Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Authentication Required

Recently I sat in a workshop with a Big Deal writer who happened to also be my teacher. And at some point as he listened to every student read their work, he’d get super excited about one thing: an authenticating detail. There’s an excellent piece by Dave Koch on the subject here, but basically, it’s the one detail that makes the story come alive, that reaches you out and places you inside the world the author has created.

It doesn’t matter which genre you’re working. In a fantasy novel, this detail could be an element of the setting. In realism, it could be a tic you give your character, or a single action they take, or an item they own.


Stories will have more than one authenticating detail, but the key to an authenticating detail is that it be subtle and so organic to the story that it doesn’t jump out at the reader at the very moment it’s sucking them in. Essentially, this is the highest level of showing, not telling. It’s so seamless that it draws no attention to itself even as it evokes an emotional or intellectual response; the words cease to be a story and become an experience in the writer-reader mind meld that marks the best of books.

This all sounds very vague, doesn’t it? Mmm, yes. That’s because this is an elusive thing to do, weaving in the authenticating detail. It’s a reflection of an author’s voice and the specific world of the story, so it’s the kind of thing readers can point out to you as the thing that captured them, but no one can tell you up front how to do.

So, let’s look at an example of an authenticating detail in a character’s thoughts:

“She retreated to her favorite weeping willow to follow Osanne’s next order. It sat closest to the woods, and she slipped into the quiet of its canopy. When she was little, this space had felt more like the log chapel in Destrehan, the one the Capuchin priests had built. She had only been once, and she hadn’t like the old priest who presided over it. He’d dug his fingers into her jaw and they poked like chicken bones as he stared at her eyes and frowned. But she had never forgotten how the little church felt, like thousands of prayers had soaked into its walls.
Sylvie wondered how many of her prayers had soaked into the willow’s roots and branches since she had first learned to pray. It wasn’t the way the priests had taught, but she had learned from Osanne that what the priests taught was a place to start, and then you had to season it like a fricassee to get the full flavor out of it.” 

These two paragraphs are full of sensory details, flashes of memory. And for each reader, the authenticating detail may be different. That means it’s your job as a writer to think of as many as you can so you have the best chance of pulling your reader in WITHOUT bogging your story down in excessive detail. NO PROBLEM, RIGHT?

The reason the highlighted detail authenticates the scene, for me, is that without knowing much about this Sylvie person, this internal thought has revealed some tangible and intangible things at the same time. In the abstract, it reveals that Sylvie isn’t ground in religious orthodoxy—that she has a tendency to think for herself. In the concrete, it reveals a glimpse of her daily life, in this case, what and how she eats.

Here’s another example where the authenticating detail is in the setting:

“Everything is like that. Stores, schools, even churches. Some people do different stuff with their front yards so you can kind of tell places apart, but . . . mostly everything is beige.  The homeowner’s association loves beige, and that’s what they make you paint everything, or they fine you. There’s a lot of names for beige too. My house is painted Grecian Summer, which is a pinkish beige, and Olivia’s is New Sahara. That’s yellowish beige. I can show you Sand Dune, Creamy Mocha, and Dreamscape. (Pro tip: the guy who named that dreamed in beige.) I will give you ten bucks if you can see the difference between any of those.”

This is such an utterly relatable image that it takes you right back to every suburb like this that you’ve ever seen, but it’s developed beyond simply describing the houses and being monochromatic or boring. We get a sense of the narrator’s finely tuned sense of absurdity as she runs down the color names, and that’s the authenticating detail, the names of the beige she notices, not the beige itself. We learn both about the physical appearance of the town she lives in and her relationship to it in this single scene.

It’s tricky business, but watch for it as you read. When you stumble across a character’s internal thought or a detail about the world that really resonates with you, STOP. Pick it apart. Think about why that detail comes to life for you. What is the subtle work that detail is doing at multiple levels that brings a scene or character alive?

Go forth, writers. AUTHENTICATION REQUIRED.
__________________________________

Melanie Bennett Jacobson is an avid reader, amateur cook, and champion shopper. She consumes astonishing amounts of chocolate, chick flicks, and romance novels. She lives in Southern California with her husband and three kids and a series of doomed houseplants. Melanie is a former English teacher who loves to laugh and make others laugh. In her down time (ha!), she writes romantic comedies for Covenant and maintains her humorous slice-of-life blog. Her sixth novel, Always Will, hits shelves in October. Melanie's contemporary YA novels are represented by Alyssa Henkin.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Forge Your Own Path

My husband calls me an idealist. He says I get these romanticized pictures in my head of how things are supposed to be.

