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5 Year Old Kisses and Tells

Friday, April 29, 2011

Remember when you were five years old? I loved to play Barbie’s and wanted to be a teacher when I grew up. Or Laura Ingalls Wilder. My brother and I used to fight over watching Little House on the Prairie. That led to my scratching my name into the side of his car once, but that’s a whole other post.

I wasn’t a fast mover like my own daughter is. I don’t remember worrying about my hair, although that could be because my mother chopped it off in a ridiculously short style, something I’ve never quite forgiven her for. I didn’t flirt with the boys, constantly trying to get their attention. I didn’t even have my first kiss until I was seven, for God’s sake!

Not Grace. She’s been a mover and shaker since conception, kicking me to death and shoving her butt into my ribs long before she was born. She sat up when she was four months, walked at 10, and said her first two-word sentence by 12 months. “Me, dis.” Naturally.

She’s always been outgoing, chattering up people in the supermarket when she could barely babble. My husband and I have no idea where she gets her personality from – neither of us like people.

And now she’s got a boyfriend. It’s pretty serious too – they’ve been together since January. His name is Logan, and he’s in her K-Prep class at school. Sometimes she’s not sure if he’s still her boyfriend, so she has to ask.

Logan says she’s a “hot babe,” and Grace says he’s “really cute.”

And so it begins.

I knew I was in trouble this fall when she informed me she couldn’t wear jeans to school every day, that she needed fancy clothes. Next was getting particular about her hair and accessories. She thinks she needs makeup but so far I’ve managed to thwart that dreaded moment.

I have to admit, Logan is a cutie. A couple of weeks ago, we arrived to school at the same time as he and his dad, and Grace got all giggly. She loudly whispered to me that was “Logan, my boyfriend,” and then leaned over and asked him, “are you still my boyfriend?”

He blushed and nodded with a big grin on his face.

Young love.

Their relationship has only grown since then. Logan lives just down the street (isn’t that wonderful?!), and Wednesday Grace and her daddy were out front playing soccer. Who happens to drive by but Logan and his dad. They stop to chat, and the conversation between the kids went something like this:

Logan: did you tell your dad about the secret?
Grace: no, I won’t
Grace’s dad: what secret?
Both kids: Nothing!

Logan: Hey Grace, I’ve got a jeep with headlights, and I can take you for a ride any time you want.

Learning tricks from his teenage brother, no doubt.

So what’s the big secret? Daddy thinks it’s of the kissing kind. No, I say. She says she’s not going to kiss him until they’re married.

Me: Grace, did you kiss Logan? (I’m expecting the normal, ew, no!”
Grace: *Blushes and grins* I don’t want to talk about it now. We’ll talk about it at Christmas.
Me: You kissed Logan? Where?
Grace: *Rolls her eyes* On the playground, Mom.
Me: On the lips?
Grace: *Shrugs shoulders* I don’t remember.

Well, at least the kid’s technique needs work. Hopefully that means there won’t be a second kiss for a while.

Daddy’s worried about Logan’s offer to drive Grace around in his jeep any time she wants. He’s thinking he’ll need to have a talk with this kid.

Grace insists she’s going to marry him some day and they’ll live with us, of course. She’s going to live with her mommy forever.

Fabulous. Logan better have a good job to help us retire early.
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How much help is TOO much?

Monday, April 25, 2011

There are endless learning resources out there for writers: how-to books, blogs, forums, critique groups, writing workshops … you get my point.

All of these have merit. Critique groups/partners in particular are vital because we as writers are so married to our plot and characters it’s impossible to be objective. Not to mention we’ve read our own stuff so many times we have zero chances of catching even the most glaring of mistakes. Fresh eyes (that aren’t your family or friends) are a great way to get a handle on the quality of our books and generate honest opinions about what needs to be fixed.

But what about the plethora (purpley word, I know) of books about plot, structure, characters, yada, yada, yada? How are we to choose what’s a must-read and what to skip?

Opinions of our peers are great, but a book that strikes a chord with me may fall flat for someone else.

And how much is too much? In the past two months, I’ve read Writing The Breakout Novel, Make a Scene, On Writing, and now Story Engineering. I enjoyed them all and thought I learned a great deal from each one.

And yet, with each read, I’m revising my novel and questioning my plot and structure. If it doesn’t fall into the parameters set by so and so, who claims you won’t get past the slush pile without following the rules, then doesn’t that mean back to the drawing board?

I want to learn. I want to get advice from experienced professionals and writers at all different stages of their careers. By no means do I think I know it all – far from it. So I read the books, follow the blogs, and comment on discussions.

And then I question myself some more. I’m getting opinions from others based on little bits and pieces I’ve told them about my book, and there’s no way to do it justice without at least giving a complete synopsis. That’s not to say that what I’m hearing isn’t valuable – it is. But we can’t allow ourselves to become buried by the enormous amount of information that’s out there.

To make matters worse, one expert may tell us one thing while a second contradicts it. Both have impressive creditials. So who’s right?

We need to pick and choose what to read and how to apply it. Each one of us will do this differently, and the trick is figuring out what works best for our story. Of course we must get the plot and structure right – without them we have nothing but a big pile of goo and months wasted.

