Friday, October 31, 2014

Zombie Stories

I belong to an awesome writing group. They're my friends, my critics, my supporters, and all sorts of other great things. I've grown so much as a writer because of these people. So I'm excited to announce that we've published an anthology together.

An anthology of zombie stories, which you can find here.

Now would be a good time to admit that I'm actually afraid of zombies, and I never, ever thought I'd be writing a story about them. But here we are. I really enjoyed stepping out of my comfort zone and out of my genre to write this.

I have two stories in the anthology. The first is called "Are You My Mombie?" and is a zombified version of the children's book "Are You My Mother?" My second story is called "The Zombie Code" and explores what happens when a zombie breaks the unwritten (and well-hid from the humans) code of honor of its people.

My son made the following video to help promote the book:

Happy Halloween and happy reading!

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Picasso and Writing Groups

I recently returned from a trip to Paris. While there, we saw famous landmarks, beautiful buildings, and tons of artwork. We also learned a lot. We did a few guided tours and of course had our handy Rick Steve's guidebook (can I just say that Rick Steve is amazing?). One thing that kept jumping out at me during our visit was the fact that famous artists had support groups. 

Montmartre is a neighborhood built on Paris' only hill and topped by a church built to honor the martyr Saint Denis. (The story goes that after he was beheaded, he picked up his head and carried it several miles while continuing to preach). In Montmartre, we visited the home of the artist Pablo Picasso. You know him as the great mover and shaker of Cubism. Picasso lived in a little apartment with several other artists. They painted together, frequented the same cafes and clubs, talked about art, learned from each other, and supported each other. I found it very refreshing to think about these struggling artists celebrating each others' successes and cheering each other on.

As our trip through Paris continued, we encountered numerous stories of struggling artists relying on one another for support.

The impressionist Monet was friends with Renoir, Sisley, and Bazille. Together, they pushed the boundaries and started a new movement. One of Monet's earliest works, a painting of a sunset, was criticized by in-the-know critics as being "only an impression of a sunset" (hence the name Impressionism). The fact that Monet and his friends were pushing the boundaries together probably gave them the courage to continue doing what they loved even though the public didn't appreciate it.

The sculptor Rodin, creator of the statue "The Thinker", studied and learned by visiting the Louvre and sketching copies of works by Rafael and DaVinci, among others. One of his greatest works, The Gates of Hell, was commissioned for a church that was never finished. So the piece was left unfinished as well, after he'd spent a decade working on it. (The Thinker was actually a part of the Gates of Hell, and was meant to be Dante, sitting at the top and surveying what he'd written about).

Contrast these stories of artists supporting and learning from each other with the life of Van Gogh, father of the Expressionist movement. Van Gogh didn't get along well with others. He was roommates with the artist Gauguin briefly, until the arguments between them escalated. A sword and throwing stuff was involved. Van Gogh eventually committed suicide, having sold only one painting during his entire life. But he is now hailed as one of the greatest painters of all time.

Hopefully you know where I'm going with this. As writers, it is so easy to get caught up in our own little worlds where we work so hard to create something beautiful and fall equally hard when the public doesn't get it. When this happens--when the public is saying our art is merely an impression of art--having a support network is crucial to our sanity. I can't tell you how many times my writer friends have encouraged me when I felt like giving up or made me laugh on a day full of rejection.

Don't give in to the temptation to stay in your comfort zone, leaning on the excuse that you're an introvert so it's okay. It's not okay. Get outside yourself. Meet people who share your passion. Learn from them. Support them. And lean on them.

Learn from the examples of Picasso and Monet. As artists, we need each other. Having a support network makes us better writers and better human beings.

Sunset by Claude Monet

Monday, June 2, 2014

All Voice and No Heart

Emotionally connecting your reader to your characters is the single most important thing you can do as a writer. Or so I've heard. But what about voice? Plot? Structure? Pacing? They're all super important, right? So why such a fuss over emotional connection? And what does that even mean for the writer? Doesn't the emotional connection happen between the reader and the character? Won't it develop naturally as the reader finds things in common with the characters?

This is what I believed until recently. I was reading a book with a great premise, an engaging plot, and a fun character. But as the story progressed, I had trouble connecting with her. I didn't care about her. But it wasn't because she wasn't well written, or I didn't sympathize with the problems she was going through. I did. And the voice was spot-on, funny, in fact. I saw bits of myself in her.

