On Writing: Love is Not a Plot

Monday, January 28, 2013

on writing: Love is not a plot

I read... a lot. And not just because Stephen King told me I had to, if I wanted to be a good writer. An amazing book takes me one day to finish, and my children go feral while I forget to eat. An okay book might sit in my car for a couple of weeks and get picked up while waiting in carpool lines. A book that I don't enjoy usually gets tossed into the DNF pile and glared at sullenly.

 

Occasionally, I'm obligated to finish a book I would otherwise have set on fire after the first page, and that's when things get weird.

 

After battling just such a book for a week, I struggled to put into words why I hated the damn thing so much. My conclusion? 

 

LOVE IS NOT A PLOT.

 

Here's how to tell if your book suffers from the horrible disease of NOPLOTTITUDE.

 

1. There is no action. Nothing happens.

 

2. The biggest threat is that someone will lose their lover. There are no outside stakes.

 

3. The only action verb in your summary is "learns" or "struggles". 

 

4. You rely heavily on backstory to add interest because nothing is actually happening in the present.

 

5. The book is over 80% dialog.

 

6. The climax of the book is someone having an emotional epiphany. And nothing else.

 

And, yes, I know that there's a cerebral edge to romance, that emotional struggle and internal dialog are vital to the story. And I know that my tastes aren't universal, and that my books are termed "adventures" and have the romantic couples constantly journeying as if I'm terrified of having them hold still for five minutes and get eaten by mutant lobsters. And my way is not the only way.

 

But.

 

There still has to be some driving force other than "two people find a way to love each other despite psychological obstacles." You should be able to sum up your book according to this log line formula:  When______happens to_____, he/she must_____or face_____. If your answer is When Amy falls in love, she must learn to love or face losing the person she loves, there's a problem. 

 

I don't care if it's as simple as a non-threatening motorcycle accident or a blackmail letter or a crazy ex showing up at the door with a gun, there has to be some external plot that draws the story along. In fact, lack of plot is my main (but not only!) objection to the 50 Shades books. "I'm scared to love you" is simply not a plot; it's an experience. And a good writer should be able to craft a story *around* that experience that keeps the reader engaged, the story moving along, and the characters growing through activities other than dialog and sex.

 

In short, if you're plotting your story around a great idea or character, check your log line. Fill in the blanks, and make sure that there are actual stakes. They say love is all you need, but.. it's really not. You should probably throw in a crazy ex with a blackmail letter on a motorcycle.

 

How I Became a Writer.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

on writing: embrace your madness

I was reading author bios for a con I'll be attending later this year, and I saw one thing pop up again and again: lifelong dedication.

She has been writing since she could hold a pencil. 
He always knew he wanted to be a writer. 
She has an MFA and taught writing at the college level.

Now, I'm a traditionally published author, but I find that intimidating. Know why?

I started drawing as soon as I could hold a crayon. 
I always knew I wanted to be an artist. 
I have a BA in Studio Art, which is a pretty useless piece of paper.
I have never taken a single writing course and feel like a n00b CONSTANTLY.

But you know what?

That doesn't make me any less of a writer.

See, the day before my daughter was born in 2006 was my last day in an office job at a gallery. After years of careful planning, I was going to be a stay-at-home mom. And that was enough for me, right up until 2009, when my second child was about nine months old. He was nursing constantly, sleeping poorly, and projectile vomiting for seemingly random reasons, usually on me. I was running on less than three hours of sleep a night.

To be quite honest, I was hallucinating. I would lay beside him at night, nursing him back to sleep and imagining that talking rats were skulking in the walls.

And because my brain was completely muddled, starving, and mixed up, suddenly that voice that always told me I couldn't do the impossible... went silent. After all, if talking rats can live in the walls, I could write a book, right?

Right.

First a truly terrible book about a harried young mother who went on a cruise and accidentally slept with a god, and then a kids' book about... talking rats that lived in the walls.

By the time I finished my second book, I was getting enough sleep to be sane. And my internal naysayer came right back to life.

You can't get an agent. You can't sell a book. You're not trained. You have no credentials. You don't know what you're doing. You aren't in NYC. You don't know anybody in the business. You're a stay-at-home mom who sits on the couch all day, attached to a parasitic baby. You're an artist, and that's what you're supposed to be, even if you haven't wanted to paint in a year.

And I told her to shove it, because if I could produce two tiny people and keep them alive and then write two books, I could do goddamn anything I wanted to do.

Shortly after that, I started querying and racking up rejections from agents. And then, a few months later, I found an agent. And then, a few months later, that book didn't sell. But I was already writing a new book. And almost one year after finding an agent, she sold the book that would become Wicked as They Come. And a year after that, she sold my first YA.

Why do I tell you this?

Because I want you to understand that I wrote my first book in 2009, at age 32, with a baby in my lap and so crazy from lack of sleep and the stress of young motherhood that I would get scared at night and cry alone because I thought I was totally losing it.

That book was my escape. And my salvation.

I found out who I was and what I was supposed to do at what might have been my weakest point as a human being. I stumbled upon it *because* I was at my weakest point. Because I was such a wreck that I didn't think to doubt myself.

And then I just surfed that wave the rest of the way in.

Wherever you are in your life, if you want to write, WRITE. It's hard work, and it doesn't pay as well as you think it will, and there will be days when you want to move to Hawaii and be the person that puts whipped cream on waffles, because that would be pretty easy by comparison, plus WAFFLES. But your lowest point can be transformative.

When I was desperate, insane, unwashed, unslept, hopeless, covered in baby vomit, and completely lost, I found myself.

You can, too.

On Writing: How to Not Be Boring

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

on writing: how not to be boring

The question: How do you bring spark to every scene?

 

The answer: With a box of matches.

 

The real answer: Your brain is the box of matches.

 

*


When you first have a story idea, it's so exciting that it takes over your life, and you simply have to start writing. But for most of us, somewhere along the way, we lose that spark and writing becomes a chore. That's when lots of people give up, sensing that if the spark is gone, the book isn't worth writing, and they should just move on to the next shiny new idea.

WRONG.

The problem isn't that the flames went out. It's that you have to relight the fire every day. Here's how.

1. Make every single scene important. 
You have to find something in every scene that adds to the book and keeps the reader reading. Not just X happened, but X happened because tragic childhood reveal, or X happened and there was a beautiful detail that will be important later, or X happened and there was conflict. Personally, I turn on my playlist and think about the next scene as I'm driving to work, hunting for that tiny spark that will make it better and keep the reader curious.


2. Put conflict on every page.
The conflict might just be that the character stubs her toe, or forgot something, or annoys another character by arguing over the cost of popcorn. But if everything is just going along easily without a single annoyance or problem, then the reader loses interest. When you're excited about getting to the next "big" scene, sometimes you gloss over the linking scenes. And that's boring.

3. Make things more complicated.
 

a. She walked down the hall and opened the door with trembling hands, knowing that her destiny waited on the other side.

 

b. She tiptoed down the hall, her ears alert for the sound of tiny, skittering paws. Her uncle had mentioned offhand that the house was overrun with white mice, which were known for their glowing red eyes. She'd seen one under the kitchen sink and would have sworn it had fangs. A strange green glow under the library door made her wish she could run back to her room and hide, but Uncle Mac had promised to answer all her questions about the strange old house, so she turned the crystal knob with trembling hands.


Same action, but with additional mystery, back story, and feelings. Better, right? Hallways don't have to be boring.

4. Keep a list of what's to come.
Your brain is not the best place to store all the details you want to include in your story. If you get an idea, write/type it down. Maybe it's a turn of phrase, a big reveal, a new character, an argument, an interesting detail or rule of your world. Your brain will send you hints about your story that won't be important until later, and it's all too easy to say, "Thanks, brain! I'll remember that!" and then forget. You're basically receiving a trail of breadcrumbs from your subconscious, and sometimes they fall out of order.

5. When in doubt, leave a placeholder.
Sometimes, I'm so excited about a certain scene that I want to skip the linking scenes before it. When I can't get a certain scene out of my head, sometimes I'll leave a placeholder and just write the damn thing. I leave things like (insert backstory about childhood fear of dogs) or (minor argument, grow as friends) or just (get from airship bordello to train). And then I'll write the scene that's keeping me up at night so it'll get out of my head. Sometimes it's easier to fill in the blanks later using details you won't have until afterward rather than gloss over a scene that could have been great.

6. Always remember that the first draft is vomit.
It is utterly impossible to make every scene exciting in the first draft. Some scenes will be naturally amazing, others will be bland but functional. When you're on the first draft, your job is to churn out some raw ore that can be refined later. Whether you leave a few placeholders or just say "she walked down the hall", be confident that you can always polish it up later, when you know exactly what's going on and why.

7. Pretend you're a reader and hunt down boredom.
Once you've got a decent draft hammered out, print it out and start reading it quickly, pen in hand. Every time you're bored or find yourself skipping words, circle that passage. If you're bored, the reader's going to be bored. Go through the entire book, if you can, and see if there's anything these scenes have in common. Sometimes, you learn that you're too heavy on description, you bog down the action with character thoughts, or you have a character who just isn't sparking on the page. Look at all the things you've circled and come up with a plan to make everything more exciting. Look at the big picture and get one-on-one to find out why each scene isn't working.

Extra credit: After you've done your circling and really tightened up your draft, give it to a friend who's not afraid to hurt your feelings. Hand them a pen and ask them to make a note every time they get bored. Have them tell you why. Buy a box of tissue and make some brownies and fix that shit.

8. Feelings, senses, and weirdness.
These three things help your reader connect with a character in exciting ways. How the character feels, whether communicated through their dialog and actions or interior thoughts. What your character sees, hears, smells, tastes, and physically feels. And what makes their world different from what's normal. Some characters have tics, like tapping fingers or blinking with both eyes. Just remember: normalcy is boring, so if your character is rooted in normalcy, you're going to have to shake them up through external forces.

9. Change is good.
It's hard to be satisfied as a reader if something doesn't change. Quite often, the story changes the character as a person, whether because they live through something dangerous, grow as a person, find love, or lose something important. Your character on the final page should be somehow different from what the reader saw on the first page. The change should unfold gradually through the book, and even scenes that seem boring at first can reveal those moments that all humans can connect with, the little epiphanies and understandings and moments of mercy. Simply sitting on a couch in an empty room can be exciting, if you do it right.

10. Make it YOUR story.
You have a unique way of telling your story that insures that no one else in the world could write it. Don't lose that. Your voice will develop naturally over time, and it will inform every scene. Don't fall back on boring old cliches like "it struck her like a bolt of lightning" if your instinct is that it struck her like a gnome with a bag of cobras. Take risks. You'll have plenty of time to tweak them later if they stand out from the rest of the story.

11. Accept that you can't make everything exciting.
No matter how hard you try, every single second isn't going to be mind-blowingly insane. Michael Bay tried that with Transformers, and look where it got him. You need down time to make those crazy explosions interesting. So just remember that even after a dozen revisions and passing it on to friends and doing the very best you can, there comes a time when you need to accept that the story is probably good enough and push it out into the world, whether that's into querying, your agent's inbox, or your self-pub venue. 

Because you know what's really exciting?

