Wednesday, June 29, 2016

If The First Idea Fits—Wear It

Wedding season is upon us. With it brings anniversaries, and for me, memories of my wedding. One of my fondest memories is shopping for a gown. I spent countless hours combing through bridal magazines and designer websites, and then the day came to visit a bridal parlor. I hunted through the racks for my dream dress until I found one that embodied my vision.

Trying on the first dress was wondrous. I looked in the mirror and couldn’t believe what I saw—a real bride! I loved the dress at first sight. But I quickly doubted my selection. I tried on several more gowns to find ‘the one’, yet left the shop empty-handed. What followed were grueling weeks of searching bridal boutiques. I left each store more discouraged than the last. Finally, I returned to the first shop and tried on the very first gown. Awe swept over me as I swooshed the satin skirt. This had been my wedding dress all along. So why had I doubted myself?



Okay, here’s where I talk about writing. I’ve heard some say that a writer’s first idea should be discarded. We should go deeper, thinking bigger, push ourselves to aim higher. But like the very first dress, sometimes our inner editor overlooks the initial spark that prompted a story. We forget the rush of excitement that accompanies an idea we know is worth considering. We recognize the value of the idea because it didn’t come to us overnight. We stewed over ‘the one’ for weeks, months, even years before it fully formed in our minds. Yet that precious idea can be heaped under worries of how best to tell the story, how this new work compares to our last work, and whether agents/editors will like it as much as we do. The best writing advice I have ever received is to follow my gut. While suffering through grueling revisions, a wise critique partner will advise me to return to the heart of my story. This leads me to rediscover the initial awe that led me to ‘try on’ an idea.

Your first idea may not be the best. You may need revisions. Lots of them. But the heart of your story—why you chose to tell this story—should remain pure. Paulo Coehlo said, “Listen to your heart. It knows everything.” We understand our stories better than we think we do. Be patient with yourself and enjoy the process. Sometimes we have to try on a few hundred wrong sentences (or pages) to find the perfect fit.

___________________

Emily R. King is a reader of everything and a writer of fantasy. Born in Canada and raised in the U.S., she's perfected the use of eh and y'all and uses both interchangeably. Shark advocate, consumer of gummy bears, and an islander at heart, Emily's greatest interests are her four children. She's a member of SCBWI and represented by Marlene Stringer of Stringer Literary. You can find this happy feminist in pink shoes yammering away at getbusywriting.blogspot.com and @Emily_R_King on Twitter.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

The Gift of Red Herrings

Every birthday as I’m handed gifts and cards from my loved ones, I get excited! My favorite part is the element of surprise of what’s in the bag. I’m not one that usually dives right into the gift. I examine everything. The bag, the color of tissue paper, if the bag rattles, or holds a distinct smell. I love the experience of watching people’s reactions as I open the presents, and let the gift linger in my hand for a minute so I can process the thought behind it. I love the whole thing.

When you’re writing suspense or mystery, your job as the writer is to give the reader this beautiful gift—your story. You provide little snippets or clues as to what’s in the present that you’re protagonist is about to open and dive in to. We call these beauties red herrings.


What is a Red Herring?  It’s a narrative element put in place to misguide readers, leading them to false conclusions. Its purpose is to divert attention away from the object or person of interest. This makes the element of surprise that much more exciting as the book comes to a conclusion.

One of my favorite games is Clue. Each character has red herrings by giving them all a motive. They’re given an object or weapon, and they have completely different character traits that stand out from one another. Some characters visibly don’t get along, while others pretend to play nice and they’re all placed together for a lovely party at Mr. Boddy’s mansion. And that’s when things get tricky. The lights go out and everyone is a suspect. Who’s actually using the weapon of choice for protection, or to kill everyone out of the game?

Let’s take this one step at a time. First, we have our characters. They all have something to possibly gain from the crime, leading the reader to question all of them. Which side are they on? Who are they playing against and who are they collaborating with? A lot of times the reader thinks they know what’s going on behind the story, only to be thrown the ultimate reveal far from what they expected.

