Thursday, October 23, 2014

Don't Be Boring

My lovely grandmother reads more than any person I’ve ever met. She goes to the bookstore several times a week, and the people who work there often set aside all the new arrivals for her to buy when she comes in.

She always says that the best present in the world is a book she hasn’t read.

(See where I get my love of reading from? It’s genetic.)

I love to ask her about the books she’s read so she can filter out the fantastic books from the “meh” books for me, but lately she’s had one major complaint: She’s reading the same plotline over and over again, with nothing fresh or new added to it.

Or plots where nothing is happening except for characters talking and thinking all the time.

Or the stakes are too low, and she just doesn’t care.

Writing advice from an avid reader: Don’t be boring.

Instead:
Make things happen
Have real conflict
Don’t always have your characters do the safe thing
Watch out for clich├ęs
Turn a trope on its head
Be funny
Be real
Be interesting
Don’t play it safe
Don’t write the first thing that pops into your head
Raise the stakes

Make it matter.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Writing Advice #1: Write Everyday

For years I had two main misconceptions about writing that I think a lot of other people have.

1) I don’t have time to write every day.
2) In order to write, I have to have a huge chunk of time to make sure I get in the “zone.”

Over the past year, I have learned that both of these notions are in fact FALSE.

How familiar does this sound:
Wake up at six, get the older kids ready for school and on the bus, eat breakfast, exercise, run regular errands with a screaming 2yo in tow, do unexpected last minute task that always sneaks its way in (doctor’s appointment, visit friend, make a meal for someone, kindergarten class party), eat lunch, put 2yo down for nap, do laundry/dishes/floor/clean all the things before the tornadoes kids come home. Get kids off bus, snack, The Homework Battle, spend some time together, start dinner, eat, basketball practice/scouts/church meeting, showers and bedtime for kids. Then there’s the emails, trying to tackle commitments I’ve made, the church stuff, and spending time with my lovely husband before I collapse into bed by eleven.

This is my typical day. There are days where I barely have a few minutes to sit down, and if I do, I’m probably in front of my computer sending out emails I’ve put off for too long.

Where does the writing fit?

I used to think I needed minimum of a 90 minute chunk to write, and looking at my schedule, it felt impossible. I read a fantastic article about writing for 30 minutes a day and setting a timer—and I decided to give it a try, because it’s a lot easier to find 30 spare minutes than 90 minutes in my day. 

Truth: The first few times I did this was as hard as I thought it might be. I wasn’t doing it every day, so most of my 30 minutes was spent trying to figure out where I was in my story and where I wanted to go next. It was ineffective. 

Things changed when I started writing every day. It was like I had this momentum, and instead of taking me 30 minutes just to get in the “zone” I was already in it the minute I sat down to write because the story was still fresh in my mind. I was able to find small chunks of time all throughout my day, and a few minutes here and there has often added up to hours. If I skip even one day, it is so much harder to write the next time I sit down.

The chores, the emails, the ringing phone will all keep for a short amount of time so you can work on your story. Put off reading the next chapter in your book or watching your show until you’ve written in your manuscript.

Writing every day is a huge commitment. It is. But becoming an author requires commitment, and it is very rewarding to see words continue to grow across all the formerly blank pages. 

Write in your manuscript every day. Even if it’s only one sentence. Keep that momentum, and you’ll write more in less time which is important for how busy we all are.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Letting Go of the Bad Stuff


Recently a friend and I were talking, and we got to sharing stories about slights from our childhood that we still remember today.

She told me about a time when she was ten years old where a friend informed her that her thighs were disproportionately big for her body.

I volleyed back by telling her about the pool party I went to when I was thirteen, and how when I stripped down to my swim suit, one of the other girls looked me up and down before saying, “You’re not as thin as everyone thinks you are.”

The funny thing is two decades later, she’s still self-conscious about her thighs, and I still think about this girl’s comment whenever I’m stripping down to my swimsuit in front of people.  How ridiculous is this? Honestly!

I hate that I’ve held onto this memory for so many years. I challenged myself to think back to when I was thirteen, and remember a compliment someone gave me.  The only one I can think of wasn’t even a compliment, but how, after I got my hair done professionally for the first time in my life (and, what do you know, my major frizz-ball hair was actually naturally curly once I stopped trying to brush through it!) and a boy in my class did a double take when he saw me.

