Monday, July 24, 2017

Why Writers Should Attend Writers Conferences

Nearly two weeks later, several thousand dollars lighter, several pounds heavier, I’m back from the Southampton Writers Conference. I had planned this to be a one-time thing, a treat to celebrate my upcoming 50th birthday, but it was so wonderful I might have to do it again.

Many writers’ conferences are centered around meeting and pitching to agents, which is understandable. As soon as the germ of an idea hits, many writers split their time between writing their new piece and worrying that some other writer is working on the same thing. It becomes a race to finish the draft and get it out to agents as soon as possible, before Stephen King has a chance to finish his.

It’s easy to say, but… don’t do this.

Instead, attend writers’ conferences where the emphasis is on craft. They will make you a better writer. And better stories will attract the attention it takes to get sold in the traditional marketplace.

These conferences center around workshops, where an instructor—often a well-known author—works with 10-15 writers, focusing on 15-25 pages of their work. These instructors often read from their latest works in the evening. Other conference activities include special presentations from folks in the publishing industry (yes, including agents), a play written by conference attendees past or present, receptions, etc.

Here’s what you’ll get out of attending one:

1. The chance to have your writing treated respectfully by people in the industry. There is no more satisfying kick in the pants than having a well-known writer pore over your words and offer in-depth commentary. If you’re in a rut or just between drafts, this feedback alone can get you writing again.

2. The people you meet. Not only do writers conferences offer the chance to form lasting friendships with folks in the same boat you are, suddenly you have many more beta readers or critique partners ready to read your finished manuscript. It’s a good kind of pressure to get you to finish your project.

3. Writing prompts and exercises. If you’ve been concentrating solely on your work in progress, conferences offer assignments that will get you out of your writing comfort zone. Below I’ve pasted a short story I wrote for an exercise in Meg Wolitzer’s class. It’s not my usual voice—I generally write in first person—but I’m proud of the result.

4. Craft lectures and classes. Many conferences offer learning opportunities in addition to the workshops, bringing in bestselling authors to talk about their processes and answer questions.

5. The break. Just the act of taking time off from work and home responsibilities to focus on your writing life will help you take your work more seriously.

6. Introduction to MFA possibilities. Many of your fellow attendees will be MFAs or will be taking classes toward one. And some of the conferences are affiliated with MFA programs. If you’re considering that degree, a conference is a good first look. Many MFA classes follow the same workshop format.

If I’ve convinced you, Google “writers conferences 2017” to find one that suits your needs. Note the application process and deadlines—most of them limit attendees and require a writing sample to be accepted, so it’s not something you can usually sign up for last minute.

The next conference on my agenda is the annual Writers in Paradise conference held every January just a few miles from me. (I swear I didn’t know about it when I named my blog!) Their application process opens August 1, so if you’re interested, get those pages in quickly!

Here’s my piece from Meg Wolitzer’s workshop. The challenge was to let the action and details tell the story.

# # #

When Jennifer went into the laundry room that morning, Pepper struggled to her feet, her legs slipping almost comically on the slick tile floor. Jennifer squatted onto the floor and gently lifted the dog by pushing up her stomach until her legs straightened. The black lab licked her wrist eagerly, ignoring the empty food dish near the washing machine.

She already had a vet appointment scheduled for later in the week, but while the kids were eating breakfast, she moved it up to that afternoon. After she hung up the phone, she opened the refrigerator for her usual bowl of Cheerios, but somehow both milk cartons were empty.

In the drop-off line at Tuckerman Middle School, she told them, almost casually, “I’m taking Pepper in today. Do you want to go with me?”

Her words hung in the air, seemingly pregnant with meaning, until she turned and saw them engrossed in their phones.

“I have tennis after school,” Nick said. “Matt’s mom is driving us.”

“I have drama club,” Wendy said. “You don’t want us to skip, do you?” She sounded almost indignant.

“No,” Jennifer said. “I wouldn’t want you to skip.”

