Wednesday, August 20, 2014

ADDING TENSION to your writing

On Monday, I met with local writers to hear a mini-workshop given by Erin Lindsay McCabe, author of the historical novel I SHALL BE NEAR TO YOU. Her website is HERE, and her book is described as:

An extraordinary novel about a strong-willed woman who disguises herself as a man in order to fight beside her husband, inspired by the letters of a remarkable female soldier who fought in the Civil War.

In her talk, Erin listed ways to increase tension in our writing—some surprising, as I'd never thought about how some of these things relate to tension.

ERIN'S 7 WAYS TO INCREASE TENSION
1. Make a likeable character, one readers will care about. If readers are invested and feel close to a character, every obstacle the character faces will be sensed more keenly, with the interest in their welfare heightened.
2. Make a likeable character, which doesn't mean a wholly "good" character. A wholly good (or evil) character can be flat or stereotypical. Erin described the "good-bad character" and the "bad-good character," one who performs acts of both evil and kindness. These more complex characters amp up tension because they aren't as predictable, and often have conflicting inner desires.
3. The character needs to WANT something. A dream, a goal separate from the action of the story. What's important to the main character? If he/she wants something badly, the roadblocks along the way create more conflict and thus more tension.
4. Make life difficult with confrontation. Don't be too easy on your characters; take them to their limits, their darkest places. Make them experience the worst day of their life. Stretch them and have them make active choices that put them in yet more complex places, full of more difficult choices. Don't give characters what they want!
5. In dialogue, find ways to make characters say No to each other. This wise nugget Erin found in WRITING FICTION by Janet Burroway. If characters are in conflict and at odds with each other, tension is increased. People often don't think the exact same way about issues; show those differences. Make your interchange complicated. Also, make sure the characters aren't saying No to the exact same conflict throughout; explore different angles of that conflict.
6. Pay attention to pacing. When editing, cut scenes that don't further the plot; wandering or slow passages dilute tension. Look for places where your characters aren't talking for a half-page or more. Do you have too much sitting around and thinking? Often you can transform that into dialogue with another character, but be sure to further plot or relationships rather than writing needless talk. Don't have your characters dole out exposition or info dumps: show with actions and blend the details. Also, often tension can be increased by slowing action down. Don't rush important scenes. Explore the emotions and actions (by describing, not Telling) to make the reader FEEL what the character does.
7. Remove filters, phrases such as "she looked" or "I heard" or "he saw." Those words add distance and dilute tension because the writer is reminding the readers they're in someone's head. Just BE in that person's head, and describe the noise or sight without the filter words. Filters also slow scenes down, which again relates to the pacing issue.   

YOUR TURN
Have you ever thought about how character plays a part in tension?
Do you have any other ways you like to add tension to a scene or story?
Do you enjoy historical fiction, such as Erin McCabe's 19th-century Civil War novel?

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Writing Middle Grade

Greetings, fellow Earthlings! I hope you are doing great with life and your writing.

NEW STRATEGY NEEDED
My agent and I developed a better plan for my writing a few weeks ago. Instead of me writing entire novels and then having her decide some weren't marketable (due to being dystopian, not fresh enough, etc.), we decided to have me write sample chapters and run the premises by her FIRST. Seems a no-brainer, but hey. We're on track now.

This strategy also forced me to write a one-sentence pitch line before I started writing the novel—which is very focusing. I have to boil down the essence and ask the crucial question: "What's this story about?" 

SWITCHING MY AGE CATEGORY
My agent also suggested I try my hand at writing a Middle Grade to supplement my usual Young Adult. At first I was like… "Whaaat?" but I was definitely intrigued. She gave me a reading list of MG novels, most of them fantasy, since that's the genre I like to write. I read their first pages on Amazon; that's a great way to do quick research, by the way. I'll read further later.

