Posts Tagged ‘Writing’

We’ve all heard about (or maybe even know!) writers with bad additudes–scribblers who are bitter, self-important, unrealistic, or just plain old hard-headed.

I worry about that quite a bit–I don’t want that to be me.  I’m no expert, but here’s what my interactions with writers, agents, and editors have taught me about cultivating a healthy writing attitude:

1.) Realistic expectations should balance optimism.

Some of my friends in our writers’ group tease me about being a bit of an Eeyore when it comes to writing. No, I’m not oozing with false modesty or self-deprecation. No, I’m not a naysayer.

I’m…cautiously confident.

For example, when I started querying my novel, I told myself I probably wouldn’t get requests. When I did, I smiled. When I got requests, I told myself I probably wouldn’t get offers. When I did, I danced. I always let myself dream and entertain thoughts of success, but here’s the key: I never expect them. I never feel entitled when it comes to getting published.

If and when it happens, I will shout and jump into the air and fly to the moon. Until then, I will keep my feet on the ground. I will keep putting one foot in front of the other.

2.) Live in the moment.

Once a manuscript is queried or goes on submission to editors, there’s not much more writers can do to influence the outcome. We have to let our work stand on its own. We have to let our wonderful, capable agents do their jobs. To wax Beatle-esque, we have to LET IT BE.

Here’s what we can do–we can read in our genre or field. We can work on another projects. We can take the time to support fellow writers. Day by day, we can enjoy the blessings we already have in our work, friends and family.  After all, a writing project should be fulfilling, but it shouldn’t be the only thing keeping a suicide watch at bay. (If  you feel it is, PLEASE GET HELP NOW.)

3.) Be circumspect.

At every point in my journey, I’ve been faced with the temptation to blab, blab, blab about the minutiae of my writing life. I’ve fretted. I’ve obsessed. I’ve contemplated word vomiting my ups and downs into cyberspace. But one thought stops me (almost) every time–I can’t regret what I didn’t say, blog, or tweet. My rule is simple: If I can’t say something constructive or share good news, it’s crickets for me.

4.) Embrace opportunities for real growth.

Setbacks and rejections are tough schoolmasters, but they are instructive, all the same. Every time I sit down to write, I process and exploit whatever feedback I’ve received.  I try to get better. I always want to always look back and see development and change. I always want to stretch for words just beyond my reach.

Stasis is my enemy, not rejection.

What about you? I’m so grateful for all my writing friends. What have you learned so far?

Hungry for more? Try this recipe for my cinnamon rolls. They’re from scratch, but they’re worth the wait!


Cinnamon Rolls

Ingredients:

4 packages rapid rise yeast

1 cup hot water (not boiling, not lukewarm, just hot tap water)

2 tablespoons sugar

2 sticks real butter

1 1/2 cups warm (not hot!) milk (heat on stovetop or in microwave)

1 cup sugar

2 eggs

2 tsp. salt

8-9 cups of flour

Filling:

More butter

Dark brown sugar

Good Quality Cinnamon (don’t cheap out on this one, ok?)

Frosting:

Even more butter

Powdered Sugar

Vanilla

Milk

Dissolve yeast in a medium bowl with 1 cup of hot water and 2 tablespoons of sugar. Let sit for 10 to 15 minutes. You will not the yeast mixture is active if the yeast bubbles up (mixture should get very foamy, if not, you goofed with bad yeast or too hot or too cold water).

Melt one cup butter and combine with 1 1/2 cups of milk. Mix the milk/butter mixture with the yeast mixture. Add 1 cup sugar and then the eggs. Mix in salt and four cups of the flour. Mix until smooth. Add in the remaining cups of flour, a little at a time, just until the mixture is cohesive enough to handle. Save some of the flour to knead with. I usually save the last cup or so for this purpose.

Slap dough onto the counter and knead it a bit. Knead it just enough so it no longer so gooey and sticky in your hands.