When she got home, Pepper had made a mess in the kitchen, and perhaps feeling guilty, had tried to eat the evidence, thus making things worse. Jennifer helped the dog into the yard, where she squirted her off with a hose that the landscaper had left lying across the mulch around the bushes. He wasn’t scheduled to return for a few more days, but the grass was already too long.

Pepper fell. Jennifer hoisted the dog back up, getting warm wet dog mess all over her jeans and tee-shirt. Her clothes were nearly as old as the dog – thirteen – and she decided to throw them away after her shower. Unlike other women in the county, she didn’t shop for sport and she didn’t consider her clothes as a competition. Maybe if she’d been a size six instead of a sixteen, she would have enjoyed dressing. But the local boutiques never stocked clothes for her, anyway.

She spent the rest of the morning and afternoon on the computer, proofreading college essays written by other people’s children. Once she’d edited impressive opinion pieces submitted by leaders in government and industry; now she read draft after draft about how building houses in Louisiana changed the trajectory of a life once only devoted to soccer, lacrosse, and chess club. The dog lay under her feet, occasionally lifting her head to lick Jennifer’s bare foot. Jennifer rubbed her fur with her toes.

By the time two-thirty rolled around, Pepper was again unable to get up. Jennifer propped open the door to the garage, hit the garage door opener, climbed into the cab, and moved the mini-van to the driveway. After opening the back door, she squatted next to the dog, put her arms underneath the girl’s stomach, and lifted with her knees. Pepper weighed nearly fifty pounds, but Jennifer was able to waddle back to the mini-van and hoist the dog into the trunk.

The vet was a holistic type, who had told Jennifer to cook for Pepper – ground turkey and vegetables—and who poked her with acupuncture needles once a week while the kids were at their various practices. Today, as Jennifer struggled to open the door with Pepper in her arms, the receptionist gave her a strange look and immediately nodded her into an open room. It was bigger and more comfortable than the other rooms she’d seen, with several couches and tables that sported boxes of tissues.

Jennifer lay Pepper on the fluffy blanket on the floor and scooted next to the dog. Pepper curled her head in Jennifer’s lap.

Dr. Cason came in immediately. She sat cross-legged beside Jennifer and put her hand on her leg. “I heard you carried her in today.”

Jennifer nodded, suddenly unable to speak. The vet took Jennifer’s hand in both of hers.

“It’s time. It’s been time. She’s been holding on for you. She needs you to let her go. Can you do that? Can you let her go?”

When Jennifer nodded again, the vet stood up. “I’ll give you a few minutes together. Then we’ll start the protocol. She’ll be asleep first. It will be fast and absolutely painless.”

Jennifer stroked the dog in her lap. Her first baby. She and David had gotten her from the pound, a stray whose distended nipples revealed she’d recently given birth. Perhaps the owner had kept the puppies but kicked out its mama. The dog had rewarded them with intense devotion. When Jennifer’s own babies were born, Pepper had groomed them as if she’d given birth to them herself.

“Are you ready?” Dr. Cason placed an IV in Pepper’s leg as Jennifer leaned over the dog, the tears flowing freely down her face. Pepper tilted her head and licked the water off Jennifer’s cheeks. When her cheeks were dry, Pepper laid her head down and closed her eyes.

“Such a good girl,” Jennifer murmured. “Such a good, good girl.” The dog was motionless on the carpet.

The vet placed her stethoscope on the dog’s chest. “It’s over,” she whispered. “She only needed a little nudge.”

Afterward, Jennifer filled out the paperwork to have Pepper cremated. There would be paw prints made; fur saved. The package would come in the mail in the next several weeks.

Wendy and Nick were still not home when Jennifer returned. She walked upstairs, shut her bedroom door, and laid down on the bed. A few hours later, she woke when David turned on the light. Stripping off his work clothes, he asked, “Where’s the dog?”

Jennifer sat up. “I had to. The vet said it was time.”

“Good. I’m glad you took care of that.” He disappeared into his walk-in closet, returning a few minutes later in his tennis clothes. “I’ve got doubles. I’ll be ready for dinner around seven.”