Recently I went through a bunch of my old cards and letters, and I was amazed as I was reading through them, all the complimentary things people wrote to me. Things that I’d completely forgotten, but that were heart-felt and touching and so, so kind. How did I forget all these cards with amazing compliments even existed, but I can remember the time a boy in high school stood me up and called me Raggedy Ann (admittedly, that’s kind of hard to forget), or the time when the girl who stood next to me at choir practice plugged her ear so she couldn’t hear me (and is the reason I don’t join choir today), or the girl who told me that she didn't see why anyone would fall for the main character of my first book, and many other stupid, little things that I’ve held onto for too long.

Do you ever watch Reba? There’s this episode, and I don’t even remember what happens, but her son-in-law says to her, “I have one word for you: Letitgo.” This has become a catch-phrase in my family: Letitgo.

Someone ate the last piece of pizza that you were saving for later? Letitgo.
One of the kids spilled Sprite all over my freshly mopped floors? Letitgo.
I think this applies at a deeper level, too.

What memories are you carrying around with you that are unneeded added weight? Letitgo.

Are you holding on to experiences that keep you from believing in your own worth? Letitgo.

Make room for the good stuff. The compliments, the encouragement, the people who believe in you. Be stronger than negativity.

Most of all, believe in yourself. No matter what anyone else has said or done or thought or written about you.

Because all that bad stuff? It’s designed to hold us back from our true potential. From loving ourselves and from opening our hearts to others and trying again.

So my advice today?

Let it go.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Inspiration


Inspiration

On my last WIP, I listened to Jimmy Eat World’s song Hear You Me at least a bazillion times. There was something about hearing that song that immediately put me in the tone and mood of my book, and after a busy day of running errands, taking care of kids, going to doctors, cleaning, making dinner and everything else I am responsible for, sometimes it was hard to sit down and mentally dive into my story—until I discovered that song.

Part of my writing ritual would be to play that song on my iPod while I lay on the bed with my eyes closed, and by the end of it, I was ready to be immersed in my main character’s head and world again.

 (Hear You Me by Jimmy Eat World. I don't think I'll ever get sick of this song.)

I also get inspiration from quotes. I adore poetry, and when I find a poem that I feel like fits the theme or feel of whatever book I’m working on, I write it in that WIP’s notebook and reread it again before I write. Right now it’s a psalm (most of which read like poetry): “They that hate me without a cause are more than the hairs of mine head… I am become a stranger unto my brethren and an alien unto my mother’s children.”

Also, a couple of stanzas from William Wordsworth’s poems and a quote from a Ralph Waldo Emerson essay help get my head into this story as well.

I read these every time I come to my computer to work on my new book and it’s so much easier for me to jump into the heads of my characters. I’m still trying to find a song that encapsulates the tone of my story, but I haven’t heard one that’s clicked for me yet.

What songs are inspiring your current WIP? Do you have a different method for mentally checking in to your book?

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Where Stories Come From


One of the most frequently asked questions I get is: Where do you get your ideas from?

Answer: From everywhere.

Here are some steps I take in building a story:

Step 1: At first it starts as hearing or seeing or thinking about something that strikes me as interesting, or a concept that I want to explore more. This is all about observation.

Here are a few places I’ve gotten ideas from:

Overheard conversations

The news

Song lyrics

Literature

Ads for products

You tube videos

My own experiences

Poetry, plays, essays

Myths

Historical events

TIP: WRITE IT DOWN!

I promise, if you don’t, you will forget it.

An example: I was at the grocery store in the middle of summer, and there was this teenager employee wearing a bright colored beanie and character-themed shirt under his apron, and he was dancing to some music in his head as he walked through the parking lot to gather carts.  I watched him for a minute, and an idea for a character started to form.

Step Two: Take your interesting idea, quote, person, etc. and build on it. Make it your own by asking, “What if…?”

What if the grocery boy wore a beanie in summer because he had something obscene shaved into his head? What if he hid it from his dad? Or what if his dad was the one who had shaved the word into his head?  But he’s dancing in the lot, because he’s happy, so maybe there are no obscene words. No, he’s happy because he just got good news. What if he just found out he got into the college he wants and that means he can finally escape his suffocating family? But Dad is in a work-related accident, and now grocery boy has to give up his dreams of leaving so he can take care of his family? What if he chooses to run away and go to college despite his family’s need? Would he regret it? Would he be relieved? What if his little sister runs away too, to find him because things get so bad, and she disappears? No one can find little sister, Dad is injured, Mom isn’t speaking to him, and his dream isn’t as glossy as it was before he started chasing it.

