Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Pipeline = Panic Reducer?

So, it's the tail end of summer (*HUGE SIGH*) and after an extremely busy writing-and-trying-to-find-an-agent summer, with hardly a "day off," I should allow myself some rest. Right?

Well, what's funny is that I'm now so "in the mode" of writing/editing that my fingers/brain need something to do. Even during these lovely days off. Thankfully, I've always got something in the pipeline: brainstorming ideas for future books, a past novel that needs editing, a new book I've already started but had to postpone for rewrites on another book. Eenie meenie...

It wasn't always this way with me. There was a time I worked strictly one book at a time, or one article at a time. And when I was finished, I was finished. Nothing in the pipeline. And so, a slight panic would always set in. What next??

It feels wonderful now, always to have something in that pipeline to fall back on. I know that many of you are like that, too - always having something going, always chipping away at a novel or story or idea, some at the same time. I guess it took me awhile to learn that that was the best/easiest way, that it reduces the "panic" that comes after ending a project.

Of course, there's also a danger in having too many projects in the pipeline - to the point that none of them ever quite gets finished. That's probably the #1 concern that my Creative Writing students express to me each semester. They'll tell me: "I've got all these great ideas, all these stories started - but I just can't seem to finish ANY of them!" That's a different type of panic.

My advice to them is always to choose ONE project, ignoring the others completely, and finish it. See it through. No matter what. Even if they think the end result is terrible. Because they can always go back and edit things later. And - once they feel that sense of accomplishment, that success at seeing something through to the very end, it gets easier the next time. Gives them a boost of confidence and reduces the panic. And that's always a good thing...

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Keep Your Writing Muscles Warm

So, as I take a wee break from my writing (still resting my brain), I read. That's the way I keep learning. I study the masters, watch them create brilliant sentences and wish I had even half their talent, lol. I think it's important that, even when we're not writing, we're keeping our writing muscles "warm," by reading.

Currently, I'm reading Elizabeth Berg's The Last Time I Saw You. I'm halfway through, and loving it. She's a modern-lit genius, in my book, merging literary and commercial fiction terribly well.

In this particular book, I'm fascinated with her structure. The book centers around a 40th high school reunion. Not a completely original idea, reunions, but her structure is unique. She introduces the reader, in first-person narratives and present tense, to each of the 6 major characters. Each character also has certain flashbacks of high school. We see their lives, pre-reunion, for the first half. So by the time we reach the reunion, we're already aware of the dynamics - who's getting divorced, who's in a verbally-abusive marriage, who's dealing with bad test results. And, who's STILL crushing on whom, from high school. It gives the reunion a sort of suspense it might not otherwise have, if we saw it at the beginning.

Anyway, back to the idea of reading-while-not-writing - I just find that it's a great way to stay in touch with the writing process, and to feel like my writing muscles aren't completely atrophied when it's time to pick up that pen, er, keyboard once again...

Lazy Link

My brain is still on hiatus from those re-writes I did over the past couple of weeks. So, I'm being lazy today and posting a wonderful link from Rachelle Gardner's blog.

I couldn't agree more - that, often, those menial tasks (washing dishes, doing laundry, or even just "being quiet" for a bit) relax my brain enough to let brainstorming in. In fact, my strongest creative ideas have come when I least expect them - when I'm driving or brushing my teeth, etc. NOT when I'm sitting at the computer, willing the ideas to come forth.

How about y'all? Do you find this to be true, as well?

Friday, July 23, 2010

Easy Way Out...

Whew! So, I finished and submitted the re-writes to the agent. I'm "knackered" (as one of my British characters might say), and soooo glad they're completed! I'm exhausted, but feel really good about them. Whatever the outcome, whatever the agent's decision, I feel comfortable that I gave it my best shot, and yes, I do think it's a better book than before. I'm incredibly grateful for her feedback.