Spray a large bowl with cooking spray. Put the dough into the bowl. Cover the dough with a thin cloth and let it sit. Let dough rise for an hour to an hour and a half. Dough should double in size.

Spray a counter top surface with cooking spray. Spray your rolling pin, too. Divide the dough into two lumps. Roll one out one lump into a large rectangle. Soften a stick and a half of butter and smear on the dough. Sprinkle a lot of cinnamon (to taste, I like a LOT) over the dough. Smear a bunch (a heaping cup) of dark brown sugar. Roll up the dough from the widest side to make a log. Use a length of dental floss (unused, please!) to cut and section individual cinnamon rolls (1 1/2 inch width sections).

After placing the rolls in a greased 9 by 13 pan (you should have approximately a dozen), roll out the second lump and do the same. You’ll end up with two pans of cinnamon rolls. Cover pans with a thin cloth and let rise for another hour to an hour and a half. I put my rolls on my stove top and turn on the oven to preheat. The warm airflow near the oven helps the rolls rise.

When the rolls are nice and puffy, bake in the oven for 20-25 minutes. I have a large oven, so I can bake both pans at the same time on the same rack. If your oven is not big enough, bake one pan at a time. Don’t use different racks.

After rolls have cooled a bit, ice with homemade frosting. For frosting, I use one stick of melted butter, one tablespoon of vanilla, some powdered sugar (just add until the mixture is the right thickness), and a tiny bit of milk. Add powdered sugar and whisk until icing is the right consistency.

Binge!

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I kinda hate New’s Years resolutions.

They’re just so ubiquitous–so many people make them and break them. And blog about them. It seems like overkill for me to blather on about my goals. I mean, they’re so much less interesting and shiny than yours!

Last year I eschewed resolutions in favor of a Writer’s Revolution. Here’s the challenge I laid out for myself and my writing friends: 

In 2010, my goal is not to get an agent and publish a book. My goal is to grow and learn enough to write a book worthy of esteem, a book worthy of the best agent and the most discerning publisher. I take this oath as a sacred trust, and I shall toil until my manuscript shines like the sun and lays waste to the spurn of rejection.”

I’m happy to say my revolution was actually successful. By focusing on improvement, I was able to write a not-so-horrible book . And that book snagged me my agent. 2010 was a great year for making new friends in the industry, learning from them, and forging ahead. Today, I’m on the cusp–very soon that not-so-horrible book will be released into the wilds of publishing. Am I excited? You bet. Come what may, 2011 is going to another year of growth.

But I wouldn’t trade 2010 for anything.

It was a very good year.

Hungry for more?

Try my homemade Chocolate Lava Sauce. You’ll need more than a few spoonfuls on hand to get through all the pints of Haagen-Dazs you’ll scarf down while hunched over the keyboard this year.

Chocolate Lava Sauce

3/4 cup sugar

1/4 cup butter

2 Tbsp. cornstarch

2 Tbsp. cocoa

2 Tbsp. light Karo corn syrup

2 Tbsp. vanilla

1/4 cup cream

Combine all ingredients except vanilla in a medium saucepan. Bring to a gradual boil. Do not scorch, but allow sauce to boil for two minutes. Remove from heat. Add vanilla. Allow to cool slightly.

Binge!

**spoiler alert**

So I saw the movie SKYLINE this weekend. It was dissappointing, to say the least. SKYLINE is a bad movie that could have been great.

As I watched the big screen, I couldn’t help but see the movie as a semi-solid first draft. It was as if they took a freshly written NaNoWriMo piece and filmed it. If only the screenwriter, director, and producer had put more work into polishing the movie, it could have been EPIC. If only they’d revised as any good NaNoWriMo scribe would.

What revision lessons can writers learn from SKYLINE?

1. Prologues (usually) stink, so start where the story starts.

Don’t begin with the alien invasion and then backtrack to the day before. Build in bits backstory as the action unfolds. Or simply anchor the beginning of the story in the ordinary world, just before the action explodes.