But every time I felt myself being drawn in to her story, she'd do something or say something or think something that seemed a bit off from what the person I'd built in my head so far would do, say, or think. And every time, the emotional connection I was beginning to feel shattered and I found myself starting from scratch, trying to figure out who this character really was.

I began to wonder if the author even knew.

This is when things clicked for me. Did I know everything about my characters, even the stuff that would never show up on the page? Did I really know what had shaped them and what would drive them in the future? I've gotten the "I had trouble connecting" note in the past and have struggled to understand what that really meant. 

But as soon as I realized what bugged me about the book I was currently reading, I thought about my own characters. Sure, I'd done character sketches during the planning phase of my novel, but they were only a few paragraphs, if that. They contained facts, not deep emotional, driving forces in my characters' lives. I hadn't stopped to explore what would happen when the pressure came on. Specifically, pressure that was not the result of anything that would happen in my book. By exploring various scenarios, even if they weren't ones I wanted to use in my story, something important would be revealed about my characters. I needed to know how my character would react in these situations, and why. Also, I needed to know exactly why my character wanted the things she wanted, even if she didn't know herself.

The trouble with putting so much emphasis on voice is that your writing will be all voice and no heart. Obviously voice is important. We all know that. But the heart is what will connect a reader to a character on a deeper level. And the heart is revealed in glimpses. Nuances. A glance here. A comment there. As the author, you can only offer these glimpses if you know what's really driving your character and what's at the heart of her actions. Everything she does, thinks, and says has to be consistent with who she is or it won't ring true for the reader.

Discovering the heart of a character is what keeps a reader engaged and digging for clues that will help them know the person they first connected with through voice. To create this kind of experience for your reader, you, as the author have to know your character inside and out before writing even the first word of their story.

So does this mean all is lost if you've already started writing a character you don't know? Of course not. But get to know them. Dig deep. And then re-read what you've already written. Anytime your character does (or says or thinks) something that feels even slightly off, fix it. Even if it means big changes. Don't think the reader won't notice. Readers know when something is off, even if they can't put their finger on exactly what. 

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Finding the Perfect CP

Two years ago, I was desperate for a few critique partners (CPs). I was madly in love with the novel I'd written, and didn't understand why it kept getting rejected. My feedback at the time was coming from friends and family members, some of whom were well-read in my genre and others who just liked to read. They offered suggestions and much-needed encouragement, and I was so grateful to have them in my corner.

But I realized I needed feedback from other writers--ones who had faced the same writerly issues and would be brutally honest with me. Something in my novel wasn't working and I needed practiced eyes to help me see what.

The problem was, I had no idea how to find a CP. I'd heard other writers talking about the special connection they had with their CPs and I have to admit, I was jealous. (Think, high school nobody hearing the popular girls gush over their perfect boyfriends and wondering why she didn't have one.) So I signed up for a manuscript review session with an agent at a writers' conference, thinking she held the magic key for decoding my manuscript flaws.

The agent I met with was helpful, but at the end I was still unclear as to what, exactly, I needed to do to "fix" my story. As our session ended, she asked me if I had some good CPs.

"No!" I was so glad she'd brought that up. Hopefully she could direct me to the secret society that handed out perfect CPs. "I've had trouble finding a local group." I waited for her to work her agent-y magic.

"Well," she replied instead, "you should really try to find some. I think they could help you out."

I walked away in a bit of a daze, wondering why my fifty dollars hadn't summoned a fairy godmother. I'll spare you the details of my subsequent internet stalking (ahem) research, and share with you some things I have since learned regarding the art of finding a CP.

It never hurts to ask. 
One of the first critiquing groups I found was a local writing group that met once a week and had some great reviews. Their website said they were not accepting new members, but mentioned you could submit an application in the event that a spot opened up. Their group description looked like a perfect fit for me, but because they said they were full, I moved on.

I signed up for a different group. After two meetings, I could tell it wasn't what I was looking for. Another group I joined disbanded without ever scheduling a meeting. Every time I went back to the drawing board, I saw that first group I'd looked at and wished I could join them.

