Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Promises, Promises

Whether you realize it or not, as a writer you make promises to your reader. If you are writing a category romance, you promise a happy ending. When writing a suspense novel, you promise moments of tension so tight that the reader's palms should sweat. And so on.

But beyond the overall promise that a particular genre offers, there are smaller promises, too. Like the one - perhaps - on an author's page 6 which mentions in great detail, candlesticks. Why candlesticks? The reader will remember this for some time, that you spent great effort describing the objects. And if by the end of the book, candlesticks never factored into the story again, the reader will wonder why you bothered to mention them on page six.

Does this mean that you cannot mention any detail at all if not returned to later? Of course not. But what determines a "promise" is precisely the amount of detail you include early on. In other words, don't mention a gun hanging over the fireplace with intense writerly focus, if you don't mean to use it by the bad guy forty chapters later.

Readers love looking for "red herrings", even if you're not writing a mystery. They also like noticing "flaws" - you know, those kinds of images you eventually deleted out of the first draft, yet still remain with ghostly presence in the final draft. Things like three men at the shootout in chapter 14, scene 1, yet now only two men by the time you arrive at scene 2. The reader will go, "Huh? What happened...I thought there were three men?" They then spend several minutes flipping pages back and forth, trying to figure it out.

You might not notice the error, because your mind now has a reason for only two bad guys. But if you don't closely edit out your adjustments, you leave the reader confused - due to poor editing - and perhaps even worse, disappointed - when too much was made of an object early on in the story, never to be revisited again.

None of us like unfulfilled promises. That's why as writers, we seek only to emphasize elements in our stories that hold promise ... and make sure to revisit them when it really counts.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Just Biding my Time

Monday, January 28, 2008

My mother always wore a watch but never knew what time it was. That was one of her many endearing qualities. She would forget to wind her old one, put a battery in her new one, or she would discover that most watches don't survive the spin cycle. I believe she once found a missing watch in the refrigerator- or was that her bifocals?

On the other hand, I'm time-conscious. On the right-hand column of this blog, near the bottom, you will see four clocks. They are set to tell the current time in the following cities: Logan, Utah (my home); Dayton, Ohio (home of our oldest son, a student at Wright State University School of Medicine, his wife, and our Darling Granddaughter); Jyvaskyla, Finland (home of our second son, a student at the University of Jyvaskyla, his wife and their two dogs), and Berkeley, California (home of our youngest son, a student at UC Berkeley).

As you can see, it's a good idea to check the clocks before I pick up the phone to call one of our sons. Otherwise I run the risk of waking someone out of a sound sleep. I once made a color-coded chart that included everyone's waking and sleeping hours, and I discovered there was a three hour period when it was safe for everybody to call each other, or perhaps even set up a conference call, which we have yet to do.And I'm now signed up with Messenger and Skype, so catching someone online at the same time I am is a pleasure and pure serendipity. Email, of course, is an important way to keep track of each other, and fortunately, doesn't interrupt anybody's sleep. And of course, those wonderful attachments- pictures and video clips- help us to feel closer to our scattered brood.

Just when I get the basic zones of our family firmly established in my mind, we either start or end Daylight Savings Time. Have you ever tried to explain to a child, not to mention an adult, why we trick ourselves by setting the clocks back or forward one hour twice a year? It takes me six months to reset all the various clocks in my home - on the oven, in the car, beside my bed, in the kitchen, on the microwave . . . and there's always one we miss. I have heard intelligent adults wandering around and muttering: "fall forward, spring back . . . or is it fall back, spring ahead?"

Fortunately, my computer and cell phone seem to know what time it is, magically, whenever I turn them on, and for that I am very grateful. We used to call a certain number to receive the exact time so we could set our watches and clocks, but then the phone company started to add commercials to it, and, adding insult to injury, began to charge for the calls, which were only made to a computer anyway.

Then, even when nobody's switching their clocks to fool us, there's jet lag (see above picture) when you travel from one time zone to another and your body simply doesn't know what time it is. Jet lag is real. The first major experience I had with it was on a trip to St. Petersburg, Russia, during the White Nights. Not only was there a significant time difference, there was very little actual darkness at all that time of year, and locals celebrated the White Nights by partying around the clock. Then I understood why hotels have those heavy, light-blocking drapes, and why a little pinhole in those drapes can be significant. If you're outside, though, your watch may tell you it's bedtime, but your eyes tell you that it's a lovely evening, and at some point it's mind over matter, or matter over mind. The garden vegetables are still growing, so why should we head to bed?

