Friday, May 22, 2015

Increasing Micro-Tension

I have read a lot of things on twitter lately about people who are using things like historical settings, fantasy or science and technology as ways to increase the tension in their stories. For the people who are writing a historical, fantasy or scifi novel, that's perfect, but if nothing about the plot lends itself to those genres, the setting quickly feels like a gimmick.

Sure, many of the people discussing this are declaring warnings, but seeing it appear so much has made me wonder why? Why would you put a story in a historical setting, why would you do all that research, why would you force a story into a hole it clearly wasn't made for?

As I've thought about it (without having read any of them), it feels like the motivation is driven by a longing for increased tension, heightened stakes, something to set it apart. 

As a high school creative writing teacher, I am often the first person to read young writer's work (okay, besides their best friend and their mom, but those aren't usually optimal critical sources). One of the greatest issues I see from these new writers is they don't understand the concept of micro-tension. They know that the zombies need to attack, that there is a serial killer in the school, that if true love doesn't happen, all will be lost, but they spin their wheels - and write insane amounts of meaningless dialogue - to fill up page requirements trying to get there.

It's easy to spot in their stories, but I know the same thing happens in mine as well. The key to making the story matter, to raising the stakes in a way that will engage the reader is micro-tension.

Micro-tension is difficult to understand because it is so familiar. We experience this when we wake to go to work only to be blindsided by a surge of congestion courtesy of allergy season. Or when a child remembers four minutes before they are supposed to be on a bus that they were supposed to bring a tent to school. Or when a trip is planned and the travelers want to try and avoid spending $100 for parking a car. 

Of course, when we break down our days, it's easy to see where the tension ebbed and flowed, but often we forget our very real characters would experience the same thing. 

1. Relationships


I'm an early bird, my husband is a night owl. We have to practice patience with each other during our not peak times (yes, there was a learning curve). I work with a person who takes liberties with her absences from the classroom while I'm very determined to only miss when absolutely necessary. There's the micro-tension of having family rules that are different that the neighbor's, of trying to align expectations with any of the people around us, and negotiating presumed expectations - both our own and those perceived. 

2. Complications


This is probably the source of many people's micro-tension and I'm not talking about the big moments. Does that middle grade student remember they have a test? Did the YA girl have everything perfect for prom only to find she forgot bobby pins? Does the mother of four maintain a house of order but find that she could never plan for the power outage?

3. Situations

There have been times when I go to a work meeting with the intent to take the knowledge given and go about my day only to discover I have opinions and they won't sit still. I recently had a pitch session at a writer's conference, and if you want to see the manifestation of micro-tension, sit outside where these are happening (see also students lined up to see a counselor, people waiting for a job interview). This could be as small as backing out of a driveway and a child runs behind, taking a dog for a walk and CAT!, or even having someone say they will be somewhere at a certain time and then they aren't. 

4. Desires

I was scheduled for a pitch on purpose - I have a desire to step further into the world of publication. I want my kids to be successful and happy (see also, spouse). I want my friends books to sell well, my grieving friends to find peace, my day to go smoothly. We all know people who want to sleep through the night, who long for love and companionship, who want to find a sense of purpose and satisfaction. While teens are a tricky bunch, they want to know what they're goals are, want to have people understand their true nature, what to know what that is for themselves. 

While there are many other ways micro-tensions can manifest, the key as a writer is to remember that our realistic characters would have them too. And the way that we make that character more realistic is through showing the readers our characters' responses - do they react with anger? Do they draw further within themselves? All these things are essential for a good story, are realistic, and will make the voice of the story feel more true and will allow writers to connect with readers without having to find a gimmick to hook them.

How do you increase micro-tension in your stories? Can you think of a book that does this well?

_________________________________________

Tasha Seegmiller is a mom to three kids and high school English teacher in Southern Utah. She writes contemporary women’s fiction with a dash of magic. Her loves include Diet Coke, owls, chocolate and cinnamon bears. She is the managing editor for the Women's Fiction Writers Association quarterly newsletter.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Writing Shoes, Which Do You Use?

