A writer’s pick me up…

Every once in a while, you need to hear you’re doing a good job. Once upon a time, when I went to an office building every day, I could find fulfillment through working hard and gaining positive feedback from my bosses. Then I became a mom, and through an interesting turn of events and a move across country, I found myself given the opportunity of staying home while my children were little as I wrote part-time and worked on my novel career.

I’ll say one thing. Performance reviews for a mom aren’t the same. There’s Mother’s Day, where the kids and hubby go all out, but most of the other days of the year, I’m just trekking along. Not unappreciated, but no one is checking any “outstanding” boxes either (not that I usually earn an “outstanding,” I realize, as my kids ate ice cream for dinner tonight;). Plenty of times though, the kids cry and whine at me, but it’s the little moments, the hugs and kisses and the “I missed you Mommy,” that are my best indication I’m doing a few things right.

Then there’s writing. My part-time work for various publications is pretty straightforward. I get the job done, and usually it needs to get done quickly. The novel writing? Well, that’s more complicated. Ever since pitching my novel to a small press three years ago, I’ve found that although I started with a good toolbox for writing fiction, I have a lifelong journey of improvement ahead.

But, two Saturdays ago, I got to enjoy one small moment of “Atta girl!” Accidental Mobster, my first published novel (and the second one I’d ever written–the first is floating around somewhere on my computer), won an award from a group of women educators, The Creative Women of Oklahoma Award for Young Adult Book. I had the opportunity to receive the award at a banquet and talk to a room full of women about my writing story. The way I was treated and the response to my books was an overwhelming lift to my spirits.

Awards push me forward. They make me want to get better, to prove I’m deserving of what’s been given. That’s always been how I’ve seen any achievement in my life–a mark that I’m headed the right direction but can always keep striving. I’m excited for the road ahead. I can’t wait to share the stories I have and let the audience into the souls of new characters.

But for just a few moments, I’m going to take a breath. Atta girl.

Cheers.

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Doing my best to form a coherent thought during a brief little speech at the banquet.

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Getting ready to talk. Happy to report the trilogy sold out before the discussion began!

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Husband didn’t get my “House of Cards” reference to my outfit until he took this picture:)

 

How many words to write…a creative person’s lesson in time management

I am a writer. That means that while I do many things, my mind is in Never Never Land, working out the stories in my head. If it sounds a little crazy, that’s because…well…it is.

I discuss my writing habits with many people, and because I have small children and several endeavors in development, the fact that I have completed no less than seven novels in two and half years may sound impressive (twelve overall, with six under contract with Bluewood Publishing and the rest of my work now represented by Dee Mura Literary). But the thing is, anyone can accomplish certain word counts. The tough job is ensuring that what’s coming through the tips of my fingers is quality. This doesn’t always happen on the first go around, and usually the editing process hones the story and makes it sing.

However, even though I’m a creative writer, I am organized. That doesn’t mean my house is filled with perfectly stacked, labeled storage bins. If only. But it does mean that I make lists, and plenty of them. And generally, except for the grocery list that disappears to its own version of Never Never Land right before I reach the store, these lists help me organize my wild and crazy life.

But whether you’re the OCD poster child or more of a “What? It’s midnight already and I just got out of my pajamas!” type , managing time, especially time for writing, can be achieved. Here’s a few methods for fitting that book into your life–no matter how busy.

Review your free time – Think of it this way: the time of day you’d be watching your favorite shows or surfing social media is free time. Try to calculate how much time you spend doing it. This is time that can go directly to your writing. Now, I’ll caution that you should definitely set time aside to read, especially in the genre you’re writing. And, if you absolutely must watch the finale of the Bachelorette, just DVR it. Those commercials are stealing your life away.

Organize your story – From my experience, if I know where I’m going, I’ll get there faster. You don’t have to possess a comprehensive outline, and actually, spending too much time outlining can distract from what really needs to be done–yeah, writing. But when I know what big scenes are coming and a good idea of how I want to reach them, the words flow faster. This also pertains to research–taking time to get it done (visiting locales, interviewing specialists, reading nonfiction material) will only speed up the storytelling process.

Take a break; strengthen relationships. I could always be writing. It’s a hard switch to turn off. In fact, I carry a notebook everywhere to jot down ideas as they come to me. But I need to turn off the brain faucet from time to time–and I do. My family and friends, my health, and my other odd-but-awesome jobs (Edmond Sun‘s Mom Around Town and Metropolitan Library System writing classes) are priorities that can’t be shirked. Developing strong relationships as a writer sits at the top of my list, because not only can writing be a lonely profession, but I write better people when I spend time with people. I also write more hopeful stories from living a full and positive life (despite the setbacks, heartbreak, and tragedy that are inherent in life), and at the end of the day, that’s the kind of thing I want to put out there.

So don’t worry. Be happy, and write on:)

The craft of writing – Always a learning process

I love to write. I always have. In the first grade, I wrote a story about a princess tiger who takes a cloud train back to the zoo. The concept was a little strange, to say the least, and the illustration, was, uh, imaginative. But if nothing else, I like to look at the homemade book to remind myself of one thing:

I have always wanted to be a writer.