So, I'm taking the easy way out today and letting someone else do the blogging for me. I just found a wonderful entry on the "music" of speech, over at the Romance Roundtable. I've always believed there is a "music" to what we write - crescendos, diminuendos, staccatos, rests/pauses. And, most importantly - rhythm. In fact, I do think the rhythm of a passage can be even more important than what's taking place in the scene, sometimes. We don't want our writing too choppy, or even too fluid and flowery (so that it makes the reader doze off). I think it's important to find a natural rhythm and flow to whatever we write (which is why I always tell my students to read their work ALOUD (which, by the way, is what I did this week with my 396-page novel! lol)).

Anyway, enjoy this musical entry and have a great weekend! I'm going to put my feet up and watch some movies. :-)

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Feedback Rocks!

Apologies for my lack of posting! I've been toiling away at some re-writes on my novel (many thanks to a kind agent for giving very detailed feedback and inviting me to re-submit!!).

Here's the thing: when I first submitted my novel to her, in my head, it was the best it could be. (Certainly not perfect - there's always room for improvement - but I had polished and read it and re-read it and felt it was "ready"). But as I read her feedback, I started nodding. She hit the nail on the head, regarding storyline and extraneous scenes. It's funny - I knew, subconsciously, all this time, that certain parts needed to be reworked. But I guess I didn't know how to fix it. Or even how to pinpoint the issues. So, to have feedback there, in black and white, from a professional, made something click. I understood what needed to be done. So, I've been doing it!

Re-working, re-thinking, re-writing. All a tedious process, but in the end, so worth it! Because I do want this book to be the best it can possibly be. I do want to know where/how it can be improved. At this point in any writer's journey, the ego must be placed delicately aside, and the writer must dig in, get hands dirty, do what needs to be done, for the good of THE BOOK. Because that, to me, is what it's all about. Those characters, that plot, that world. Not me, the writer. If authors get in the way of the book, it will never improve.

So, I'll probably be "radio silent" for much of this week, but that's why - I'm trying to focus on the book, and do what needs to be done! Wish me luck! :-)

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Bonus Post!

This is toooo fun not to share. I just found this website: I Write Like

Basically, you submit a brief paragraph of something you wrote - a novel, a blog entry, a letter - and this analyzing software tells you which famous/bestselling author you write like. Hilarious!

I tried it 5 times (using 5 different samples of my novels) and it came up with these results: Stephen King, Stephen King, Margaret Atwood, Stephen King, and Charles Dickens.

Umm, wow. LOL! Seeing as I write the complete opposite of a horror and bleak tales of orphans, I'm sort of questioning the validity of the results. Still, it's a fun time-waster!

I'd love to know who you write like! Post it in the comments and let me know!

Ode to Writing

The first day of each semester, I always ask my Creative Writing students a question: What does writing "do" for you? How does it serve you?

Occasionally, I get so caught up in the Great Agent Quest that I'm distracted away from WHY I love to write in the first place.

So, this morning, I thought about it. About the paradoxes of the writing life. How it's both pleasure and pain, joy and frustration, peace and discomfort. It's hardly ever all one or the other, all good or all bad. (Much like life, itself, eh?)

I love being a writer. Entering new worlds and creating characters out of thin air. I love the control of it - how it's "my" universe and I can do whatever I want in it: make characters fall in love, or shatter their world with a great loss. In doing so, I learn a little more about myself, about human nature. At its core, I think, writing is a bit selfish in nature - I'm exploring how I feel about things, about the world, through my own characters, and hoping that readers, someday, might read my words and do the same.

And, as any writer knows, the joys of writing are balanced out by the hard work that comes attached to it - the brainstorming and planning, the eking out time in a busy work schedule, the planting our seats in our seats when we don't feel like writing, the editing and trimming and tweaking after we think we already have a solid product. It's not easy, that's for sure - but it's necessary.

And, it's the kind of work I love. Nothing is more rewarding than finishing a paragraph or a chapter (or a novel!) and feeling satisfied with it - knowing that I gave it my all, heart and soul, and it's there now, on the page. A little piece of me.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Nip/Tuck Your Novel

For years, I've passed along to my students one of the most valuable pieces of advice I've ever heard. I wrote it down at a writer's conference I attended long ago, and sadly, have no idea which editor or writer said it, and so, I can't give proper credit. But, here it is:

A word or sentence must EARN the right to live.