He’s not wrong. Especially when it comes to writing.

When I finished my first novel, I pictured selling it to the first publisher who laid eyes on it.

When I got an agent with my third novel, I pictured that book selling at auction for a six-figure deal.

When I sold my first novel to a publisher (my fourth completed novel), I pictured it being showered with adoration and an unlimited marketing budget.

Once my kids were all in school, I pictured long, productive days in front of the computer, pounding out three or four novels per year, which of course my publisher would offer contracts for, sight unseen.

I still imagine leisurely vacations at the lakeshore where I rent a cottage and soak up endless inspiration.

I let myself dream of waking up in the middle night with a fully formed novel in my head, then typing it all out in one day as the words flow like water.

It’s not wrong to dream big. But writing requires a healthy dose of resilience and flexibility. And what works for one person is not guaranteed to work for you. Say it with me:

There is no one proper way to be a writer, and no one path to publication. 


It’s so tempting to always be peering over the proverbial fence, deciding that what someone else has is the ultimate key to success. If only I had a better laptop. If only I could get out of bed earlier or stay up later. If only I had the perfect writing space, or a full-time nanny, or a famous mentor.

Last year, for no apparent reason, I broke out in hives. For six solid months. I was on so many meds, trying to keep it under control, that I would fall asleep in front of my computer in the middle of the day. I had these beautiful, enticing chunks of alone time when I planned to be so productive, and they would be utterly wasted because I had to go and take a nap or else I simply couldn’t function. I wasted even more time grousing about it, instead of just showing some flexibility and working around it.

I finally realized that instead of fighting it, I should just take a nap, and then wake up and work. Arrrgh. Why do we waste so much time raging against unexpected obstacles? I’m slowly learning, after many, many years, to pick myself up after setbacks and just get back to work.
Another case in point:

Some people long for the chance to be at home and write full-time. They may tell themselves that when it finally happens, they’ll be prolific, find an agent, write a bestseller.

But I had that chance, and it did not work for me. I had too much time to obsess about writing and little else, and it paralyzed me.  I poured all of my mental energy and emotion into it, but it didn’t make me write more often. If anything, I would sit down at the keyboard and freeze up.

I discovered I’m the type of person who needs a secondary area of focus (besides parenting) in order to be productive. Ideas come more freely to me when I’m doing something not related to writing.

So I started looking for part-time jobs. And as of last week, I was officially hired to work at my alma mater in the music department. I’m nervous and thrilled at the same time, but I already know it’s going to be a great fit.

I truly believe that there is no secret formula, no one road to success. Through trial and error you will develop and discover your own tailor-made path that will help you be the most productive—and find the most joy.

_______________________________

Growing up, Christine Hayes loved reading stories about creatures that curl your toes and legends that send a shiver down your spine. Now she loves writing about them, too. Her debut novel, MOTHMAN'S CURSE, was released in June 2015 through Roaring Brook Press/Macmillan. Christine seeks inspiration by haunting flea markets and estate sales, searching for cool vintage finds with a story to tell. While earning her degree in music she visited Asia for the first time, and later moved there with her family for several years. She has been addicted to travel ever since. Christine and her clan now live in northern Utah. Find her online at www.christinehayesbooks.com.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Scenes and Sequels

I’ve heard that one of the most important—and difficult—things for writers is getting the readers emotionally involved in a story. After all, isn’t reading all about having vicarious experiences? But because emotions are such a big part of a story, it’s important that the character’s emotions flow logically, that they have time to react before they act, that they take the time to think.

This is often broken down into what’s called a Scene-and-Sequel structure. Action occurs in scenes and the reaction in sequels. These “scenes” aren’t what you would normally think of as scenes in a novel or movie, where the scene ends when the set changes or something like that, but encompasses instead the action. (I know, I know. It’s confusing, but it’s not my terminology, so don’t blame me!)



Scenes, or the action, can be broken down into three distinct sections:

1. Goal. 

The character has to want something and be willing to take action to get it, even if it’s just a cup of coffee or a peanut butter sandwich. The character must have a goal.

2. Conflict.

The character must struggle to achieve their goal. Maybe the car is out of gas, so the character can’t get to the grocery store for the epic peanut butter sale without stopping at the gas station. But something has to happen to make the character struggle. If they want something and get it immediately, chances are that readers will get bored.

