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Saturday, September 8, 2012

Agents- Do I even want one?

            Your book is finished. You’ve slaved over it, loved it, cut it to pieces and put it back together, even read through it backwards just to make sure that every word was spelled correctly. It’s ready. So what do you do next? There are several options available now that weren’t available to authors before, such as self-publishing and internet publishing, but traditionally there were two routes: send it directly to publishing houses, or find an agent.
            Why would you want an agent? Why would you seek a middle man to take a commission for your literary baby being published? What do agents even do?
            Well, those are all excellent questions. I’m glad you asked.
            The first thing that agents do is provide a filter for the publishing industry. Editors are swamped with submissions and the unsolicited manuscripts they receive (meaning the ones that show up in the mail that the editor did not request) are all put in the slush pile. It may take them 6-8 months to even get to your manuscript, and they know before they open it that this is just you, John Doe writer, who thinks that your book is incredible.
            Agents are selective about the projects they take on, and so if a manuscript is recommended to an editor by an agent, the editor is more likely to read it sooner and consider it. The editor knows this manuscript has already been vetted by one level of the publishing industry, which gives you and your story credibility. As I was researching this, on one author’s blog he even mentioned that with editors so busy it’s rare for publishers to even consider unagented submissions. Can you get published without an agent? Yes, but it’s harder, and we’ll talk about how to do that later.
            Now that you’ve found your agent (to find an agent, go to my Query and Cover Letters page to learn how to contact them), what do they do for you besides add a level of professionalism? They help you make your manuscript stronger.  The publishing world is very competitive, and most literary agents do their job because they honestly love books. Your agent will help you edit your novel and offer suggestions for revisions. Now you are allowed to take or leave these suggestions, but may I recommend that you TAKE THEM. Agents offer a fresh perspective that is weighted with years of experience. Love your story enough to want to make it the best it can be. Don’t smother it. And if you and your agent don’t get along? Drop them and find another one. A good agent may even recommend someone else whom they think you will be better suited to work with.
            Because agents have worked in the publishing industry, usually for years as an assistant before becoming an agent in their own right, they have a lot of networking hours lodged. Your agent will have gone to conventions, workshops, and other industry events. There they meet editors and form relationships with them. They have represented other clients and helped them get published, and worked with publishing houses to do so. There will be editors that your agent knows personally. Agents also research the market and submission guidelines, editor’s preferences and publishing house genres. They will know to whom to submit your manuscript, how, and when. And then they can pester those editors until they get a response. If you tried that, the editor would likely trash your manuscript without even opening it.
            It is worth mentioning at this point your agent has done all of this without getting paid for any of it. You don’t pay your agent. The agent earns a commission of the sale of your manuscript, so they don’t get paid if you don’t. This is referred to as having skin in the game. Getting you published matters to them because that’s how they earn their living. If you encounter any offers by any agency who wants you to pay up front, WALK AWAY. There are no fees, no costs to finding an agent. Anyone who says there are is trying to scam you.
            And having an agent is not a guarantee of publication. They could spend hundreds of hours on your project and still come up empty. But they represented your manuscript because they believe in it. That alone can make it worth it.
            But then, if everything goes well, an offer comes in. (Time out for joy-dancing. Go ahead, I’ll wait. I have mine all planned out.) The agent helps you, the author, decide what comes next. Initial offers are usually not that much money- authors do not become wealthy by selling manuscripts to publishing houses. Your agent can let you know if it’s a good offer, but they can also negotiate it upwards. There are legal contracts involved, and the agent will make sure all the details are in line and correct and explain anything that isn’t clear, and take any questions you have to the publisher. Once everything is right, then your agent will submit the contract for your signature. So another great perk of having an agent is not needing to be versed in contract law.
             The agent will also follow along the publication process. They’ll follow up on payments and stay on top of publishers until payments come in. Your agent will mediate any disputes between you and the publisher, keep track of important dates, and discuss marketing strategies. Publishing houses are excellent at getting your book on the shelf at Barnes & Noble, but terrible at promoting it for sale. We’ll talk about how to promote yourself and your work later, too.
            And then there are subrights. Have you heard of subrights? These are the rights to use your manuscript for film, audio, and translation, which can be sold directly and not through the publisher. These rights can be very profitable if your book is successful, and your agent can include clauses in the publishing contract to ensure that you retain these subrights. That way if your book is made into a movie, you don’t split the revenue with your publisher. Your agent still gets a commission, as they should, because they’re the ones setting all this up for you.
            So your book is sold, you’ve got a solid contract, and the publisher has set a publication date. Do you still need your agent? YES. Your agent isn’t through with you or done believing in you. Agents can help you plan your career trajectory and decide where to go next. They can brainstorm how to get you in front of larger audiences. Agents can be a sounding board, help you decide what projects to pursue, keep you updated on changes in the publishing industry, and generally help you navigate through where you should be going next.
            There’s even more to it than all this. The agent is the author’s ultimate advocate and champion, whose entire job is to help advance you. Why wouldn’t you want one?  