2. Cut. Cut. Cut.

Only include scenes that matter. Don’t include irrelevent subplots. For example, don’t spend an ungodly amount of time developing a love triangle between a hollywood player and his two vapid mistresses if you’re just going to have an alien snap off each of their heads off midway through the story.

 Edit out any characters who don’t pull their weight and bulk up the ones who do. In Skyline’s case, we needed less rich-girls-we-don’t-care-about and more *cough*  hot and angsty, alien-punching ERIC BALFOUR.

What can you cut from your novel?

3. After editing out the fluff, deepen and develop the good stuff.

Skyline had a great premise, but it played out like a disjointed sequence of special effects scenes. It didn’t quite gel. (ME GRIMLOCK EAT A DELICIOUS VFX REEL AND POOP OUT SKYLINE.)

But if the creators of the movie had cut out some of the extraneous story arcs, they could have really focused on the characters that count, aka Jared and his pregnant girlfriend, Elaine. Their conflict, their relationship,was a great thread. But because SKYLINE squandered so much energy on other subplots, the movie ran out of time. At the story’s most climactic moment, SKYLINE just sputtered out. The film had a non-ending–no satisfying conclusion was offered, only the worst kind of ambiguity.

Boo, hiss. Don’t do that with your NaNoWriMo novel. Revise it to the point that it: 1.) has a satisfying, complete story 2.) has interesting, compelling characters and 3.) has an actual, HONEST-TO-GOD POINT, for crying out loud.

 Hungry for more? Whip up some alien-apocalypse-proof trail mix and then check out A. Lee Martinez’ most recent post, in which he writes the ending of SKLYINE so you and I don’t have to.

Binge!

Recently, my school hosted Kate Klise for an author visit. We have one every year, and the kids are always excited to hear the stories behind the books they check out from our library.

Have you read Kate and Sarah Klise’s book DYING TO MEET YOU? It’s an award-winning gem of a story about a scrappy kid, a persistent ghost, and a grumpy old scribbler all sharing the same rambling house on 43 Old Cemetary Road.

Read it and you’ll understand why it’s on so many awards lists.

It should be no surprise that Kate’s visit was fantastic. She was funny. Engaging. Honest. Real.

The kids loved her. They laughed at her stories and listened to what to she had to say about writing a good book.

And me? Well, when she started talking about the protagonist’s journey, my ears perked up.

Kate drew a circle and explained that every story needs at least one character with one problem. The character takes a circular journey and grapples with the conflict. At the end of the journey the protagonist returns home (figuratively and/or literally) a changed person. 

An interesting character + A compelling problem + A tranformative journey. 

See? That’s all you need to entrance a reader. Kate’s thoughts really stuck with me. The circle she drew keeps spinning around in my mind.

How about you? What do you think are the crucial elements of a great story?

Hungry for More? Then try this recipe for HALLOWEEN PUMPKIN SPICE CAKE. It’s perfect for curling up with a spook-tacular read this week.

Binge!

My agent once pointed out that both my current project and my new WIP explore similar themes. She meant this in the best possible way, and her observation holds true. I really do like to play with good vs. evil, alive vs. afterlife, heaven vs. hell.

I also read a lot of books and watch a lot of TV (SUPERNATURAL, anyone?) and movies with those same motifs.  Blame it on Star Wars or Indiana Jones or those hot Winchester Brothers… but I adore stories dripping with epic stakes, spiritual overtones, and classic symbolism.

What can I say? I just love a good variation on a theme.

And I’m not alone.

Donald Maass, in Writing the Breakout Novel, asserts theme transforms a manuscript into “more than just a story.” He believes theme is integral, emerging “from the very substance of the story.” While the patterns and messages of theme are finessed in final drafts, they can’t be tacked on or artificially manufactured. Themes begin in the subconscious and develop organically.

Mary Kole, my Abfab Agent, has also addressed this topic on her blog. She believes that in any work, “there should be distinct themes and ideas that you [can] point to as the center of your book.” To her, theme is “like magic… connections you never knew you’d made, common images and ideas that resonate with the larger meaning of your work, all sorts of interesting stuff.”