He slipped out the door, his tennis shoes squeaking as he hurried down the stairs and into the garage.

Jennifer got up and walked to the top of the stairs. From this vantage point, she could survey the entire house – their bedrooms upstairs; the kitchen, living room, family room and office below. There was nobody there but her.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Everyone Buy Brew or Die! (or at least enter the Raffle)

I’m very excited to announce that my friend Caroline Fardig is releasing the fourth book in her Java Jive mystery series today!!!!

BREW OR DIE! (I know a lot of people who live their lives by this axiom.)
Nashville’s perkiest private eye—coffeehouse manager Juliet Langley—goes undercover in the party-planning industry to solve a suspicious death in this thrilling cozy mystery!

Inspired by her past sleuthing successes, Juliet Langley has officially joined the ranks of Nashville’s licensed private investigators. Her best friend, Pete Bennett, doesn’t worry that her detective work might interfere with her full-time job running his coffeehouse, Java Jive. He just wishes she would spend her free time rejoining the local music scene instead of tailing cheating spouses. But when one of Java Jive’s baristas, Shane, asks Juliet to look into the suspicious death of his fiancée, Pete encourages her to plow full steam ahead.

Since his fiancée died on the job, Shane suspects that her party-planning colleagues are up to something criminal—and will do anything to keep it quiet. After Juliet recruits Pete to go undercover with her at a wedding showcase, she discovers that white lace and black satin have a way of hiding big, fat secrets.

If that weren’t enough to fill her plate, her latest P.I. job has her crossing paths with her ex, Detective Ryder Hamilton. They’re barely on speaking terms, but to solve the case, they might have to cooperate. No matter where Juliet goes, she’s brewing up trouble.

Buy link for BREW OR DIE

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About the Author:
CAROLINE FARDIG is the USA TODAY BESTSELLING AUTHOR of the Java Jive Mysteries series and the Lizzie Hart Mysteries series. Fardig's BAD MEDICINE was named one of the "Best Books of 2015" by Suspense Magazine. She worked as a schoolteacher, church organist, insurance agent, funeral parlor associate, and stay-at-home mom before she realized that she wanted to be a writer when she grew up. Born and raised in a small town in Indiana, Fardig still lives in that same town with an understanding husband, two sweet kids, two energetic dogs, and one malevolent cat.



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Monday, April 17, 2017

Goodbye "Girl"… Another writer turns in her pen for motherhood

Sunday night, we said goodbye to Girls, the program that has been as controversial as its star, Lena Dunham, since her character Hannah Horvath said those famous words, “I think I might be the voice of my generation. Or a voice of a generation.”

I loved Girls, and I’ve written about it before. In 2014, I appreciated Hannah’s body acceptance. When the show first came out, I applauded its accurate look at the job prospects for millennials.

That realistic look is the main reason I was so disappointed with the show’s conclusion. As a writer myself, I found Hannah’s efforts at making a living through the written word illustrative and realistic. When the show debuted, Hannah was working at an unpaid internship. Later, she got a contract for an e-book that was then locked up after her editor died. She was successful as an advertorial writer for GQ, but so spooked by how that job channeled her creativity that she quit. After teaching high school English, this season she parlayed a "Modern Love" essay into some high-profile assignments. But rather than going after a staff writing position, somehow pregnant Hannah ended being offered a teaching position at an upstate New York college, complete with benefits. Here’s an article about how unrealistic that is. And it doesn’t even mention that Hannah, who dropped out of Iowa’s highly regarded MFA program, only holds a bachelor’s – one of the many reasons she’s unqualified for the position. But it does allow the series to wrap up nicely, implying that it’s not a career that turns a girl into a woman, it’s a baby.

It’s the same conclusion that Gilmore Girls’ Rory achieved at the end of the Netflix series revival. Although Hannah had often been compared to Sex and the City’s writer Carrie, that comparison never worked for me. Yes, both characters were New York writers, but SATC was always intended to be a fairy tale, and much was made over the value of Carrie’s apartment and shoe collection versus her probable salary at a staff writer at the New York Star. (Later Carrie published a book of her columns, which may have made her lifestyle slightly more realistic. Being bailed out by millionaire boyfriend Big also helped.) Rory, at least in the revival, was also trying to piece together a life in between writing assignments, before throwing in the towel to become the (unpaid) editor for the Stars Hollow paper.