It's downright embarrassing to stay up all night, reading, because you can't sleep in a new time zone, only to fall asleep every time you sit down during the day. Experts say it takes one day to adjust to each hour of time change, which means that by the time you have adjusted to the new time zone on your wonderful trip, it's time to return home and go back to work, allowing no time to reverse the effects of being back in your normal zone.Time changes can be challenging for children, too. School districts keep Daylight Savings in mind when scheduling annual achievement tests, so children will perform their best and not be sleep-deprived due to time changes.

I've had a bad stretch of my own with watches lately, and for some reason I haven't worn one for months. If I could just find a watch for myself - one that works, so I would really know the actual time- I might get back on track. I do have a drawer of defunct watches. I periodically check them to see if one might be working, but so far no luck. Twice a day, though, each of them is actually correct, so how can I justify throwing them away?

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Your Unpublished Manuscript File

by Terrie Lynn Bittner

I just finished reading the book Writing Magic by Gail Levine. It’s for children and teens who want to write fiction, but it was a great starting point for me as well. She advised writers to save everything they write for fifteen years, because even if it isn’t good because it may spark something later, when your skills have progressed or your perspective has changed. That is great advice for children, but I found myself thinking, “I’m getting on towards fifty. I could be dead in fifteen years.” (It's been that sort of day!) Then I read an article asking if it was inappropriate to publish unfinished manuscripts by dead authors who asked that their unfinished works all be destroyed without reading.

My file cabinet is filled with old manuscripts, largely due to the fact that I recently got ambitious and sorted a box that has moved from house to house without being touched since my first writing career in my younger years. I was surprised to find file folders with stories long forgotten. After I looked them over, I knew why they were long forgotten. Ouch! Did I really write that badly? Did I really submit those stories somewhere and think they would get published?

Fortunately, I’m not famous enough, and never will be, that someone will be tempted to publish “Terrie Lynn Bittner—The Early Years.” Most likely those sad old stories will be tossed by family members trying to undo my years of clutter, and no one will be the wiser. But if things were different, how would I feel?

I do believe it might be that a writer’s greatest fear is not rejection, but the publication of unfinished or unskilled writing. Do I really want people to know about my elephant stage? This is not as impressive as the traditional blue stage or red stage you find with professional artists. It was, I think, a reaction to the realization that the last invisible friend had left my children’s life, and I was trying to keep them all (the friends, not the children) from running away from home by immortalizing them in story…after story…after story.

Maybe it would be a good idea to celebrate fiftieth birthday next year by cleaning out those files myself. I’m not sure I trust my kids to toss them. They might find it funny to fill my abandoned website with elephant stories.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Dealing with Blows

by C.S. Bezas

What is your response when you are knocked up side the head?

Hopefully for most of us, this experience does not come literally. But unfortunately, experiences do come at us that unsettle us. We feel we've tumbled to the gritty floor, blood in our mouths, and yet in truth, none of it really happened. It was all perceived, fictional.

Problem is, our brain perceives emotional knock-downs as real.

Perhaps it's the sudden death of a loved one (example: I found my baby in his crib, having passed away from SIDS). Perhaps it's the unexpected loss of a job (example: my husband experienced this twice). Perhaps it was learning of a friend's terminal illness (again a personal experience).

I'm sure you have your own knocked-up-side-the-head blows. They are never pleasant; they always feel nearly as real as a sure kick to the head (or heart, as it may be). What do you do in such times? I'd love to know.

All I know currently is that the only true solace I've found, while collapsed from life's dirty blows, is in the arms of the Lord. Isn't it true that during scripture study and prayer that peace is found - even when peace can't be found any other way?

But This is a Writers' Blog!

What does all this have to do with a writer's blog? Everything, at least in my mind. Writers experience continual "blows" or "knocks" throughout their writers' journey. How a writer deals with these blows determines the rest of their personal triumph (or misery).

