Friday, April 24, 2015

Writing to Develop Yourself

We are thrilled to welcome our new contributor, Liz Isaacson!

I'm so thrilled to be here at Thinking Through Our Fingers! I've been writing for several years, and with that comes the roller coaster of emotions. If you've been doing this writing thing for very long, I'm sure you've managed to get on this ride a time or two. There are some moments that are filled with highs -- getting a request, signing with an agent, getting a publishing deal. Self-publishing can be rewarding and fulfilling.

I've experienced all of these.

I've also been on the ride when it seems to sink below the ground. Getting a bad review can do it. Having your agent tell you she doesn't like your next book. Heck, even getting that feedback from a beta reader or critique partner can be hard. Sometimes we want to give up, fall down, be done.




 Yeah, like that, and don't even bother trying to help me up. You know? Because the truth is, not all of us are going to be catapulted to the fame of J.K. Rowling, Stephen King, or Brandon Sanderson.

But the latter recently spoke to a group of teens at a conference I was lucky enough to attend. He told of his twelve-year struggle to achieve publication, and while he was at one of his lowest moments, he learned a life-lesson about writing. He said that he would keep doing it, even if he was never published. Because writing had made him into a better person. It had developed him, changed him, from what he was into something better.

He said:


As I have been in somewhat of a funk these last several months, my heart seized those words and hasn't let them go. I've been published before, and I hope to be again. But if not, the time I spend writing is not wasted. It is not for nothing. When we choose to spend our time pursuing something that makes us smarter, stronger, better, we are developing ourselves into something better than we are today.

So if you haven't quite found the success you want in regards to writing, don't give up. If you're on the roller coaster that's on a downward spiral, hang on until the ride goes up again. Because it will, and as long as you're still on it, you'll reach the place you want to reach.

Because you're the product of your writing. The book is there. It might be published. It might not. Doesn't matter. You're the product of your writing.

___________________

Liz Isaacson writes contemporary and inspirational romance when she's not teaching. She is currently revising her inspirational romance manuscript for a Harlequin Love Inspired contest and blogging about writing, reading, and life. She lives in the Rocky Mountains with her husband and two children, where she serves on her community's library board and attends the various writing conferences around the state.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Decorum

Each year, around Christmas time, the district administrators come to each school to shake each teacher's hand. We usually know the day they are coming, but not the time.

A few years ago, they came into a colleague's class to shake her hand. While she was visiting with this small group of people for a few minutes, her class stood, formed a line and proceeded to go through all the administrators. As you can imagine, the students were giggling the whole time, the district administrators obliged, and my colleague was horrified.

Later, she wrote a single word on the board: decorum.

A few days ago, I was asked to finish teaching a music class that I normally accompany as the regular instructor had a dress rehearsal at the same time. In the transition, the students (ages 9-14) lost their minds a little and were messing around, plucking on string instruments when they should have been listening, talking when I was. I requested they hold their instruments in rest position and told them about this word they needed to know: decorum.

Decorum requires dignity and orderliness. It embodies civility.

Okay, you may be saying, what does this have to do with me? Or writing?

Everything. 

Say you are offering a critique on something that needs tremendous work. Instead of saying, "I didn't like anything about this first part" you could explain "The story really picked up here".

Or what if you get a bad review that makes you want to toilet paper the reviewer's house? Decorum says you say nothing online, and if the review or critique is face to face, the words out of your mouth are always, and only, "Thank you."

I recently entered a contest where people provided feedback first for a pitch, and second for the first 250 words. They didn't charge for this contest, and every entry got three to four critiques. Some authors took to twitter telling the critiquers how wrong they were, that they didn't understand the story, that they were obviously not qualified to give feedback.


Never mind the fact that the writing world is extraordinarily small and word travels fast. Never mind that these people are trying to help progress a work, striving to direct the writers to a path of greater success. There will always be critiques that we don't agree with, but that is a quiet off-line conversation with trusted readers, not ever something to be vetted for the world to see.

But it goes beyond that. Decorum says you don't interrupt a conversation. I attended a panel at a conference a few years ago and one person interrupted EVERY SINGLE PANELIST. Constantly. The hurt and frustration was clear on the other panelists faces, but it was also very uncomfortable for the moderator and many in attendance. And due to a lack of this author's decorum, I have sworn I will never buy even one of their books.