In her post, she explains how to develop these connections.

Looking for other resources on THEME? Try reading these:

STORY by Robert McKee

THE POWER OF MYTH by Joseph Campbell

THE HERO WITH A THOUSAND FACES by Joseph Campbell

List of Common Themes in Literature by Janice E. Patten

That’s a lot of THEMES…tell me, which ones do you write and dream about?

Hungry for more? Try this recipe for Angelic Peach Trifle. You’ll enjoy the layers and the subtle almond flavor.

I tend to think of  a book as a guided tour in which a character interprets everything for me. Between the pages,  I’m in new, uncharted territory and I’m relying on the POV person to convey the setting, the plot, the action, and the characterization of the story.

The character’s voice is everything for me.

Sometimes that voice takes me on an unforgettable, one-of-a-kind trip.

The voice in SORTA LIKE A ROCK STAR by Matthew Quick was so powerful, I didn’t want to leave the protagonist’s world.

I snagged an ARC of this one at TLA convention last April. Lucky me for me, an editor pointed it out.  Check out the book’s opening lines, in which protagonist Amber Appleton makes her remarkable first appearance:

Lying down, shivering on the last seat of school bus 161, pinned by his teensy doggie gaze, which is completely 100% cute—I’m such a girl, I know—I say, “You won’t believe the bull I had to endure today.”

My legs are propped up against the window, toes pointing toward the roof so that the poodle skirt I made in Life Skills class settles around my midsection. Yeah, it’s the twenty-first century and I wear poodle skirts. I like dogs, I’m a freak. So what? And before anybody reading along gets too jazzed up thinking about my skirt flipped up around my waist, my lovely getaway sticks exposed, allow me to say there’s no teenage flesh to be seen here.

Amber is one heck of a tour guide, huh? Her voice hooked me right away. This character is so quirky, insightful, complicated and…warm. I was drawn to Amber in a way I can’t adequately express.

In short, reading this book was a singular experience for me. All because of one character’s voice.

I spent half the book laughing  out loud and the other half  with a big, fat lump in my throat. I RARELY cry actual tears while reading a book, but this one made me bawl like a baby. I’m not even kidding.

Amber Appleton’s voice moved me.

I wanna know, what voices move you?

Hungry for more? Try this recipe for Ooey Gooey Butter Cake. It’s almost as warm and sweet as this book.

Browse the bookstore shelves for books on the craft of writing.

Better yet, run an internet search with the terms “writing advice.”

Go ahead, Google it. There are only 102 million hits, right?

Yeah, lots of “advice” to be found in all corners. (Don’t even get the librarian in me started on ‘evaluating authoritative sources’…) It’s hard to process all the information on the shelves and in the digital ether.

 

But here’s the thing: so far, the best advice I’ve gleaned can be boiled down to two things: read and listen.

That’s it. Really.

1. Read well.

You can’t write remarkable, satisfying, fearsome, awe-inspiring, gripping, gutwrenching, exceptional fiction or non-fiction unless you read a lot of breathtaking stuff. You can’t tell a good yarn unless you’ve steeped yourself in story.

Anyone who says you can is full of bad gerunds.

2. Listen well.

Listen to other writers. Listen to agents. Listen to editors. Listen to critique partners. Listen, even when you don’t like what they have to say.

And REALLY digest their criticism. Not just praise. Compliments do nothing for you.  But sharp appraisal? That drives you to the edge. It tests your endurance, your persistence, your willingness to learn, and your ability to process feedback. (I’m preaching to myself on this one, kids)

Tough jabs push you to your limits. They make you better.  

If you don’t listen, if you don’t pay attention, you won’t grow. And you won’t get requests and acceptances.

But hey, if you’re too busy to read and too talented to listen, there’s always PublishAmerica.

Hungry for more? Work out your writing frustration and try this recipe for Aggression Cookies. They’re pure buttery oatmeal goodness.