Next, we have setting. If a character is being questioned, they need a place as an alibi. What might the investigator learn as he goes to check out the location?  Who would be most comfortable in that setting or environment? Is the time of day, the weather, or the time of year important to the case? Is it a coincidence that three females, living one block from each other, all were abducted at exactly 11:00 a.m.? Make the reader question the significance of where the crime took place also.

Now, we need objects. You can play with objects that appear in the scene or ones that don’t. What does the investigator see at the crime scene? What doesn’t he see? Who accidentally, or on purpose, left a gold ring next to the victim’s favorite book? Is it symbolic that the gold ring was placed by something the victim held so dear? Maybe upon close investigation, page thirty five was torn from the book. How does that tie into the case and who removed the page? Who would have motivation to do so?

Example: A glass of 2% milk is half full at the victim’s apartment. Doesn’t seem like a big clue, but what if the investigator searches her kitchen further and sees cartons of soy and coconut milk in the fridge and pantry. Maybe she’s lactose intolerant. Who was the person who visited her house drinking the 2% milk and were they the killer? If not, why did they flee?

Example: Sally is opening a lovely gift only to have a balloon pop. She diverts her attention to the balloon and before she knows it, her package goes off. It’s a bomb.

Word of caution is if you bring in an object or a character as a red herring, you must come back to it shortly after you introduce it or them into your story.

Pretend you’re Mrs. Scarlet or Mr. Green, and it’s your birthday. What gifts might you open to help direct you to solve the crime? Or what little treats may be your ticket to hiding your true identity?
Have fun bringing in those red herrings to make your reader question every part of the mystery you’re unfolding on the pages for them!

________________________

Lauri Schoenfeld’s first love is her little clan of three silly kidlets and her wonderful hubby, Andy. Writing is a close second. She began writing poems at the age of nine, and her love for literature and music developed into composing thirty songs.  In 2014 her short story, Christmas Treasure, was featured in an anthology called, Angels from their Realms of Story.  Her favorite genre to write is anything dark, psychological, and suspenseful, but she enjoys expanding her horizons and dipping her feet in other genres as well.  Lauri teaches summer writing classes for kids and mentors teens throughout the year. She’s a Child Abuse and Scoliosis Survivor. Lauri runs a group for teen girls with Scoliosis called, The S Squad. Their motto is Strength, Support and Self Confidence.  She’s been known to dance around the house with a spoon as her microphone and sneak toppings from the ice cream bar. Lauri’s taken online classes at the Institute of Children’s Literature and was the President of the League of Utah Writers, Oquirrh Chapter for two years.  She’s a member of Crime Writers and International Thriller Writers.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Working Through the Swamps of Writing

I've been in a bit of a writing slump lately. It was due, in part, to finally having a conglomeration of big events resolve and the dog days of sweltering heat descend on me at the same time leaving me exhausted.

But it also has to do with writing itself. I'm working on my second book, have the question of whether my first is ready for submission sitting in the back of my mind, and in the midst of it all, I lost my motivation.

To try and get it back, I turned to reading. Of course, it was a great thing to do and I had the incredible fortune of finding several really great books in a row. I'd think about my story when drifting to sleep at night or when trying to decide if I was going to get up or stay in bed in the morning. I'd think about how I could write these scenes, how the characters might react in them, when to place that one kiss.

But then the day would come and go and I'd avoid writing, revising, or even opening the program that contained my draft. I wanted to justify my actions by saying I needed to work it all out in my head, but in reality, I'd already worked it out, knew what needed to happen, and simply thinking about writing isn't the same as writing.