The famous last words of the revival were “Mom, I’m pregnant,” thereby completing Rory’s de-evolution from a college graduate taking the job of a lifetime (seriously, covering candidate Obama’s presidential campaign is a direct path to the White House press corps and Rory’s dream of becoming the next Christiane Amanpour; what the hell happened to that?) to a self-absorbed, floundering millennial whose unintended pregnancy might force her to grow up as it apparently did Hannah.

I understand that the life of a writer isn’t nearly as compelling as other professions portrayed on TV and in movies, such as doctor or lawyer or fire fighter or lifeguard. But for those of us who are writers, seeing the profession realistically portrayed is heartening. When you’ve spent your childhood being applauded for your pithy turns of phrase, only to reach adulthood and find out that your creativity and self-direction are worth only a few freelance gigs on Fiverr, it’s shaming. It’s now impossible for a writer to support herself in today’s gig economy, with articles worth fifty dollars and copy editing maybe ten bucks. We’re the ones who are told to write for free because the exposure will be so helpful. Exposure doesn’t pay bills. I’m lucky my husband does. Seeing Hannah flounder, then succeed, sent a message to every writer that if we just keep writing, eventually the New York Times will publish that "Modern Love" essay. (And yes, we are all working on "Modern Love" essays. All of us.)

Hannah’s mother yelled at her for being a quitter, telling her the one thing she cannot quit is her son. But before last night’s episode, Hannah had never quit at being a writer. With her teaching job and single parenthood, is there any room left for Hannah to be the voice of her generation? Or, like Rory Gilmore, has the voice silenced herself because writing and “adulting” just no longer mix? And how many real-life Hannah Horvaths have made the same decision?

Monday, April 3, 2017

The Skin of a Writer

A few years ago, when I was editing a manuscript for the agent I worked for at the time, I came across a line that described the protagonist as “standing taller in her high heels.” I laughed and flagged the description with: “It’s not like she’s going to stand shorter in them!” Then I advised the writer to either cut the line or expand it (“Her heels made her an inch taller than her date.”)

My joke earned me a terse note from the agent: “Don’t ever make fun of the writer!!!” She went on to say that writers were very sensitive creatures and I must take special care with every suggestion I made, thus I break their tender little hearts.

I found this surprising for two reasons. One, had I written the line myself, I would have appreciated the editor’s joke and admonished myself for writing such an obvious description. And two, because ever since I started writing, I’d been told over and over again that writers needed thick skins.

I’d certainly spent years developing one. Otherwise, I’d never been able to survive the years of harsh notes (like the friend who told me over and over again how much she hated my protagonist), the hundreds of query rejections, and, even more painfully, the dozens of manuscript rejections I’d received after the initial query had garnered requests. It takes a thick skin to keep going when all the signs around you point to taking a different direction.

Yet I also think it’s possible for writers to have skins that are too thick. After all, it’s our deep empathy for our characters and the world around them – and us – that allows us to create stories to begin with. If our skins are too thick to feel what our characters feel, then they won’t feel. And neither will our readers. And our thick skins may make us oblivious to changes we need to make. We all know writers who greet notes by disagreeing with every point their readers make.

And our skins need a certain amount of thinness during the editing phase as well. While it’s painful to hear that our stories don’t work, we need to feel that pain. How else will we know when a note is worth following? Many writers I respect – and this is true for myself – know that a note is the right one when they feel it in their guts. Although Stephen King advises writers to show their work to three readers, and only take the note if all three mention the problem, most writers I know prefer more than three. And they know the note is right when they get that gut check. For me, the right note lands in my stomach like a plummeting broken heart. It’s not only the right note, but deep down inside I feel like I knew all along it was a change I needed to make. Other “right notes” land more lightly, like fluttering wings on my arms. These are changes that I did not know all along were necessary, but insights from the editor that open up new possibilities in scene work or more. For instance, in a draft of my fourth novel, the developmental editor I hired questioned the location of a first date scene. I realized this tied in with a nagging feeling about the climax, which took place at a new location. I changed the location of the first date and made it the location of the climax as well. All thanks to those fluttering wings, which I would not have felt had my skin been too thick.