The next time you receive a rejection from a publisher, reach for your scriptures instead of any other response. Drop to your knees instead of any other response. Peace can be found when you turn to the Lord first, before anything else. It's the only choice I've found that helps on some of the darkest days.

Again, some blows in life might not be physical ones ... but they might as well be for as much as they hurt. The best way to get off the gritty floors in life and back where we're needed - in my experience, at least - is within the pages of scripture inspired by the Master Writer Himself, within the arms of Him who knows to console like no other.

May you experience few "blows", but if you do, may you find great peace within Him who loves you!

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Telling the Truth in Your Writing

When I first started my homeschooling website, I was very cautious about what I wrote. After all, I was writing about myself and I had no intention of letting people know who I really was and how I really functioned. So I shared only the parts of homeschooling that worked and kept the dramatic failures out of sight. To read my website, you’d think I’d done everything right all the time.

One day I received an email from someone who said she couldn’t decide if my site was inspirational or discouraging. Everyone who wrote about homeschooling, in books and online, seemed to be entirely perfect, functioning to a level she herself could never hope to attain and that made things a bit hard for her.

I began remembering my first explorations into homeschooling. A crisis forced me into it, but I knew nothing about it. The library had two books, both apparently written by perfect people. I’m old enough that the Internet was not yet around. I didn’t know any actual homeschoolers, so I didn’t know homeschooling is normally done by less than perfect people. I began to wonder how my first traumatic experience in homeschooling would have been different if someone had told me the truth—that it was okay not to be perfect.

And so, I sat down to my computer and typed a new article, a true-confessions sort of thing in which I admitted I had been a terrible homeschooler when I started and that my articles were based on 20/20 hindsight and selective experiences. I began editing the currently existing articles to be more honest, and to include some failure stories.

One day a woman emailed me that she had decided to give up homeschooling because she couldn’t do it as well as everyone else, Heartbroken, she had gone online late that night in a last search for answers. She found that confession I’d written, and then sat up all night reading the rest of the site. By morning, she had realized it was okay, and she could do this.

I learned something important that day. When I showed people only the polished up side of my life, I could inform, but I couldn’t change lives. People learn best from someone who is like them, imperfect, with dustballs under the sofa. Since that time, I’ve written a book that is so honest no one in my ward ever asks me to cook for a ward activity or shows up at my house without warning. I’ve written about my homeschooling failures, my academic failures, and my rejection letters. I’ve written about being so klutzy I once tripped over a turkey.

So, now people know all about the real me, and you know what? I still have friends and people still read my writing and my world is still okay. It turns out, people don’t mind if you’re not perfect.

Take a chance and tell the truth in your writing. You get used to it after a while, and when someone says your honesty changed their life…it will be worth it.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Lessons From Great Authors

When I read a good author, I am constantly watching what it is that makes this book so enjoyable for me. From one I may be getting a sense of tone in the story. In another it may be a sense of setting--Anne Rice does that very well. When I reach a part in my writing where I want it to have the near physical sense of setting like Anne Rice is so capable of achieving, I pick up one of the Vampire or Witch series and thumb through it searching for the parts that makes the perfect impact on me. Then I study how it was done and do my very best at creating that for myself. Perhaps its that she gave the area its own life, or that she used colors to heighten the tension of the place. I say to myself, "I can write like that." And then I do. Well, at least I do my best. So keep reading those great authors. Keep looking for why their writing is so inspiring to you. And keep remembering that they had to learn to be great and so do we.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

A Plan of Action

by Lori

I’m with Janet (see Wednesday, January 2 post). Resolutions set me up for failure. Yet I need some sort of quantitative goal to keep me pointed in the right direction.

I’ve made the mistake, in Januaries past, of setting near unattainable writing resolutions: write for three additional hours a day, send out five queries every other day, submit three manuscripts each week, read dozens of books on writing and editing, etc., etc.

When February rolled around, I was exhausted. Trying to jam so much in caused lots of stress. My efforts were not well thought out. The quality of my writing suffered.

My hard drive overflowed with articles, stories, and books. However, I didn’t polish the majority of what I started. My office was a hub of activity, with myriad distractions and interruptions. I could write amid the chaos but effective editing and rewriting were difficult. I ended up submitting only a fraction of what I wrote because I knew my work wasn’t up to par.