But seeking help from too many different sources can bring our writing to a halt as we twist and turn in confusion trying to figure out who to listen to and how to apply their information to our books. We need to be willing to learn and grow, but we also need to believe in ourselves as well.

When you sat down to began your book, you did so because you probably had a great idea or a character you loved. As you’re branching out and learning more about techniques, don’t forget why you started writing in the first place. Don’t stretch yourself so thin by seeking out advice that you end up completely lost and giving up.

Find a critique partner, a couple of blogs to follow. Read a couple of books and learn from them, but remember the rules aren’t always steadfast. Some can be bent. Consider looking into a professional editor (make sure you do your research on this one!) that offers different packages and will give you an experience opinion based on actual pages of your book.

Be willing to listen and grow, but don’t lose your passion in the process. If you can’t love what you’re doing, it most certainly isn’t worth your time.

What about you? Where do you seek advice and how to choose to sift through the information?
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To Pants or Not To Pants?

Thursday, April 21, 2011

My critique partner calls it “organic writing.” Experts have coined it “pantsing,” as in, writing by the seat of your pants. Many writers (and I was once one of these) believe that sitting down with only an idea and letting the creative juices flow is the best way to write a quality novel.

Some have succeeded – Stephen King, anyone?

But since the vast majority of us are not King, is pantsing really the way to go? When I began my first book (a way too many pages romance novel that will probably never be edited for an attempt to publish) I simply had the idea of these two cool characters meeting and one being reticent to having a relationship. My lead guy was a paramedic (hot), and she was an English major turned editor, but what she really wanted to do was write her own books. Original, I know. Anyway, the story was full of juicy unresolved sexual tension until about chapter 15 or so, when the two characters finally got together. Then I realized I needed more of a plot. So I came up with the sexy paramedic deciding to be a firefighter and going through that process. As some of you may know, it doesn’t work that way in most cities. They are either one in the same or firefighter trained first. So I had to fly by my proverbial pants and make up some rules. Then add more conflict, and more, and more. The story got out of control, and while I do believe there are a lot of good scenes, it’s far too long and contrived.

Why? Because I was a pantster. Now, in my defense, I also hadn’t written seriously for years and didn’t realize I wanted to write a book when I started dabbling. But I also didn’t have the sense or the tools to step back and make a plan.

With my current WIP, I thought I had a plan. I had an outline of important scenes and some key plot points. I knew a little about my characters. Good to go, right? After all, no matter how much we plan our characters ahead of time, we really don’t get into their heads until we start writing. My approach was better, but not great. I spent two or three months writing and re-writing the first act of the book because the farther I went into the second, more plot points kept popping up that I should have addressed earlier on.

Then came the story board and index cards. Big help. I was forced to sit down and think scene by scene. Finally I could see the entire plot unfold in front of me, and it was much easier to see what worked and what was just plain asinine. Juices began flowing, and I made a lot of headway. In fact, I’m nearing the midpoint of the book, which is very exciting.

Of course there’s a caveat. I’ve been reading up on writing (The Breakout Novel, Make A Scene, On Writing – all great tools) and was actively applying the new techniques I’d learned. My writing improved. And then I made an innocent comment on the wonderful Kristin Lamb’s blog on a post about antagonists (I’m very proud of mine – he’s creepy as hell but also has a strong moral code, or so he thinks) and was informed that my book’s opening, a hook which drops the reader into the middle of a hostage situation, was a big mistake. Melodrama, Kristin said. A writer who doesn’t understand narrative structure.

Say huh?

I know what narrative structure is! Three acts of a book, all that stuff. Right. Clearly, I’m still a novice despite more than a year of radically improving writing. Kristin advised me to pick up a copy of Larry Brooks’ Story Engineering, and I urge any beginning writer (or anyone pro stuck in a rut with agents/publishers) to read it ASAP.

With Kristin and Larry’s help, I finally understood that a hook isn’t some jam-packed action scene. If a reader doesn’t care about the character in turmoil BEFORE the crap hits the fan, your plot suffers and you end up with melodrama. I honestly never thought of it that way! Don’t laugh, I’m still learning.

So the big question? Did I have to start on yet another extensive rewrite of my first act? Am I even farther behind than I was?

No. I added an additional seven pages; one with my antagonist getting his creep on, and the other six with my heroine showing the reader who she is as well as setting up the idea that something just isn’t quite right in her world.

Those seven pages are a goldmine, because they drastically helped the flow of act one and help me answer questions about the second act.

I’ve learned a major lesson: some can fly by the seat of their pants. I cannot. Of course there are ah-ha’s and inspirations along the way – that’s the beauty of writing – but without a strong plan and a decent story structure to follow, most of us will be doomed to either writing 987 drafts, giving up, or having an agent toss us aside without a second glance.

Don’t be a hardhead stuck in your ways. Those with established readers and contracts might afford to do so (although I would question any midlist author who can’t understand why their novels don’t breakout) but us little people can’t. We need to hit the ball out of the park to stand any kind of chance of getting noticed, and the only way to do that is to continuously learn what works.