When rewriting our own work, our skins need to be something Goldilocks would appreciate – not too thick, not too thin, but just right. Thick enough not to burst into tears at rejection, but thin enough to appreciate the changes that need to be made. And we must always have a sense of humor. If we can’t laugh at our own mistakes, someday they will make us cry.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Everybody does it… don’t they?

In proof that language evolves as people do, the Associated Press – the first and last word for newspaper, magazine, and other non-fiction editors on questions such as “when should numbers be spelled out” and “Do question marks go inside or outside the quotation mark?” – has thrown a wrench into the “they/their/they’re” wars. While purists will insist that “they” can only refer to plural nouns, AP has voted to make “they” and its siblings correct for singular usage as well.

To wit: (article quoting Gerri Berendzen)

The Associated Press Stylebook says it is “opening the door” to use of the singular they.

The new entry in the stylebook starts: They, them, their In most cases, a plural pronoun should agree in number with the antecedent: The children love the books their uncle gave them. They/them/their is acceptable in limited cases as a singular and-or gender-neutral pronoun, when alternative wording is overly awkward or clumsy. However, rewording usually is possible and always is preferable. Clarity is a top priority; gender-neutral use of a singular they is unfamiliar to many readers. We do not use other gender-neutral pronouns such as xe or ze.

That’s compared to the AP Stylebook’s previous “their, there, they’re” entry, which read: “Their is a plural possessive pronoun and must agree in number with the antecedent. Wrong: Everyone raised their hands. Right: They raised their hands. See every one, everyone for the pronoun that takes singular verbs and pronouns.”

(Note that in the above example, AP pretty much admits this usage is faulty, as “everyone” is much more specific than “they.”)

Interestingly enough, AP seems to justify the change by citing the need for a genderless pronoun, rather than the need to be able say “Everyone loves their mother” without being arrested by the grammar police.

Grammar geeks like myself have used construction such as “his or hers” “he or she” “s/he” etc. to make sure we never use a singular noun with a plural pronoun. Even though we know, in our hearts, that “Nobody takes their time anymore” sounds so much better than “Nobody takes his or her time.”

While the time has definitely come for a genderless pronoun, is it right to ask “they” to do that work? Does its usage imply that a person who identifies as neither male nor female is actually more than one person?

Gerri Berendzen wrote that Froke said clarity is key when using they as a genderless pronoun. “We specify that you need to make clear in the context that the ‘they’ in question is just one person,” Froke said. “We don’t, among our own staff, want to open a floodgate. But we recognize a need for it, so we want to open it a bit. The whole issue is difficult. We worked very hard to come up with a solution that makes sense.”

Personally, I am thrilled that I now have the AP’s permission to use “they” when writing “Everyone and their mother agrees Trump is a Russian spy.” But I’m perturbed they weren’t open enough to see that true, singular, genderless pronouns like xe and ze are the true wave of the future, and solve an actual problem deeper than: “Everyone and their mother” just sounds better. When quoting a gender-fluid individual, give xe the respect of using the pronoun xe prefers.

As a novelist who edits fiction, though, this development doesn’t affect me as much as I’d like. The Chicago Manual Style dictates which numbers get spelled out, and unless it adopts this change, I will continue to write, “Everyone raised his/her hand” and “Xing, who was born male but does not identify as either gender, says his parents have been supportive of his transition.”

Come on, Chicago. Everyone and their mother wants this change!

Monday, February 27, 2017

Losing that Lovin’ Feeling Blog Hop!

Thanks to Deb Nam-Krane and Caroline Fardig for putting together this Blog Hop! And thanks to Kerrie Olzak for the previous installment!