But that decorum needs to be practiced in critiques as well. I have attended events as conferences where several people were assigned to a group to give and receive feedback on the first ten pages. Each time, there is one person who interrupts when it isn't their turn to critique, and tries to defend everything the other readers have to say that isn't a glowing praise of perfection. As you can imagine, the desire to say anything else decreases very quickly, and that author literally misses out on what they paid for.

As spring and summer progress, so does the opportunity to attend writing conferences, author events and the like. I would like to suggest that the first thing we pack in our bags is decorum - remember the work that goes into events, the considerations of the people teaching the classes, the efforts provided for critiques and feedback, and hand out the expressions of gratitude at least ten times as often as pitches, business cards and bookmarks.

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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.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Five Super Serious Things You Should Know Before Querying

Querying your work is rough. You may not have started yet, but you already know this. You’ve heard the stories—seen the battle scars. But it’s cool, you’re prepared. You can do this! And you can! But just to be extra helpful*, let me provide you with some basic things that I, too, already knew before I started querying, but didn’t KNOW know until I was knee deep in the trenches:
*not really all that helpful

1. If you thought you were neurotic before. . . .




You ain’t seen nothin’ yet. It’s okay. It’s perfectly normal. Find a trusted friend or group of friends that have been, or are in the same boat you’re in now so you can all be neurotic together. It really helps. Trust me.

2. It’s not you . . . and it’s not them.



Publishing is a highly subjective business. You’re going to get a lot of rejections. You just are. (Unless you don’t, in which case please share with us all your secrets and magicks, kthxbyeeee.) Seriously though, keep trying. It only takes one yes.

3. Set up a “feel better” ritual for when those rejections do start rolling in:



But don’t make your “feel better” ritual cookies and bourbon because (see item number two) you’re going to be eating a LOT of cookies and drinking a LOT of bourbon and that’s not healthy.

4. You’re going to get requests sometimes too.



That’s right, you are! You go Glenn Coco! You are awesome! Do a happy dance and sing a song at the top of your lungs and tell your best buds. Send off your requested materials and pat yourself on the back, and then send off some more queries too while you’re at it because obviously you’ve got something good going on here. Wheeee!

5. Holy moly, you wrote a book!



You wrote a book! Remember that. Not everyone has written a book. And if this one doesn’t get you an agent, guess what? You can write another one! Maybe that one will do the trick instead. Keep trying, keep writing, keep sending out your work. Never give up, never surrender!

See? Super serious helpful things. Now get out there and get querying. You’ve got this.



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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, April 17, 2015

On Writing Stress and Silver Linings: Why Daily Word Counting Isn't a Good Strategy for Everyone

How many of you writers find yourselves obsessing about word counts while writing?
 Word counts, word counts, word counts.

(Current blog post word count: 24. Make that 27. 28....)


I've been working on the last book of my YA trilogy since last summer. Before I started, my projected word count was 100K (based on my other books in the series). Since last summer, I struggled with the process of drafting for the following reason: 


When I started writing this book, I had a basic synopsis and an outline (a rough outline because I'm actually a pantser writer at heart). I had a plan. I had a daily word count goal. I was ready to go. I planned to be done by December.

I wasn't where I wanted to be in November, so I joined National Novel Writing Month to help motivate me to write more every day. But I struggled to get those daily word counts. I did wind up writing about 28K, which was decent considering that November is one of the busiest months for me at work. But I stressed over word counts the entire time when I saw I was "below the curve." Every day I got a little report of my progress and how much I needed to write to "win," and the number of words I had to write each day kept increasing as the month went on.

(BTW, if you don't know what I mean by being "below the curve, it looks a lot like this:)

(my actual sucky word count graph from Nov. 2014)

I joined a FB writing challenge in January and did something similar. I set a monthly goal of writing another 30K and was given a lovely spreadsheet to keep track of my daily word counts. I continued to struggle to make my daily goals (I think I reached it once). I joined sprints and reported word counts after 30 minutes averaging 200-300 when others were reporting 800+.

At this point, I was staring at my deadlines in the eye and approaching official panic mode...


...until I decided to stop keeping track of daily word counts.

Why?

Because I don't write that way.

My writing style is not amenable to these sorts of daily word count challenges. Don't get me wrong. I love to cheer on my friends as they report their counts. I'm happy that this works for them. However, it doesn't always work for me. I tend to write and revise simultaneously (something the NaNoWriMo experts specifically advise against). But as I mentioned above, I am really a pantser at heart and so I often discover new twists in my story that I didn't know about when I wrote my "outline." I often go back and layer in shiny new things as I draft. I often go back and do what some of my friends describe as "tinkering" with various elements of the story. As a result, I am a very pokey writer.