I love the wording of that. A sentence or word must work hard, must prove itself on the page - must prove that it works, that it fits - before it earns its right to be there.

I'm in the editing process right now, and I have something to add to that great bit of wisdom. It's more of a reminder to myself, that this is a priority:

A storyline, character, or scene must EARN the right to live.

When nip/tucking your novel with a sharp, careful eye, I think it's important to ask yourself constantly - "Does this character/scene have a reason to be there?" In fact, sometimes I go so far as to pretend I've cut it, then ask myself, "Did that cutting change, affect, or hurt the overall story?" If the answer is "No," then it should probably be cut out.

Now, of course, it's never that simple. There are sometimes-delicate or complex plots where certain extraneous parts should be eliminated, and certain crucial parts must stay. And difficult choices must be made. That's where things can get sticky or stressful.

In the end, I try to use my gut. To do what's best, overall, for the book. Not what's best for me, the writer (sure, it's difficult sometimes, wiping out whole scenes that I'd worked very hard on, or changing plotlines in order to serve a better story purpose). But my goal, my end game, should be to build a better, stronger book.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Good Advice is Easy to Find

Occasionally, I forgo my sometimes-lengthy blog entries and offer up an inspiring quote or informative article I've discovered. Today is that day.

Here's a link to an article at BackSpace by David L. Robbins. "Advice for Writers" is so rich and full of informative GOLD that I don't even know where to begin, in telling you what I liked about it most. Everything! Seriously, every single sentence, all by itself, could cover an entire class period because of its richness.

Example: Use strong verbs, be selective with imagery and details, never forget that concision is precision.

Or this - so profound: wrestle to the ground the notion that editing is writing.

And this: Learn to accept the word No. Understand that No does not mean stop, it means only Not this direction.

Honestly, I started writing today's blog entry as an excuse to procrastinate finishing a chapter in my new novel. But after reading that article, after being mightily inspired, I'm ready to roll up my sleeves and get to work! Who's with me?? ;-)

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

To Link or Not to Link - That is the Question...

So, I've debated with this for awhile - whether or not to add a link to this Writer's Corner blog inside my query letters. On one hand, I didn't want to bug the agents, or give them more information than they needed/requested. On the other hand, this blog is a little piece of me, and could potentially give them more insight into my writing life.

In the end, I've decided to add the link. *nervously waves to agents possibly reading this entry right now* Nothing too obvious - just the link, in small font, at the end of my contact information, at the end of the letter. I made my decision after reading through some excellent agent blogs and writer blogs. Their general consensus was that adding a link to a query letter wouldn't hurt. If nothing else, it gives the agent a little peek into the life of the potential client. And, a blog is more personal and relaxed than the query letter (which can feel almost stilted, because of its professional nature).

I'm not entirely convinced that adding the link to my queries is helpful - but, I figure, if the agents are curious, they'll click. If they're too busy or don't care either way whether a writer has a blog, they won't. Nothing lost, either way...

So, readers, what do you think? Does adding a link to the blog hurt or help your chances of getting representation from an agent? I'd love to hear your thoughts...

Are Adverbs the Enemy?

It was only a couple of years ago that I read Stephen King's advice somewhere (paraphrasing, here...), that adverbs should be banished altogether. At first, I didn't think I agreed with him. But the more I paid attention - both to my own prose and to published fiction - I came around to his way of thinking.

I don't know that they should be banished altogether. But I do think they should used incredibly (<---ha!) sparingly. Tightening one's writing should always include examining the overuse of adverbs (and adjectives).

Here's a great Writer's Digest article by William Noble that explains why this is true, and gives clear examples.

I'm sure I'm still guilty of using too many adjectives/adverbs in my writing (I do believe that, at least in women's fiction, writers can get away with them a bit more), but now I'm more aware of the ones I don't need, and I think/hope my writing is better for it!

Monday, July 5, 2010

Don't Let the "Pretty" Stand in the Way

I'm fascinated by the differences between commercial fiction and literary fiction. I tell my students that commercial fiction is more plot-driven and is more "popular," read by the masses. And that literary fiction is usually more character-driven, and feels more "intellectual" because of the language and descriptions. It takes its time, and seems to be less concerned with pacing.