Writing the next book.

So pull out the next match and set something else on fire.
 

***

 

Caveats: Your mileage may vary. These tips come from my own writing experience, and your journey may be a different one. This is not the only way to do things. Please don't set *me* on fire.

 

On Writing: How to Honor Suffering

Saturday, March 9, 2013

on writing: how to honor suffering


I recently read a book that was well-written, fast-paced, and intriguing. And I hated it. I hated it so much that it still bothers me two weeks later, despite the fact that I read every damn word in three days and had to find out how it ended.

Why did I hate it?

Because one of the characters dealt with tragedy in a completely unrealistic manner. And as it was a tragedy that I myself have dealt with, it made me angry. And I threw the book across the room.

And that's what writers want to avoid.

***


Trying to put words and sensations around something sad, tragic, or painful that you haven't personally experienced can be very difficult. And the best way that I can think of to avoid tainting your writing with a built-in fury factor is to seek the input and criticism of people who *have* experienced it.

Research it.

Now, I know that you can't walk up to someone and say, "Hey, tell me about losing a child." But in today's world, you can find online forums or put it out there on Twitter or Facebook. "Does anyone have an experience with X they're willing to share? DM me" can put you in touch with those who are willing to answer your questions. People often want to share their experiences. It's cathartic to talk about them. And it can be comforting, I think, to know that a writer wants to do honor to pain instead of just assuming what something feels like.

In my case, this book included a character who had been raped. I personally didn't feel that the aftereffects were handled with empathy but were instead manipulated to push the story forward and, to be blunt, make the sex hotter. It felt insulting and belittling. Hence my anger.

Someone asked me once how I dealt with being raped, and here's the analogy I came up with:

Think of your mind as a house. There are rooms you visit often, rooms you rarely use, and even secret, hidden rooms that you haven't discovered yet. Your tragedy or your pain is a rabid dog. It's unwelcome and uninvited, and it makes so much noise that you can't get anything done. So you take the bad thoughts, the bad feelings, and you put them in a room and close the door. Sure, at first, it claws to get out, and you can still hear the barking. But over time, with nothing to feed on, it gets quieter and weaker. And you're not forgetting it or pretending it doesn't exist-- you know it's there. But you're not giving it the attention it needs to thrive. And if you're lucky, one day, it ossifies and becomes nothing more than a fossil of something that once happened, something that can't really hurt you anymore. 

The character in this book carried her rabid dog on a chain, kept it with her always, and then just shot it one day, right when it solved all her problems. But I don't think these things ever die, and so the book made me angry. If it was that easy for the character to get over her experience, it basically said that all the work I did dealing with mine was nothing. That the fact that my body closed down against my will for all those years, the fact that I couldn't stop the tears-- that all that pain meant nothing. I like to think the author was going for a positive, hopeful message: that with love and tenderness and the right mental breakthrough, it's possible to transcend tragedy. But all I got was that in this book, the rules of recovery didn't apply.

As a writer, I hope you'll never hold back on telling your story. But I also hope that you'll do honor to suffering in the best way you know how. Research is just as important when writing about tragedy as it is when writing about history; if you want the reader to make the jump with you and believe that your world is real, the emotional foundation must be solid.

On Bitches

Saturday, April 13, 2013

on bitches

This week's kerfuffle in the writing world: a famous writer called a woman a bitch for being rude and talking too much about her opinion (here's Mur Lafferty's take), and how dare Seanan McGuire be nominated for five Hugos? And... le sigh.

Anyone who thinks the scifi/fantasy world isn't rampant with sexism hasn't been to a con panel dominated by dudes or perused a bookstore shelf. Or, unlike me, they haven't been told by a famous scifi novelist that they're the bottom of the food chain, the lowest level of the pyramid, and not, in fact, worth the sh*t on his shoe, simply because they expend valuable shelf space and publishing dollars describing love and sex instead of detailing the actual particle physics used in their fantasy world.

(Ask me privately who it was, and I'll totally tell you.)

And it makes me angry.

And not only for the usual reason, which is that women writing romance don't earn the same respect as men who write books with no sex in them--or even worse, only violent sex. That my local newspapers won't touch my story, even though I'm a hometown girl. That, for some reason, other books of 110,000 words are worth more than mine simply because they're about space cowboys or dying of cancer or crime solving attorneys, as if the words somehow count less because people forget that love and sex are, you know, what keep the entire species going. That these things are worth writing about, too.

But it also makes me angry at myself. Because it makes me want things I don't want to want. It's almost like getting rejected from a club and only craving acceptance more. I want to somehow transcend the "she's a bitch" and become one of the boys, get a special pass to dominate panels and drink bourbon and get invited to the big cons because I've won the respect of people who... as it turns out, I don't necessarily respect.

Don't get me wrong--the dude writers with whom I interact on Twitter are the good eggs, and I'm proud to know them. But they're the kind of guys who are just as outraged over the bitch-calling as I am. They're part of the solution, not the problem.

And the good news is that for once, the anger is beneficial. It makes me want to write harder.

It makes me want to be nominated for Hugos, too, and to be griped about as an uppity bitch on some old misogynist's rantypants blog. It makes me want to write a book so good the world has to take notice. It makes me want to craft a story so watertight that it steamrolls over everyone who reads it, no matter how small and shriveled their heart is.

The thing is, if you have to stop your day to rant about someone you consider inferior or undeserving, whether because they're of a different gender or publishing in a way you don't agree with, if you have to assert your position and put them down and call them names... they're winning. If you're secure in yourself and your writing, if you're above it all, you just shrug and think, "So it goes."

Which, if you're reading closely... I'm guilty of it. Right now. I'm so angry, I'm calling strangers names for looking down on me, even though they don't even know me.

And so the only answer is: WRITE HARDER.

Forget them.

Get above it.

Move past it.

Do what you do, your way, and let the haters hate. They'll hate you even more when you succeed.

But on a closing note, have you ever noticed how the word "bitch" can refer to a woman who is mean, rude, loud, annoying, stubborn, opinionated, assertive, aggressive, or simply won't concede a point... and yet there's no word for a man who behaves the same way? There are targeted nouns, like blowhard or bully or boor, but those are unisex terms that don't attach the insult specifically to a gender. But a bitch?

How dare she be a bitch?

What we really need is a term for a man who takes it upon himself to call women bitches for defying his expectations or what a woman should be or do.

Besides sore loser.

On Sexism in Publishing

Friday, June 7, 2013

On Sexism in Publishing, or Why I'm Writing this Now Instead of Two Days Ago

Highly simplified, the reason is the same one that kept me from pressing charges against my rapist: because I was scared.

When I read Ann Aguirre's words (Ann's original post here) about her struggle with sexism as a science fiction and fantasy writer, I find so much kinship with how she felt as a new writer and how she feels now. When you're just starting out as a traditionally published author, there's so much insecurity, so much willingness to put up with anything to see your book in print. As a Southern woman who was raised to be polite and respectful, my instinct is to shut up and smile, to kill 'em with kindness and hope that the audience around me will recognize that I'm fighting with class and confidence instead of whining and complaining and yelling.

But you know what? It's not right.

Being quiet doesn't get results.

I'm not a member of SFWA because I looked at their website and composition and quickly came to the conclusion that I wasn't the target demographic. Sure, I write science fiction and fantasy, but once you throw romance and sex into the mix, it's generally agreed that my book will sit on the Romance shelf instead. Never mind the intricate alternate history steampunk world that's based on the supposition that the majority of prey animals have become predators. Shirtless dude on the cover? Romance. End of story.

And I'm fine with that, because I know that romance takes up 48% of the paperback market, and I'd like to be successful in my career.

What I'm not fine with, however, is being ignored or mistreated in industry articles or on con panels because someone has taken one look at my face and my book and decided that I'm not worthy of respect or time.

Story 1:
The first con I ever attended was a small steampunk con in Atlanta. It was two months before my book came out, and I wore a steampunk costume for the first time and was really excited. I asked the con if I could be a guest, and they turned me down, politely, probably because I had no connections and no actual book in hand. I offered to volunteer, hoping to meet people, and they made me into a green room hostess-- because I'm pretty. The first person I met was a famous science fiction writer, the Guest of Honor. He asked me what I did, and I told him I wrote steampunk paranormal romance. He scoffed and said that in the grand pyramid of writers, I was the bottom level. That I wasn't worth, and I quote, "the shit on his shoe" because I didn't have quality science in my books and just wrote "vampire porn". He said that women like me were ruining his genre.

And do you know what I did?

I smiled and tried not to cry. And served him breakfast, because that was my job, and because telling the Guest of Honor at a con that he was a misogynistic dick didn't seem like a good way to get invited back or to move my career forward.

That guy was the first professional I met in my field, and I've since learned that his books are basically rape fantasies. Fortunately, I've found a community of wonderful authors who have become friends, many of whom fight tirelessly for equality in an industry that is often criticized for its inability to quickly adapt to the changing cultural and technological landscape. How ironic--a genre based on technology, science, fantasy, and the future clings desperately to the past regarding the treatment of women.

Story 2:
I was on my first panel at Dragon*Con, sitting next to one of my favorite authors, a female writer with several successful series in several genres. Also on the panel were three writers with whom I was unfamiliar and who could all be described as "old white men". Can you guess how much they let us talk? How much they interrupted us? How much they complained about women mucking up science fiction right in front of us? The author beside me turned to me and rolled her eyes and said, "Why are we even here?"

And that gave me the courage to speak up, because dammit, we were there for a reason, and that reason was that we are writers (just like them), and we have books (just like them), and just because those angry old guys shouted louder and talked longer didn't mean that they were any more entitled to our time or attention. I remember saying something along the lines of, "Well, I may be the youngest and most inexperienced one on the panel and the newest to the publishing community, but I think that means I'm the future of our industry and that my beliefs on this topic have value for the new directions taken by science fiction and fantasy."

When you're a new writer, you receive a lot of advice from people who care, telling you to stop making waves, to avoid alienating readers or making industry people angry. But for me, this is a deeply rooted issue that might be worth losing potential readers. My book is just as much of a book as any man's book, and my words are just as important as a man's words.

And the fact that there are men out there who would even attempt to argue that fact makes me furious.

When I was raped in high school by an upstanding scholar, a teacher's son, I was told to keep it quiet so that I wouldn't look bad or ruin his life. I was asked, gently, if maybe it wasn't rape, if I had goaded him on or had given him the wrong signals. I was asked if I'd been "asking for it". I was told that since we'd dated, no one would consider it rape. And he wrote a letter to me explaining that he knew what he had done but that it was okay now, because had asked Jesus for forgiveness, and maybe I should ask Jesus for forgiveness, too. I told my favorite teacher, and she told me that if I pressed charges, I would just make myself look bad.

So what did I do? I stopped talking about it.

Over time, I realized that surviving that night with his knife at my throat was, in a way, fighting back. But I've wished for seventeen years that I'd fought back physically, loudly, that I'd risked everything to avoid letting him make me a victim. I want to think of myself as a fighter, as someone who does the right thing, even if it hurts.