We are excited to welcome our newest contributor, Christie Perkins!

I've been known for wearing the wrong shoes.

I’d clonk one mile uphill (both ways) in chunky shoes to pick the kids up from school. I've marched down a marathon hill in Germany in flip flop clod hoppers. Yes, downhill. It caused severe distress on the toe flap, but the castle nestled in the bottom of a forest was totally worth the experience. And if you must know, I've fashion crashed in chocolate loafers paired with a black swimsuit.

Gasp.

But in all of this I had one defining moment when I wore the right shoes. One real moment that mattered. I’ll get to it later.

Writing is like wearing all the wrong shoes. These wrong shoes still take you places.  Sure, it’s accompanied by pain, suffering, and embarrassment.  But, all of these feats are gearing you up for success. I speak from experience.

How the Wrong Shoes 

Can Get You on the Right Track


Flip Flop Writing:

Whatever flips into your brain you scrawl down without thought to your ultimate purpose.  You try to formulate a brilliant idea. Try. Sometimes this writing flips point of view or topic.  Topic flip, focus flop. Next thing you know its flip flopping, belly-flopping all over the place: like fish out of water. Fixing mistakes can be overwhelming.
Solution: 
No worries.  It’s called a first draft.  Writing will never be good unless you allow it to be bad first. So don’t stop at draft number one.  Pin-point problem areas and work on them.  Hate your writing for the moment, but work it to love it.  Know what your direction is and where you are going.  Some people outline.  I don’t.  I simply flip up a post it note on my screen that is stated with my objective so I stay on course.

Stiletto Writing:  

Every sentence is piled high of blurbs of words and verbs. Your backlog of backstory bores readers. Sure, stilettos look good from a distance, but they’re not comfortable. This method is overwriting- and I've been somewhat of a pro at this. Your readers get tired because they have to work to absorb all of your meaning.
Solution: 
Get used to cutting your work. Cut, cut, cut. It’ll be easier to walk around in and you and your readers will be happier. Tell us an important piece then leave some wonder up to the reader. Remember not every word in your sentence needs to be creative. Simplify and dazzle us with just one really impactful sentence trickled in here or there.


Smelly Boot Writing: 

Have you ever owned a pair of shoes that stink to everyone else but you can's smell it? Yeah, well.   Trust what they are saying. It’s not that you stink but the methods you’re using do. Do you consistently get told the same things? (You overwrite. You need more description. There’s holes in your plot. I don’t understand what you are saying.) These are hard to take. But, I've learned that when I've stepped away from the project and gone back to it- half the time they were right. But only half the time. Are you your own critic?    
Solution: 
Cry and eat peanut butter M&M’s (unless your allergic- scratch that). No, really. If anyone’s ever told you your writing stinks- congrats! You've just made your 1st real step in the writing world. Learn methods that work for others but tweak it for you. Throw out what is not working. You are a writer because you love it. Remember that. Don’t give up, just try new methods. These critiques are great opportunities to turn you into a fantastic writer and freshen up your writing.  

House Slipper Writing:  

This writing is casual. You write at your convenience, which is rare anymore. You know you enjoy it but you think you will write when life slows down. Ahem, key word: think. That’s not going to cut it.
Solution: 
Push yourself to new heights. Make goals: write daily (even for 10 minutes), start a blog, find a critique partner, send off a query, edit that first book you hate. What is the next step you need to make in your writing journey? We are all at different levels so don’t compare yourself with a national best seller… be rational. Take a little step today. No more excuses or enjoying bonbons because your time will soon be gone… gone.

Running Shoe Writing:  

So, what if you have your writing mojo? It’s not that writing comes easy, necessarily, but it’s already a habit. You sweat over your work, you can’t catch your breath some days, and sometimes you’re sore with unexpected results. Even winning the race is exhausting. But all of this pushing yourself is getting you somewhere.
Solution:
Keep going but take a break. You’re body and mind need a refresher. If you've mentally crashed from hard work, take a day off. Do something you love. If you've finished a really big project take a week off. Explore and get new ideas. Catch up on life. But whatever you do, never stop training.