There's a silver lining to all of this.


Last weekend, I reached the point where I felt like I could finally start getting my MS ready for beta readers. In preparation for revisions, I cracked my knuckles, put on my revision hat, and started on chapter one. By the end of one weekend, I had flown through revisions on over 20 chapters (approximately 63K words). I had revised so much while drafting that I only needed to change minor things during my revisions. I was ecstatic, and even more than that, I was relieved. I've had editors tell me in the past that my "first drafts" are more equivalent to fourth or fifth drafts because I revise and polish as I go. I knew this, but after seeing myself beneath the curve for so many months, I'd forgotten.

So here's the take-home message from all of this:

Embrace the unique type of writer that you are.

You have your own style and process as a writer, and this process may even change for you from MS to MS. This was my story, and yours may be different. No matter what, don't feel like you have to compare yourself (or your word counts) to others. I don't know about you, but I don't enjoy looking at a graph of projected word counts and seeing myself be under the curve. I like progress as much as any other writer, and I believe in being accountable for my progress. But from now on, it will be on my own terms.

Update: My MS is currently sitting at 107K words, and I arrived at that word count in my own way.

Happy writing! Here's to silver linings for all of you! 



___________________________

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 (coming 2015) and NA contemporary romance LOSING ENOUGH. She is also one of the authors of the YA/NA crossover anthology LOSING IT.


Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Are Artists Still Allowed to Be Neurotic?

This is Jamie Raintree's last post with us. Please make sure you thank her for all the great wisdom she has shared and wish her best of luck on her future endeavors!

There's this ongoing joke in the writing community: that writers are all a little bit crazy. We talk to imaginary people, have unusual habits and rituals for ensuring a good day's work, and we're often workaholics to the point that it would be perfectly expected to find us hiding in the bathroom with a laptop. Our spouses wouldn't blink an eye.

The truth is that we're pretty normal. We have families that we clean up after and shuttle around and love. We have jobs we clock in and out of and do our best to stay present for, even though it isn't our passion. We search Pinterest for fast, easy, healthy dinners for less than $10, 5 ingredients, and 30 minutes. And we struggle each day to be the best parent, spouse, employee, friend, sibling, and child we can be. And yet, we "like" every single one of those artist-crazy memes on Facebook.


Because there's a truth at the heart of it. We are a little crazy...or at least we wish we were allowed to be.

CREATIVES HAVE TO BE A LITTLE CRAZY

Think of any great artist in history and you're bound to have heard some stories. Many of them have had drinking problems, odd sleep/work schedules, social awkwardness, mistresses. I won't say who, but someone even cut off his own ear. In previous centuries, artists were known for being moody, eccentric, neurotic, socially awkward, and since the beginning of time, this has been understood. 

These days, though, we've worked so hard to appear normal that it's become expected that we cover up those eccentricities. Different is shunned. Not showing up to a friend's party because you're allergic to small talk is considered a hate crime. Holing up for some much needed alone time is labeled depression. What "normal" people don't realize is that our real label is "writer" and to reach that place inside ourselves where creativity comes from, we have to let go of reality a bit and let the crazy take over.

ACCEPTING YOUR NEUROSES

Over the last few years, I've gotten tired of hiding my crazy. It's too much work, and it feels like a constant assault on my system. It's hard enough to wrangle myself into the chair without having to defend it to others. I've stopped allowing myself to feel bad for being different and instead started to help those around me understand what it means to be an artist, to need lots of time to myself, and to struggle with the modern expectations of wives and mothers. I've learned to say the words "I'm sorry" when I can't be what other people need me to be without actually feeling guilt for being who I am.

I think accepting our own craziness is the first step to truly becoming our art. We have just as much right as Virginia Woolf or F. Scott Fitzgerald to protect that part of ourselves where the creativity comes from. Our art is just as important. Our inner artist is just as important. So how do we learn to accept that crazy part of ourselves? 