So when I say that I'm not going to be quiet anymore, I mean it. I'm not going to let someone talk over me at a panel or tell me I'm worth nothing. I'm not going to be told that "it's always been this way", or "boys will be boys", or "stop complaining and do something". In this case, complaining *is* doing something.

Because men who belittle women, who turns us into damsels and whores in their books, who speak over us and tell us we're ruining things-- they want the same thing my rapist wanted: for us to stop talking about it.

I'm not saying that sexism in publishing is the same thing as rape. What I *am* saying is that when you expect a woman to shut her mouth and be pretty, to not complain, to accept the fact that you devalue her and her work-- you're taking away her voice and turning her into an object, one that won't get in the way of your plans.

And I'm no longer going to shut my mouth.
 

How to Find Good Books

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

How to Find Good Books

With all the recent discussion of sexism in publishing, 

I think it's important to talk about how we find the books we read.

 

I am a feminist, but I don't avoid books written by men, and I don't read books *only* because they were written by women. I read books that tell stories that connect with me. And here's how I find them.

 

 

 

So these are my bookshelves. I read a lot, usually 1-3 books a week. For a long time, I had trouble finding books that resonated with me. And then I found the internet. These days, my chances of discovering a new author, book, or series have grown, mostly thanks to social media.

 

Note: YMMV, IMHO, take it with a grain of salt, these are my own personal feelings and I'm a weirdo, etc. Feel free to tell us how you found your favorite books in the comments. 

 

1. Twitter

I follow people who amuse me and share links that enrich my life. I avoid or unfollow people who insult me, aggressively oversell, or espouse beliefs that hurt others. Therefore, when the people I *do* follow write or recommend books, there's a good chance I'll like them, too. 

 

Following authors, editors, agents, bloggers, and reviewers on Twitter ensures that my finger is on the pulse of the favorite books of a like-minded coterie of bibliophiles-- and sometimes they tweet about great sales and free books, too. I can honestly say Twitter is the #1 source of my book purchases.

 

If you're not on Twitter and are starting from scratch, try googling things like "top literary agents on Twitter", "top editors on Twitter", "top YA authors on Twitter". Plenty of people make handy lists of names, links, and reasons they're great to follow.

 

2. Facebook

The great thing about Facebook is that when you need more than 140 characters to gush over a book and leave links, you have it. I go to Facebook when I have very specific interests and would like to keep track of responses in an easy way. "I'm looking for a mass market beach read, something like Deanna Raybourn or Meljean Brook, preferably a series with a strong female protagonist and no zombies, love triangles, or robot cheetahs", that sort of thing. And then people are happy to gush. And so are their friends. The Facebook pages of book bloggers are *great* for this sort of thing. And if you go to an author's page and say, "I love your books; who else do you think I would love?", they're usually stoked to answer.

 

3. Blogs

Someone links an interesting article on Twitter or Facebook, whether an essay or opinion piece or some writing advice. I go to the link and notice that I like how the writer thinks, love their rhythm and word choices, not to mention that I learn something from the article. The first thing I do is look to see if they're an author and if their books are as appealing as their blog post. Boom! I buy the book and follow them on Twitter.

 

4. Anthologies

I know it's crazy, but I didn't even think to pick up an anthology until I was invited to be in CARNIEPUNK and needed to find out... um, how to write an anthology story. I went straight to the bookstore's scifi/fantasy anthology section and bought three anthos that included authors I loved--and authors who were new to me. Some of those short stories were so affecting that they've become part of my mental landscape. And then I received my CARNIEPUNK arc and fell in love with two stories in particular: THE COLD GIRL by Rachel Caine and THE DEMON BARKER OF WHEAT STREET by Kevin Hearne. I liked their stories so much that I bought their books, found them on Twitter, and promptly fangirled all over them. Kevin is now one of my favorite people on earth, and if I ever meet Rachel, I'm sure I'll hug her until she squeaks. 

 

Anthologies are pretty much well-cultivated buffets designed to help you discover yummy new authors.

 

5. Booksellers

Bookstores are great, but the most important thing in them isn't books; it's booksellers. People who work in bookstores don't do it for the money; they do it because they love books and want to connect readers with books that will make them happy. Find your local indie bookstore and go check out the "Employee Recommendations" section. Or ask an employee for more specific recommendations based on theme, time period, genre, movies, fandoms, favorite authors--anything. If the first person you grab is unresponsive or doesn't have helpful suggestions, go to the front desk and ask for their resident expert in your favorite genre. I've also had great luck with this technique in comic book stores, where I used to feel uncomfortable and overwhelmed. They want to help you!

 

6. Cons and Festivals

I know not everyone is a "pay $50 to join 60,000 people in a hotel for mutual geeking out" person, but that's definitely one way to find new authors and books. Most comic cons have a literary or writing track-- possibly several!-- with curated groups of writers answering themed questions and available for Q&A. I've picked up tons of books because a complete stranger on a panel piqued my interest. Most cons also have a huge dealer room that includes a bookstore and tables where authors will sign and personalize books and happily answer questions, including "If I like your books, who else should I be reading?" Which I ask all the time!

 

Most towns have book fairs or literary festivals that bring together a wide variety of local authors. Here in Atlanta, we have the Decatur Book Festival and the Dahlonega Literary Festival, both of which offer smaller crowds and great chances to connect one-on-one with authors. If you're not a geek, don't like crowds, or just generally don't dig the comic con scene, a smaller lit festival is a low-pressure family outing that might also interest your parents, kids, and friends.

 

7. Book Signings

If you have a local bookstore, chances are they do book launch parties and book signings, both for local authors and big-name traveling authors. Check out the newspaper listings or the bookstore's online events page, and if you see something interesting, check it out-- usually for free. If you ever want an author to love you for life, go to their book signing and buy a book. There is nothing scarier to an author than an uneaten cake and empty rows of seats. Even if the book doesn't seem like your taste, you might find a new favorite or, at the very least, have a special gift on hand for a friend or relative.

 

8. Strangers

Y'all might not know this, but I have some social phobias. I am terrified of small talk and would rather speak to 5000 people with a microphone than introduce myself to one complete stranger. Thanks to the wonders of the internet and mutual geekery, I can often circumvent this awkwardness thanks to shared interests. One of the few ways I'm able to walk up and interact is if I see someone reading an interesting book, at which point I assume that we can be besties and they are not going to eat me. 

 

Questions I will ask if I see someone reading a book that looks enticing: So is that book as good as it looks? What do you know about that author? Do you love it or hate it? Etc. And I *love* being asked the same questions, which is probably why I feel comfortable bothering a stranger to ask about *their* book. I once convinced an airline seatmate to buy THE NIGHT CIRCUS within 2 minutes of meeting her, and we sat side by side and read the same book for the entire flight. It was awesome.

 

9. Goodreads

As an author, I can't spend too much time on Goodreads. But for a reader, I think it can be a fantastic resource for finding new books and connecting with other fans. I definitely use it when I hear buzz about a book and want to read a wide variety of opinions. I'll skim the 5s, 3s, and 1s to see if the reasons people loved and hated the book are reasons *I* would love and hate the book. Oddly, I learn the most from 3s because people seem to want to explain in great detail why they are conflicted about a book; that is I loved this but I hated that, I would have loved it if not for this deal-breaker, etc. There are also some great book clubs where like-minded fans can discover new authors and series together. And--I'll cop to it-- the ads are especially eye-catching, high-quality, and relevant to my interests. I also like how you can read favorite quotes from books and see what other reviewers rated highly. That is, if someone gave my favorite book a 5 and gushed about it for the same reasons *I* gush about it, I'll often go check out what else they rated a 5 and see if I can find something new.

 

10. Libraries

I'll probably get a lot of flack for putting libraries at the bottom, but libraries are not how I personally find books. I tend to rack up such insane fines that I'd be better off buying the book in triplicate than checking it out of the library. And, unfortunately, the local branch of my (small town Southern conservative) library has a score card of 0 for helping me find books that I would like, and the librarians generally make me feel that they are super busy and would like me to go away. BUT!!! That's just me, and I REALLY SERIOUSLY APPRECIATE LIBRARIES AND LIBRARIANS. If you hate wasting money on books that you don't finish, the library is the perfect answer for you. Plus, you can use all those resources listed above and hit the library to test out your findings for free. And there's a great chance that your library will treat you better than mine has treated me, so definitely give it a go. Free books are never a bad thing, folks.

 

***

 

In short (which, yeah, this wasn't), there are always new books and authors out there just waiting to whisk you off on an adventure. And you shouldn't snub them because the author was this or that gender or race or because the protag was this or that gender or race or because the cover featured someone's oiled up chest or billowing Regency gown, because authors often have no control of their covers. 

 

In a world where you can't judge a book by the cover, much less the author's name or gender, a little bit of background work can ensure that you're constantly broadening your horizons with stories that connect with you as a person and, yes, sometimes challenge your worldview in a great way.

 

Dear Old Southern White Woman

Dear Old Southern White Woman,

I know you. You're in my family. You make that amazing coconut cake for the family reunion every year, and your sweet tea is more sugar than water, and that's the way we all love it. You're always generous and kind and upbeat. And you've got a core of steel that has helped you weather your troubles stoically, even beating breast cancer when you're too polite to say the word "breast" in public. You've taken care of me all my life, and you're a good person who knows she's going to heaven.

You have type-2 diabetes now, but you're still cooking pie and biscuits for the rest of us. You're not sure how you got the diabeetus, and you say there's no cure, but luckily that nice Paula Deen told you exactly how to take care of it. I tried to bring you articles about how pre-packaged sugary shakes aren't helping, how doctors have proven that type-2 diabetes can be cured with the right diet*, but you said your doctor told you better, told you the prescription was the best way. So whenever you ask me to pick up your needles, I do, because you're 85 and think you know better than me.

And now you feel sorry for Paula Deen. You think she's a victim, and it makes you angry for the way she's being treated after giving so much to the world.

You're angry at the lying lawyers, the Food Network, the liberal media.

You're angry at everyone except Paula Deen. 

And I think it's because y'all are a lot alike, and that scares you.

See, here's the thing. You try to be a good person every single day. But somewhere along the way, you skipped that page in the newspapers that told you that black people had rights and didn't want to be called Negroes or Coloreds or worse, the N-word. You think Orientals are people *and* rugs. And you don't want to go to your old Kroger anymore because there are people with a definite brown cast to their skin and you can't understand what they say when they talk. And that scares you, too. Because you grew up in an all-white neighborhood with an all-white church in an all-white town where you knew everybody. That was your normal, your safety. And it's all changing.

You grew up Paula Deen, surrounded by Paula Deens.

And you can't understand that that world is crumbling.

And most of us are really happy to see it go.

***


I support free speech, and I don't like censorship, and I believe that the current issue with Paula Deen doesn't involve either issue. I am glad that she is feeling an emotional and legal backlash for disrespecting other human beings in her business and in the public eye.

Growing up in the South, I assume that most white people I meet, especially the Conservative-Christian-Republican types who people my family reunions, are racists. They talk about it unapologetically, wondering aloud who would elect a black president (i.e. ME). And because I love my family, because I want them to love me, I don't always correct them or tell them how horrified I am by their beliefs and ignorance.

And I'm realizing that that makes me part of this problem: my silence tells them it's okay.