Most people who know me really well know that I tend to get a little obsessive over my entertainment options. High school and college saw me glued to and completely obsessed with General Hospital. That was killed by the mob – both my obsession and the show. As a grade-schooler, it was the Little House books and TV show. As an adult, I revisited General Hospital (with the same sad result), shared a Harry Potter addiction with my son (a series that never disappointed me), and fell in love and had my heart broken by Laurell K. Hamilton’s vampire hunter series, Anita Blake. (which inspired me to write my own vampire book, The Ties that Bleed.)

But none of those compared to my obsessed with the TV show M*A*S*H. As a middle-schooler, in the days before VCRs, I would record episodes on my tape recorder, listen to them over and over again, type them up and distribute them to my friends, whom I pretty much bullied into sharing my obsession. Thanks to the world of syndicated reruns, I was able to watch my favorite show over and over again. I “shipped” Hawkeye and Hot Lips before shipping was cool (and before Sam and Diane on Cheers made sit-com couples a thing.) I wrote fan fiction.

The series ended in 1983 (with a big goodbye kiss between my favorite non-couple that warmed my heart) and so did my obsession. However, with the advent of DVD players and ubiquitous cheap DVD collections, I was able to buy the entire series (plus the movie that started it all) and keep it with me forever and forever.

Other things happened between then and now. For instance, I got old. I also tried juggling a career and motherhood for a while. I became more politically aware. I started paying a lot more attention to current events. I became addicted to other series.

A few months ago, I returned to some of my favorite episodes of the series. I tend to circle back to the earlier ones, which were long on comedy and short on life lessons, especially the ones that featured lots of scenes of my favorite non-couple together. What I saw broke my heart. Sexism and even misogyny disguised as humor. Actions that illustrate what is now called a “hostile work environment.” What I had taken for sexual tension was hostility over female power.

One episode, “Check Up,” centered around the camp all getting physicals, with the result that Trapper John is diagnosed with an ulcer. Hawkeye assigned himself the task of evaluating Hot Lips alone in her tent. He makes several sexually suggestive remarks during the exam. (A similar scene happens in an episode where everyone in the camp gets the flu, and he insists on giving her a flu shot in the derriere.) When she turns him down, he tells her she needs to lose 10 pounds (the character is obviously at a normal weight) and makes fun of the shape of her legs. Later, Hot Lips’s insecurity over her looks drives her to get drunk at Trapper John’s farewell party and throw herself at him. After watching the episode, I felt sick.

Although Hawkeye aggressively flirts with Hot Lips in many episodes during the earlier part of the series, it obvious he doesn’t like her. She’s a major and he’s a captain, so even though he’s a doctor and she’s a nurse, she outranks him. She’s career army and believes in the mission of the war; he’s a draftee who believes everyone in government and military is a clown. There’s no real attraction between them at this point –he uses sex and humor to keep her in her place. She’s a woman and a nurse; he’s a man and a doctor; when she pulls rank on him, he (figuratively) pulls out his dick.

I’m not the only one who ships this couple, and I and the other shippers cling to the episode “Comrade in Arms,” when the two actually get together, as nirvana. It’s a two-part episode; they hook up at the end of part 1; in part 2 Hawkeye wakes up with Hot Lips in his arms, already regretting the assignation even before she regains consciousness. In most of this episode, Hot Lips plays entirely against character, trying to build a relationship with Hawkeye, who’s desperately trying to keep her at arm’s length. It’s the ultimate insult to the character (and written by Alan Alda, the actor who played Hawkeye). This episode has always made me angry (I even wrote a fan fiction version of part two that was more in line with Hot Lips’s character several years ago; if you read it, please note that I wrote it many years before I had taken a single screenwriting course!), but not until I took another look at the earlier dynamic between the two of them did I pinpoint the reason why. This two-parter shows that sex, rather than a culmination of passionate feelings, was more about Hawkeye finally taking his place on top of her. (His “let’s be friends” speech at the end of the episode is a continuation of this dynamic.)