Story structure works. Brooks is right – it’s in every book out there, whether the writer realizes it or not. Setup, inciting incident, first plot point, midpoint, second plot point … these all need to be planned in advance. If you know when and where these key events happen, the rest of your story will fall into place much quicker.

Brooks says a lot more; his core competencies model of writing is the most clear-cut ‘how-to’ book I’ve ever read. It not only understand how to structure a story, but why it needs to be that way. Read it. Twice. Love it.

But remember, the story is yours to tell, and you must do so the best way you can. You don’t have to follow Brooks’ model to the exact page count, but by using it as a guideline, you’ll be a more efficient writer.

Good luck!
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April 13 - Writing A Killer Antagonist

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

While I love all three of my main characters, I have a soft spot for my creeper. He's polite, charming, and well-spoken. He doesn't want to hurt anyone - he just wants his life to be as it once was.

In order to write a great antagonist, we as writers have to create empathy for that character. Sure, your readers want the brave protagonist to win, but they also understand the bad guy's motivation. His thoughts and actions not only give them goosebumps but tug at their heartstrings. On some level, they understand him, which is both fascinating and unsettling to a reader - and it will keep them engrossed in the novel.

Naturally, I didn't think about this when I first began writing my book.

In the beginning, I just wanted my bad guy to freak people out. I wanted readers to be glad he wasn't after them. But thankfully my amazing critique parter and editor pointed out that an antagonist has to be as three dimensional as a protagonist. "And remember," she said, "the very best bad guys aren't all bad - think Hannibal Lector."

And back to the drawing board I went. I asked myself these fundamential questions: where does my creeper come from? What events shaped his life? Did something tragic happen to him? What are his redeeming qualities? Once I began to approach the antagonist's character this way, I had a whole new understanding of him.

My plot benefited as well. A well-rounded antagonist helped me to come up with some great symbolism, and I realized that the showdown between bad and good that I'd originally planned needed to be fixed. Creeper was far too sophisticated to be so brash.

Now, I'm excited about the ending. Matching my antagonist and protagonist against each other will be great fun to write, because I know them equally well.

Although I enjoy the brash slashers and uncomplicated criminals, the best antagonists are the multi-layered ones. A bad guy whose head I can delve into is far more gripping.

What are some of your techniques for writing the bad guys, and who are some of your favorite antagonists?

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April 7, 2011 - Just Keep Writing!

When I first began the journey of writing, I had no clue what I was doing. An idea had been swimming around in my head, so I sat down and started fleshing it out. I really thought I had something people would want to read: a unique location, a great antagonist, a suspenseful plot, and good characters. I even had readers tell me the piece was great.

How hard could it be to finish the story and turn it into a book, right? So I decided to take the plunge and write my first book.

A detailed outline was the first step. That's when I realized the plot holes. Another outline. More plot holes and extraneous characters. A third outline.

One day I came to my senses and finally understood that I had no idea how to write a novel.

Time to go back to school. I studied the three act structure and applied to my outline. Slashed more characters and adjusted the plot.

What about scenes, you ask? Right. The cornerstone of any novel. So I brushed up on those as well. The amount of information I'd forgotten since college so many years ago was astounding. I went back to my outline yet again and tore it apart, restructuring everything into scenes and fine tuning my plot.

And then I started to worry. Was I doing it right? The novel - Light and Dark, by the way - features a male and femal protagonist as well as an antagonist. Third person was the obvious way to go. Or was it? Should I just stick to a single protagonist? Would an agent be more likely to pull my novel out of the slush pile if I stuck with simple structure?

But then, who would I cut? All three characters are vital to the book's theme.

I began to go crazy second-guessing myself, and the obession stunted my creative process. My writing became forced, the dialogue stunted, and I began to resent the story.

Thankfully I have an amazing critique partner who believes in me. She kicked me into gear, and I remembered why I began writing in the first place: to tell the story.

I threw out my outline. Don't get me wrong - they are important. Knowing the plot points are important. But I chose to work with index cards, listing key scenes that had to be included. And then I started writing again.

For me, writing is an organic process, and my book began to see the results of sitting down and just writing. In two months, 100 pages were completed, and they were strong. I knew I was headed in the right direction! I finally began to not only learn my characters but to love them. I was excited by the plot again and discovered new twists and turns that I believe readers will love as well. For the first time, I wasn't wondering if what I was writing would turn off an agent, but thinking "this needs to be read. People will like this!" That was a milestone for me.

Writing excited me again and more importantly, I believed in myself.

So don't think about the what-ifs. Focus on your book and the story your characters need to tell. There's nothing for an agent or editor to critique if you don't keep writing.

My first draft is halfway complete. The first act of Light and Dark has gone through extensive rewrites, and I'm sure the next two acts will as well. And that's okay. The only way to improve your writing and story is to don a suit of thick skin and dive in headfirst.

So don't be afraid of change. Don't be afraid of seeking a valured opinion. Read books by the pros - three don't miss reads are King's On Writing, Maas's Writing The Breakout Novel, and Rosenfeld's Make A Scene.

But most of all, keep writing!
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Thursday, April 7, 2011

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