MIDDLE GRADE STUFF I'M LEARNING
1. Middle Grade is for kids who are pre-high school. The SCBWI describes MG as a whole as books for 8-12 year olds. My agent suggested I write Upper MG, targeting 7th and 8th graders.
2. MG manuscript lengths are shorter, roughly 30,000-60,000 words—in contrast to 55,000-90,000 for YA. 
3. Chapters for MG novels are also shorter. 5-8 pages vs. 8-12.
4. White space is the MG reader's friend. When some kids open a book, if they see solid blocks of paragraphs instead of friendly white space (around dialogue or shorter paragraphs), they often put the book back down. It's intimidating.
5. Chapters are more often titled in MG. But chapter titles shouldn't give too much away. Be vague but intriguing.  
6. Most MG books are written in third person, past tense. At least for fantasy, because this allows for multiple points of view to reveal everything going on in the story. I checked out 12 novels; 8 were written in third/past. The remaining 4 were first person, with 2 of those past tense and 2 present tense. The choice of which to use depends on what works for each story. I ended up settling on first person, past tense, for mine. It's the minority, but it felt "right."
7. Most MG readers don't like long-winded passages of description. Descriptions need to be spare, or trickled throughout the narrative. Upper MG is more lenient, though.
8. There are more vocabulary restraints with MG. With YA, anything goes (as long as it doesn't sound stilted or overly intellectual). I'm constantly having to weigh my words and decide if it's the right vocabulary for the MG reader as well as for my main character.
9. MG books often start right off with action. This catches a young reader's interest. The pace is also brisk throughout, to keep that interest. Adventure tales work well. 
10. The MG focus is more on friendships rather than romance. If there is romance, it's light, and at the most involve a kiss. No sex; that's a topic reserved for Young Adult.

MY PROGRESS
I'm now 6 chapters (12K words) into my new MG novel. My agent approved my first chapter and pitch line, and said to keep going. I'm having fun! Isn't that what writing is all about?  

YOUR TURN
Have you ever tried your hand at writing a Middle Grade novel?
Have you read many Middle Grade books, or do your children read them?
Any additional tips or comments you'd like to share about writing MG?

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

CLICHÉS in Writing

Clichés work for a reason. They're universal. Familiar. Tested and reader approved. Whether on a sentence level, character level, or a plot level, clichés flourish and abound. Whether we really want to use the same thing that's been used hundreds—if not thousands—of times before is something to ponder in depth.

What are common clichés, and the pros and cons of using them?

COMMON clichés: (MC=main character)
1. MC finds out he has latent powers—which must be used to save the world.
2. MC discovers she is really the long-lost offspring to a king/millionaire/sea king/famous wizard/vampire/faery queen.
3. MC is hot and gorgeous, with great hair, toned body. Usually athletic. Never overweight.
4. In fantasy or paranormal novels, the MC or supporting character has green eyes.
5. The controversial hated/adored love triangle. The MC must choose between two characters he/she is equally drawn to.
6. The nameless character who joins a dangerous group is the first to die.
7. Grandmothers who knit and crochet, and have a parakeet for a pet.
8. Cheerleaders who are mean, bullying, and beautiful. Oh, and blonde.
9. Using the following for stereotypical comedic relief: redheads with freckles, African-Americans or other ethnic groups, short people, overweight people, the elderly, young children, and pets.
10. The butler did it. (Mystery novel Killer Extraordinaire.)


DANGERS of using clichés:
Your reader may guess your plot and potentially become bored or restless with the story. They'll feel like they've read your story a thousand times before, only with different characters. Yaaaawn. Time to go watch TV or play a video game…

People often crave variety, freshness, and the unique. Add zest to your writing by adding a surprising twist, turning a cliché on its head, or thwarting your readers' preconceived expectations. Keep them on their mental toes!

BENEFITS of using clichés:
1. Sometimes it's fun and useful to throw in a cliché when we're parodying, poking fun of "the usual." Can be accompanied by the word "proverbial," for example: "I ran around like a proverbial chicken with its head cut off."
2. We might purposely want to introduce a character who speaks in clichés. This Shows he's dull or unimaginative without Telling the reader.
3. Readers may actually like a certain predictable formula—such as in the romance genre. How many romance novels end where the guy and the girl do NOT end up together? In these cases, the skill for a writer is to present the same plot cliché in a fresh, engaging way. This is a unique challenge!
4. Love triangles spark interesting and heated discussions, in which readers take "sides" and choose their favorite character—even if the MC didn't choose that character in the book. Team Edward or Team Jacob, anyone?
5. Reading a more cliché, formulaic book can be more relaxing and less stressful. Sometimes it's enjoyable to read a more mellow book, as opposed to an "edge of your seat" type.