That's what's so hard about racism in the deep South: it's everywhere, including the people you love. My grandmother honestly doesn't think that her racism is harming anyone. She's not trying to be ugly. When I was little, she sang Jesus Loves the Little Children to me, smiling through "red and yellow, black and white; they are precious in his sight," yet she doesn't understand how hurtful it is to call mixed race children "abominations". That's actually the first one that ever spurred me out of my quiet acceptance of their prejudice; I couldn't stand by and hear someone I love call an innocent child something so horrible.

"They're not abominations. They're children," I said.

We argued about it for ten minutes, gentle and polite as Southern women are, and then I left, knowing I hadn't even made a dent. Science, logic, history, religion--nothing could beat her bone-deep belief that non-whites are lesser.

"Sugar, you go home and read your Bible, and you'll see," she said as she hugged me goodbye.

***


So I say to Paula Deen and my grandparents and anyone with such views:

It is your right to be a racist. And it is other people's right to judge you for it.

Even when you get past the fact that learned racism can be unlearned with empathy, understanding, and education (because I know plenty of people who have transcended it!), you still have to deal with the consequences of exercising your right to spew hate speech. That is, you are free to be a racist, no matter what race you are personally and whether or not you were raised in the Deep South. But once you're in a position of power and use your beliefs to harm others, the issue is no longer one of free speech.

No one in this situation believes that Paula Deen is restricted from selling butter and insulin simultaneously or that she can't sit at home and collect Little Black Sambo books behind closed doors. The argument here is that when you publicly demean other people due to their race or sexuality, the public is allowed to picket you, to petition against you, to fire you, and, yes, to judge you. When someone sets out to become a media star or celebrity, there is a tacit understanding that they are going to be under examination at all times, photographed and quoted. And if you are a bigot, you've either got to learn to hide it or face the consequences.

And that, for me, is the heart of the matter. That is why I have no sympathy for Paula Deen.

While everyone might be racist to certain degrees, and while my sweet old dying grandmother is being racist behind closed doors and eight decades of well-meaning Christian ignorance, Paula Deen is actively harming the world through her cult of celebrity. She should know better. And even if she doesn't personally believe it, which is her right, she should know better than to open her mouth. The public backlash seems an appropriate punishment.

I grew up with the duality of loving people and hating their prejudice against other races, against other sexualities, and against anything weird or unusual. For a while, I thought that their closet racism was fine, that it wasn't harming anyone. When I got a little older, I thought there was some magic argument I could find, some proof I could present that would change their feelings. I've never found it. For now, the best I can do is be a good granddaughter, confidently speak my mind when offended, and teach my children better.

It's not even difficult. My daughter doesn't think twice about race. When I ask her what her friends are like at school, she tells me the color of their hair but not the color of their skin. My son isn't sure if he'll grow up to marry a woman, a man, a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle, or nobody. The acceptance that was so unusual in my youth is now a natural part of life. I don't want my grandparents to die, and every time the phone rings after dark or before sunrise, I worry that it's that call. But I look forward to a world in which this accepted, assumed racism has died out with the last generation that can plead any kind of ignorance.

***


There's a certain guilt to growing up white and middle class in the Deep South. If I listed all my issues and feelings, this post would go on for days. But I will say this. In Summer 2014, I have a book coming out with Simon Pulse called SERVANTS OF THE STORM. The idea was inspired by pictures of Six Flags NOLA after Hurricane Katrina, and the story centers on a teen girl who lost her best friend in a hurricane that devastated Savannah. The protagonist, Dovey, is mixed race, and her best friend, Carly was black. I did my level best to make race an aspect of the story but not the crux or focus of it, and I have never written a book with such good intentions and such internal terror of how it will be received. We say we want more people of color in our books, but as a white middle class woman, is my attempt to capture Dovey's worldview offensive or helpful? Am I giving the next generation a character with whom they can identify, or am I assuming too much in trying to explore the mind, heart, and motivations of someone whose true experience I can't fathom?

But I'll say this. Dovey sprang from my mind fully-formed, just as much as Criminy or Ahna or Casper. She was herself from the beginning, unapologetic and ready to fight. And changing her heritage, changing her color, would be a disservice to her very being. The world has plenty of stories about misunderstood white girls like I was, so I hope that any fumbling on my part will be taken in the spirit of someone who wants her children to grow up knowing that people are people, each special in their own way and each worthy of attention, empathy, and understanding. If I can see through the eyes of a male Victorian vampire circus ringmaster, is it such a stretch that I could put myself in the place of a mixed race teen girl fighting demons?

And here's the secret: I named Dovey after my racist grandmother.

I might have also parodied Paula Deen as a murderous, owl-footed demon trying to take over a storm-ridden Savannah with magic pills. But you'll have to read the sequel to find out.

***


In conclusion: I took down the news story on Facebook that listed all the N-words Paula Deen innocently dropped during her deposition and instead linked to this lovely tumblr showcasing proud and happy mixed race families. If this kerfuffle can teach us anything, I hope it's that we're all better off focusing on the miracles in our life instead of looking backwards at a world that's on the way out.


*A commenter has informed me that this information is false and hurtful. I'm not changing the original post, as that seems underhanded and dishonest on my part, as this was indeed the way I responded to my grandmother several years ago. But I will share that I have an incurable autoimmune disorder myself and apologize if this interpretation shames or stigmatizes any sufferers of type 2 diabetes. My feelings about perpetuating the causes of this disease while shilling the medicine to help it remain the same, but the purpose of this blog post was not to hurt anyone in regards to their physical challenges.

 

How to Know You're a Professional Writer

I have Failed.

At being a professional writer-- at least according to this article on the Horror Writers of America site.

1. Is your home/work place messy because that time you’d put into cleaning it is better spent writing?

Yes, and I'm ashamed of it, so thanks for connecting it to my career success. Having two children under seven would be challenging enough without a poorly drawn line between work and home. But you know what? I don't see what my hatred of cleaning has to do with being a writer. 

Would this question hold as much value if I were a man?

Probably not. 

2. Do you routinely turn down evenings out with friends because you need to be home writing instead?

Nope. If I spend too much time alone, my writing suffers because I become a crazy person and forget how to talk with my mouth.

3. Do you turn off the television in order to write?

I don't turn *on* the television in the first place, unless you count falling asleep to Adventure Time, Community, or Archer.

4. Would you rather receive useful criticism than praise?

Only from a very select group of people whose opinions I value.

5. Do you plan vacations around writing opportunites (either research or networking potential)?

Yes. Some of my best trips have involved research for things I wanted to write, and I return filled with energy, joy, and passion for my work. But I'm mainly using my writing as an excuse to have adventures, not the other way around.

6. Would you rather be chatting about the business of writing with another writer than exchanging small talk with a good friend?

Trick question. I would rather talk writing/business with another writer than make small talk with a stranger or acquaintance with whom I have little in common. And I would consider any talk with "a good friend" to be a conversation, since "small talk" implies that an exchange remains on surface-level, meaningless topics.

7. Have you ever taken a day job that paid less money because it would give you more time/energy/material to write?

I haven't had a day job since I started writing. Being a stay-at-home mom doesn't pay well.

8. Are you willing to give up the nice home you know you could have if you devoted that time you spend writing to a more lucrative career?

Wasn't this question #1? What on earth does my home have to do with my writing? Being messy I can understand. But it's not like I'm at the furniture store wishing I could have a nicer sofa but walk away in tears because I had to buy printer ink. Again, this question seems very sexist. How many men would answer, "YES, I HAVE STOPPED READING REAL SIMPLE AND SACRIFICED BUYING THAT NEW PADDED BENCH FOR THE MUD ROOM SO THAT I COULD WRITE."

9. Have you done all these things for at least five years?

Nope. I started writing in 2009 and "went pro" in 2011. I FAIL.

10. Are you willing to live knowing that you will likely never meet your ambitions, but you hold to those ambitions nonetheless?

I've met my ambitions, you ass. I just keep getting bigger ones. It's not like I'm dying of consumption over here. 

*

I agree with the main criticism I've read of this article; mainly, If you are paid to write, you are a professional writer. Period. Being a professional and *acting* like a professional may be very different things, but if you put up a self-pub story and someone paid $0.99, CONGRATULATIONS. WELCOME TO BEING A PROFESSIONAL WRITER. 

YOU MAY NOW STOP CLEANING YOUR HOUSE.

The Writer's Toolbox

The Writer's Toolbox

 

Want to be a real, honest-to-gosh writer?

Here's what you need:

1. A really rad computer loaded with software.
Preferably an up-to-date MacBook Pro with Word and Scrivener. Also, Moleskine notebooks, antique typewriters, and a fancy fountain pen that uses real ink.

2. A dedicated writing space. 
Your office/studio will need an ergonomic chair, high-speed internet, and noise-blocking headphones.

3. Time set aside only for your writing.
In fact, all serious writers quit their day job immediately to focus on their art.

4. A full schedule of writing-related outings, conferences, book launch parties, and lectures.
Be sure to build in down time consisting of absolute media and social silence.


HA HA HA. KIDDING.

That's a bunch of crap.

First of all, you don't need anyone's permission to be a writer.

If you write, you're a writer. 
If you get paid to write, you're a professional writer. 
And wherever you are, you should act like a professional. 

Done?

Done.

Now, let's get down to what you ACTUALLY need to be a writer by amending that list.

1. You need whatever tools will let you do what you need to do. 
Start with what you have, use it until it doesn't work anymore, and then reevaluate. I know people who write in longhand, who write on iPads on the subway, who stick Post-It notes all over their refrigerators. I take lots of notes on index cards that pepper all the pertinent areas of my house, and I use free word processing software from Open Office. You don't need anything special. The expensiveness of your toys does not legitimize your craft.

But you'll probably need coffee, at some point. Trust me on this.

2. You need to learn to write anywhere, or at least wherever is available.
If your writing can only happen in a holy space of absolute silence, you need to loosen up, buttercup. Find hacks to make your writing something that can happen anywhere. Some people do need a close approximation of silence, thanks to headphones, while others like a TV on in the background or a playlist singing softly through earbuds. Although I have trouble writing around my children, I can now write in a coffee shop, on an airplane, in the passenger seat of a car. Writing is not some fickle muse that can be scared away by an imperfect setting; you are the person in charge.

3. Do not quit your day job. Squeeze your writing into the spaces in between. Make time for it.
I hear people who want to write bemoan how little time they have, but then they tell me how they did on Words with Friends this morning or how great last night's Duck Dynasty was. If you want to do something, you'll find time for it. You'll set the alarm an hour early or stay up a little late or eat lunch at your desk while tapping away on your tablet. Writing is work, yes. But if it's something you think of as a treat, what you look forward to, you can always find some time to do it. It's not frivolous or silly; it's a passion, an art, a skill that requires butt-in-chair-time to develop. Take it seriously. Make your friends and family take it seriously, or at least respect that you do. Put in the time.