Last November, I decided not to wait until January to set new writing goals. I wanted to try something different. I didn’t want to feel so stressed that the mere thought of writing evoked dread.

I needed a place away from the bustle. My bedroom was the only feasible option. I purchased an inexpensive desk and set up my laptop. Viola! Almost zero interruptions. Plus, with no Internet connection, I wasn’t tempted to waste time checking and rechecking email, or visiting blogs.

I established five simple goals, sans rigid restrictions: write, polish, learn, attend, and send. I posted the list at the bottom of my computer screen. I already wrote on regular basis, a habit I would continue. Polish could be achieved when I secluded myself at my new desk; my flash drive made it easy to transport files from computer to computer. Learn took in studying anything that would further my knowledge of writing, editing, markets, etc. Attend meant going to workshops and critique group. The first four goals set me up for the last: submit, which I felt better about than ever before.

My life is far from simple. No two days are ever the same. But, with my new goals in place, I've resolved not to fret over daily or weekly quotas. Instead, each day, I ask myself if I'm doing my best in at least one or two things on the list. I focus on feeling good about my accomplishments, not dwelling on what I haven't done.

Now, writing is once again enjoyable. Overall, I feel the quantity and quality of my writing has increased. So have my submissions and publishing prospects. I’m excited about the possibilities the New Year will bring.

Monday, January 7, 2008

The year in review - LDS publishing from AML list

Fascinating read from the AML discussion site. I'd have posted this on the forum but I've forgotten my password and username . . . will have to look them up!



Friday, January 4, 2008

Book Review: Craft & Technique, by Paul Raymond Martin

Writers can be a lonely group of people. If we're not writing, we're editing. If we're not editing, we might be off somewhere stewing over our next plot line or chapter.

Then again, some of us would like to be like that. For those of us who are mothers or fathers, there are other daily demands. You know the kind - important things like a job or putting food on the table or helping a child with their homework.

It can make "being a writer" a bit of a challenge. That is why I find certain writers' books so helpful. They boil down the most essential elements of writing, so that when I actually sit at the computer TO write, I'm more effective.

Craft & Technique, by Paul Raymond Martin, is one such book. I love this book. It is the one I reach for most often. If I'm in a writing bind, I reach for this book. If I'm taking a break, I reach for this book. It is that good.

At first glance, this little 3 1/2" x 5" book might not seem like much. But oh what impact it carries! The cover of the book states that Craft & Technique "includes more than 300 aphorisms and insights." And it is precisely its pithy quotes I love. For example:

"Think of your writing as a house before moving day. You have to get rid of the clutter."

"Interest Level equals Word Count divided by New Information."

"Writers write long when they haven't taken the time to write short" (p. 4).

The author includes savvy advice in all six chapters: Characterization; Dialogue; Plot; Fiction Techniques; Style; and Voice. Each chapter is equally as refined and potent.

I'm a mother. It's hard to find writing time. Even harder to find time to study what makes great writing. Is it any wonder then that in my house this book is dog-eared and well-used?

Writers might be a lonely group of people, but we also are very busy people. If you need a great book that's a quick read, Craft & Technique is just the thing. Not only will your writing improve from studying it, but you'll enjoy the experience (in the brief snatches of time you might have).

Thursday, January 3, 2008

A Writer's Reputation

by Terrie

When I started out in writing, I sent out nearly everything I wrote. I figured no one would remember me if it was bad. Unfortunately, of course, some of the bad stuff got published, but no problem. A magazine is only around for a month…at least it was then.

Today, some of my bad writing has been posted on the Internet, as magazines put up online archives. Those stories I figured would disappear are still floating around, ready to be found.

Thanks to archives, sites that do nothing but archive the internet, and Google, what we write may still be floating around long after the Second Coming. It’s there for agents and potential publishers to track down. It’s there for readers to find. It’s there to hurt or help your reputation.

Everything you put online is important. You just don’t know who is looking. My publisher found me through a free online column I write, which led him to my website. If I hadn’t been taking my work in those places seriously, I wouldn’t have been offered a contract. Those bits of writing were my resume.

Often when I review applications at BellaOnline, I google an applicant. Sometimes what I find gets them rejected. Sometimes it strengthens a weak application. Your past writing and activities matter.