YOUR TURN
What's your opinion on clichés, and do you ever purposely use them?
Do you enjoy reading about a love triangles, or are you TIRED of seeing them?
What's a book you've read where the author totally broke away from plot or character clichés? 

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

I'm a Strange Chemistry Orphan

On June 18th, I got a call from my agent, Kelly Sonnack.

Bad news. Strange Chemistry was closing down, effective immediately, and would no longer be my publisher. My debut release for THE BODY INSTITUTE would not be January 2015 as planned. 

Argh—what?? 

That wasn't what I wanted to hear, only a little over 5 months away from being published. Finally, after over 10 years of writing and submitting. Finally, after writing more than 14 novels. At last my book was available for preorder on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Book Depository, and Powell's--it was so cool! Not to mention I'd started an author page and a book presence on Goodreads. This was NOT a bump in the road I wanted to experience.

But over the bump I went. Kelly and I devised a game plan. I readjusted my mental expectations (no, I probably won't be published before I'm 55). I changed my online bios, tweaked my website, and adjusted my Facebook and Goodreads author pages. Back to square ONE. Ack.

Twitter blazed with wonderful support and sympathy for the Strange Chemistry orphans. So did my friends on Facebook when I posted the news. We orphans banded together via email, commiserating and encouraging each other. We're certainly not the first to whom this has happened, and we won't be the last. Whether a publishing house is small or large, imprints close down on occasion. Merges happen, editors leave, entire houses shut down.

I'm certainly grateful this happened to me this far out, rather than closer to my release date. How horrible it must be for all those debut writers who were closer to their launches. Hugs, everyone. 

The past 2 weeks, I've pushed myself to keep writing. Revising another manuscript. Because I won't make any progress on my writing journey if I stop in the middle of the road.  

ONWARD!

YOUR TURN
Had you heard the news of Strange Chemistry's closure yet?
Are you unable to write when you're sad or upset, or is it a good distraction?
Do you find it difficult to carry on after major disappointments in your writing journey? (Such as query/manuscript rejections, parting ways with an agent, losing a great critique partner, receiving a brutally honest critique, reading a harsh review.)


Wednesday, June 18, 2014

DREAM BOY blog tour: What's Your Dream?


Today I'm happy to be part of the What's Your Dream blog tour, in which we help announce the about-to-be-released DREAM BOY by Mary Crockett and Madelyn Rosenberg. This novel comes out July 1, so be sure to preorder it or put it on your to-read lists!

As per the tour, we tell a dream we recently had, or a recurring dream. Here's mine:
Helicopter whirring in the sky, looming. Feeling of dread. Loudspeaker blares from the helicopter. "Carol Pritchett…Carol Pritchett." It's commanding me to show myself. But I hide, ducking behind corners and angles of buildings. If they see me, the dark men aboard will shoot me with their machineguns. I dart from one building to another, fearing they've spotted me. The helicopter chops the air with its blades, flying overhead around the buildings, persistent in their hunt. "Carol Pritchett. Carol Pritchett!" I wake up with a yucky feeling in my mouth and a tight feeling in my chest.

Whew. I must've been feeling stressed to dream that. Pritchett was my maiden name. Go figure why the helicopter dudes shouted that…I haven't been a Pritchett for 31 years!

DREAM BOY
If dreams can come true…then so can nightmares.

One night Annabelle dreams of the perfect boy: tall and handsome with impossible blue eyes. Then, just as suddenly as he appeared, he’s gone…until he walks into her science class the next day. Perfect and REAL. The boy of her dreams. And when he brushes past her, he whispers “Annabelle.” Suddenly, Annabelle’s got the perfect boyfriend and a date to homecoming. Her life is like a dream come true—until her dreams stop and the nightmares begin.

"Hits the chick-lit and romance buttons, adding suspense and an intriguing idea as well for nicely rounded entertainment." --Kirkus Review

MY REVIEW
Not "just" a chick-lit story, which some people equate with a light, shallow read. This novel has depth, with lots to think about regarding our dreams (nighttime as well as daytime types), the subconscious, and the often blurry line between our desires and our realities. The dialogue and characters were intriguing as well as amusing; I cackled and laughed out loud OFTEN while reading this book! Delightful—5 stars!