4. Live your life. Talk to people. Go places. See movies. Read. Then write.
Writers can't just write about writing and talk about writing and mill among writers like a herd of inky wildebeest. Stories are not born in bubbles. You have to live a life worth writing about, or at least listen to other people talk about lives worth writing about. Have adventures. Learn something new. Take a new road. Try a new hobby. The harder you work your brain, the better it will be at plotting and character and dialog. And you know what? Maybe you're an introvert, or maybe you live in a new place and are shy. So what? Find your people online, or read articles that interest you. Just scroll through tumblr or Pinterest. Your brain can't tell the difference between information gleaned from a chalkboard, a book, the internet, or a person's mouth. It's all about building connections and feeding your noodle so that you can milk it later. If you floop your pig into a cave of solitude, you're not going to grow as a person or a writer.

That being said, the occasional writing-centered outing or con can help replenish your mojo and encourage you to take the next step in your writing. Personally, I highly recommend the Crossroads Writers Conference in Macon, GA October 4-6-- not only because I'm a speaker there, but because I had a seriously amazing time last year and would consider it the top writing-related activity I've ever attended. On the drive home, I came up with my Next Big Idea, which I'm currently 60k into writing. Instead of focusing on how to get an agent or why you need to self-publish, Crossroads smacks you in the feel bone with inspiration for fleshing out ideas, pursuing new genres, finishing your first book, dealing with revisions and rejections, and generally floundering through a career that has no real road map.

Wanting to be a writer is easy. Actually being a writer can be hard.

The main point is this: THERE IS NO ONE WAY TO WRITE.

And anyone who tries to sell you a line of "You're not a writer unless you..." is...

LYING.

 

 

30 Tips for Surviving Your First Writing Conference

30 Tips for Surviving Your First (or Any) Writing Conference

 

 

I just got home from Crossroads Writers Conference, and boy, are my arms tired!

Not really. But my voice is almost gone.


As we all know, writing is an activity that mostly occurs in solitude. You at your laptop, pounding away. Sure, we have Twitter and Facebook, but there comes a time in every writer's life where you want to meet real, live people who share your struggles and hopes and dreams-- and the people who can help you reach them.

And that's where writing conferences come in.

If you've never been to a writing conference or have had a less-than-stellar experience, hopefully this will help. If not, please don't find me at a writing conference and berate me. Good? Good.


1. Go for the right reasons.
For me, the best thing about writing conferences is meeting other writers. But you also want to find a conference that maximizes what you'll get out of it for your money and is appropriate for where you are as a writer and what you want to do. If you go to a conference for the sole reason of selling a book at that conference, you have a 99.9% chance of being sorely disappointed.


2. Do your research on the conference and authors.
Sad to say, but there are tons of people out there who will promise you the moon and take your money for what feels like no return. Before you sign up for a conference, do the research. See how long it's been around, who runs it, who the guests are, and who's coming back. If a conference doesn't go well, writers seldom wish to return. It's okay to stalk guests on Twitter or Facebook and see what they're saying or to Google "Delilah's 100% Guaranteed Book Deal Writing Conference 2012" to see what popped up on blogs after last year's con. Make sure it's legit before you invest your time and money. Make sure the speakers are people you admire and from whom you'll gain valuable information, or at least make sure they have credentials to speak to the topic. Be sure you're aiming up, that the con will give you new information on your next step. You simply want to make sure the con is going to help you with what you personally need. No matter how great a con is, if you write self-pub romance and go to a con for traditionally published thrillers and horror, you might not enjoy yourself. Or, honestly, you might discover your next great idea. It's all about managing expectations and also how much you're open to new things.

 

The Pocket Books panel at RWA Nationals 2013, including writer Shoshanna Evers and three editors from Pocket. 

This is the time to ask about the submission and publication process, NOT pitch your book.




3. See if there are scholarships, discounts, or volunteer slots.
Conferences cost money. Which isn't so horrible if you're a pro writer, because they're tax deductible. But if you're completely out of pocket, it might be a burden. Most cons offer scholarships, and if you don't see them listed on the site, email the organizer and ask. Many cons will do a discount period to encourage early sign-ups. Ask about that, too. And make sure you follow them on social media, as they sometimes do contests for registration fees or provide other ways to get in for less. If money is seriously a problem, see if there's a cheaper hotel one block away and if someone you like might want to share a room. Conferences can be crazy expensive, but there are easy ways to make them on a budget.


4. If you are shy, reach out beforehand.
As an introvert, social media is a huge boon to me. If you've met me and would consider me outgoing, it's because I was among friends or discussing a shared passion, like writing. And a big part of that comes from making connections on Twitter. Most of the authors who present at cons are active on social media, and a simple, personalized, "I loved your books and look forward to seeing you at the conference!" is a friendly way to start a conversation. Most cons are on social media, too, and you can see who they're talking to and pre-pave the way to conference friendships with other attendees, especially if they have a hashtag. If I know a couple of people, I'm going to feel so much more comfortable and excited. Set up a coffee break or lunch ahead of time, if you have particular friends you'd like to hang with or if you're intimidated by being alone.


5. Do not print out copies of your query, book, screenplay, or Glamour Shots.
Conferences are for learning and making connections. Even the ones that provide agent and editor meetings are for getting to know the person and discussing your hook; you're not going to sell a book at one of these appointments, I promise. If it is appropriate to bring any part of your work, they will let you know. For example, at JordanCon last year, they asked the authors to do a roundtable where writers could receive a critique of their first five pages, and that was very cool. But this is 2013, and no one wants to pay extra to lug home your 400-page opus in their carry-on to New York. Bring business cards that include your name, email, website, and Twitter handle, and maybe a little blurb that will remind them of what you write. The most effective one I've ever seen is by humorous erotica author Mina Vaughn, who has "kink with a wink" as her catchphrase. But there is no reason, ever, to approach someone at the con with a hard copy of your book. If they're interested, email it later.


6. Bring more clothes and shoes than you think you'll need.
I'm a pretty low-fuss girl, but I take as many clothes as I can carry to a con to make sure I look professional, but like myself. It's so hard to judge the dress code beforehand. Cute dresses and flowy shirts roll up very small. If you feel like you fit in, you're going to have so much more confidence, and there's nothing worse than wearing a cocktail dress/suit when everyone else is in t-shirts... or vice versa. Looking at photos of last year's con online can ensure you're at least in the ballpark. And although I'm a big fan of cute shoes, all my heels are by Seychelles because I know they're comfortable and won't give me blisters. You can't concentrate on business and work when you're crying from pain. And even if you guessed wrong and aren't dressed exactly like everyone else, smile and hold your chin up. I've been there, and you'll survive. At the end of the day, a good attitude can help you sail through a fashion flub. In any case, for either gender, it's hard to go wrong with nice dark jeans, boots, and a shirt that doesn't have Bart Simpson on it. Also of note: writing cons aren't generally the place for cosplay. Business attire and Friday business casual are the norm.


7. Be careful with food.
Don't get me wrong-- I love to eat. But I know which foods to avoid before and during cons. You're there to learn and network, and you can't do that if you have an upset stomach or are burping garlic on people. On the same token, fainting in front of an editor isn't good etiquette, so make sure you drink plenty of water and plan snacks and eat meals that will last, especially for cons that don't have restaurants or hospitality suites easily available. I pack a box of protein bars and nuts and can always rely on Starbucks for a banana. And pack mints!


8. Be careful with drinks.
It's true-- as awesome as the panels are, the best parts of the con often happen at the bar afterwards. That's where you can talk to authors, other writers, agents, and editors one-on-one with just a dash of alcoholic bravado. JUST A DASH. Nobody wants to talk to the crazy drunk lady waving her script around. And nobody wants you to barf on their cute shoes. I rarely turn down a drink at a con, but I always have a glass of water in between. And if I have to present before 10am the next morning, one drink is enough. But this is the time to ask the questions you really want to know and possibly hear some good stories. And although I shouldn't have to say this, most cons happen at hotels, and all the people at the hotel bar are not other writers you know and trust, so hold onto your drink just as carefully as you do in strange places. Also of note: when someone wants to dominate a writer, agent, or editor's time, they often offer to buy them a drink first. Which is totally okay, and which is why they are compensated to be there. But don't make it creepy or weird, and don't be hurt if they say no. Timing is essential.

 

 

A room party at Crossroads Writers Conference in Macon, GA, one of my very favorite cons for writers. Crossroads is great for lots of writer/attendee mingling.




9. Don't fall in the Sarlaac pit.
Every conference has one. Really.


10. Carry cash.
If you have ten people at a sit-down restaurant and a panel to catch in ten minutes, you don't want to make the poor waitress divvy up the check and run ten cards. I always bring cash and keep receipts. In larger cities, you might share a cab or grab some coffee from a street cart. I've also been in a place where I wanted to buy a book from the author and didn't have cash on hand, and I'd hate to miss out on a signed book I'd love.


11. Wear your name tag. Make it simple.
Given my preference, my name tag will say DELILAH S. DAWSON and then, underneath that, I'll write @DelilahSDawson so that people will know my name and my Twitter handle. For me, they're the same. But awesome author JT Ellison, for example, is ThrillerChick on Twitter, so I didn't recognize her at first and felt like a derp. If Twitter is your big thing, that's a great way to let people know the best way to find you. Unless you write under several pen names, try to keep your name tag very simple. At the least, focus on the name/genre people at that con would recognize. I've seen some, for example, that say:

Romance writer
JL Smith
Horrorgirl at Bookanistagirls
@RHJones
JHSmithJones/Facebook
VP of the Mississippi Mystery Society

And... I have no idea what to call her because she has so many names and so many different blogs and genres. Make it easy for someone to remember your name and what you write, if you can.


12. Meet new people.
It's why you're there. But for me, this is the scariest part. Luckily, at cons, it's so much easier, because you're both there for the same thing and can talk about writing and books all day. My go-to question is always, "So, what do you write?", and I can ask it with honest interest. If that one's done, ask them where they're from or how long they've been writing or where they got their shoes or what they thought of their last session. If you're at a con alone and looking for compatriots, find a likely group chatting in between panels or at lunch and just ask if they have a chair open. I am by no means a conversational god, but I can tell you that everyone at the conference feels about the same as you and would probably prefer to travel in packs. Even asking a leading question like, "Do y'all know anything about lunch plans? I'm starving!" can lead to an invite and a wonderful experience. You can also pre-plan on Twitter to meet people, especially if the con has a hashtag that others are following. And if the absolute worst happens and you can't find friends, it's a writing conference, and you get extra cool points for ordering room service and banging out 2000 words in the comfort of your hotel room. Which I've totally done.

 

Cherie Priest, John Scalzi, Sam Sykes, Leanna Renee Hieber, me, and Kevin Hearne on the Author Chairdancing panel at Phoenix Comicon in Phoenix, AZ. My friend Cherie invited me, and there I met Sam, Leanna, and Kevin, who are now three of my all-time favorite people. I first met Scalzi at Fandomfest in Louisville. We had a pleasant conversation, and then someone said OMIGOD DO YOU KNOW WHO THAT IS?, and I was like, "Um, no. He was really nice and funny, though." And then I found out. All good stories about being nice to people and making wonderful friends in the writing world.