In an impulsive moment of bravery, I filled out an application and hit submit. They responded quickly and asked me for a writing sample. They invited me to a meeting and, suddenly, a week later, I was in! They had been full at one time, but several members had moved and nobody remembered to take down the line stating that the group was full.

So, if you find a group you want to join, JUST ASK! The worst they can do is say 'no'. And, as a writer, if you have issues with 'no' then you have bigger problems than finding a CP.

Your CPs do not have to live in your area
Duh, right? Critiques can be emailed just as easily as they can be printed and brought to a meeting. But for some reason, it took me a long time to realize this. The fact that there was a shortage of local groups in my not-so-big town, led me to believe I'd have to go it alone until I realized I could turn to the incredibly supportive and talented online writing community.

Not all CPs are created equal
Finding a CP is a lot like dating. You have to like your CP. You have to get along well. And you have to have a certain chemistry. Finding this is not easy. When you're looking for new CPs, swap a one-chapter critique. Mention your critiquing style (do you focus on overall plot, are you a great editor, good with dialogue, etc.) and whether you tend to be brutally honest or sugar-coat your feedback. (As a side-note, I believe sugar-coating does more harm than good. You can be encouraging without being afraid to point out what's not working). It is also helpful to establish the time frame for the critique. Do you expect to swap back that same day or is anytime over the next week acceptable?

The one-chapter swap is your chance to see if you connect with the other person's writing, an important thing since you'll be reading a lot of it. Also, do you have suggestions to offer? Feedback that would improve the writing even if you like it? In your critique, make sure you mention things the author did well, in addition to things that need improvement. This is not where you give false praise. Pick out something that was really done well and mention it. Hearing what works in addition to what doesn't, helps an author when writing future scenes. And, of course, don't be afraid to point out what needs attention and offer suggestions for possible fixes.

When you receive feedback on your chapter, read through it and decide whether the notes are helpful and comprehensive enough for your liking. If you want to continue critiquing with that person, let them know. But don't hesitate to break it off if you don't think you'd be a good match. Saying something like "I don't think we'd be a good fit in the long term" is perfectly acceptable. You want CPs that will give you the type of feedback you're looking for, otherwise it will be a waste of time for both of you.

Don't shy away from CPs who write in other genres than you
I write for young adults. But my CPs write adult fantasy, sci fi, horror, and everything in between. The fact that we write in different genres enhances our appreciation of each others' work, rather than diminishing it.

Don't take on more than you can handle
For every critique you receive, be ready to give one out. Critiquing takes time. Don't take on more CPs than you can reasonably give regular critiques to just because you want more opinions on your own work. Critiquing is a partnership and you should expect to give as much as, or more than, you take. By doing so, you will build meaningful, longstanding relationships.

Here are some places to find CPs:

Meetup. Search for writing groups in your area and find one that matches what you're looking for. If you can't find one, consider starting your own. This is where I found the writing group that has helped me take my writing to the next level. They are brutally honest and I love it!

Twitter. Yes, twitter. It's a great way to connect with other writers. I found several CPs through the hashtag #CPMatch. Scrolling through the #amwriting feed is also a good place to find like-minded writers to connect with. Additionally, twitter is where I learned about contests. Which leads me to...

Contests. Participating in writing contests also puts you in touch with other writers. Your competitors make great future CPs. Contests like Pitch Madness and Pitch Wars, hosted by Brenda Drake, and The Writers Voice and Blind Speed Dating, hosted by the anonymous Cupid are just a few examples. 

How About We CP. A tumblr run by the fabulous Jessica Sinsheimer with the express purpose of making CP matches.

Writers Conferences. This is one of the best places to meet other writers. It's easy to tell if you get along with someone when meeting them in person, but you won't really know if they'll work as a CP until you swap writing samples. When you attend a conference, get out of your comfort zone and talk to other writers. Ask if they'd be interested in swapping critiques. Then trade cards and follow up. Just be prepared. It may be harder to "break up" after swapping a sample critique since you met them in person rather than online.

If you write SciFi, Fantasy, or Horror, the SFF Online Writing Workshop is a great resource.

There are tons of other ways to find CPs, but these are the ones I've used personally. There's no right way to do it, and everyone seems to have a different story. For those of you who already have one, how did you find your CP?