To me, the greatest novel would be a blending of the two - the faster pace of a commercial-fiction plot combined with the higher prose of literary fiction. I don't know if that's possible to reach, but a few come very close (Elizabeth Berg, I think, is one).

So, what's more important? Pretty, thoughtful language, or a solid, well-paced plot? I think it depends. If John Grisham inserted flowery descriptions or thoughtful character analysis, it would bring his plot to a standstill. On the other hand, if Anne Tyler focused more on plot and pacing, it's possible her books would lose some of their intellect and depth.

Yesterday, I read an interview of a well-respected book editor, Chuck Adams (link). What struck me is that he, an experienced editor, advises writers to get out of their own way and just write the story. Because, in a sense, story trumps language. Now, granted, he tends to lean toward more commercial fiction, where story feels more important. But, you know, I think what he says applies to ALL writers, commercial or literary. Because what he's saying is, don't be so proud of your well-constructed sentences, your pretty descriptions, that you lose sight of the story. Pretty is fine, as long as it doesn't get in between your reader and the book.

Here are a couple of excerpts from his interview. Fascinating!

I believe very strongly that books are not about writers, and they're definitely not about editors—they're about readers.... If the writing is poetic and so forth, that's nice. I'm reading something right now that has an amazing voice, and I'm only fifty-six pages into it, but I'm already getting a little tired because it's so nice, if you know what I mean. It's so pretty. It's like every page is a bon bon, and I want a little break somewhere. It's become self-conscious, in a way. I want the author to surprise me and excite me, and so far he hasn't. He's just made me think, "Oh, that's nice."

[Writers] think about making themselves sound smart and good, and they forget that this is really all about telling stories. I used to joke that I was going to put a big sign over my desk that said, "Quit writing and tell me a story." The problem is that they just write. They fall in love with their own voice.

Two Limbs Off the Same Tree?

As I've continued to send query letters and read agent blogs this past summer, it's occurred to me that there are a few aspects of an agent's job that I encounter myself, as a writing teacher. In some ways, I think agents and teachers are two limbs off the same tree. And realizing that has helped me immensely, in knowing what to do, and even more importantly, what NOT to do, in regard to agents. So, in today's entry, allow me to be quite blunt, about some teacher/agent similarities and pet peeves...

1) The paperwork. The outlandish number of queries that agents receive is similar to the outlandish amount of pages I grade each semester. In one agent blog yesterday, I read that a particular agency receives about 100 query emails per day. Wow. In one semester, I grade approximately 1,500 papers per semester (and some of those papers are 5-page research papers and 15-page short stories!). As well, I have 2 internet classes, and I answer anywhere from 1 to 100 emails PER DAY.

My point here is not to gain great sympathy from my readers (unless you really want to give it, lol), but to say that, like an agent, sometimes I can get very overwhelmed by the sheer numbers/masses of papers I'm grading. And because of that, one of my pet peeves is when students eagerly ask (over and over again): "Did you grade our papers yet???" This question sometimes comes 2 days after I've received a batch of 150 essays. And it sometimes comes later. The thing is, students have every right to know when to receive their graded papers. But, I always keep them apprised of my progress, and sometimes, I just wish they'd take my word for it and be a little patient. Their asking if the papers are graded actually just adds to the pressure I already put on myself, to get them finished.

The same rule applies with agents. You, as the writer, don't want to irritate the agent. So, find their turnaround time on their website, add about a month to that, and WAIT before sending a "nudge." In fact, today's entry by Bookends, entitled Settle Down, is about this very thing, and it's definitely worth a read!

2) Professionalism/respect goes a LONG way. 97% of my students each semester are incredibly respectful. They're kind and polite, and a couple of them might even give me a "Yes, Ma'am." But those 3% that aren't respectful make my job very difficult sometimes. The same can be said, I imagine, for agents dealing with writers. I imagine that most writers are respectful -- but, from reading those agent blogs, I can tell the disrespectful percentage is much higher than 3%. And it puzzles me -- why would writers burn their bridges that way? Why would they be rude to someone who essentially holds their writing career in their hands?