13. When in doubt, introduce yourself.
Sometimes, you walk into a group of friends and start chatting but don't know anyone's name. Sometimes you get into a conversation and realize you already know each other on Twitter. Sometimes you show up in the same three panel audiences as someone who looks cool, and you just keep smiling at each other like goofballs. All of this is totally normally and still somehow feels awkward. The answer, for me, is just to stick out my hand and say, "I'm sorry; I don't know if we've met. I'm Delilah." You should probably say your name instead, though. And then you'll know that person's name. And there is no shame, should they say, "We've met before", in saying, "Well, it's good to see you again" or, as happens to me often, "Of course I know you on Twitter, but now I know you for real." Whether the con has 300 people or 3,000, no one can keep track of everyone, and some of us go by a lot of different names or don't have a recent personal photo as a Twitter avatar. You never go wrong wanting to shake a person's hand and then, once you've established how you know each other, going in for a hug. There's also nothing wrong with saying something like, "Are you Delilah?" if you think you know someone and want to confirm before launching into conversation.


14. On creeping.
I don't like this topic. I don't want to think that anyone reading this might be a creeper or might get creeped on. But it's going to happen, because conferences are about people who get obsessive and passionate, and sometimes, people who get obsessive and passionate can accidentally get creepy. And there are many levels of creepy, but in particular, let's just say that sometimes at cons, someone wants to get to know you in a way that makes you want to escape and hide, and that's not cool. It's not always dude on chick, either; sometimes, we get super excited to meet our heroes. Sometimes, creepers don't even know they're doing it. If you feel that someone is creeping on you, you must handle it in the way that feels comfortable for you, but please always make sure that you are safe. You have a right to exit any conversation, to turn down any offer for drinks or a meal, or to tell someone else that you are having a problem and use them as an escape route. If you think someone might be following you, do not go bravely into the elevator with them. Find someone, friend or stranger, explain the situation, and ask them to go with you. This hasn't happened to me at a writing con, but it has happened to my friends. Never put yourself in danger for the sake of being polite.

Of note for women: I have several guy friends at cons who would stand between me and a charging bull, if the bull stared at my chest too long. If you know James Tuck or John Hartness or a similar big-hearted teddy bear, develop a signal so they can rescue you if you look terrified or feel creeped on. I'm not saying we women can't stand up for ourselves. But I know what it feels like as someone who depends on appearing professional and polite when you can't extricate yourself from an uncomfortable situation without making more of a scene than you're interested in making. There's no shame in creating outside interference.


15. Go to panels.
Chances are that when I'm not on a panel or teaching a workshop, my butt is in a seat in someone else's panel. No matter how rad a writer you think you are, there is always another way to up your game. Last year at a con, I went to a panel on comics and graphic novels and asked several questions. I was so excited by what I learned there that I'm now trying to get into writing more comics and have my first comic out soon. If there's nothing in that session that's truly applicable, think about what you're going to need further down the line. Want to dabble in another genre? Need to know about the legal aspects of self-pub? At the very least, go into a panel that will be popular, like "Tips for Bestsellers" and start live-tweeting it. You might think you know everything, but you might learn something-- or pass the information on to someone in your tweetfeed who needs it. And use the con's hashtag so others can find you and your info.

 

A panel on humor at Olde City, New Blood, now Coastal Magic, a con for romance in Florida.


16. Take notes.
When you're listening to a panel, it can be so easy to nod along and feel your brain open up like fertile ground in the rain. And then when you leave, you're like... WHAT JUST HAPPENED I FORGOT EVERYTHING. So take notes, just like in school. Whether you do so in a notebook or on your iPad, jot down the things that will help you later. Livetweeting is great for this sort of thing, but you can be put in Twitter jail if you tweet too much, too quickly, and then you miss all the fun for the rest of the day. Please don't worry about disrupting the speaker by playing on your device if it means you're getting something from the session; just turn off the chick-chick-chick typewriter sound. Speakers love to see their words pop up on Twitter or Facebook, because that means our info meant enough to you that you wanted to share it.


17. Ask questions.
I know it can be scary at a con, whether because there are so many people or there's so much new information or because agents and editors literally have seven heads full of venomous fangs. But this is your chance. This is why they are here: to help you. You paid your conference registration fee, and you have a right to ask the questions that will help you up your game. Granted, those questions should always be informed, pointed, brief, and not rude, but it's understood that if a person is sitting in the hotel bar, they are making themselves available, however briefly.

Good questions:
Are you having a good con? You represent one of my favorite authors, and I'd love to hear how you started working together. Do you think zombies will come back anytime soon, because I know you edited that anthology and I really enjoyed it. Your panel on social media was wonderful, and I wanted to know a little more how you find the blogs you follow on tumblr and inspire them to reblog you so much. I'm having trouble with some self-publishing formatting and really enjoyed your panel, but you didn't speak to formatting for foreign countries; do you have any experience with that?

Bad questions:
So, are you married? Can we go someplace private to talk? Are you looking to represent a book about a were-mermaid from ancient Australia who falls in love with a blind vampire? I heard that author who writes for you is a total bitch; is that true? Your rejection letter sucked, and I'd like to get some more feedback on why you didn't like my manuscript. In that sex scene in your book, did you really try that thing with the monkey bars and the peanut butter? I went to your panel, but I want to tell you all the reasons that you are wrong. I brought my manuscript; would you mind looking at it? Will you tell me if my query is any good? Are those real?


18. Do what works for you, but don't let fear hold you back.
There's a fine line between doing what naturally appeals to you and breaking out of your comfort zone. Conferences are a great way to push yourself into doing new things that will benefit your writing life. Did a slot suddenly open up with an agent or editor that you don't know? Take it. Give your pitch. If it's not a good match, you get five minutes to talk with an agent or editor about anything you want, and that's a great deal. Did a writing group from Canada you just met on the way to your room invite you out to dinner at the Persian restaurant? Change shoes and go, and when they hop on the table to bellydance, join them. Did your Twitter friend hear about an amazing bar with a chocolate fountain and wants to call a cab and check it out? Leave the hotel and have an adventure. Did you get invited to a room party? Check it out! But! Did that panelist just give you what you need to fix your manuscript and you're totally on fire to write? If that's what means the most to you, go do it. Conferences are there to serve you, and if five hours in a quiet room away from your family to write is the best gift you can give yourself, then don't feel pressured to go eat an expensive hamburger and listen to the cozy writer from Kansas as she details her dog's sweater collection.


19. Swag-- do you need it?
Swag really worried me, at first, because I felt that I needed it, and I needed it to rock. But for conferences, in my opinion, all you really need is a tasteful business card with your contact information on it-- mine are from Moo.com because I like the weird size and the ability to use different images on different cards. If I'm totally honest, I take everything given to me at a con with a huge smile, put them all in a pocket of my bag, go home, and dump out the bag. I go through the cards and find the people with whom I wish to connect on Twitter or Facebook. I keep the pens and the wrapped chocolate. Almost every thing else I take to the swag room or leave on a table for someone else. I can honestly say I have never bought a book or contacted a writer based on a piece of swag; getting to know the author, liking them, and wanting to know more gets me to check out their book or blog. At a reader's conference, I understand swag is a big deal. But at a writing conference, I suggest sticking with a card and good conversation that would make someone want to keep talking to you.

My worst ever swag experience: A writer I did not know came in to her panel late, disheveled, and not dressed professionally. She pulled out a bag of plastic Easter eggs and began throwing them into the audience, where they ponged off people's heads. Inside them were candy and codes to her e-book. Later, she took a phone call while sitting on the panel. I did not even consider downloading the e-book code in the egg because she'd been so disrespectful of other panelists, the moderator, and the audience. Don't be the egg-thrower.


20. Let them know how to find you.
If you're an aspiring writer-- first of all, you're a writer. You write. But if you're not yet published, you need to make sure that anyone who meets you at a con can easily find you online. A business card is great, but what do you put on it, and where does it go? My cards include a gmail address, my Twitter handle, and my website. And that's pretty much it. I don't like phone calls unless they're about paying me, and I don't press people to use my Facebook author site, as Facebook only shows 1/3 of my followers any given post. As for websites, if you don't have one, get one. You can get a site on Blogspot or Wordpress for free, and you don't have to use it as a blog, if you're not ready to do that.  Just use the site to provide a biography, a photo, some information about what you write, and your contact information. Check out the websites or blogs of other writers you admire and see what they're doing, then do your version of that according to your skill set. It also bears mentioning that it can help to make all of your online handles match. If you're RomanceWriter3 on Twitter and write emails from JoeandCarolSmith.hotmail and have the website JojotheCorgi.com, it's confusing-- and very 1999. Get a free email address and make it professional. If your name is common, add a middle initial or the word author or writer. Example: JaneLSmithAuthor, JohnQPublicWrites, etc.


21. How to frighten people away.
Granted, these are just the sort of things that make me edge away politely or that ensure I won't be following someone on Twitter or looking up their blog. Your mileage may vary. You might think I'm a bitch. But I'm honest.

Don't pitch to every human being you can catch and talk about your book exclusively and obsessively. Don't tell someone in publishing that you don't read, you think publishing is dead, you hate romance, SFF is stupid, or that your book is different than all that other crap and will be a bestseller. Don't tell an author their books suck, you hate their covers, or here's what you would have done differently; interesting conversation or asking questions is good, but no one wants to hear how much they stink. Don't get drunk and bemoan all your rejections. Don't name drop like crazy. Don't talk sh*t about other authors or only talk about negative things. The thing is, people assume that if they like you, they'll like your writing. And if you appear unlikeable, no one will pick up your books or offer to help. And most writers love helping each other, providing introductions or recommending cons or books or suggesting agents to try.

Also of note: Personal hygiene is important. You know this, but I have to say it. Stay clean, don't be unkempt, don't overdo the perfume or cologne.


22. On self-presentation.
In many ways, a writing conference is simultaneously a party with your friends, a business meeting, a schoolroom, and a job interview. You want to be yourself, but you also want to be yourself at your best in a way that will draw people to you as colleagues and as possible collaborators. You don't want to dress too fancy and look like you're trying too hard, but you don't want anyone to walk away thinking you're sloppy and lazy, because whether or not it's true, they'll think your writing is sloppy and lazy. They say 'dress for the job you want, not the job you have', but you definitely shouldn't wear pajama pants like most authors are right now.

If you're trying to get a traditional publishing deal, you also might want to err on the side of normal and save the wacky for later in the realm of personal presentation. Believe me when I say that it's possible to look professional and still "you". That being said, if you've seen my dear friend Leanna Renee Hieber in her full Victorian outfits, that's legit her--and she rocks it and gladly tells people, "If you like the way I dress, you'll like my books." Find what works best for you but always be gracious and inviting-- and always be genuine.

 

The Carniepunk signing in Houston at Murder by the Book. 

Note what seven traditionally published authors are wearing.

(Me, Nicole Peeler, Jaye Wells, a reader, Mark Henry, a reader, Liliana Hart, and Kevin Hearne.

I want that red dress!

 

 

And here's how professional authors dress at Dragon Con, a comics convention.

Totally appropriate (and expected!) for DC. Not so much for RWA.

I don't know the lovely lady in purple, but then there's Lucienne Diver, John Hartness, me, Faith Hunter, and Tamsin Silver.