3. Disaster/Complications. 

The character fails to achieve their goal or when they achieve their goal, it isn’t what they expected it to be. Personally, I prefer the term complications instead of disaster because disaster implies something BIG. It can be something simple like the store only has chunky peanut butter and our character only eats creamy.

After the scene, the character needs to react to the disaster/complications in the Sequel, which also has three components:

1.  Reaction. 

The character has to have some sort of emotional reaction to the complications. Go ahead and show the character hurting. In our peanut butter example, you could have them prowl up and down the aisle looking for a missed jar or something that shows how they’re feeling.

And after the character has reacted, they’re faced with a:

2. Dilemma. 

In other word, the character has to make a choice and there are no good options. The character could buy the chunky peanut butter (ick!) or not buy any at all. But it’s important to show the dilemma and the character’s thought process—and it doesn’t have to be long or super in-depth—leading up to the character making a:

3. Decision. 

And this decision becomes their new goal and moves the character into another scene. In our peanut butter scenario, maybe our character decides to go to another store to get the creamy peanut butter and, voila! The character has new goal.

To give you an example of how this works, here’s a look at the first few chapters of Brandon Sanderson’s Steelheart, which is—in my opinion—a pretty awesome, fast paced novel, and a great example of the use of scenes-and-sequels.

In the beginning of the book:

Goal: David wants to join the Reckoners.

Conflict: He can’t find the Reckoners.

Complications: He finds them, but an Epic interrupts the Reckoners’ plan.

Reaction: David curses, tries to figure out their plan, and how he can help.

Dilemma: He could die if he interrupts or miss his chance to join the Reckoners.

Decision: He decides to interrupt and try to help them.

This continues with his new goal:

Goal: David tries to help the Reckoners by distracting the new, less powerful Epic.

Conflict:  But the Epic is armed and won’t hesitate to kill David.

Complications: David mentions working under someone who died two days ago.

Reaction: David freezes.

Dilemma: The Epic reaches for his gun. David can reach for his own—but rifles are slower than handguns—or he can run.

Decision: David runs.

This pattern continues through the rest of the book and you can see how, even though my brief summaries are not pretty prose or anything, that the plot is following a logical flow. You can understand the character and why he’s doing what he’s doing.

I went through a section of my current manuscript and highlighted with different colors (dark red=goal, red=conflict, yellow=complications, green=reaction, blue=dilemma, and purple=decision; I tried to keep it simple and have order of the rainbow match up with the order of the scene-and-sequel. Pity that Word didn’t have an orange highlighter). It was interesting to see where I missed parts and how adding even a simple line made a big difference in the emotional flow of the story. It helped me see where my character’s weren’t taking the time to react and where they weren’t actively moving toward a goal, something my characters struggle with.

Do you use a scene-and-sequel structure in your writing? How has it helped you? _________________________________________

Jenilyn Collings loves to read and write things that are humorous or romantic (preferably both). She has worked as a dental researcher, a florist, a martial arts instructor, and a tracker at an alternative high school (she'll leave it to your imagination what that entailed), but she's now focused on writing and child wrangling. A long time resident of the Mountain West, she recently moved to New England with her family where she is gaining an appreciation for umbrellas, fall colors, and turning lanes while driving.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Beware of Predators

We are happy to welcome Emily R. King as our newest contributor - that's two this week!

So you want to get your book published. You have a polished manuscript ready to go, now what? You can query literary agents, submit to small presses, or consider self-publishing. There is no wrong path, so long as it’s right for you. But no matter which course you take, be on watch for predators.

Years ago, when I was green to the industry, I visited a highly regarded website to research small presses, assuming they, too, were reputable. I submitted my manuscript to two presses, but sadly, after they both offered me publication, I discovered they were vanity presses.

A vanity press is often a print-on-demand publisher that will nickel and dime a writer for costs before publishing their book. With more and more small presses popping up, how does a writer distinguish a good press from a bad one?