Thursday, March 13, 2014

It's Conference Time!

I attended my first writing conference last year. I'd been holding off for awhile. They're expensive. I have a family to take care of. Etc, etc. But a year ago, I signed up to go and I'm so glad I did.

The same conference is happening again in just over a week and I can't believe it's been a whole year. Having something like a yearly conference to mark the time makes it easier to see progress. I have learned so much this past year. The interesting thing is, I can't say definitively where all my knowledge has come from.

Certainly, I learned a lot at the conference. But I've also learned from blog posts, other writers, literary agents, twitter contests, online critique partners, my once a week local writing group, books about writing, my own observations, and straight up practice. At this point, my knowledge base resembles a patchwork quilt. Beautiful, but crafted together by tons of tiny pieces that, by themselves, may be insignificant.

I could also compare what I've learned to my recipe box. Over the years, my recipe box (yes, I still use hard copies of recipes and yes, I know, someday I will curse the fact that I didn't digitize them) has been filled with recipes shared by friends, family, and strangers. My recipe box is full of memories. Every time I pull out a recipe, I remember the person who shared it with me. But now those recipes are mine as well.

My five-year-old daughter loves to help me cook and often she asks if I will give her all my recipes when she grows up. To her, those recipes are mine. The dishes I make don't remind her of my college roommate, my mother's best friend, or my husband's aunt. They remind her of me.

So it is with my writing. I've gleaned bits and pieces from so many places. Countless people I admire and respect have shared their knowledge with me. I've gathered it together in my little writing box and I love it. Each little tip adds to who I am as a writer. I know my box is nowhere close to complete. In fact, I don't believe it ever will be, because that would be the day I stop learning. And who wants to be done learning?

After the conference is over, I'll write a few posts highlighting my favorite new bits of knowledge. But for now, here's one thing that surprised me last year:

You don't need a zillion business cards.

Okay, I didn't order a zillion business cards. I ordered fifty. But they were nice ones, printed on gorgeous, thick paper with rounded corners. But as conference time approached, I got nervous. What if fifty wasn't enough? If there were a hundred people at the conference, I'd need a hundred business cards, right? I didn't want to get caught without one if someone wanted it. So I ordered another fifty and had it rushed to my house.

When I got to the conference, I was surprised to find that business cards weren't flying everywhere. In fact, I had to summon the guts to bring up the subject of exchanging business cards with the table of writers I met at breakfast. When I mentioned it, everyone sighed in relief and pulled out their own shiny-new cards. We exchanged and I was able to stay in contact with a few new writer friends. Throughout the day, I met a few more people and we all exchanged cards. But at the end of the day I'd only given away maybe twenty. Getting to know someone well enough to know you'd want to exchange cards with them takes time. And there are workshops to attend and speakers to listen to. The only way I would have needed all hundred of my business cards is if I'd gone around shaking hands with every single person in the room, stating my name, handing them a card, and then moving on. Which would have been weird.

Bring cards. But don't go overboard. 

I really enjoyed meeting other writers, even though I had to step way out of my comfort zone to do it. That was an unexpected benefit of going to the conference. I also enjoyed the keynote speaker, the workshops I attended, the panels I listened to, and the agents I met. It was an amazing day. I can't wait to see what surprises are in store for me this time!

Sunday, February 16, 2014

My Favorite Cake

Writing a novel is like baking a cake. Only, it won't be done in 25-30 minutes. I don't claim superior baking skills, but I can watch Cake Boss like... well... like a boss. If you've ever watched the show where they create masterpieces out of flour and sugar, you know the process is long. And the steps have to be done in a specific order.

To start off, your outline is like your recipe. The guide you follow to ensure all the necessary ingredients are there. If there are problems here, your cake will fall flat.

When you pull your cake out of the oven, that's your first draft. It's beautiful, and it smells divine, but it is nowhere close to done.
Thus begins the revision process. Trim a bit here, add a bit there. Make sure the structure of your cake is just right.

Once the basic design is there, you revise more. You add a base layer of frosting. This is the blank canvas upon which to build your true masterpiece. 

Then comes the most important part. Also, in my opinion, the fun part: Embellishments.