23. Sleep. Get some.
You know what's really hard to do on three hours of sleep and hung over? Learn anything. Getting enough sleep at a seriously great con while also staying out with friends can feel impossible, especially when there are informative sessions at 8:30am. Personally, I try to plan ahead and pick one night for serious carousal, usually the night after I've done all my presenting or when I don't have to present until late afternoon the next day. I always bring melatonin to help me get to sleep at cons, because I get so overexcited and my brain won't stop spinning and I have trouble turning it off. There is nothing wrong with going to bed early if you know you're going to have a long day. And there's also nothing wrong with running up to your room for a two-hour nap--just be sure to set your phone's alarm. And there's really nothing wrong with repeating the word COFFEE? until someone finally gives you some. Ask me how I know.


24. If something goes wrong, initiate damage control immediately.
It can be hard, when you've paid for an experience, to deal with the frustration of not getting what you paid for. But I firmly believe that most situations can be saved. If the conference is poorly run, just try to salvage whatever you can by networking outside of the panels and making connections. If a speaker is terrible, leave the panel and sneak into another one. If the people aren't appealing and you're not connecting at all, introduce yourself to new people or go to panels alone and learn every last damn thing you can. If something bad happens to you, figure out a way to make it okay. I once had a horrible experience with a signing in which the bookstore treated me wretchedly... but there was a cupcake store next door, so I walked right over there and sat down for a cupcake and pulled out a book to read. Now I remember the delicious cupcake more than the bookstore.

Although conference organizers can't do much for you in the moment, you have every right to complain, honestly but reasonably, afterword, through an email or letter, especially if you felt that it wasn't worth what you paid. Speaking as someone who's run events before, it's much better to say, "The keynote speaker was notably intoxicated, the hotel had bedbugs, and the provided lunch was not vegetarian, as per my request; it would have been preferable to hold the con in the much nicer hotel up the street that also has meeting rooms but only costs $10 more per night," versus "THIS CONFERENCE SUCKED AND YOU SHOULD DIE IN A FIRE." Let them know what went wrong, what you expected, and what they could do to ensure you'd return.

Not to get all Mr. Rogers on you, but although the experience is out of your control, how you react to it is firmly in your control. I've been to bad conferences, but they gave me a chance to commiserate with new friends, and in retrospect, those friends are totally worth it. At the very, very least, a few days in a hotel room can let you crank out a few chapters in solitude.


25. If someone helps you, thank them.
The conference organizers have spent all year planning the con and probably haven't slept in days. The volunteers have been smiling since 6am. The panelists flew in from LA on a red-eye and haven't seen their kids or pets in a week. So if you get a chance, thank them. If there's something in particular that you appreciated, going into detail about what you liked will make their day. When someone comes out of a presentation, no matter how awesome they are, they're often unsure if it went over well and they truly are glad to know that what they said or did made a difference. You can never go wrong thanking people, and you need to know that your kind words keep them going when things get tough.


26. If you liked a speaker, one of the best ways to thank them is to buy their book.
No matter how good someone's writing is or how much press you think they get, every book sale matters. Especially for new and midlist authors, these conferences are a way of getting our books into the hands of new readers and making connections with fans. There is no greater praise for a panelist than to say, "I really liked what you said, so I went and bought your book. Will you sign it?" And that's why I always leave room in my suitcase: I buy the books of the panelists whose words or attitude speak to me. And I love signed books by awesome people.

 

This is what my lap looks like on the way back from a writing conference or signing.

I love meeting great writers, buying their books, and telling everyone on Twitter about it.




27. Afterwords, follow up.
The conference might be over, but there's still plenty to do. Find the people you met at the con on Twitter and Facebook. Follow them and send them a friendly tweet letting them know it was nice to meet them and asking them how their experience was. If an agent or editor showed interest in your book, polish it up with what you learned and email it over, along with a reminder note along the lines of, "We met at BookCon last week and you expressed interest in my novel THE RETICENT MERMAID. I've done some revisions based on our talk, and the manuscript is attached." Tag people in  your photos, RT what they're saying about the conference, and keep the conversations going.


28. Blog about it.
Like I am! Seriously, though, if you learned things at conferences, writing up your experience is a great way to remember it yourself and get some blog traffic from other people who might want to go and see what it's like. Post pictures and talk about the speakers who really reached you, but try to leave any name-calling or incriminating photos out of it. Next year, someone might be Googling the con for the first time, and your post could be the one that convinces them to go. Which leads me to...


29. Be generous.
You're not the newbie anymore, but someone else is. If you can give them a hand-up, do. If you see someone at the con who looks shy, invite them into your circle. Introduce them. Ask them what they write. Share your resources, whether you know a great blog or another con that's close to them. I'm so fortunate to have met tons of wonderful, amazing, giving people on my writing journey, and I'm always anxious to help y'all if I can. Any questions? Just ask in the comments.

And give folks the benefit of the doubt. Sometimes, you might think someone is ignoring you at the bar, but they're seeing someone they only get to see once a year. Or maybe that author was a little short when you told her how much you love her book, but she just got a phone call about her mom in the hospital or she really has to pee. Almost every time I've gotten annoyed that someone had given me the cold shoulder, I've met them later under different circumstances and found them delightful. Authors, agents, and editors are all human, and they're doing the best they can.


30. Apply what you learned and move to the next step.
I meet amazing people at conferences who are holding back from that next step. They love their first draft too much to delete anything. They adore their book but are terrified to show it to someone else. They think they're ready to query, but they're scared of rejection. It's easy to fall into the trap of writing and revising without ever sending anything out, but that's part of the process. Jump out of that nest and fly, little bird! You can do it!

***

 

Querying, Horribly Simplified

Friday, October 18, 2013

Querying, horribly simplified

Think all good writers write good query letters?

Nope nope nope big glass of nope.

When you're the writer, it can be nearly impossible to distill your gigantic book baby into 250 words that will entice an agent to read on. You're too close to it, too far inside it. The urge is strong to tell instead of show, splutter redundant facts, suffer character name diarrhea, and in general ramble on long enough to make an uninvested person yawn.

And that's no good. YAWNING IS NO GOOD.

So here are the simplified bones of a great query, per the magnificent Janet Reid of QueryShark.

1. Who is your protagonist and what makes them special?

2. What is their problem? What choice are they facing?

3. Who is the antagonist and what do they want?

4. What are the stakes?

End with Thank you for your consideration and hit send.

Okay, so it's not that easy. I know how extremely not easy it is. But trust me-- whatever you have, whatever you've been querying with, it can sometimes help to open a new, blank document and answer those questions. Keep distilling until you've got it down to less than 250 words. Then ask someone who's never read the book to read it and tell you if it makes any sense.

Ask them if they care what happens.

For all the info you've ever wanted on querying, read the entirety of Query Shark. For links to every site I used to get a book deal, see the Resources tab up above. It ain't easy, but it's free.

Jump out of the nest! Press send! And may the Force be with you!
 

11 Ways to Level Up Your Writing

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

11 Ways to Level Up Your Writing

*cracks open Writer's Toolbox*

*wonders why there's a banana inside*

*tries to make a call on the banana phone*

*fails, eats banana*

Ahem. Here are some tools that might help you finesse your writing, if you're still looking for ways to take it to the next level. As ever, this list is not definitive. There are good times to break the rules. Your mileage may vary. But I've discovered them all *since* I wrote my first book in 2009. They might seem obvious to you, but they've helped me, and I hope they'll help you.

1. Kill dialog tags whenever possible.
"Said" is the only acceptable one. Try to kill that, too. For example:
NO = "I'm going to do it," he said.
YES = Ferdinand crossed his huge arms and nodded. "I'll do it."

2. Kill adverbs. Replace them with beautiful writing.
Especially kill adverbs when added to dialog tags. (She exclaimed self-righteously.)
NO = The old man stood painfully and carefully walked to the kitchen.
YES = Helga groaned, her bones cracking like popcorn as she navigated the cramped hallway.

3. Kill all instances of these words: feel, see, smell, hear.
Of course the character is sensing something. It's in their POV, isn't it?
NO = Leo could see the tiger mauling his pet parrot, and he could hear the rending flesh splatter against the wall.
YES = The tiger's teeth ripped into Mr. Cheeky, the scent of copper pennies and raw chicken sending Leo into a gagging fit.

4. Don't end a chapter on a note of complete comfort.
It gives the reader a great place to stop reading. And we don't want them to stop reading.
NO = She fell asleep in Lord Wolfington's arms, sated and happy.
YES = She fell asleep in Lord Wolfington's arms, sated and happy except for the strangest feeling that she'd forgotten something terribly important. In the morning, her maid had disappeared.

5. Become a master at communicating important details with just a few words.
NO = The burgundy and black damask wallpaper was ripped and torn, showing scarred wood beneath it that matched the destroyed furniture and pockmarked floors, all of which had once given the appearance of wealth and abundance.
YES = She hated waiting, especially in a sitting room that so obviously displayed Lord Wolfington's inner darkness, thanks to claw-torn wallpaper and a well-gnawed chaise.

6. Try not to use the same word twice within a two-page spread.
Obviously, "the" and "a" don't count. We're mainly talking noticeable things.
NO = The carnival called to her, from the sound of carnies shilling their wares to the merry song of the calliope to the alluring scent of carnival goodies.
YES = The carnival called to her, from the barker's harsh cawing to the merry song of the carousel to the alluring scent of funnel cake and popcorn.

7. Your ego will try to insert itself into the manuscript, especially in the form of exceptionally clever similes and metaphors. Kill them.
This is what they mean by "killing your darlings". Every time you revise, you'll ponder these phrases. At first, you'll be proud. Then they'll start to grate on you, but you won't want to remove them. This is the sign that they need to die. If you're Douglas Adams or Terry Pratchett, you might be able to get away with it.
NO =  The mermaid looked a lot like Goldie Hawn, and not just because of the fish lips and her tendency to be thrown overboard by men wearing eye patches.

8. To up the tension, add a ticking clock.
My agent taught me this one. If the story is just plodding along, add The Big Game and a football scout, a departure time for that big cross-country move, or a date by which Lord Wolfington must be married to inherit his fortune.
NO = "Your happiness is important to me, Linnea. I shall support you even should you become a spinster and haunt my attic forever."
YES = "By God, I am finished with your mucking about in the laboratory, Linnea. You will find a husband by Michaelmas, or I shall put you up for auction!"

9. Torture your character in ways big and small.
Complacent and comfortable aren't exciting. Although the reader needs an occasional win, disequilibrium is interesting and moves the story along. Discover their greatest fear and use it against them.
NO = Lulu was doing fine in school, she loved her job at the GAP, and her grandmother had the body of a forty-year old.
YES = Lulu's chemistry grade had taken a plunge, thanks to a misunderstanding with moles, which meant she spent most of her shift at the GAP studying in a dressing room and praying Chase didn't catch her and fire her. She needed that money to help pay for Grammy's meds, which only seemed to cost more as time went by.

10. Make a spreadsheet and plot out the story to make sure it's interesting.
When you're in the muck of the story, it can be hard to see the big picture. Make a spreadsheet and break it down by chapter. Make columns for what happens in the chapter, what the biggest revelation is, and how exciting it is. On a scale of 1 to 5 for excitement, you don't want a bunch of 2s all in a row, but you don't want a bunch of 10s, either. Check out this post by Chuck Wendig for more discussion. Your plot shouldn't be a straight line, but everything in it should mean something.