In 1983, a book called The Reflective Practitioner by Donald A. Schön was released. In it, Schön is exploring how professionals think in action. After explaining some of the theory as to why education is how it is, he asks,
"Shall the practitioner stay on the high, hard ground where he can practice rigorously, as he understands rigor, but where he is contained to deal with problems of relatively little social importance? Or shall he descend to the swamp where he can engaged the most important and challenging problems if he is willing to forsake technical rigor? 
...There are those who choose the swampy lowlands. They deliberately involve themselves in messy but crucially important problems and, when asked to describe their methods of inquiry, they speak of experience, trial and error, intuition, and muddling through."

There is a temptation, when we are stuck in a story, to step back, to analyze, to really dig in to what we THINK the problem is. We can buy craft books, read through blog posts, attend conferences all as a means to think about the problems. Obviously, there is value in this, in continuing our education, in pushing ourselves to learn. But there is a great danger, too, in that we can spend so much time thinking about how we are going to make our story work that we never really sit down to make the story work.

Perhaps the more familiar example is the couple without children who believes they know exactly how to raise a family. It doesn't take long until the theories of perfect parenting go flying out the window, fueled by exhaustion and frustration.

But I think this is what happens with writers, and maybe even more with writers on a second or third book. We think that we have it all figured out, that everything was sorted in the first book, and when the second doesn't flow like we think it should, when it doesn't manifest before our readers as awe-inspiring greatness, we start to wonder and doubt, and slowly climb back on the high, hard ground where we can stay clean the theorize.

Writing requires us to roll up our proverbial pant legs, cast aside our fears of "getting dirty", and really immerse ourselves in the swampy lowlands. We are going to make mistakes. We are going to have moments where we doubt. We are going to feel like trudging through the thickest mental mud we can imagine.

And knowing this is happening doesn't mean we will learn the lessons once and be done. Creativity doesn't work that way. What it does mean is that each time we learn a lesson, we can deepen our understanding of the craft, of ourselves as writers, of the nuances of plot, setting, pacing and character development.

By slogging through the sloppy swamp, we will come out on the other side with a story.
By allowing ourselves to make mistakes, we can really learn new things about the writing process.
By pushing our own boundaries and ideas of perfection, we can hone grit, determination, characters and grace because we can now empathize with others, support and encourage others, and recall our own ability to conquer when the rains of doubt start to fall because we have done it before.

________________________________________

Tasha Seegmiller is a mom to three kids and coordinator of the project-based learning center (EDGE) at Southern Utah University. She writes contemporary women’s fiction with a hint of magic, and thrives on Diet Coke, chocolate and cinnamon bears. She is a co-founder and the managing editor for the Thinking Through Our Fingers blog as well as the Women's Fiction Writers Association quarterly magazine, where she also serves as a board member. Tasha is represented by Annelise Robey of the Jane Rotrosen Agency.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Writing: Just Do It

Okay, so I see so many people who want to be immersed in the writing scene. They attend conferences (good!), book signings (good!), and hang out with other writers (also good!). But I also see a lot of these people losing a lot of their time doing other (good) things. My best advice to people who find themselves spending their "writing" time doing something actually other than writing is to JUST DO IT.

Writing, that is.



I think the most valuable place to spend the "spare" minutes a writer has -- especially an aspiring author, one who is pre-published -- is on writing their book.

And if the first one doesn't help you achieve what you want to achieve, spend your time writing a second. And then a third. (My first published novel was actually the third novel I spent time writing, revising, polishing, and querying.)

Book signings for friends and other authors in your local community are good. But are they the best thing for the career you hope to have?

Attending conferences are vital, so I'm not going to ask you to evaluate the time there. I would caution you, however, to choose only the best conferences and workshops. You don't need to attend EVERY one.

Some questions to ask yourself when evaluating how to spend your writing time:


1. Is this the best use of my time?
2. What am I hoping to accomplish by attending this book signing? This conference? This workshop? This write night? And after you do attend, evaluate and see if you accomplished those goals. I love going to write night. In many ways, it's also girl's night, and sometimes that's what my weary soul needs. But sometimes I just really need to get 2000 words on the page. Can I do that at write night? If not, I might not go.