Or what if he DOES stay home, and he starts to resent everyone and everything, and it’s at this point that he meets THE GIRL (because, in my books, there is always THE GIRL or THE BOY that makes life that much more complicated, but also worth living.) What if The GIRL is the one who caused his dad’s accident? Etc, etc.

 I have whole notebooks full of brainstorming like this. Usually the book will take on its own direction the more I write. I’ll start down a line of thought and get really excited about it and just keep chasing it until I have something work-able.

TIP: Don’t be afraid of dumb ideas while in the brainstorming stage. Sometimes a dumb idea will lead you to a brilliant one.

Step 3: Take these “What if” scenarios and start plotting.

Some people like to dive in and discover their story as they write it. I used to write that way, but it requires a lot more revising.

I like to write a rough outline at this point so that I know all my main points of conflict and exactly how the book is going to end. Usually, I like the end to reflect the changes I want to see in my character and his/her situation.

At no point do I stop asking: What if?

Tip: Have fun with it! If the story starts to feel stale or boring, go back and do another “What if” brainstorming session.

Where do you get your ideas from?

Sunday, July 20, 2014

The Ones Who Push Us


I took an ethnic literature class at ASU my first semester there. I’d just transferred from Brigham Young University (a super conservative school) and was a little shell-shocked by the culture change. I went from a school with a super-strict dress code and where we said prayers before and after every class, to a place with miles of skin and professors starting the class with passionate F-bombs.

My ethnic lit class was taught by a professor who didn’t shy away from difficult topics. She was my hardest professor, but the one I learned the most from.

The first paper I wrote for her, she refused to grade. It was a paper on symbolism in a short story by Sherman Alexie. She handed it back to me and told me to rewrite it. She said, “I know you’re not racist, but you are coming across that way. This is elitist BS. Rewrite it.”

I was mortified and devastated. She was right, I was not racist, but when I reread over my paper with these thoughts in mind and saw a bunch of offensive stereotypes and cultural sayings I'd used as arguments, I realized that I was seriously uninformed. And judgmental. So, I took my research deeper. A lot deeper.

I ended up making an appointment to meet with my professor and talk about some of the new ideas I had, to see if I was on the right track. In that hour, she opened up my eyes to how important it is to embrace other cultures, to not buy into stereotypes, to not act like or believe that I am better than anyone else. She said that I, especially, should understand a heritage of being brutalized and kicked from one’s home, and show compassion for that.  (This because I’m Mormon, and my ancestors were beaten, raped, killed, driven from their homes and pushed westward because of their beliefs. Sherman Alexie, the author of the short story my paper was on, is Native American.)

I rewrote the paper, pouring all of my research and new ways of thinking into it.

It is the hardest thing I’ve ever written because it required me to stretch and grow and think differently than I had before. It made me really look within myself and realize that I can’t always accept the surface, accept what I see on television or pop culture, but that I need to always, ALWAYS, remember that I am reading and writing and thinking and looking at people, not caricatures.

I turned in my paper and held my breath.

She didn’t return it to me when she gave the rest of the class theirs. Instead, she asked me to meet with her again. I was sick to my stomach. I’d worked harder on this paper than anything else, I’d learned more from writing this paper than I had in two and a half years of college previous to this. But maybe it still wasn’t enough.

I came to her office and she had my paper ready for me. She slid it across the desk and waited while I flipped through the pages to the back. There was a big, red “A” after the last line.

She sat back in her chair with a smile. “I loved it,” she said. “And the reason I wanted to meet with you was because I wanted to ask your permission to use your paper next year as one of my good examples for the class.”

Of course I gave her permission to do so, and I walked out of her office feeling amazing.

Of all my classes, this one was the hardest. It was the one that made me stretch and reach beyond how I used to write and think.

This professor pushed me to be better than I was, and though it was a painful process, it was invaluable.

As writers, we need to surround ourselves with people who will push us. Who believe we can do better than we are doing, and won’t settle for less. Who cheer us on and gently correct us if needed and are willing to praise and be our cheerleaders when the time is right.

They won’t let us settle for lazy writing because they believe in us.