11. Think about sentence length.
The first sentence has more punch if it's short. Then you can draw one out, craft it lovingly, focus on the rhythm and beauty of the words. Maybe the next one is of middling length. Maybe not. In any case, you'll notice that there are sentences of a variety of lengths in this very paragraph, and that they start off in different ways, some with "the" and some with "maybe" and one with "in any case". You should always keep this tip in mind. The reader's mind wants to dance with you.

13 Tips for Writing Your First Book

Friday, December 13, 2013

So you want to write a book? YOU CAN. Stop waiting.

I was speaking at a book club holiday party last night, and more than one person quietly divulged that they had always wanted to write a book but never had. Still, they felt they would one day. And it occurs to me that most of the advice I see online for writers is aimed at people already in the trenches. And that maybe I should post something for people who are standing outside the Recruitment Office, staring at the posters and nibbling their mustaches and scared to death to step through that door.

1. YOU CAN TOTALLY WRITE A BOOK. YOU CAN.
You don't have to be a lifelong writer. You don't need a special college degree. You don't need to take any classes. You don't need to quit your job and move to the mountains to think. You don't have to have a dream in which Stephen King arrives, clad in gossamer with angel wings and taps you on the head with a quill. A writer is someone who writes, and you're just as qualified as anyone else. You have just as much spare time as anyone else, because we're all hopelessly, insanely busy. Don't let anyone tell you differently.

2. GREAT. BUT WHAT DO I WRITE?
The secret is that you need to settle on an idea and think about it a long time before writing. The first time I sat down to write a book, I thought, "I'll write a book about mermaids!" But then I never wrote anything because I didn't know who the audience was, who the main character was, or what the plot was. But I had a great title and had already drawn a cover in Photoshop.

Sigh.

The next time I tried, I knew I was writing a women's fiction about a harried, dry-witted mom who won a cruise and accidentally boinked Zeus on a ferry. I knew she would have a cat fight with Hera, meet the fates, and be courted by various gods. I knew that, in the end, she would be back with her husband and happy for her life and would just see pegasi all the damn time. And once I knew that much, I was able to finally start writing just to connect the main points of interest.

Good plot? No. But it got me going. There is no Perfect Idea that will make it easy. You could spend your entire life trying to come up with something flawless. But you'll never get anything done. Pick something that you can spend a few months thinking about it and just ride that pony.

3. I AM VERY BUSY. WHEN AM I SUPPOSED TO DO THIS?
Whenever you can. Stop thinking about writing as this annoying work that you feel you must do. Think of it like a hobby, like taking a pottery class or fishing or watching a football game. It's great for your mind and soul and self-confidence. It's an activity with inherent worth. Get the support of the people around you and ask for their encouragement to help you meet your goals. Put it on the calendar. Schedule a babysitter. Or just wait until everyone else is asleep and instead of refreshing Facebook or watching Tivo, write.

4. FINE. I'M HERE. NOW WHAT.
You've been thinking about your story and know how it's going to begin. Once you've been running the opening scene in your head, you sit down and set a timer for, say, 15 minutes. Set your document to double-space with .5 indent and just write. Don't think too hard about word choice or typos or grammar at this point. Just give yourself the freedom to suck or be weird and let it happen. Don't think, "Wait, that's not right" or "This stinks!" or "Oh, no, wait, I need to go back." Self-editing is the enemy.

5. THE TIMER WENT OFF. AM I DONE?
Probably not. The timer is more to make you spend the time on task. If the writing is flowing, keep going until the well runs dry. If it's not, save what you have, skip a few lines, and leave notes about things to think about, fix, or do tomorrow. For bonus points, end with something exciting that'll make your next writing session kick off with a bang.

6. I CLOSED THE DOCUMENT. NOW WHAT?
In my experience, obsession drives writing. No matter what else you're doing, the story should be marinating in your imagination, and if you have impulses to encourage it, do. You might want to read some non-fiction on a related topic, do some crowd-sourcing, go on a day trip or take a class in blacksmithing. You might feel the urge to buy a pretty journal and pen and keep them with you to scribble things down. You might just want to build a music playlist that helps you dream. But in order for a book to happen, it needs loving encouragement.

And as I have two children under seven, a husband, and another job, believe me when I tell you that I know what it's like to be so busy you can't think straight. You might have to make a sacrifice. I don't watch TV, and when I'm in first draft mode, I don't instigate plans with friends. Obsession will take its toll, but for me, the self-confidence and power I feel when writing is worth it. And you can always invite your friends over for champagne and cupcakes when you finish your first draft.

7. I READ OVER SOME OF MY WORK, AND IT'S NOT VERY GOOD.
Well, why would it be? If this is your first book, you have no right to be awesome at writing it. Much like any skill, you must practice. Stephen King says it takes 1,000,000 words written to gain competence as a writer. Or as Jake on Adventure Time says, "Sucking at something is the first step to being sort of good at something." And just like shooting baskets or centering clay, there's great value to be found in practice. Sadly, most of society doesn't appreciate the value in bad writing, but as someone who did a lot of bad writing before I moved into not-wretched writing and then into hey, this isn't bad writing, I value it.

There's an easy way to avoid this feeling: Don't read your first draft until it's done. You'll just depress yourself. Hell, I depress myself. That's why I advocate going straight through to the end and cleaning up later. You can't edit a blank document.

8. MY HUSBAND/WIFE/WORK COLLEAGUE/MOM WANT TO READ IT.
No.
Just… no.
This is a very bad idea.

Either they read it and love it and tell you how amazing you are, in which case you believe it and will crash hard the first time you receive legit criticism….

Or they read it and don't like it or tell you what's wrong with it or mark it up with red pen and completely kill your spirit and your writing mojo.

Do you see? There's no good ending here.

Just tell them you can't wait to show them the finished product, but you want it to be just right first.

The secret is that you never have to show anyone, if you don't want to.

And if you want to? Have it printed up and make a fun cover for it. There's no feeling like watching someone read your book for the first time.

9. KEEP WRITING.
Every day, set that timer for 15 minutes or whatever other arbitrary span you decide your busy schedule will allow. If you write four words? Great. You sat there for 15 minutes and thought about your story. If you wrote 200 words? Awesome. That's the length of an AP English essay, and few people write those over the age of 19, if ever. If you write a ton? *GOLF CLAPS* You're doing it! You're writing a book!

Some days will be 4 words, some will be 400, some might be 4000. That's normal. Keep going.

Until it's done.

And keep in mind that a first draft might be considerably shorter or longer than it should be. With your first book, I advocate aiming for 50-80 thousand words. That's a pretty manageable size and works out to around 200-250 pages, I think. I like to email a copy to myself every 20 pages or so as insurance against computer crashes. Some people I know use Dropbox, but I prefer email pings.

And at 100 pages, your significant other is legally required to take you out for tacos and margaritas. Don't ask me why. I don't make the rules. Just enjoy it. 100 pages is a big landmark.

10. THIS IS HARD. I WANT TO STOP.
You can. I mean, it's your life. But everything that's worth something is hard. Running a marathon is hard. Learning to play chess is hard. Figuring out how to ride a bike is hard. And there's a point, almost always, in every difficult endeavor, when you think… THIS SUCKS AND I WANT TO QUIT.

And you know what? I'll say it. Quitting isn't always bad. If you don't get any joy whatsoever out of writing, no rush or hopeful buzz when you figure something out, then there's no reason to do it. If you want to write a book to impress someone, to make a million dollars like that 50 Shades lady, or to gain stardom, then that might not be enough of an impetus to push you, crawling, through the quagmire of suck.

To finish writing a book, you must love that book, and when it gets hard, you have to keep going.

But here's a secret: for almost every writer and almost every book, there is a point at which they stop and say THIS SUCKS AND I WANT TO QUIT. Some people call it Saggy Middle Syndrome. For me, it usually hits about 60% through, when all the newness has worn off but the story isn't rolling downhill at breakneck speed yet. That's when I have my 4-word days and play on Twitter too much. But I keep going anyway. You can, too. Set the timer, sit there, and do the best you can.

11. I DID IT. I WROTE A BOOK! (If you didn't, skip to 13. It an't over, baby.)
Good for you! Rename your doc as MYAWESOMEBOOK_V2 and close it. No matter what else happens in your life, if you edit your book and pursue a professional career in publishing or if you shove it in a drawer or set it on fire, you've written a book. Millions of people every day wish they could do what you have just done. You are part of an elite fraternity of crazy people continuing the tradition of storytelling, of crafting magic from nothing.

They used to burn people at the stake for that sort of thing.

Now you have several choices. If you want to rest on your laurels and pursue something else, then go and do that. Even if you just want to take a break without that stupid timer, go for it. But if you want to see just how great your book can become, then sit down with a notebook and start reading what you've written. You might see issues immediately, especially considering that with the Write Straight Through method, you know your characters way better at the end and will often find the beginning shaky or incomplete. If you've saved the old draft, feel free to make changes in the new draft. Make notes to yourself about things to change overall or worry about later. And if you start reading and get bored or sick of it, put it down and go live life for a couple of weeks. It'll look different with fresh eyes.

12. I AM SCARED TO CHANGE MY BEAUTIFUL BABY. ISN'T IT PERFECT?
No.
No, it is not.
Your book baby, if it's anything like my first drafts, is riddled with typos and cliches and adverbs and characters who change over the course of the book. With my first book, I was scared to mess it up and make it worse. But you know what? I've been writing for four years now, and I've never regretted hitting the delete button.

One way to free yourself from this worry is to be savvy about saving drafts. My first draft is MYAWESOMEBOOK. Then I start doing edits on MYAWESOMEBOOK_V2. When that's done, I do big revising in MYAWESOMEBOOK_V4. And somewhere after MYAWESOMEBOOK_V11, I save MYAWESOMEBOOK_FINAL.

If you save your drafts as you go along, you can always go back and retrieve something you're scared to change or delete. I also email each draft to myself as I go in case my computer crashes. And if I do a major rewrite or add 20 pages, I email that. I've gotten to enjoy hitting the delete key, but I definitely don't want to lose 3 days of work accidentally.

13. NOW WHAT?
First of all, if you didn't make it through your first book, there's absolutely nothing wrong with shelving it, putting it away for later, ripping it up for parts, or starting over. False starts are very common with new writers when they realize that an idea isn't enough to drive the entire book. Read other books that excite you. Start thinking of new story ideas or ways to revamp what you *do* have into a broader narrative. It isn't over until you quit writing. And you never have to quit writing. Plenty of people make a living writing short fiction, webcomics, and non-fiction. Writing is writing. You can always start again.

On the other hand, if you've pumped out that first draft, you've leveled up. Congratulations! I suggest hitting my Resources page to savvy up on editing, querying, agents, writing blogs, that sort of thing. My 25 Steps to Being a Traditionally Published Author post might be especially helpful. In any case, you've done the impossible, and for that you are mighty.

Now go celebrate again. I suggest cake.