And I became one. From a news journalist to fiction author, the range of my writing runs the gamut. But like any human, I am always growing, learning  and changing as a writer, striving to get better at what I do. I will never be perfect, but I can always improve.

My early stuff is really fun, but my newer stuff is better, and in a few years, I hope to be able to continue to say that. I think of it like my ice skating performances from long ago. One of the first programs I ever competed with was an up-tempo classical number from The Marriage of Figaro, in which I wore an ivory dress with gold and green sequence. Yikes, I know, but it was the nineties. The program was simple, but I performed it with much gusto. My most difficult jump at the time was a single Axel, nothing Olympic-level, but the routine is still so much fun to watch on video.

Years later, I skated at the junior level at the National Collegiate Figure Skating Championships. In this program I landed a double Axel as well as several difficult jump combinations. My spins were centered, fast, and complicated. I skated to the haunting waltz from Khachaturian’s Masquerade, outfitted  in a beautiful periwinkle dress with small crystals inlaid in the sleeves and bodice.

These were very different points in my skating career, and obviously, my skating (and fashion sense) had matured and improved by the time I reached the collegiate Nationals. But both performances have merit, both won me a gold medal, and both were enjoyed by the audience.

All that to say this: writing is the same. Our early stuff, whatever level we start at, will always be new and exciting. Sometimes it will need a great deal of work to get published, sometimes not, but even if it could be improved, it doesn’t lessen the value of it. Any writer–all writers–should realize they have room to grow. No one is an expert in this business, and while some may have extensive knowledge to share, approaching the table with humility and an open mind, no matter the level of expertise or success, is a must in my book.

So, until next time, write on.

Eight reasons you should go to that writers’ conference…

Last weekend, I attended my first writers’ conference in a while. Let me tell you, it was a good experience, and it taught me the value of meeting with other writers, as well as taking advantage of listening to and chatting with editors and agents, people who often seem so far away from my little neck of the woods in Oklahoma (okay, maybe it’s less woods here and more fields, but you get the picture).

Here’s a few reasons you should consider attending a writer’s conference (assuming writing is something you like to do)…

1. Editors and agents are nice people. Who knew, right?

2. You learn that everyone has recieved rejection. In fact, people are pretty proud of the drawers holding all their letters.

3. Some writers’ ideas are way crazy. So don’t be afraid to let your crazy out of the bag.

4. Writers are an eclectic bunch. So your degree is in electrical engineering and you want to write a picture book about a fastidious grasshopper? Go for it.

5. Hotel banquet food generally sucks, but the cookies are always awesome.

6. The projects that editors are working on are really exciting, but they’re always looking for more.

7. Editors and agents are nice people. Did I say that already?

8. Authors with big publishing houses work hard. Really, really hard. If you want to do this for a living, you better not expect a cakewalk.

So sign yourself up for your next writer’s conference (I recommend SCBWI if you write for the twenty and younger crowd). Worst case, you learn a little something, and best case, you come home inspired.

Ready, set, write – A few short steps to start a novel

You have it! That killer, awesome, super cool, totally-going-to-get-you-a-literary-award-and-movie-deal idea for a novel. So what are you waiting for? Get those little fingers moving.

Okay, so maybe it’s not that easy. We all have some pretty good story ideas. But how do you take a big, fat, fabulous idea and streamline that baby into a can’t-put-it-down-or-I’ll-die kind of book. Well, I’ve got three solutions to help you get started. Of course, once you get rolling, the real work is ahead. Finishing a book and then taking the time to really rip it apart and put it back together (otherwise known as the revision process) is the super hard part of this. Then again, maybe getting started really is the biggest challenge. Because often, when you get something moving, it’s just a matter of keeping it going, am I right?

Step one: Figure out who your story is about. People don’t care about what is happening unless they care about the people it’s happening to. Who is your protagonist? Your antagonist? Who are the supporting characters–love interest (I’m sorry, but you’ve got to have one), friends, marginal enemies, etc.? Make up a cast list as though you’re casting a movie. Who would play your characters and why? What are their strengths and weaknesses (a hint here–usually what makes a character strong can also make him or her weak).

Step two: Know where you’re going. You wouldn’t take off on a road trip without an intended destination, right (unless you have tons of money and no one who depends on you, in which case, I really don’t know what to say to you)? Well, writing is the same way. You don’t need to know the tiny weeny details (such as, where are we stopping to stay/eat/gas up/etc.), but you do need to know where you want to end up and maybe have a rough map of how to get there. I’m not a big outliner myself, but I do plan out my book when I start and as I go along. Otherwise you may find yourself running in mental circles.