They will encourage us to dig deeper, reach further, research more, build up our descriptions and get rid of self-indulgent prose, and to never, ever fall back on generic thinking, stereotypes, and caricatures.

 If you can find a critique partner like that, you’re golden.

Because the ones who are not afraid to push us are the ones who will help us reach our full potential.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

I Have an Agent!!


I have wanted to write one of these posts for a long time. Three and a half years, to be exact. It’s been that long since I started querying agents with my first YA manuscript.

I spent about eight months writing and revising my first manuscript, and soon after Meg’s Melody (my first book) came out, I started querying agents. I knew I wanted an agent after trying to navigate a contract on my own. I researched a ton of agents and started querying slowly. I’d read somewhere that I should only send out about ten queries at a time and see what the response is like before sending out more. So I did that. And over the next eight months, I sent out queries in batches of ten, waiting to hear back before I sent more. I also had my first pitching experience, which was invaluable. I went through about ten versions of my query, and ended up with fifteen requests that all came back as some version of “not for me.”

Meanwhile, I’d been working on my next YA book—this one also contemporary/coming of age, but more of a comedy. I went through the whole querying process again, with batches of ten, waiting to hear back, changing my query over and over and over. I ended up getting fifteen requests for this book as well. I absolutely love this book and was so excited to see that people were liking it as well.

But, then the “not for me’s” started rolling in again. And I was started to feel like this whole rejection thing was “not for me.” I went to a huge book festival while this was all happening, and I got the opportunity to attend a panel with Heather Brewer on it. I’m so glad I went, because she talked about all the rejections she got on her books before her first one was picked up. She encouraged us to keep trying and said: “At first, you get no’s. Then the no’s turn into maybes. And the maybes turn into a yes.” I’d gotten my share of “no’s” but I also had a lot of “maybes” and a ton of feedback, so I decided to keep pushing forward.

 I spent a few months on a major revision based on some agent feedback for the comedic YA and decided to pitch it at the Storymaker conference this year as kind of the “kick-off” for a new round of queries. It was an interesting kind of pitch, more of a workshop, where I’d sent my query and first ten pages to her a few months in advance, and we met to discuss them at the conference.

We met in a group of eight, and she started with my manuscript. I was so nervous, so psyched up for her to tear it apart. Instead, she said she loved it. She loved the voice, the characters, and said it was “in the shoot” meaning that it would be picked up by an agent, and it was the kind of book teens would love and it would sell a ton of copies. I was elated. Then I came crashing down when she finished her thought. But, she said, I’m not looking to pick up any comedies right now. They’re not selling. New York wants issues.

So after I went to the bookstore and had a cleansing public cry, I remembered that I had an issue book. My first manuscript. One that I had also done a complete rewrite on based on some agent feedback, but that I had never requeried.

So I went home from the conference and spent a month polishing it up. I sent it to a new critique partner, who helped me clean it up and made it sparkle.  I wrote my query (my one query) and my synopsis, and started to send it out on June 3rd. To every agent on my list, all at once. I decided that I didn’t want to do this whole ten at a time business this go-round. I was right in the middle of another manuscript that I was planning on querying when I was done, so I didn’t want to drag this round out for eight months.

I spent tons of time personalizing my queries, sending it to people whom I’ve have the privilege to meet over the years at conferences, to people who had requested my past manuscripts, and figured I’d have a forever wait, as usual.

Within three hours, my first request came in. And they kept coming and coming. I was in shock. For every rejection I received, I got another request.

Then three weeks into querying I got an email from an agent, Rachel Brooks from the L. Perkins Agency, saying that my query and sample pages had been forwarded to her from a colleague and that she’d love to read more.

I sent them to her on Saturday and by Monday, she emailed me and said she wanted to talk. We spoke on the phone Tuesday, and I absolutely loved her enthusiasm for the industry and for my book and I knew that this was someone I really wanted in my corner.

It all happened so fast, that I could hardly wrap my mind around it. I was mentally settling in for months of waiting, and within a month of querying this book, I had an agent. To be honest, I’m still having a hard time digesting it all. There was much dancing and screaming and excitement in the house after our phone call. My kids didn’t understand, but they were happy to join in the celebrating.

I know this is a first step, but it’s a step that I’ve worked so hard toward for years and it feels really good.

So, I am so excited to say that Rachel Brooks from the L.Perkins Agency is my agent and I look forward to whatever comes next in my publishing journey.