Success:

One day you will be writing and you will realize that you have the right shoes on. You will find yourself running down the street chasing the kid who stole your son’s bike (no lie). And you will think, “Hmm, I knew I needed those shoes today.” And all will be right in your writing world by first plowing through all the wrong shoes. Find what works in your writing, then take off running. Change the world with the right pair of writing shoes. Your toe flap will thank you.May your rugged writing paths eventually be equipped with the right shoes.

Have you ever strapped on the wrong pair of writing shoes?  What did you learn?

_____________________________________________________


Christie Perkins is a survivor of boy humor, chemo, and faulty recipes. She loves freelance writing and is a nonfiction junkie.  A couple of national magazines have paid her for her work but her biggest paycheck is her incredible family. Christie hates spiders, the dark, and Shepherd’s Pie. Bleh. Mood boosters: white daisies, playing basketball, and peanut butter M&M’s. You can find out more about her at howperkyworks.com.         


Monday, May 18, 2015

It’s Not a Race: On Remembering to Enjoy Yourself

didn't win Camp NaNoWriMo this April. It was my fourth NaNo/CampNaNo, and the first time I hadn't reached my goal. And . . . nothing bad happened.


I know, right? Not a thing! No one shook their finger at me, my manuscript didn't explode, civilization remained intact—but most importantly, I wasn't disappointed in myself. I like to say I’m not competitive, but I am SO competitive. Not so much against other people, but against me. And I’m a perfectionist too, so when I decide I’m going to do something, it’s all or nothing, yo. Take no prisoners! Be all that you can be! Raaawrrrrr!

But not this time. This time I realized pretty early on that I wasn't going to be able to make my goal, and instead of getting mad at myself, or stopping because—why continue if you’re not going to win, right?—I shrugged and resolved to keep on trucking at whatever pace I could manage. I got a stitch in my side, so I paused, drank some water, and walked the rest of the way. No biggie. I knew I’d get to the finish line eventually.

So what changed? Well . . . not long before this, I’d spent several months not writing at all. I’d burned out. I’d stressed so much over my last manuscript, I literally could not write for a good chunk of time. Just thinking about writing something new made my brain hurt. So when I finally did feel ready to write again, I promised myself I wouldn't stress so much this time.

I thought back, wistfully, to when I started my last manuscript (which was also my first). I thought about how I didn't know the “rules” back then. I didn't know that you were “supposed” to track your word count each day, or even write each day. That you were “supposed” to just get the words down and worry about their quality later. I mean, don’t get me wrong. There’s something to be said for all that. If you have an actual deadline and you need to focus, that’s a good way to do it.

But when you’re in the early exploratory phase of your manuscript—be that pantsing a rough draft or meticulously putting together an outline—or when your only deadline is one that exists in your head, it’s okay to take the time to enjoy what you’re doing. Yup. Enjoy the story as you write it. THAT’S what you’re “supposed” to do. That’s why we all started writing in the first place. Do you remember that? I’d forgotten.



So if you’re finding yourself stressing over your words too much, worrying about how long you’re taking to finish, angsting about how everyone knows you’re working on this thing and you’re still not done yet, oh my gawwwd why aren't you done yet? . . .take a step back and remind yourself that this is not a race. It’s not a competition. The world will not stop spinning if you have to take a week off for some reason or other.

It’s okay to give yourself time when you need it. Stop and read a book when your fuel tank is low and you need to fill it up with someone else’s words for a while. Take an evening off to catch up with friends without feeling guilty that you’re not typing on your computer instead. Catch a movie for inspiration. But then get back to it. Because though it may not be a race, you do want to finish. And you know what? You may find that when you do slow down and enjoy yourself, you’ll reach that finish line sooner than you expect.
_____________________________________________

When she’s not writing, revising, or banging her head on the keyboard (it’s all the same, right?), Megan Paasch can be found playing her ukulele (badly), knitting (rarely anymore, unfortunately), or herding two amazing, but rowdy little boys (pretty much constantly) with her husband. A native to the Pacific Northwest, Megan earned her B.A. in History from the University of Washington. (Go Huskies!) Her favorite history subjects were, and still are, Women in History, the Tudors, and the Celts. You can read more about her here. 