But Past Me would always go, even if I couldn't achieve what I needed to. I didn't want to "miss out" on anything. I've learned though, that I'm missing out on more when I don't meet my writing goals. I'm missing the opportunity to submit or publish a completed project. After all, you can't do that if you don't actually complete a project.

3. This event would be fun, but is it what I need right now? If not, don't go. Believe it or not, your future sales of a future book no one knows about yet aren't going to be impacted by missing a workshop, write night, author event, book signing, etc.

4. What is the best thing I could be doing right now to achieve the goals I have for myself and my writing career? (Sidenote: If you don't have goals for yourself and your writing career, now might be a great time to think about those.)

If the best thing is to actually sit down and write, don't be afraid to miss something in order to do that. I know that's hard to see when you're just starting. You feel caught in a forest, and you can't see the trees.

But trust me, you don't need to be at every event, on every social media platform, doing everything, when what you really should be doing is penning your novel. After all, ask yourself: what's the point? Is the point to be friends with authors? Or to be one yourself?

Writing: Just do it.

How are you spending your writing time? Are you investing in yourself or someone else?

Liz Isaacson is the pen name for Elana Johnson as she writes inspirational romance, usually set in Texas, or Montana, or anywhere else horses and cowboys exist. Her Western inspirational romance series, the Three Rivers Ranch Romance series, is an Amazon #1 bestseller in Christian Romance, Military Romance, and Contemporary Christina Romance.

She lives in Utah, where she teaches elementary school, taxis her daughter to dance several times a week, and serves on her community's library board. Liz is represented by Marisa Corvisiero of the Corvisiero Agency, a PAN member of RWA, and an avid romance reader. Find her on Facebooktwitter, and her blog.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Step Away from the Computer...... (A top 10: Not Writing Can Make Us Better Writers)




Sometimes I see people become so obsessed with publishing, or publishing bigger/better/faster that they forget how much writing material they lose out on by not stepping away from the computer. And seriously, we NEED material ;-)

So, I thought I'd put together another TOP 10 list of how NOT WRITING CAN MAKE US BETTER WRITERS :-)

1. WE NEED BREAKS! - I've never been a believer in that authors need to write every day. Never. Ever. And don't feel guilty for taking a writing break - it's not actually a break if your break is filled with guilt.

2. READ - I know so many people who stop reading when they're writing. Don't do this for long, okay? Taking a couple weeks off of reading when you're deep in revisions or drafting is okay, but do not stop reading. Read good books. Bad books. Books in your genre, and out. Current works, and classics. Published and un-published. If you care about continuing to write better, you must read.

3. MOVE YOUR BODY - I say this a lot when I talk about my TIMER METHOD of writing, but moving is just important no matter what. Moving the body, greases those tiny hamster wheels you have fueling that creative spot in your brain.

4. TRY SOMETHING NEW - I'm big into trying something that puts me out of my comfort zone often enough that I remember what it's like to be a kid. These do NOT have to be big things. I'd never been good at making bread, so I slowly learned to make bread. Knitting, yoga, sewing, rock climbing, kayaking, vegetarianism... Big. Small. Every time I do something I've never done before, I get a glimpse into the world of the people who do those things all the time. This helps me so much with character authenticity.

5. FIND A HOBBY (or several) - I love to learn about anything. This really goes with the thing above. I'm a HUGE believer in that writers do not have to write about what they know. I think that doing your research and "trying something new" very often helps this. But imagine if you owned a rock gym, and climbed every day, and worked with climbing groups... Imagine the authenticity that could come from someone who wrote a book about a person who owned a rock gym.

6. TRAVEL - I know. Feel free to roll your eyes, traveling can be expensive, but have you ever heard of a stay-cation? I know so many people who stay at home and pretend they're on vacation--do all the things that a tourist would do. I know this is random, but I soak up new little bits about the people and places around me when I'm looking at them through "tourist" eyes.

