Friday, May 25, 2012

Publishing - Worth the Effort?

I've always told my Creative Writing students that it's entirely their decision, to try and get published or not.  It's a personal one that each writer has to make on his/her own.

And lately, as I've been in the agent-query trenches once more, I've really grilled myself about this:  Is it (publication) worth the pain/time/energy/money/patience?  Is it?  

In the end, my answer to myself is still "yes."  And here's why:

Sure, I completely enjoy writing for the sake of writing -- the process of it.  Absolutely.  Nothing else gives me the rush that a burst of inspiration can do.  Nothing.  It's indescribable.  And I'll (hopefully) do that for the rest of my life, fingers dancing across the keyboard, creating new characters, new dilemmas for them.

But why did I start to write in the first place, years ago?  Because I was a reader first.  And when I saw the power of words, when I experienced the emotions as a reader, I knew I wanted to be on the other side of the curtain, producing new worlds and experiences for a reader.  I wanted to give someone else that same feeling -- of connecting to a character, of being moved by a story, of being transported to another world.  So, I suppose the source, the foundation of my desire to write, was actually because of reading.  Because I wanted to give someone else an experience I'd received.

Of course, by now, I'm well aware of the reality of publishing -- I've researched enough (and experienced enough) to know that publication is mostly business.  It's about money and decisions and trends and rejections and....more money.  And I realize that getting published won't give me nearly the same artistic/creative satisfaction that the actual writing does.  But--I still have a desire to see my work in print.  To come full circle and let someone else (hopefully) experience what I often do, as a reader.

I think there are good reasons and not-so-good reasons to seek publication.  And in the end, we have to ask ourselves if it's worth it.  In my case, at least right now, it still is.

Creating a World

Part of the allure of writing, I think, is to create a world of our own making.  One where we have ultimate control over what happens in it.  A world that's not perfect, surely (how boring would that be, for readers?), but just maybe, one in which justice ultimately prevails, the guy does get the girl, and people actually do learn and grow from their mistakes.

There's something satisfying about that.  And, freeing.  Leaving our own world behind, to enter a new one, entirely of our making.  Even if it's just for a couple of hours a day.

I came across a quote that I think embodies this notion.  Just wanted to share...

I think everybody needs a place to go when things become too much. A place where the world is the way you want it to be, and if you had a choice, it’s how you would have created it.   ~The Isabel Factor, a novel by Gayle Friesen  

Sunday, May 20, 2012

When Quirky is TOO Quirky

I love a good, quirky film.  You know, one of those low-budget indie movies that nobody's heard of.  The one with unpredictable plots and off-center characters.

But sometimes, a movie can be too quirky.  Like, bizarre.  Or completely unnatural.  And when that happens, it takes me out of the film.  Makes me think, "The writer is trying to be quirky here, and it really didn't work."  (I realize this is completely subjective -- some people DO love anything and everything quirky/bizarre, no matter what.  But I guess, for me, sometimes quirky can be too quirky).

Last night, I watched a road-trip film about two lost souls, two quirky characters (a guy and a girl) becoming friends and falling in love.  And I liked it.  Most of it.  But there were a couple of scenes/moments that just made me roll my eyes.  Parts that were too quirky.  Parts where I could see the writer trying too hard to be quirky.  For example, when the characters made a quick stop at the guy's parents' house, his 50-year-old mother was wearing.....her wedding dress.  For no apparent reason.  Just standing there in the kitchen, making eggs, wearing her wedding dress like this was a completely normal activity.  No explanation at all.  And the son didn't seem surprised or disturbed, which told me that this happened more than once.  Quirky?  Yes.  But did it make any sense?  Nope.

Here's an example of when quirky works.  House of D is a brilliant, quiet, coming-of-age film, written and directed by David Duchovny.  In it, David's character starts out by sketching (he's an artist) under a bed.  Like, his 6-foot-something frame is squeezed underneath a bed, with a tiny lamp, as he scribbles in a sketchpad.  Quirky?  Yes.  But did it make any sense?  YES.  It made perfect sense at the end of the movie.  There was a reason he liked to crawl underneath beds, and it had everything to do with how he grew up, with how he tried to be protective of his drug-using mother.  And even when we find out why he crawls under beds, that doesn't make it any less quirky.  It just makes it authentic.

So, for me, I guess I have to have my quirky with a wee dose of reality.  Or at least the quirk has to be semi-explained or make at least a grain of sense.  If a character does something totally quirky for no reason at all, it feels to me like he's being quirky just to be quirky.  It lacks authenticity.  And, it shows me that the writer was trying too hard.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Don't Force It

As a reader, I'm always irked when I can see a writer "trying" to make me feel something.  When they're working too hard to build up a scene, and when it's obvious their goal is to make the reader cry or be moved.  I usually end up having the opposite reaction.  And then I quit reading.

As writers, of course, we do want our readers to feel something, to make a connection with the plot, the characters.  But if we force it, the reader will feel manipulated.  They're smart.  They can sense when we're working too hard.  So, I think the best thing we can do as writers is to stay honest.  To write a scene because it serves the plot, challenges or reveals the characters--not because we think it will guarantee tears from our readers.