Friday, May 15, 2015

The Song Every Writer Needs to Hear

I'm lucky enough to be in an amazing in-person critique group that meets every other week. After our last meeting, I had a new story idea marinating and was feeling especially contemplative. Then my #1 writing inspiration song came on the radio, and I sang along and maybe cried a little. And then I thought to myself, "This is the song every writer needs to hear."

What's my song? Be Still by The Killers. I'd quote every line of the lyrics here if I were sure it wouldn't be a copyright violation, but instead I'll link to the song on YouTube here and iTunes here. Because when this writing gig feels hard, as it so often does, this is the song we need to hear. It's all about the strength and beauty inside you and the courage to keep doing the thing you love, no matter what.

When I'd dried my tears and finished feeling all the feels, I wondered, What if there are other songs like this out there? What if each of my writing friends has their own song that every writer needs to hear?

And so, without further ado, I give you the awesome answers I received to that question:



"I highly recommend Ali In the Jungle by The Hours. There's the normal version and then possibly a live version where the language is a tad more...salty. Such an inspiring, no-excuses song!" ~Christine Hayes

"My Baby Loves A Bunch of Authors--by Moxy Fruvous. Not inspirational so much as just fun." ~Heather Bouwman

"Hey Jude. Every time." ~Annie Laurie Henderson Cechini

"Brave by Sara Bareilles, and here's my obscure one: Walt Grace's Submarine Test by John Mayer." ~Monica Swanson Tesler

"It's kind of literal, but Manchester by Kishi Bashi." ~Rebecca Petruck

"Plow to the End of the Row by Adrienne Young. I heard her on NPR in 2004. She inspired me to keep writing -- plowing. I've written a blog post about it." ~Caroline Starr Rose

"Jimmy Eat World, The Middle. I find it endlessly encouraging." ~Susan Adrian

"Vienna Teng's Level Up gets me going." ~Jennifer J. Stewart

From Helen Boswell:
Chasing Cars by Snow Patrol
Only the Young by Brandon Flowers
Breathing Underwater by Metric
"I always listen to Where the Story Ends by The Fray when I'm nearing the end of a draft."

From Erin Shakespear:
Unwritten by Natasha Bedingfield
Eye of the Tiger by Survivor (Have you seen the music video?!)
Uprising by Muse
Roll with the Punches by Lenka
The Show by Lenka
Live Like You're Dying by Lenka ("I adore her!")
Roar by Katy Perry
New Soul by Yael Naim ("I adore her too!")

Thanks to everyone for their great picks! If you like these songs, please support the artists by buying them! :)

And now I'm wondering...What did we miss? What's your most inspirational song? What song do you consider the one every writer needs to hear?

______________________________________________


Elaine Vickers is the author of LOST AND FOUND (HarperCollins, 2016) and loves writing middle grade and chapter books when she's not teaching college chemistry or hanging out with her fabulous family. She's a member of SCBWI and represented by Ammi-Joan Paquette of EMLA. You can find her at elainevickers.com on the web, @ElaineBVickers on Twitter, or generally anywhere there are books and/or food for her consumption. :)

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

5 Questions to Ask Yourself Before Writing a Trilogy

Writing a book is exhilarating, frustrating, satisfying, challenging, fulfilling, and let's face it. 
It's exhausting. 
Today I'm sharing some of the things that I learned while writing my YA trilogy. First and foremost: when you write a trilogy, multiply that exhilaration, frustration, satisfaction, challenge, fulfillment, and exhaustion by factors of three. 