7. OBSERVE AND STEAL - People watch. All the time. Steal names, mannerisms, cars, personality traits...

8. FIND OTHER CREATIVE OUTLETS - I know, I know... TIME!! But seriously, if I'm working on being more creative, very often exercising that creative muscle helps with writing.

9. SOAK UP THE WORLD AROUND YOU - You can do this at the grocery store. Really observe. Try to see the world from someone else's point of view. This is also a good idea to simply be a better human, but yeah, it'll help with writing, too.

10. LEARN - Go to Wikipedia, or maybe even an old set of encyclopedias, books about things you've always found fascinating but never took the time to learn about. There are so many amazing things in this world that I promise you, learning WILL spark your creativity and in turn, give your characters and story lines more depth. And with the Internet and Youtube? You have no excuses ;-)

So, there ya have it. Know when to step away from the screen and ENJOY YOUR LIFE. With the right mindset, you're still furthering yourself as an author.

We talk about our writing lives all the time, so what are some of your fav things to do when you're not writing?

~ Jo

P.S. I resurrected my BEEN WRITING? blog, where I mostly do short posts about craft, publishing, and maybe a few rant or two thrown in for fun ;-) You can find that HERE.

P.P.S. For those who are curious, the pic I used was taken on one of the low peaks in the San Juan Islands, just north of Seattle.


Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Being a Productive Mom Writer

Being a mom and having a job and being a writer (and having an Etsy storefront) is pretty…busy.

But there are certain things I do to help maintain my sanity, and to also increase my productivity.

I clean the house when it’s absolutely necessary (my daughter asks me “Is company coming over?” whenever she sees me dust). I once read that when JK Rowling was once asked how she was able to produce such huge tomes in a relatively small amount of time, she said “I didn’t clean the house for seven years.” You are my soulbeast, JK.

I alternate what I’m doing. I’ll revise five pages. Then I’ll clean up a piece of art in Illustrator. Then I’ll do another five. Then I’ll color that piece in Photoshop. Wash, rinse, and complete. (Such as the illustration I put in this blog's visual.)



I work on my story when I wake up. No, I don’t lie there and daydream about it. I have my computer open and I’m writing new words or revising old ones. When I do this, 100% of the time I go back to writing/revising later in the day and hit my goals.

And that’s the thing—I made peace with the fact that I cannot carve out time during the day to write. That’s when I’m busy and tired with child-rearing and errands. So I have to wait until everyone’s in bed (around 8 p.m.).

I don’t watch TV. I used to, and I had a whole bunch of series I just had to watch. But then I realized I was binge-watching 13 hours of TV to watch other writers’ work, writers who stopped watching TV to do their work. I do, however, have either Gilmore Girls or The Office on constant replay on my iPad as I work. They’re excellent white noise.

Here’s the real fact: I go to bed super late in order to write. I wake up at 6:30 (when the children start screaming over who is looking at whom), and I go to bed at 2:00. On a good night, it’s 12:30. On a super-pumped night, 3:30 a.m.

And here’s a little secret: During the day, when the toddler is napping and my third grader is still at school, I take a nap.

Bestest,

Sydney

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Sydney Strand is a fiction writer who has published two young adult books through New York and another six books via self-publishing. Over the last two years, she has focused on writing fun romances, but not of the Red Room of Pain variety. More like the Dan and Roseanne/Sam and Diane variety--humor is sexy, dontcha know. You can follow Sydney on Instagram (1st Favorite), Twitter (2nd Favorite), and Facebook (Not a Favorite). She's also at www.sydneystrand.com. (Her favoritest of favorites.)

Monday, June 20, 2016

Using Symbolism to Enhance Mood: 2 Ways

So you have an important scene coming up—one where your character’s emotions really need to come out and shine. You have the actions, you have the dialogue, you have the moments of inner contemplation . . . but the scene’s still missing something. It needs more oomph, more . . . something. Something to really get the reader into the character’s head. What is it? What else can you do?