Madelyn is on the left, Mary is on the right!
ABOUT MARY & MADELYN
Mary Crockett likes turtles, licorice, and the Yankees. Madelyn Rosenberg likes cats, avocados, and the Red Sox. Luckily they both like the weirdness of dreams (and each other) enough to write novels together. The friendship has survived three moves, six kids and countless manuscript revisions. Madelyn lives just outside of Washington, D.C. Mary remains in the mountains near their hometowns in southwestern Virginia. You can find them on Twitter @marylovesbooks and @madrosenberg. Or visit their blogs at  www.marycrockett.com  and  www.madelynrosenberg.com

PURCHASE LINKS
INDIE BOUND | AMAZON | BARNES & NOBLE | BOOK DEPOSITORY | POWELL'S

YOUR TURN
Do you have a recurring dream, or have you had a particularly vivid dream lately?
Do you like magical realism/contemporary fantasy type stories? If so, this book is for you!


Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Where Do Writers Get New Ideas?

I'm at a strange point in my writing life. Since I wrote THE BODY INSTITUTE, which became my debut for January 2015, I've written three other novels. Eventually (um, hopefully) I'll be working on at least one of these with my agent, but what about brand new shiny ideas? I confess at this point I don't have any sparks or plans for new books. Now there's a totally ungrounded, unsettled feeling.

Where do we as writers get new ideas? How do we get out of that state of mind where we think of possible ideas but just as fast, we discard them as boring, cliché, too convoluted, or shallow? Well, I guess we keep jotting them down until one of them grabs us by the lapels and doesn't let go. Here are some ways I can think of to generate initial story ideas.

MINING IDEAS
1. Read newspaper or online articles. I'm talking NON-fiction, here. What about that article you read about the girl everyone thought was missing for 15 years—what really happened to her? What about that fascinating new scientific or technological discovery? You could spin a plot from intriguing things like auras, telekinesis, time travel, alternate histories, or synesthesia (a mixing of the senses, for instance perceiving numbers as certain colors). Do a random online search or wander your local library, and see what you come up with!

2. Read other books, and "research." No, I don't mean ripping off other writers' ideas or being derivative. Reading can make you aware of what's already out there, so you can make sure your book is different and unique. Reading can also often send you off on a tangent toward fresh and innovative ideas. It can inspire you.

3. Read something you don't normally read. Switch it up. If you usually read sci-fi and fantasy, try reading a contemporary novel. If you usually stick to YA or MG, try reading an adult novel. You can even thumb through picture books in the children's section of a bookstore or a library. Some random gem of an idea might just catch your eye, something you can develop into a full-blown short story or novel.

4. Refresh an old idea with a new twist. Rummage through that file or folder that holds all your "failed" or shelved storylines—you know the one. Check to see if you can't breathe new life into these stories by changing the plot, adding a spicy character, writing it from a different character's point of view, or making that unsellable dystopian into a sci-fi novel. Warp those genres. Mix and match plotlines. Try quirky new settings.

5. Try your hand at a retelling. Don't slavishly copy a folk tale or an existing children's book. Make it your own. Toss it into a totally different time period, such as the 1996 movie Romeo & Juliet, which takes place in a modern, urban setting. Or like Marissa Meyer's CINDER, which tells the tale of Cinderella as a sci-fi tale involving a cyborg as the main character.

6. Find new WAYS of telling a story. THE BOOK THIEF by Markus Zusak involves Death as the narrator. Very unique. Jay Asher's 13 REASONS WHY involves tapes sent to 13 people to reveal the reasons why a girl committed suicide. Experiment with points of view. Do something in a way that's never been done before. Be creative!

7. Mine your dreams. Write down half-remembered dreams. Develop that recurring nightmare. Explore that mysterious place between your waking and non-waking worlds. Use your subconscious snippets, form them into a plotline, and have fun populating these worlds with intriguing characters.

YOUR TURN
Have you ever found yourself in this position, without a clue as to what you'll write next?
Which of these methods catches your attention the most, the one you'd like to try?
Where do you find YOUR story ideas?