Author and publishing attorney Susan Spann posts regular tips on Twitter (#PubLaw). Susan recently tweeted about how vital it is for writers to investigate traditional publishing houses before they sign a contract. Susan gave me permission to share her insights:

  1. Beware of offers or contracts that require the author to pay out of pocket for anything
  2. Beware of publishers that offer (or require) authors to pay for “training” or “marketing plans”
  3. Beware of any publisher that makes claims about the success or profitability of your work
  4. Beware of any press that requires authors to purchase a stated number of copies of the finished book
  5. Find out how long the press has been in business
  6. Find out how much traditional publishing experience the editors, marketing VP, and publisher have
  7. Find out what other authors and industry watchdogs have to say about the press
  8. Find the publisher’s other books (in a store or online) and hold/read/examine them

Susan goes on to state that the most important thing when evaluating publishers is to trust your instincts. If anything seems off, don’t sign.



I can attest to this advice. My elation after receiving consecutive offers was quickly doused by the poor reputation of the small presses. I’m so grateful for Writer Beware, which lists predatory small presses, agents, and freelance editors. This free resource for writers saved me from signing a terrible contract.

In the end, we all want our books to be published, but we can’t let our high hopes interfere with responsible research and heeding our intuition. Be on guard for any business practice that feels predatory. No writer wants to fall for a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
___________________

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 @erittelking on Twitter.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Three Dialogue Don’ts

Dialogue isn’t just the words your characters say to each other. Good dialogue works on a number of different levels and accomplishes so much. It can add to the reader’s knowledge of a situation, keep a scene moving forward, reveal something about a character (especially if you use subtext) and tell us about the relationships between characters. I love writing dialogue! But there are a few things dialogue should NOT be used for:


1-Dialogue isn’t good for describing people, places, or objects. 


“When you walked into the room, I couldn’t help but notice the shimmering beads on the neckline of your red gown. It really clashes with the highlights in your auburn pixie-cut hair.”

Awkward.

Instead, drop the description right into the narrative. Alternatively, use it to tell us more about your character, such as:

“Hmm.”
“What?”
“Nothing.”
“Why are you looking at me like that?”
“It’s just that your dress is so…”
“What’s wrong with my dress?”
“I didn’t say anything was wrong with it. Just…never mind.”


2-Dialogue is not an important source of facts.


“If I don’t get to the Hartsfield International Airport in time, I’m going to miss the 9:30am flight to Phoenix. Your father is depending on me to be there for the gala in his honor tonight where everyone from the Dennis and Hart law firm will be attending.”

Nope. Just nope.

Instead, try:

“Where are my keys?”
“You’re going to be late.”
“I won’t be late if I can just find my keys. Get up and help me.”
“I can’t believe you’re going to miss the flight again.”
“I’m not going to miss it. Don’t tell your father about this. Okay?”


3-Dialogue is not for extended ruminating.


“I can’t help wondering, why am I here? I mean, not in a Biblical meaning-of-life kind of way, as in why are we here on earth experiencing this insignificant existence? More of a how did I get to this point in my life where my fate seems to hang on the balance of despair and insanity? I have no joy, no hope in this moment. Nothing to bring me a sense of peace in my pathetic actuality. Just a never-ending stream of questions that don’t make sense anymore.”

Ouch.

Please don’t waste the reader’s time with an empty scene like that. When in doubt, put it in narrative:

Gina went on a rant about life again. Most of us ignored her.

Learning to craft good dialogue is one of the most critical aspects of learning to write good fiction. By using gesture, silence, sensory clues, descriptive settings, unspoken thoughts, an association, or subtext interspersed with the words your characters speak, your dialogue will come alive.

So don’t hesitate to make those characters talk…just use those words wisely!

________________________________

Ilima Todd was born and raised on the north shore of Oahu and currently resides in the Rocky Mountains. She never wanted to be a writer even though she loves books and reading. She earned a degree in physics instead. But the characters in her head refused to be ignored, and now she spends her time writing science fiction for teens. Ilima is the author of the REMAKE series (Simon Pulse/Shadow Mountain) and is represented by Katherine Boyle of Veritas Literary. When she is not writing, Ilima loves to spend time with her husband and four children.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Fears

We are thrilled to welcome our newest contributor, Lauri Schoenfeld!

Fears.

We all have them. Even Chuck Norris in all his skilled nature has fear. It might be mostly that he’ll be the last surviving human on earth. Then who could he defeat? He might have to fight himself and have his own version of Fight Club, but still there’s one.

I think all of us feel at times that we’re fighting ourselves internally. There’s always some battle to be won and fear plays a major role in that as well. Which poses the question, where do fears stem from? Are they parts of our pasts that we haven’t fully recovered from? Maybe something we saw or witnessed that we weren’t prepared for?