Well, you could use symbolism. Try using external details like the weather, the colors of a room, a particular object, or the actions of surrounding characters to enhance and play off your main character’s mood and really get your reader sucked into the scene.

There are two ways you can do this. You can use symbolism that is congruous to the mood you want to showcase, or symbolism that is dissonant to it to really make those emotions resonate and stand out. Some examples below:



Examples of Congruous Symbolism: 


  • Sunny, blue skies to enhance cheerfulness or calm.
  • Red décor to help add energy to an emotionally charged scene (think angry, sexy, energetic, urgent)
  • A loud, chattering crowd adding anxiety to your character when he/she is nervous.


The trick with using symbolism that is congruous to your character’s emotions is to make it work with the character by intertwining it with their actions. For instance, I recently wrote a scene where, at the end, my character finally lets down her guard and cries about the death of her father in front of a boy she’s developing feelings for. I use the weather (an impending rain storm) and an object (an umbrella) to help add depth to this emotional scene. While reading, it may not be obvious that that’s what I’m doing (I hope—and to be honest, I didn’t even realize I was doing it until afterwards, which always makes me feel like such a genius. Haha. Ahem), but it’s there just the same. It’s drizzling as my characters start down the path through the woods, and by the time they reach their destination, it’s pouring. At the same time, due to the conversation along the walk and various other things that I won’t go into here, my character breaks down and begins to cry. And when the boy she’s with pulls her in for a hug, she drops her umbrella—she’s also dropping her guard. Get it? Get it? Yeah? Genius here. Yup.

In my summary of this, the use of rain = crying sounds super obvious and trite, but if you’re subtle about it, weaving it into the scene and only pointing it out when necessary, but also giving it a point (they end up running back to the house to get out of the storm, and are stranded there together . . . alone . . . until it passes) it will only serve to enhance, not detract. I swear. Trust me.

Examples of Dissonant Symbolism:


  • Sunny, blue skies to contrast with anger, sadness, fear
  • Tidy décor in calm tones (baby blue, beige, etc), relaxing music (think waiting room) to make a character’s nerves stand out that much more.
  • A single object or mini-situation for the character to focus on that is congruent to the character’s mood, but dissonant to literally everything else about the scene.


Okay, so what do I mean by that last one? Let’s say your character is at the park. It’s a beautiful day, kids are playing, couples are picnicking, dogs are playing fetch. Everyone is happy . . . except your character. Your character is very unhappy. She is broken inside. Everything hurts. (There’s that first example coming into play—cheerful environment contrasted with extreme sadness). But your character isn’t focusing on her own emotions right now, or so she thinks, because she’s just now noticed a burnt out tree in the middle of this park that appears to have been struck by lightning not too long ago. She’s now going to hyper-focus on that tree: how the bark is blackened and scarred. How its leaves are singed or missing. How there’s a ring of burnt grass surrounding it. Yet the children play on, skipping around it as if it isn’t even there. Don’t they notice it too? Doesn’t anyone see this damaged, hollow, dying tree right in front of them? Then, just to add insult to injury, a dog trots over to it and lifts his leg. I don’t know. Play around with it. That tree is your character’s mood personified.

Adding symbolism to your scenes can be both daunting and fun. Sometimes you’ll come up with it during the drafting process, sometimes it’s easier to add in later. Sometimes you’ll even add it in accidentally. Just don’t overuse it, because symbolism can be powerful stuff. Keep it for the really important, really emotional scenes. And most importantly, have fun with it!

______________________________________________


When she’s not writing, revising, or banging her head on the keyboard (it’s all the same, right?), Megan Paasch can be found playing her ukulele (badly), knitting (rarely anymore, unfortunately), or herding two amazing, but rowdy little boys (pretty much constantly) with her husband. A native to the Pacific Northwest, Megan earned her B.A. in History from the University of Washington. (Go Huskies!) Her favorite history subjects were, and still are, Women in History, the Tudors, and the Celts. You can read more about her here.