If you're thinking of writing a trilogy, here are some questions you might want to ask yourself first. If you're a plotter, you may find it useful to work out these answers in your outline before you start drafting. If you're a pantser writer like I am, you can still be a pantser and write a trilogy. However, you do eventually have to sit down and think about how you want to answer these questions along the way. 


1. What are the major themes for the overall trilogy? For each story?
Pick one or two common themes to weave throughout the trilogy, but also think about unique themes for each. Each story will build on the previous one so you don't have to recreate the wheel with each, but you want to give your readers something new every time.

Star Wars had some great themes (e.g., the struggle to master The Force). Themes are essential.

2. What is significant (and new) about your characters' struggles and challenges in each story? 
The first story needs to suck in the reader and get him/her invested in the characters and their struggles. The stakes need to rise with the next story and during a good part of the third before the epic resolution. (Think Lord of the Rings: Return of the King).

The struggle should be significant in each story, not rehashing the same old thing.

3. What is the overall ending? 
Even if you're more of a pantser like me, you need to have an idea of the endgame for the trilogy. Where will your characters be in terms of development? How will the major issues that have been building in books one and two be resolved? 

Elements of your story may change from your original idea as you draft and revise, but you should plan out your endgame from the beginning.

4. Do the first two stories end at natural and appropriate breaking points?
You shouldn't be resolving all of the issues that your character's have in book one and two. Most of that should happen in the last book. Yes, cliffhangers happen (remember The Empire Strikes Back?), but your characters should be developing and at least be working toward solutions by the end of book one and two. Your readers need something to keep them going.

Cliffhangers for the sake of cliffhangers are not going to make your readers happy.

5. Does it need to be a trilogy?
This is probably the most difficult question to answer, but it needs to be asked. Do you have enough story for a trilogy? Do your characters need an entire trilogy to deal with their issues? Can you build those necessary stakes and envision a resolution? Are you invested enough in your story and characters to run that long mile with them? Because they'll need you.

Writing a trilogy is like running seventeen marathons.

As for me, I walked, ran, and stumbled through that VERY long mile with my characters. 390K later, and I'm thrilled (and exhausted) to announce that I completed my first trilogy! 

(It might not even be my last, though I'm currently planning on writing a few stand-alones before I attempt another trilogy.)

In celebration of being DONE with my trilogy, book one is FREE through May 14.
Book two is on sale at $1.99. And book three? I just published it last Friday!  
#endgame

#celebratorybaddance

There they all are! I'm super excited that my characters all got closure at the end of the trilogy (except for the ones that died...okay, maybe even those characters) and also super sad that it's over. 

___________________________


Helen Boswell loved to get lost in the pages of a story from the time she could sound out the words. She credits her dad, an avid fiction reader, with encouraging her to read ALL OF THE BOOKS on his shelves from the time she was a teenager. An author of both urban fantasy and contemporary romance, she loves to read and write characters that come to life with their beauty, flaws, and all. She is the author of YA urban fantasies MYTHOLOGY, THE WICKED, THE ETERNAL, and NA contemporary romance LOSING ENOUGH. She is also one of the authors of the YA/NA crossover anthology LOSING IT.

Monday, May 11, 2015

4 Things Writers Can Learn From LARPers

Every Saturday a group of LARPers play at the main street park here in Cedar City. For those of you who don't know what LARPing is, LARP stands for live action role play. There are different kinds of LARPers, but, from what I can gather, the group in our area meets up dressed in costumes with foam weapons and proceed to pummel each other in a game that is somewhat like chess.

Now, I'm not sure I'd ever get into LARPing, but every time I pass this group, I can't help but smile.

Here's why:

#1: They don't seem to care what anyone thinks of them. Here they are, smacking each other with foam swords, arrows and staffs at Main Street Park. Anyone driving through town can see them. But they don't give two hoots. They just keep on playing. I'm sure there are people in town who roll their eyes and think these LARPers are wasting their time. But guess what? Who cares!

