt. This scene takes place a couple of weeks after the aunt's death.

Back at the cottage, putting away the groceries, Brooke opened a cabinet and paused - stared at her aunt’s dishes and saucers sitting there, unaware that anything had changed. She tried to imagine the last time Aunt Joy had eaten from them. Was she happy? Was she lonely? Did she know it would be her last time?

Next, she opened the pantry door and saw that it had been cleared out by someone, but there still remained an empty container with BISCUITS written in gold print. Things had been so hectic yesterday, then this morning, that it hadn’t quite hit her yet, the weight of everything. The nuances and details of someone leaving this earth, leaving behind things like a cottage and dishes and a biscuit tin for someone else to find.

Fighting the desire to sit indoors all day and let melancholy sit over her like a cloud, she decided to prepare a cup of tea while she waited for Mr. Lester. She needed to stay sharp for this meeting, full of financial figures and confusing legalese. There would be time later, she told herself, to contemplate the sadness between the lines.

Sharing Your Writing...

Letting someone else see your writing can be a terrifying experience. Fear and anxiety seem to lace the questions in your mind, "Will they like it? Will they hate it? Will they think I'm stupid? Am I stupid?"

But, sharing your writing is CRUCIAL to the process. Everyone needs a "second opinion." Sharing does two things: it gets your material "out there," available for someone else to enjoy - and it gives you an objective opinion on your work, both negative and positive. Trust me. A good reader will not only find the typos you didn't catch (even upon the 100th reading!), but also the blatant inconsistencies you thought weren't there. Example: my mother, who's my "own personal editor," once read a passage in which I had two characters darting under a tree during a storm. "Ummm," she said carefully, "wouldn't the characters run AWAY from a tree in a storm? I don't think a tree is the safest place for them." LOL - duh. I knew that, really I did. But I had been so caught up in writing the all-important dialogue, this key conversation the characters were having during said rainstorm, that I didn't think it through properly.

If you've never shared your work - with anyone - I would strongly encourage you to give it a shot. Writing is such a solitary endeavor - it's easy to shelter yourself inside the safe coccoon of your own thoughts/ideas and never venture out. But, at some point, especially if you ever want to get published, you must put yourself out there and share.

A piece of advice: Be selective with whom you share. Make sure it's someone you trust, and who will give you sensitive, honest feedback. I've chosen my mother because she reads my genre (women's fiction) and knows well what works and what doesn't. And although, yes, she's my mother (which makes her automatically less objective than others), she is still able to give me negative feedback when necessary - which is extremely helpful. In fact, I ask for it. I tell her to be HONEST with me. I don't just want my ego stroked. I want to know what's not working almost more than I want to know what is. Because I can't see past the end of my nose, when it comes to my own writing. None of us can. Which is why we should share. :-)

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Thinking Outside the Box

So, I write women's commercial fiction. I like to think I know the genre pretty well - I've been reading it for years and years - and I haven't planned on going outside it as a writer (because I feel so comfortable in it).

Well, I'm currently writing a series, which I've never done before - very exciting! I just started writing the third book, a Christmas book. It didn't start out to be a religious book, but the further I get, I'm realizing the theme is turning in a particularly spiritual direction (unlike the previous two books). I'm letting the characters/plot lead me where they wish, at this point.

Now, for the "thinking outside the box" part: If the first two books in the series end up not getting published (a realistic possibility), I'm going to do something different. I'm going to take this third book, which is virtually a stand-alone book, and try to market it as Christian fiction - find an agent who specializes in that genre! I think it's a creative solution to a potential problem with any series (which is that if Book 1 doesn't sell, then logically, neither will Books 2, 3, 4, and so on...).

As you can tell, I'm excited about this prospect. But the most important thing for me is that, either way it falls (in regard to publishing), I'm still staying true to the original plot that "wants" to be told. I love thinking outside the box!

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Beware the Muse...

Yesterday, I wrote about brainstorming, about letting yourself be "open" to the Muse. But I forgot to put a caution statement: When you open yourself to the Muse, she just might steal all your attention, so be ready!

Case in point: I was only planning to BRAINSTORM yesterday. That's all. But, idea lead on to idea and before I knew what was happening, I had written the first page of this new novel! Then another, then another. I ended up writing 14 pages! And today, 5 more so far!

Sure, it's a great "problem" to have, and I'm not complaining. Really. But I didn't plan for this. I've got 100 other things I should be doing right now - cleaning up for holiday company, washing clothes, running all-important errands. But when the Muse hits, it seems to trump everything, and priorities get shifted.

So, beware the Muse (is that like the Ides of March?) and make sure you have TIME to devote to her. Because she can end up being a demanding little wench. lol

Monday, December 14, 2009


I'm about to tackle another novel - a shorter one, maybe even a novella - something Christmasy as Book 3 in my series. So far, I've got a couple of characters roaming around my brain, as well as the vague beginnings of a plot.

I love this part of the process, the brainstorming. Nothing's committed to the page yet. Nothing is set in stone. Anything goes. There's great freedom in that.

But, I also dread this part because anything goes. Because there's such freedom. On one hand, there's always the possiblity of coming up empty, of feeling dry. On the other, there's a chance of becoming paralyzed with the endless brainstorming questions. There are hundreds of them writers must ask themselves: Where will the novel be set? Why there? Is the protagonist too likeable? What are his/her flaws? What motive does this character having for making this decision?