Flowers, piping, sprinkles, and, if you're really good, fondant creations. Here's where you add the elements that will make your cake really shine. This is the part in your story when you add emotional cues, sensory details and shades of color in your voicing. Stuff that will put your reader in the scene and make your story come alive.

Obviously, you can't add decorations to your cake when it first comes out of the oven or while you're still crafting the recipe.

Yet this is often what I find myself trying to do.

It's easy to get hung up on making everything perfect during a first draft, but that's not the time to do it. You add this stuff in the end. They are your finishing touches. And it's impossible to add them, in the right amount and to the precise degree, right after your cake comes out of the oven.

I like to think my writing skills are slightly better than my cake-making skills. I LOVE the process of baking my literary cakes. From creating an outline and writing the first draft, to revising and embellishing, writing a novel is a thrilling process. Sure, it's a bit more time consuming than "Mix together and bake at 350 for 25-30 minutes," but the time I put into creating something amazing makes the finished product that much better.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Write Better. Change Lives.

Being a writer is hard for many reasons, but one of the biggest is that the only measure of success is whether you're published or not. But there's so much more to being a good writer than getting published. Though I'm a definite fan of working toward publication, it can't be the only goal.

If I've learned one thing as a mom, it's that self esteem has to come from within and not from some outside source. People don't typically tell you that you're doing a good job as a mom. Your kids certainly don't. And strangers only comment when you're doing a bad job. Like when your kids are screaming and hitting each other while you tear through the grocery store at record-breaking speed, because if you don't get everything on your list then you'll just have to repeat the whole nightmare again tomorrow.

So how do you keep from throwing in the towel, convinced you are a horrible parent? You watch your kids while they're sleeping. You pay attention when they're playing nice with others. You take note when they do something kind. Most of us won't get Mother-of-the-Year award (which, apparently, is a real thing--my cousin won it last year). But that doesn't mean we suck as moms.

Similarly, we can measure our growth as writers by paying attention to the little things along the way. We can take delight in a well-turned phrase. Gain confidence when a passage we've wrestled with finally comes together in an amazing way. When we open our WIP for some edits and find the tone and feel similar to that of the bestseller we were just reading. These are the moments that strengthen us. That tell us we are doing a good job, even if no one is saying it.

Just because we are still working toward publication, doesn't mean we are crap storytellers. And our goal should not be to get better just so we can get published. Our goal should be to get better so we can write stories that change people. Stories that will make them better for having read them. Stories that will offer a much needed break from the stress of real life.

To be a storyteller like this takes dedication and talent. Writing emotional, moving characters takes practice. Writing a story that changes someone is not something that can be done overnight. But if I am able to write stories like that, then I will consider myself a success regardless of where my publishing journey takes me.

My goal of being published is what drives me to become better. To learn from others who've walked the path before me. To beat my story to a bloody pulp, then pick it up and nurse it back to health until it's even better than before. But being published should never be the only measure of my success or personal worth. As with being a mom, there is so much more to consider. The intangible. The unmeasurable moments. Those are what make us great.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Can't Stay Away for Long

My writing time-out crumbled last night when a scene I'd been puzzling over suddenly began re-writing itself in my head. I couldn't bear to type it out on my phone (as I'd been doing with other lightening bolts that struck during my step back), so I flew to my laptop and opened my story for the first time in three weeks.

After working on my novel, a fairy-tale retelling of The Princess and the Pea, for six months straight, a step back was just what I needed. My break coincided perfectly with the holidays (impeccable, though accidental, planning on my part). As I took a breather to enjoy being with my family, I was surprised to find that my story stayed right where I'd left it.

Crazy, right?

Too often I feel that if I don't spend every spare second on my WIP, it will somehow leave me. Like it must be paid constant attention in order to make it real. But taking a little break from my lovely WIP has taught me that it's not going anywhere. And though I still feel compelled to finish it, I now know it's okay to come up for air. And at this point in my story (done, but not query-ready) the air was absolutely necessary.

I've gotten some great feedback from beta readers. My mind is sharp and I'm seeing things with new clarity. Plot issues I struggled with a month ago are now being worked out in my mind. Plus, reading several books during my break has given me new confidence. My book is not yet as amazing as they are, but I feel like it's within reach. I'm close.

And that's an exciting thing.