#2: They've put a lot of effort into this hobby. They're wearing tunics and flowing cloaks and ninja gear. They've made their own weapons and shields. And they work on battle strategies hoping they'll overcome their enemies.

#3: They're part of a community. They're involved with other like-minded people. They support each other and form strong friendships.

#4: They're having fun! This is their Thing. The Thing that makes them happy. The Thing that's a part of who they are.

Writers need to be more like LARPers.

Here's why.

#1. We're writers! Say it loud. Say it proud. We like to hole up in a room with just our laptop for company (and maybe some fuzzy socks and peanut M&M's) and immerse ourselves in a fascinating world of our creation. It's the best! (I can't say that without thinking of Nacho Libre) Sure, there might be people in our lives who roll their eyes and think we're wasting our time. But guess what? Who cares!

#2. We need to put a lot of effort into this writing thing. Sure, we don't need costumes or foam weapons. But we DO need to put the hours and the time and the work in. We can't just write here and there and expect to come up with a brilliant story (I know. I've tried.). We need to devour great books so we can better learn how to tell great stories. And we need to come up with our own battle strategies with the hope that we'll overcome our own enemies, slothfulness, procrastinating, distractions, and....the dreaded social media. We need to battle for time, energy, and focus in order to create the stories our hearts want and need to!

#3. Writers need a community. This writing gig can get a bit lonesome if you're trying to do it all alone. We need other writers in our lives. We need people who get what we're trying to do, who'll dish out honest feedback to help us improve or dance a jig with us when we succeed.

#4: Have fun! This is your Thing. The Thing that's a part of who you are. The Thing that makes you happy. (Of course, we all know writing isn't all fun and games all the time. Like when you're trying to plug loads of holes. Yep. That's where I am now. Woopee.) But this is your Thing. Embrace it!


Do you find writing lessons in strange places, too? If so, I'd love to hear about them!

--------------------------------



Erin Shakespear writes middle grade fantasy full of quirky creatures, magic, and strange adventures. With six kids, her days are full of quirky creatures, magic, and strange adventures, and...loads of diapers. She also likes to dabble at photography, sewing, jewelry-making, and pretending she's a grand artist. She is the southern Utah coordinator for the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Measuring Progress

In the writing world, there are many ways to count progress - word count, chapters finished, how many "The End"'s we've written. I get the excitement that can come from crossing these markers, but at the same time, I'm a high school English teacher whose students just took end of level tests to see how they understand language arts, tests that are looking at the things that are measurable.

But the problem with getting focused on things that are data measurable in regards to something that is in essence an art - emotional connections, imagination and an increased appreciation of humanity are not nor were they ever intended to be measurable. We can't weigh the value of a Picasso against that of Van Gogh, determine Beethoven's worth versus Mozart. 

And that means that when it comes to our own work, we can not rely on data and numbers either. 

Then, what's a writer to do? 

There are several options:

1.Note the reactions from readers. 

Whether or not it is bizarre, I love making my readers cry. I love when they were only going to read a little and couldn't stop. Or when they giggle at a love story that is beginning to unfold. 

2. Observe the fluidity of your process.

When a character manifests their true self better, when a setting clicks in to sync, when the foreshadowing and symbolism fall into place better than you could have expected. Note those times, record them somewhere, and refer back to it when the doubts reappear.

3. Pay attention to your own responses. 

At some point, we all question our abilities as creators. However, we also have those moments when our responses will testify of the strength our story. Those moments when we giggle (for whatever reason), when we reflect on love of friendship or spouses, when we can't help but cry at the love or grief experienced. Those are moments when are art speaks truth, moments that are not able to be measured by data, moments that reveal our humanity. 

What techniques do you use to determine your progress as a writer?

_________________________________________

Tasha Seegmiller is a mom to three kids and high school English teacher in Southern Utah. She writes contemporary women’s fiction with a dash of magic. Her loves include Diet Coke, owls, chocolate and cinnamon bears. She is the managing editor for the Women's Fiction Writers Association quarterly newsletter.