Wednesday, May 21, 2014

MILESTONE: Author R. Mac Wheeler

I'd like to acknowledge a fellow writer and blogger-friend for reaching a monumental milestone: publishing his 24th novel! I hope you'll visit his blog where he posts his photography, and give him a congratulations…or visit his home page and peruse his titles…read an excerpt...and help him celebrate.

Mac has written novels across several genres, including 2 contemporary, 6 speculative, 5 paranormal, 4 science fiction, and 7 fantasy.


About Book #24
This volume of the NEW ORDER APOCALYPSE series continues thirty-three years after an engineered plague shredded Earth's population.

Chloe and Ginna Lee must decide whether to continue Jason's dream to unite survivors, or concentrate on surviving. Chloe hasn't the tact to play ambassador, and Ginna Lee is more likely to take heads than spread goodwill. Promises little hope they can build an alliance, especially if peace hinges on a cure for Jihad. Meanwhile, the landscape they must cross still writhes with roamers and desperate clans.

Mac spins tales around rich, gritty characters with a lot of baggage, and puts them through a bit more grief than they can handle. His tone leans toward the sarcastic, passive aggressive.

Please visit Mac at:
http://rmacwheeler.com/
http://rmacwheeler.blogspot.com/


YOUR TURN
How many genres have YOU written in? (I've done 3 or 4)
How many novels total have you written—published and/or unpublished?
Have you visited Mac's blog before, and checked out his southern-style scenic photos?



Thursday, May 8, 2014

Release Party! Michelle Merrill's CHANGING FATE

Today I'm excited to be a part of Michelle Merrill's release party for her latest novel, CHANGING FATE. The book aims to raise an awareness of cystic fibrosis; half the proceeds will go to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation!!! Not only that, this book will be featured for just $2.99 for all of May to celebrate CF Awareness Month. 

CHANGING FATE
All Kate wants is to live. Battling cystic fibrosis is hard enough; dying from it is even harder. When her mom moves them closer to the hospital in the middle of her senior year, Kate’s determined to isolate herself—saving everyone the trouble of befriending a dying girl. It’s a difficult task when cheerful optimist Giana insists on being Kate’s friend.

Kate’s resolve falters even more when curly-haired Kyler captivates her with his sweet melodies. As her emotional walls collapse, Kate realizes the people she’s been pushing away may be the ones giving her a reason to live. But it might be too late.

GIVEAWAY!
Want to win a free copy? Visit each participating blog and find all 16 key phrases—2 located in each fun fact section about the author (words are in bold print). Put them together and answer the question in the giveaway on Michelle’s blog for extra points! The giveaway is open to everyone no matter where you live!

THE BLOG TOUR:
Michelle Merrill (1 & 2)      
Carol Riggs (3 & 4)          
Shallee McArthur (5 & 6)  
Kelley Hicken (7 & 8)            
Annette Larsen (9 & 10)              
Rachel Pudelek (11 & 12)                  
Melanie Stanford (13 & 14)            
Chantele Sedgwick (15 & 16)

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Michelle Merrill loves kissing her hubby, snuggling her kids, eating candy, reading books, and writing first drafts. She names her computers after favorite fictional characters and fictional characters after favorite names. To learn more about her, visit her website HERE.  

View the CHANGING FATE trailer on youtube HERE!  

2 FUN FACTS about Michelle!
#3. This book is the 6th out of my total 7 written. First one published and nothing like I’ve ever written before. I’m a bit of a hypochondriac and avoid anything medical. That word alone makes me cringe. Also, I don’t like sad stories. Yes, spoiler…this one is a bit sad. If I shed one tear, I get the absolute worst headache. But I was inspired to write this story and I feel lucky to be involved in something so great!

#4. I played softball for 8 years. You’d never know that now, but it’s true. Slow pitch. My favorite position was second base. I still go back to the batting cages every once in a while just for fun…as much fun as it is to get schooled by a machine.

PURCHASE LINK: Amazon

YOUR TURN
--Do you know much about cystic fibrosis? (I hadn't, before I read the book.)
--How much of your reading involves contemporary novels, as opposed to fantasy, historical, mystery, sci-fi, etc? (I'd say mine is about 10%, one in 10 books that I read.)
--Isn't Michelle's author photo lovely?!