I’m not 11 years old anymore, but these realizations broke my heart. I’d often wondered if M*A*S*H had lasted a year or two longer, if the two would have gotten together in the manner of other sit-com couples. And while later episodes of the show toned down the sexist humor (and one episode, guest starting Meryl Streep, even called out Hawkeye on his sexism), Hawkeye never really saw any of his potential love interests as more than a one-night stand. His most enduring relationships were with Trapper and BJ – other male doctors he respected as equals.

That M*A*S*H collection still has a place of honor on my bookshelf of DVD collections. But I think the next time I want to revisit my past obsessions, I may pull out some of my old General Hospital DVDs instead, which showcased female doctors in the 1970s.

Don’t forget to “tune in tomorrow” to see what’s disappointed Caroline Fardig!

Monday, February 13, 2017

Ten Copy-Editing Tips

I’ve been overwhelmed with copy-editing work lately, which has been good for my bank account but not so good for keeping up with the blog. Copy-editing helps me as a writer, because when I notice issues in other people’s manuscripts, they stand out in mine as well. Here’s a quick list of ten tips I picked up while evaluating work. These are in no order; I’m just going through a manuscript I recently finished and picking them out. I hope it helps you in your next go-round!

1. Fire the gun. Anton Chekhov famously wrote that if you refer to a gun in act one, it has to go off in act three. The corollary is also true: If a gun fires in act three, you have to place it in act one. But even objects less important than guns and gun shots need to be established before they become important. If a character throws a phone at her boyfriend, make sure you’ve placed the phone in her hand before she throws it.

2. Suddenly, last summer. Everything happens suddenly. Get rid of this word every time you see it. “The door opened” is more effective, and less Snoopyish, than “Suddenly, the door opened.”

3. Be careful to distinguish your narrative voice as the author from your characters’ internal narration. If you’re writing in third person, you’ll need to describe things dispassionately, while your characters will have their built-in biases in their voices. Don’t mix up the two.

4. Structure your sentence around your strongest possible verb. Don’t write “He gave her an angry look.” Write “He glared at her.”

5. Don’t over-explain. Readers don’t need to be told that a character got up from the couch, walked across the room, grasped the door knob, turned it, and pulled open the door. “Got up to answer the door” is fine. They will fill in the blanks.

6. “and then” are not a couple. “He took off his shirt, and then she pulled off his undershirt.” Delete “and.” “Then” will be fine without her.

7. Use vocabulary that matches your characters’ backgrounds. A high-school drop-out would not use Latin phrases. A PhD candidate would not make subject/verb errors.

8. Don’t repeat yourself, or say the same thing twice. When we edit our own work, we’re usually aware when we repeat the same word. But phrases can be repetitive without being duplicative. For instance, “There were no discernable bullets that she could see.”

9. “At” and “to” are not your friends. “He whispered to her.” “She smirked at him.” The reader knows who those gestures are for. Getting rid of your “to”s and “at”s cleans up your copy and brings down your word count.

10. Whether or not you agree with me, you only need “whether.” “Or not” is understood.

Ten tips, and I only scanned the first twenty pages of the last manuscript I turned in. I’ll do the next twenty if this is helpful!

Monday, January 30, 2017

How to write when the world is falling apart

It’s been a tough few months to be a writer.

Artists in general tend to be on the liberal side. It’s not a coincidence that most of Hollywood – bar a Scott Baio or Mel Gibson – is up in arms over the current Administration. Painters, dancers… anyone who utilizes creativity on a daily basis, anyone whose own empathy is the foundation of their work, generally tends to be progressive.

And so much so for writers.

While there are definitely some well-known voices in fiction that lean conservative, most folks tasked with creating stories and characters out of nothing have an uncanny ability to put themselves in someone else’s shoes. And that ability usually leads to a liberal outlook.

It’s been a tough few months for me.

Ever since the election, rather than being able to concentrate on the voices in my head that propel my stories forward, I’ve been consumed with consuming news about politics. Nothing’s been good, except the marches, and every day since the election, things have gotten worse.