When I was seven, a neighbor kid found a snake in our backyard. I remember being curious to see what it looked like, until the boy picked it up. Before I knew what was happening, he threw it at my face. The instant shock without any preparation or idea to what he would do, left a mark. One that still petrifies me. Just looking at a snake now gives me chills, and the urge to run as anxiety kicks in.

A few years ago, my sweet daughter, Belle, wanted me to pet “Peaches” at the Aquarium. Sounds like something you’d want to cuddle, right?

Wrong.

It was a snake. Let me start over, “Peaches” is an anaconda so a tad bigger than your average, scaly friend. Talk about panic. I didn’t want her to be afraid, so I made sure not to look into its eyes because you know…they smell fear and sense it. The hospital bills alone for my child getting therapy after I’m eaten would be outrageous. I worked hard to remember to breathe and to steady my shaking hand while I smiled and touched it. My daughter clapped and was reassured that the snake would be her best friend now. She went right over with no care in the world and looked into its eyes. I’m happy to inform you that she wasn’t eaten.


In writing mystery or thriller, you as the writer are using the fears of your character to deepen the plot, conflict and storyline. Ask these questions.

1. What are they afraid of?

  • Death
  • Spiders
  • Letting someone down
  • Losing a loved one
  • Natural disasters
  • Clowns
  • Public speaking
  • Falling in love
  • Blood
  • Guns

2. What’s their story behind their fear?

  • There’s always a story behind the fear the character possesses whether it’s subconsciously or conscious. Build on it. This creates emotion, tension and suspense. Also adds to the storytelling.

3. Is there a trigger? 

  • If so, always set off that trigger in the story. Always.
  • Maybe the character is afraid of fire. A match, flame, or even the sound of a spark, could set them spiraling into panic.

If your main character is deathly afraid of large bodies of water, that’s your cue to find a way to place him in a large body of water. Apply the pressure. If they’re afraid of tight spaces, dark closets, basements, or being buried alive; have them trapped in that area right as they’re about to find a clue.

Think about how you personally react to things that terrify you. What kind of body language do you use? Are you private or vocal about it? How do you get around it? Do you face it or avoid it?

Put your character in an uncomfortable situation and see what they’re made of. Throw a snake or two at them and see if they will pet it or run. Never put them up against Chuck Norris though. They’ll never win that battle.

---------------
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, April 25, 2016

On Learning

I recently had the opportunity to become acquainted with the work of physicist Marcelo Gleisler. Last year, he released the book The Island of Knowledge. Though I haven't read the book yet, I was introduced some of the concepts lately, one that even three weeks after hearing it, I can't stop thinking about.

This quote from his interview with NPR gives a little bit of an insight as to why:
"Naively, we would expect that the more we know of the world,  the closer we come to some sort of final destination, which some call a theory of everything and others the ultimate nature of reality. However holding on to our metaphor, we see that as the island of Knowledge grows, so do the shores of our ignorance — the boundary between the known and the unknown."
I have been actively engaged in learning all that I can about writing for about five years now. When I go to writer's conferences, I packed myself into intensives, classes on craft, read lots of books about artist's life and craft, and read blogs and blogs and blogs. And I have to admit, that there are times when I automatically dismiss a class because I have thought I knew everything that could be taught in that particular session.

But if you go back to that quote, you will see the flaw in my thinking. A more common idiom might be, "The more we know, the more we know we don't know."


It is easy, when we are first working into a new field, to know that we need to keep learning, to know that we need to keep studying. But there is a tendency to, if I may be so bold to say, to develop a sense of arrogance regarding our knowledge. I know there are times when I will skip over reading a certain blog or book because I'm not sure I can learn anything new. And I think that I can disregard reading about how to write certain elements because those particular plot points probably won't end up in my story.

Then there are the other kind of people, those who hear this comparison and respond with the tendency to decrease their knowledge so that they can prevent the growth of ignorance. But that isn't the way to success: success can only come from the growth of our island, and from understanding that we will still, and always, need to continue learning. If we don't, we risk allowing stubbornness to leave us stagnant.

So the next time you see someone recommend a craft book, at least take a look inside. Stretch your island a little bit into the ocean of the unknown.
_________________________________________

Tasha Seegmiller is a mom to three kids and lives in Southern Utah. She writes contemporary women’s fiction with a dash of magic. Her loves include Diet Coke, owls, chocolate and cinnamon bears. She is 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.