Whether you are blogging or keeping a family website, make sure every bit of writing you do is worthy of a publisher’s eye. You don’t know who is checking your out because they need a project. If you want to write LDS books, be sure you speak well of the church. If you want to write a parenting book, eye your online writing for suitability. Don’t lose a great opportunity over a little bit of thoughtless writing!

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

New Year's Resolutions? I don't make 'em

by Janet

I find that New Year's resolutions set me up for failure. I'm a little vulnerable at that time of the year - I'm still recovering from Christmas and some unrealistic expectations I sometimes have for the holidays. I am putting away decorations and restoring the house to its previous condition. I'm a little overwhelmed about getting my life organized again.

I find that making a resolution or goal in the moment is far more effective for me. This kind of resolution occurs when I'm deeply involved in the creative process, such as:

I will finish this manuscript and submit it to_______. A realistic date is added.

I periodically submit articles, essays, etc. and put them on a calendar. That way, I have ongoing submissions and rejections to track, and I find more submission sources. There's never really a blank on my calendar. I'm always trying to move forward.

A few months ago, as I thought through my writing as a business as well as a creative enterprise, I determined how many workshops I will attend per year, keeping in mind what I want to accomplish by attending them. They are already blocked out on my calendar.

This new year, however, I have entered a BIAM (book in a month) activity at Tristi's blog. That may give me the incentive to finish the work in progress, which is always on my mind, but needs to be on paper, or at least on the computer screen. It will be interesting to see how I do with this challenge. If I don't complete the book by the end of January, at least I'll have made progress. And I won't kick myself if it's not done.

One resolution I make every year, though:

I will not have overdue library books.

Oops, I just checked my online library account and . . . you guessed it. Now my goal is to put library due dates on my calendar, so Outlook will nag me.

OK, OK, I just made a resolution.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Change begins with a blank page

by Patricia

A new year has begun, and as it does we post our new calendars with all new spaces, waiting to be filled with appointments and dates, celebrations and sorrows.

For writers, this should be the time we open a new document, a new journal, a new reporter's notebook. Make this the year you set a goal to explore the story that's been simmering in your imagination. Release the manuscript you put away a few years ago, thinking it unpublishable, and revise it. Give yourself the gift of time and set aside a portion of your day -- no matter how small -- to write.

Some people embrace change, others fear it. Change brings about the unexpected. To change means we are forced out of our comfort zones. We must sink or swim, run or be left behind.

For many of us, change begins with a blank page and the decision to fill first one, then another, and another. On rare occasions, the page fills quickly. But mostly we stare at that blank page, fearing that we won't have anything worthwhile to fill it with.

When I wrote the last book in the Kevin Kirk Chronicles series, The Final Farewell, I knew Kevin would be faced with many blank pages: life after high school, college, the choice whether or not to serve a mission. As he journeyed through his senior year of high school, his future just beyond the horizon, he had decisions to make. Some were easy. A few, like whether to serve a mission, were not.

The answers were not there for him. He had to make the effort to find them for himself. There were tools all around him, friends and family for support, experiences he could draw from, to help him as he made that final decision. Throughout the book the blank page loomed, waiting for the time when Kevin decided to sit down, make his choice and write the first sentence.

It's tough to choose sometimes; tough to commit to something when you have no assurance it will be successful. But what if you don't commit? What if you don't do that thing you dare?

What if you don't fill that page?

Sometimes, it may not matter. But most of the time, it matters a lot. Maybe not for others, but it will matter to you.

Many missionaries will serve their entire mission and not have an opportunity to baptize someone. Yet many of those missionaries will tell you what they learned about themselves during those two years of service made the mission worth it. They learned about compassion from their experiences in the mission field, they gained a greater understanding of the gospel by working with priesthood leaders, members, and the public. They become more sensitive to the subtle messages of the Spirit. They learned to be more reliant on the Lord.

Do concert pianists consider the years of lessons and practice to be a waste because they didn't earn any money for practicing? No. Do marathon runners look at the miles they ran in preparation for a race to be hours spent running nowhere? Of course not.

And neither should we, as writers, think of writing as an idle activity. It's our practice, our workout, preparing us for all the blank pages that will come in our lives, blank pages that only we can fill.

Don't be afraid of blank pages.

Don't be afraid to embrace change.