The same thing happens sometimes with students. Again, it's thankfully rare, but I've had students who flat-out lie to me when I've caught them in plagiarism (I'm talking 100%, no doubt, I have the word-for-word internet proof in my hand type of plagiarism). Other students use a sarcastic tone when they don't like the grade they've received. Still others seem to have "issues" (not emergencies, but constant excuses) and call or email me every week, to tell me why - again - they can't make it to class or could they PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE (yes, some students actually beg) have an extension because they forgot about the assignment. Still other students are constantly not following my clear instructions on assignments or due dates, and I have to constantly explain to them what they did or didn't do correctly.

Again, thankfully, these situations are rare. But -- they do waste my time. A student who plagiarizes sometimes costs me 45 minutes (that I don't have!) to track down the plagiarism online. A student who constantly calls/emails for little tiny reasons/excuses costs me time because I have to email/call them back each time.

So, back to the agent part of this example -- they, too, have cases where writers are rude, or don't follow instructions (this makes some agents VERY mad - it's worth it for writers to CAREFULLY follow each individual agent's submission guidelines). In both teaching and agenting, the courtesy/respect/politeness/professionalism of students/writers goes a VERY long way. I'll be really blunt here - my "favorite" students (I know, I know, I'm not supposed to have them) are the ones who follow instructions, don't talk/text in class, are on time (a big one!), and cause me NO extra time. Now, don't get me wrong - I love chatting with these students occasionally after class, about writing or their chosen career, etc. Those are "extra minutes" I never mind. But, these students basically cause me no problem at all. They're dream students. And THAT is the kind of writer I want to be someday to a literary agent. A dream writer!

3) We're here to help. Ultimately, if I get my nose out of the mountain of essays to grade, and I back away and see the big picture, I don't see my job as grading or lecturing. I see it as helping. My primary goal is to help my students become the best writers they can be. To help them be successful writers. That's the part of my job that's fun - when I can see the results. When I see the eagerness in their faces to learn. I never, EVER mind taking a few extra minutes helping a student that genuinely is seeking my help. One semester, a student came to me, horrified at his own grammar mistakes in a paper I'd just returned (9 run-ons!). He asked me for help, and there I stood after class, gladly showing him, run-on by run-on, how he could correct them. He thanked me and went on his way. The next paper? Had 2 run-ons. The next 4 papers? Had none. Zero. Now, sure, I'll accept a tiny bit of credit for those statistics, just showing him how to correct the errors. But the majority of credit goes to the student, for wanting help, and asking for it.

Similarly, I imagine that a lot of agents see their primary goal as helping the writer. Not necessarily that they have the time to edit a writer's work, or that their job is to help in the exact same way as mine. But they help in other ways - once they accept a book from an author, their job is to be an advocate for the book/author, to shop it around, to, essentially, represent the author and his/her book. Their job is to help the writer to succeed. And, I imagine that is why they became an agent. To help good books come to life in the publishing world - and to help good authors be successful.

In the end, like any job, an agent's job or a teacher's job has it's good points and bad. But I do think the similarities I see between them have helped me (hopefully!) know how to present myself in the best possible light to a potential agent. *fingers crossed*!!! :-)

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Start Your Novel in the RIGHT Place!

Great entry: Starting a Novel in the Wrong Place by agent Kristin Nelson (blog link to the left).

I'm SO guilty of this -- starting a novel where I "think" it should start, when actually, it should really start about a chapter later. Those introductory pages are crucial. They serve multiple purposes - doling out pertinent information, setting an instant tone/POV/setting, and also hooking your readers - getting them interested from the very first sentence. Not an easy task. In fact, I do think I tend to spend more time on the first 5 pages of my novels than any other set of 5 pages throughout.

En medias ras, I always tell my students - start your novel, your story, "in the middle of things." Whether it's the middle of a conversation, or an activity - put the reader smack dab into the middle of something, and then fill in the gaps later - those important things like setting, context, background info - these details can all be weaved in a tiny bit later. And, doing so can create a bit of mystery for your readers. Let them work for it...

Anyway, Ms. Nelson says it so much better than I could in that entry, and I agree with her 100%. Excellent advice!