If we're authentic, if we tell the story naturally, let it unfold as it should, the reader will connect to it and yes, if moved, the reader may shed a couple of tears.  ;-)

I know this sounds odd, but my test is....myself.  (This works best if I've gained some distance from my work -- if I've set it aside for a few weeks or even months, so that I "forget" what I've written and can see it through fresh eyes).  If I read over a particularly emotional scene I wrote and I start to get tears or empathize with the characters, I know I've done something right.  But if I find myself neutral or even shrugging my shoulders at a scene that was meant to move, then it needs tweaking.  I need to roll up my sleeves, dig in, and let the scene unfold in a more natural way.

I found a blog post today at Kidlit that discusses this very thing (along the lines of forcing big, emotional scenes on your readers too quickly, before they even have the chance to connect with the characters).  Excellent advice:  link here

Monday, May 14, 2012

Tweak that Query!

Query letters can be such a challenge to write.  Especially the paragraph where you're trying to sum up a 400-page book in a brief and interesting way that will excite the reader, make her want to request the book.

I usually write the query letter as early in the novel-writing process as possible---when I've got a pretty firm idea of where the plot is headed.  That way, as I write the novel, I can continuously go back to the query letter and tweak, tweak, tweak.  Set it aside, read it again.  Set it aside, read it again.

That little synopsis/summary paragraph is VITAL.  In fact, it (and not the author bio or the cute little rhetorical-question opening of the letter) is probably the most important paragraph in a query.  I believe it's what "sells" your book idea.  In fact, it really should feel like the summary on a book jacket cover.  It should contain detail (not too much, not to little), mystery, and a "hook."  And, it should flow effortlessly, leaving the reader wanting more.

So, it's worth all the time and energy to get it right.  And usually, you'll know when you do.  When you can read it and not stumble over the words.  When you can picture yourself in a bookstore, picking up this particular book, and reading the jacket cover and thinking, "Hey - this is something I'd want to read."

Honestly, putting yourself in the reader's shoes is probably the best way to know if you've tweaked it enough to get it right.  But it sure does take a lot of time to get there.  ;-)

**edit - well, how's this for good timing?  I just read some great query advice on the Behler blog (she's a publisher):  link here

Thursday, May 10, 2012


I'm about three hours away from finishing up all my grades, from tying a big fat ribbon around this semester.  It's been a challenging one for various reasons, so I won't regret kissing it good-bye.  The only pinch of sadness I feel is that I had a FANTASTIC Creative Writing class this semester, and I wasn't quite ready to let those students go yet.  Their enthusiasm and dedication (and talent!) were an inspiration to me every week.

So.  Summer approaches.  Freedom.  And for me, that means one thing -- freedom and time to WRITE. I've spent the last two years, off and on, editing and polishing my women's fiction series.  Well, last summer, I started the seeds of brainstorming for another novel, but didn't have time to write it.  Now, I do.  And I can't wait!  I'm itching to start something new, to create all-new characters and find all-new conflicts for them to sort through.  

And, on another front, I'm curious to see how/whether things might advance, regarding my desire to publish said women's fiction series.  I've got some irons in the fire right now, and a long-term plan if those irons grow cold (weird metaphor, lol).  I'm curious to see what might happen...

Anyway, it's a huge relief to put the essay-grading aside and focus on MY work.  When I'm grading other people's essays, it's nearly impossible for me to salvage any creative mental energy of my own.  

But now, there's time.  Finally.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Character Advice

While reading Natalie Whipple's blog, Between Fact & Fiction, I came across some excellent advice, regarding character.

Wanted to pass it along:  link here

Sunday, May 6, 2012

What Really Matters

You know, sometimes in life, we get so caught up in things -- the busy-ness of errands and daily obligations;  the time-consuming duties of work (essay-grading!!!);  the little things or worries that can nag at us on a daily basis.  And yes, we can even get too caught up with our writing-- whether it's working out the kinks in a new plot, or even getting stuck inside the Waiting Game when trying to get published.

But last night, I was reminded of what REALLY matters.  Real life.  And family.

My grandparents celebrated their 90th birthdays last night, and we all gathered to celebrate:  three sons (and their spouses), eight grandchildren (and their spouses), fifteen great-grandchildren.  All in one room, for the first time in about 13 years.  And it was wonderful.  We left all that "stuff" outside the door, all the little things in life that get in the way, and just had fellowship:  swapping memories, catching up, singing, praying, laughing, even crying.  It reminded me of how blessed I am, to be part of a precious, supportive, intact, God-loving family.

Sometimes, as writers, as human beings, we forget to live.  To foster relationships and even to look back at who we once used to be.  To reflect on memories, to STOP and slow down and soak everything in.

And, you know, doing that -- living life -- will help make us better writers, anyway.  We'll have more to glean from, more to mine from, more to use in our stories.

So today, if you're caught up in the whirlwind of life "stuff," stop for a moment.  Email or call a family member you've been neglecting.  Look back, reflect on easier times.  Make plans for a future family reunion.  Go out to lunch with a special friend.

Drop everything and just.....LIVE.