Step three: Word count. Oh yeah, this is important. You must set a weekly goal of how many words you want to write and have an idea of how many words the book will be. Note to prospective authors–writing novels over 100,000 words may give you some heartache when it comes to selling the thing. Also, many book genres have more specific word counts, so pay attention to those. When you become a super-duper big time writer, you can write how many ever words you want, but for the time being, get an idea of what is publishable. Next, decide how many weeks you want to take to write a first draft and what’s feasible for you to write on a weekly basis and set a word count goal. Then stick to it and reward yourself when you hit certain milestones.

And that, my friends, is a quickstart plan for you and that awesome book sitting in your head. Just remember, writing a novel is easier said than done. And read, read, read in the genre you want to write. There’s nothing wrong with studying success:)

Original writing – it’s not what you think

Last week, I found myself in a painting class. Now, let me tell you, this was a bit of a surprise for me. When I signed up for something called Wine & Palette, I assumed I’d be eating gourmet food and drinking delicious alcohol. I’m pretty good at those things. Instead, I found myself decked out in a smock and holding a paintbrush, reliving the nightmare of my college art class (my lowest grade in four years of undergrad and two years of graduate education).

Our task was to follow the instruction of a talented local artist in painting our own rendition of “Fiery Sunset.” I started off okay, but by the time it came to paint mountains, my lack of talent and confidence (and perhaps the two glasses of Sauvignon Blanc) were getting the better of me. Result? I have a sunset that is sliding off the canvas.

But one thing that struck me in my slightly fuzzy daze was the difference between all those fiery sunsets. Some of the painters had more talent than others (I, obviously, fall in the “others” category), but every single painting, although similar, was vastly different. No two people created the exact same piece of art.

Writing is like that. How many novels featuring vampires are out there? Let me tell you, tons. Dystopian? Tons. Zombies? Plenty of those too. Romance with a billionaire? Yep. But no two stories are alike.

Sure, there are similarities (vampires suck blood, dystopian societies just suck, zombies are notoriously violent, and billionaires are arrogant a**holes). But the stories start in various places, follow different paths, and take interesting twists to get to their endings. The personality, beliefs, and creativity of the author is expressed in a unique way. It’s quite something to witness.

So yes, although an author shouldn’t go down the same path as everyone else, any concept–wizard schools, vampire love, dystopian societies, etc.–has room for more exposition. You just have to make it sing a completely different tune–your own.

Rules for opening the story (easier to read than follow!)

In Twilight, the carry on was a parka. In Harry Potter, Mr. and Mrs. Dursley were perfectly normal. And in Hunger Games, the other side of the bed was cold.

These are the openers for three books that have taken both the publishing world and Hollywood by storm. While the stories have grabbed the minds and hearts of readers, one wonders just how important the opening of the story is. I mean, we want deep characters whom we can care about, nail-biting action, and an ending that either suprises us or delivers a great victory. Does it matter if the first two or three pages limp along a little, if the rest of the story is a home run hit?

Oh yeah. It totally does.

This is because the opening is what helps you sell your idea and your writing. There’s no perfect formula for opening a story. That’s because writing isn’t formulaic (and writing that is doesn’t usually go anywhere). But after reading hundreds of bestsellers over the past few years and finally breaking into the publishing world myself, I have learned some important lessons about opening the story. Call it a short dos and don’ts list. Oh, and remember, all these rules have and will be broken. That’s the mind-boggling part of this game.

Do

Let the reader hear your writing voice and get the feel for the intended mood of your novel. Is the story supposed to be funny or witty? Get those one-liners rolling. Action packed? Start with conflict. Mysterious or dark? Create the atmosphere right away.

Introduce your character and what he/she is like. A reader needs to know who the protaganist is and why we should care about him or her (or, like in Lu’s Legend, both). This doesn’t mean you start with a list of attributes. Through action or dialogue and the characters reactive thoughts, you can show who this person is meant to be.

– Pace yourself. This is tough advice to follow, especially because agents and editors don’t give a potential book much of a look past the first few pages. But trying to get to the crux of your story too quickly doesn’t give you time to build the anticipation for the inciting incident.

Don’t

– Start out with the same old, same old story line. In teen comtemporary or paranormal fiction, you see new school situations all the time. In dystopian novels, it’s the day you get your job, mate, etc. If you read a lot (and if you’re an aspiring writer, there’s no excuse not to), than you are at an advantage. If you’ve heard it before, chances are, an agent or editor has too–a hundred million times.

Give all the details. You’re writing a novel, not a news article. No inverted pyramid necessary. My mom is really good at this. She tells me stories about the most mundane things, but she always builds the anticipation by keeping the important information back and creating a sense of mystery. It may be groan-inducing when it’s a story about a trip to the grocery store, but this is pretty critical when beginning your novel.

– Get married to your opening so you can’t change it. I know the feeling of crafting the perfect paragraph, page, or first chapter and feeling you can’t possibly get rid of it after all that hard work. On the other hand, if, after writing most or all of the rest of your novel, you can think of a better way to start it, be ready to hit that delete button. It’s not about saving every single line you crafted–it’s about telling the best possible version of your story. And sometimes, that’s why feedback is worth it’s weight in publishing gold.