Then there are the physical details one must consider - physical descriptions of character and setting (thankfully, many of those can be decided even as you write the story).

So, how do I tackle the brainstorming? A few different ways:

1) I stay open to the Muse. This isn't as mystical as it sounds. Really, it just entails thinking and thinking and thinking about the novel. Letting ideas about the novel drift and circulate inside my head. Giving them the opportunity to marinate.

2) Asking myself questions. It goes back to the questions above - wondering about the details of plot, character, setting, structure. Those questions must be answered, somewhere along the way. Many writers like the questions to answer themselves AS they write the story. But I like to get some of the biggies out of the way ahead of time. That way, I feel more comfortable writing the story.

3) Make notes. Write EVERYTHING down, all your ideas, as they hit you. This can be difficult for me, as sometimes the Muse strikes me in odd places - driving from home to work, grading essays, having a conversation with someone. Not the most convenient times. I tell my students always to have a method for capturing those brainstorming ideas. If you don't have a pen handy, try this: call yourself and leave yourself a voicemail, detailing the ideas. Yes, I've done this before. Many times. Because as much as you try to remember brilliant ideas, trust me, they often have a way of flittering into your head, then out of it, just as quickly. Not a fun experience, trying to call up the memory and failing miserably. Because once it's gone, it's usually gone.

So. How do you handle the brainstorming process? Any special tricks or tips you use?

Friday, December 11, 2009

Another Gem...

First of all, a wee celebration for myself -- I submitted all my 160 student grades this morning. I'm spent. But happy it's over. I'm closing the book on another long, exhausting semester. Whew...

So, on to my writing "gem." Sorry this one's a little morbid and un-holiday-like, but I thought it was so clever. I found a little-known movie on cable the other day. It stars Bill Paxton, and it's called Resistance, a war-time romance based on an Anita Shreve novel.

Anyway, halfway through the movie, this little boy witnesses the horrific murders of his townspeople at the hands of Nazis. Later, when he tries to describe the scene to a woman, he says, "Have you ever seen someone hang?" She shakes her head "no." He says, "They look like they're dancing. Except their feet can't find the floor."

Wow. That one sank deep. How poignant and vivid, nearly poetic. An excellent piece of writing.

Just wanted to share that little "gem." Not very cheery, but I like the reality, the truth in it. I think the best writing comes from absolute truth. No matter how difficult it sometimes is to hear.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Gems in Unexpected Places

Confession time: I have a couple of guilty-pleasure t.v. shows I enjoy watching. They actually serve a great function for me: they allow me to turn off much of my brain and just sit. Just watch and enjoy and relax and not think too hard. These shows are especially nice after I've spent all my brain power grading research papers - ack! :-)

One such guilty-pleasure show - yes, feel free to point your finger at the screen and laugh hysterically at me - is the "new" 90210. I used to watch the old one in the 90's, so I started watching this new one out of curiosity. It's fluff. It's silly. It's melodramatic. It's filled with eye-rolling dialogue and unrealistic plots. But today, as I was watching my DVR recording of it, there was a well-written gem amongst the rubble.

One of the teenage characters had just lost her mother to cancer, and had attended the funeral an hour before. Afterward, she sat on the edge of her bed, talking to a friend about the surreal funeral experience. She said this, in a monotone voice, with an empty look in her eyes: "People, strangers, kept coming up to me, kissing me, and telling me things like, 'I'm sorry for your loss.' 'I'm sorry for your loss.' My loss? What does that mean, loss? She was a person, not a baseball game."

I paused and processed what the character said. How true. How cleverly-phrased. The word "loss" is cold. It's over-used, impersonal, even trite. To compare a meaningless baseball game to the weight of someone's life puts things into an odd sort of perspective.

The moral is - if you look hard enough, sometimes, you can find a moment of actual depth and poignancy and creativity in an unexpected place. So, always keep your eyes/ears open for well-written gems -- even when partaking in a guilty pleasure that you're sure will only yield fluff. Because it might surprise you, where the gems can be found...

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Castles and Daydreams...

This is the Thoreau quote I write on the board on the first day of class: Do not worry if you have built your castles in the air. They are where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.

Then, I tell the students that, as creative writers, they most likely have vivid imaginations, daydreams, "castles" they visit in their minds -- all of which is necessary for writers to have. Creativity. However, what's equally important is knowing how to channel that imagination, those daydreams, those castles, into something on the page. It's all well and good to have an idea for a story. But if that story never sees the light of day because of fear or procrastination - or, if it isn't told well enough on the page, what good will come of it?

So, I tell the students that the "foundation" must be placed underneath the dreams. The foundation becomes the tools of a writers' trade - things like technique and format and voice and grammar. These must be present in order for the story to have a proper life. Sure, foundations themselves are boring, solid, stable - the opposite of creativity. But, they're also essential. In fact, without a foundation, a house will eventually crumble and fall. Just like a story.

**a little side note - this week and next week are finals weeks for me, so I'm buried in essay-grading/compiling. I might not post for a couple of weeks, but hope to be back when I have more time. Thanks to those of you who read my blog! I've really enjoyed this experience, and you guys make it that much richer for me!