How do we help others understand what makes us different? Here are a few things that have worked for me:
  • Carry a notebook around with you and record your thoughts. We spend most of our days dropping kids off, picking them up, grocery shopping, and sitting in meetings. But you don't have to relegate writing to "writing time." Be a writer all day, one sentence at a time, one thought at a time.
  • Along those same lines, journal. A big part of being a writer is trying to understand the world around you, so why not start with yourself. Journaling is a great way to learn more about yourself and start to accept it. If you want others around you to accept you for who you are, it starts with you.
  • Use the term "introvert." Thank goodness for Facebook and the thousands of introvert memes. Now that everyone is familiar with the term, they are much more understanding about our need for a little extra time and space. It's a shorthand way of telling people why your social skills may be wanting.
  • As I said before, apologize. You don't have to apologize for who you are and you don't have to feel guilty but you can say you're sorry that cutting jello into clovers for your daughter's preschool St. Patrick's Day party isn't high on your priority list. Writer aside, we all have our fortes.
  • Explain it to the people closest to you and let them help you defend it. All my closest friends know how much I love them even if I suck at buying them birthday presents. I show them that with my words, probably more than most people in their lives. My husband knows that if we run errands all morning, I need to lock myself in our bedroom for an hour to decompress, and that if we go to a family party, he is the buffer between the busyness in my head and the busyness around us. The people who really love you will accept you for exactly who you are--neuroses and all.
Many times I've fantasized about living during a time when it was acceptable to be artist-crazy, or barring that, to live in a place where I didn't have so many commitments and expectations of me. I'm sure we've all felt that way at times. But if we can learn to love our crazy side and help our family and friends understand it, I think we can find a way to be old-fashioned artists in modern times.

Do you feel like you have a crazy side you have to keep hidden? How do the people around you feel about your unique traits?

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Jamie Raintree writes Women's Fiction about women searching for truth in life and love. She is currently working on revisions of her first novel in preparation for submission to publishers. In the meantime, she blogs about her journey toward a well-balanced life and a career in publishing--her struggles and successes along the way. She lives in Northern Colorado with her husband and two young daughters and is a Workshop Coordinator for the Women's Fiction Writers Association.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Understanding Your Villain (aka Making Sure Your Villain's Plan Doesn't Suck)

I’m in the process of revising the section between the Inciting Incident and the Midpoint of my fantasy middle grade novel. I know what happens in each of these big moments, but I’ve rewritten the section between a few times. (Read: More than a few times.)

I started rewriting it again a few days ago.

I had the chapters outlined. I thought it was going to work and I was sure I only needed to get the drecky draft down of this new version. But somewhere along the way I found myself looking at my orange laptop with squinty eyes. You know that look, right? That wait-a-minute-something-is-not-right-here look? And not because my laptop is orange.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized it was my villain. He didn't make any sense! The ONLY reason he was doing what he was doing was because I needed things to be hard for my hero. Which, yeah, your hero needs trials so he can grow, yada, yada, yada. BUT there should be some kind of rhyme or reason to it, right? The villain needs to have a plan. Sure he has goals and aspirations (Cue the song I Have a Dream from Tangled), but how is he going to get there? He needs a really GREAT PLAN, of course!




If your villain is just standing there in his black cape and top hat, twirling his freshly oiled, deep black mustache and rubbing his hands together while muttering, “Now, THIS will be hard for that dratted hero!” then something is wrong.

So, I sat down and thought and thought and thought and brainstormed and asked myself some tough questions and wrote and wrote and wrote about my villain. All the whys, whats, and hows. And…

Eureka! I see why my villain has made the choices he has. I see what he's trying to accomplish. And I finally understand his villainous plan!

I kept trying to force my hero down a certain path. I thought I knew the hardships he should face. But they didn't make any sense from the villain's POV. So, then when I finally found the RIGHT (bad) path for my hero (based on the villain's plans), it was fantastic, like birds starting singing. Of course, bad things are on the horizon for my hero, so those birds were probably singing really horrible tunes. Like country love ballads. From the 80's.

Do you need help figuring your villain out, too? Try asking yourself these 35 questions. Hopefully, by the time you answer all of them you'll hear birds singing Islands in the Streams and All My Ex's Live in Texas.