And I don’t think I’m alone in this. When I scroll through my Twitter feed, I find that most of the writers and publishing professionals I follow are retweeting news articles and commenting on Trump’s latest actions. In fact, the occasional blurb about a new book seems sadly out of place.

Undoubtedly, writers are being inspired by current events. Novels are being plotted and pantsed as I type this, starring intrepid teenagers and women fighting with the resistance against Trump. Stories featuring minorities, refugees, transgender men and women.
These writers are more productive than I am. Over the past few weeks, I’ve done little more than plan my rewrites and rewrite the outline for my fifth novel. My head is so filled with worry about what’s going on that there’s none of the peace I need to create.
I don’t think I’m the only one. I wonder if, two years from now – assuming we still have a recognizable society – there will be a dearth of new books because the people who would have been writing them were spending hours on Facebook, reading, sharing and commenting on articles.

I’m torn between wanting to give myself permission to be as informed as possible even if that takes away hours from my writing time, and wanting to kick myself in the pants and get the work done, regardless.

But it’s a much better position to be in than the refugees from Syria have.

And as for the question I posed as the title for this piece... I don't have an answer.

Monday, January 2, 2017

New Year, Old You

Writers like new years, because new years come with resolutions, and resolutions come with lists, and writers like to make lists. Also there’s that word “new.” Is there anything that gets a writer’s heart pumping more than that brand-new idea? That shiny, sparkling new character? Typing the words “fade in,” putting in that fresh piece of typewriter paper (okay, haven’t done this since the 1980s but I still remember the feeling), new new new!!

I love resolutions, and I’ve started many a new year making lists of what I was going to accomplish, writer and life wise. Many of these resolutions were familiar because I’d made them the previous year, and the year before that… and the year before that….
But most of the resolutions around writing centered around new projects. My latest idea for a screenplay. A short story. Two novels. So many exciting beginnings, so much promise, so much fun.

Many writers don’t have a problem starting new projects. We have a problem finishing them.

And while it’s true that some ideas honestly aren’t as good as the writer originally thought they were, others could have been workable if the writer had barreled her way through. Too often, though, while we’re in the middle of the muck, another new shiny idea pops into our minds, and we abandon what we’re working on to play with the new toy.

I admit I’m guilty of this myself. Several months ago I abandoned a YA project when I read of very similar projects being purchased by major publishers. I was also very aware of the issue of cultural appropriation, and I feared I wasn’t the right writer for this story; the authors who had sold their stories mirrored their protagonists, and I did not.

However, in a few weeks (once I get the notes back from the developmental editor I hired), I plan on starting the 10th draft of a manuscript I’ve been working on for over two years. I’ve worked on other projects in the meantime, and several times I’ve thought of just chucking the whole thing when I couldn’t figure out how to solve a problem. But I think the concept is appealing, and timely, so I’m not going to give up on it. Even though I’m 70 pages into a book that also has an appealing concept.

Ultimately, it’s up to the writer to decide for herself whether a project is worth the hours, days and even years it might take to get it up to publication standards. Having a writers group is a great place to share these dilemmas. If other writers tell you not to give up, you should listen.

In my own writers group, though, there are several writers who’ve been working on great ideas, only to set them aside to play with the next great idea. Sometimes I want to shake them when they report they spent the week researching Next Great Idea, when the Last Great Idea was something that was marketable in a number of ways.

For 2017, let’s put away the shiny new toys and dig up some old, abandoned projects. Yes, the blinking cursor on a blank screen is always exciting, but so is finding the first several chapters of a book that was begun two years ago.

My 2017 writing goals are:
 Update my latest novel and self-publish it if my agent can’t sell it;
 Rewrite the first ten pages of an old screenplay and enter it in the contests;
 Rewrite another screenplay and enter it into the contests;
 Rewrite and polish the novel currently out to the developmental editor;
 Finish the first draft of my latest novel.

I’m not starting anything new. But if I’m successful, 2017 will have a lot of endings.