1. What does the villain want? What is his motivation?

2. What is your villain’s plan?

3. What does he see as his obstacles?

4. What does he think are his strengths?

5. What are his actual strengths?

6. Who is helping him with his plan and why?

7. Is his public image different than his private image? In what ways?

8. What are his flaws? Is he aware of them?

9. How did he become  capable of committing the crime you've concocted for him?

10. Why is he doing what he’s doing? Is he only helping himself or does he imagine this will help others? And how?

11. What is fueling him? Anger, hatred, greed, revenge, boredom? (Ok. Probably not that last one!)

12. Does his behavior match his personality?

13. How does the villain see the hero? As a threat? A possible ally? Or as a minor inconvenience?

14. Does he have any strange quirks? And odd habits?

15. How far is your villain willing to go to get what he wants?

16. What makes your villain unique and entertaining?

17. Does he have friends? If so, what are they like?

18. What binds your hero and villain together? 

19. How are they similar? How are they different?

20. What will happen to the villain if his plan fails?
21. What does your villain value? What doesn’t he value?

22. How does your villain see himself?

23. What would he change about himself if he could?

24. Who does your villain admire?

25. Does he hate anyone? Who and why?

26. Who does your villain love? Or have a bond with?

27. What is the relationship between the hero and villain?

28. What makes your villain angry? Sad? Happy?

29. Why does your villain believe he’s doing the right thing?

30. How will your reader relate to your villain? Is there anything about the villain that makes him sympathetic? What qualities will your reader find redeeming?

31. What kind of education did your villain receive?

32. How does he speak? Does he use formal language? Or does he speak more casually? Does he use slang? Does he have an accent? 

33. What kind of lifestyle does your villain live? Is he a high roller? Is he as poor as poor can be? Or somewhere in between?

34. Do you want your villain to look like a villain? Or to be an unexpected villain? What personality, physical traits and attitude will you give your villain to accomplish this?

35. What nefarious deeds has the villain committed in the past? 



Who are some of your favorite villains? Why do you think they work so well?


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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, 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, April 10, 2015

Creating Real Characters Through Responses

We've talked about Emotional Pacing before, and even had Five Tips for Writing with Emotion, yet it still seems that there are two major trends right now regarding character's emotions. They are either kick-ass and hardcore, or reserved and quietly intriguing.

But when I think about the people I know in real life, I'm not sure there are any that fall into either category. 

Sure, there are lots of people who say that characters need to have more dramatic responses to the situations presented to them. Perhaps, but I think the spectrum of emotions available suggest we as writers could added a few more colors when we are shading our characters. 

For instance, I'm not really an emotional person. It's rare that a commercial will make me cry, I don't really know how to react around someone who is weeping, and things aren't nearly as funny to me as YouTube views suggest they should be. However, when my emotional radar spikes, it is usually in anger. Does that make me emotional? Or how about the rest of the time, when things aren't going well and I tend to get quiet - deliberately controlled? Emotional?

I'd like to argue that calling someone emotional should warrant more than simply prone to crying. And that, in all actuality, all characters are in fact emotional. 

1. Note their reactions.

I had the unfortunate experience a year ago of having a parent absolutely ream me for nearly an hour. If there was a name I could be called, I was. I held my hands in my lap, kept my voice steady and controlled, and maintained eye contact the whole time. By the time the parent left, I had seven minutes to shake the whole experience off and be ready to teach a class. I took a quick walk through the school, asked a secretary to raid her chocolate stash, and walked off the hurt angry tears in the privacy of the faculty room. By the time class started, my students had no idea there was an issue, because I was absolutely determined the parent would have no effect on me.

However, every time I see that student in the halls, fear and dread fill my whole being. These are things as novelists, we have the opportunity to convey that no other art allows. Take advantage of it.

2. Show the development of emotion.

In my writer's group, I think all of us have been called out at least once on having written a character who laughed, cried, was uncertain and then angry too quickly. Even a teen in the midst of puberty can't transition that quickly. Sure, in drafting mode, those quick words can act as markers for us, but if you tell me a person is angry, I'm going to say okay and move on with my life. 

In my opinion, this is the greatest necessity of the "Show-Don't-Tell" mantra, but it can be difficult to depict emotions, to show what someone is feelings. There are a couple options. 
  • Ask someone to explain how they feel. 
  • Get yourself a copy of The Emotion Thesaurus
  • Find a quiet place where you can be alone and feel, paying attention to physical markers.
3. Watch more people experience more emotions.

This can be via other media or through out of the house experiences. When you go to the grocery store, try (in the most uncreepy way possible) to determine what people are feeling based on how they look. What's the difference between a worried fast walk and a mad fast walk and a I-only-have-five-minutes fast walk? Is someone yelling out of anger, to warn or to be heard by someone who is hearing impaired (either because of hearing loss or adolescence)?

What are you pet peeves about character development? What books have you read lately have have great character development?

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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.