Friday, September 7, 2012

Point(s) of View

            “Plot, setting, character, and point of view. Plot, setting, character, and point of view. Plot, setting, character, and point of view, and you can tell a story too.” I wonder what Mrs. Bridges would think to know that I still vividly remember her singing that song in sophomore English. I won’t tell you exactly how long ago, but it was more than a decade. In my last writing post I talked extensively about the first three. If you can establish a character, a setting, and a conflict, then you have a story. This is about the fourth one, point of view, which is the first step in deciding how to tell your story.
            Point of view means from whose perspective the story is being told. It’s usually abbreviated to POV, and it determines the narrator of a story and how much the reader will know. There is first person, second person, and third person POV, and they can each be either limited or omniscient in viewpoint and subjective or objective in mode. Bored yet? Me too. Let’s write.
            Currently everyone knows I am writing in first person because I, the narrator, use the word “I.” I am the first person. Straight from the source. Here are some excerpts from popular books written in first person. The first person to guess all of these books correctly in the comments will win first prize. First prize is I write you a poem.
            “I hear his instructions in my head. "Just clear out, put as much distance as you can between yourselves and the others, and find a source of water." But it's tempting, so tempting, when I see the bounty waiting there before me. And I know that if I don't get it, someone else will.” See all how the character uses “I”?
            “If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. In the first place, that stuff bores me, and in the second place, my parents would have about two hemorrhages apiece if I told anything pretty personal about them.”
            First person is easy to recognize, but difficult to write. You can only put what your main character sees and experiences directly, and not what other people are thinking or feeling. Everything that you put on the page needs to be colored with the lens of your character. If you were writing in first person and your main character was a young unmarried woman in Victorian England, she would not spend a lot of time worrying about hunting wild boars. If your first person is a soldier in a war, what he notices about battle will be different depending on if this is his first engagement or if he’s at the tail end of several tours. Feel free to write pages and pages of character narrative just to get a feel for who they are and the belief windows through which they see the word. Your book will be better for your understanding.
            Second person is even more obvious when you read it, but it can be exceedingly tricky to use to write an entire fiction novel. Instead of the “I” of first person, second person is written with “you” in mind. Literally. The first two lines of Jay McInerney’s  Bright Lights, Big City (1984) are these: “You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning. But here you are, and you cannot say that the terrain is entirely unfamiliar, although the details are fuzzy.”
            Used primarily in do-it-yourself manuals, choose your own adventure books, role-playing games, and song lyrics, it is uncommon to find books written in second person. In fact, in all my research I couldn’t find one work of literary fiction written entirely in second person. But there were several that had second person POV sections. Ready? I promise you’ve heard of these authors, even if you don’t know it.
            “You sink down and muffle your head in the clothes, shivering all the while, but less from bodily chill, than the bare idea of a polar atmosphere. It is too cold even for the thoughts to venture abroad. You speculate on the luxury of wearing out a whole existence in bed, like an oyster in its shell, content with the sluggish ecstasy of inaction, and drowsily conscious of nothing but delicious warmth, such as you now feel again.”
            “You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose. You’re on your own. And you know what you know. And YOU are the guy who’ll decide where to go.”
            First person is “I”, second is “you”, and now we’re arrived at third, personal pronouns. Our main character is “he” or “she,” and this is currently the most popular POV to write. This is also where the limited or omniscient viewpoint is the most noticeable. Limited viewpoint means that everything you write down is limited by what your point of view character personally knows. He can’t say that Max parked in his usual spot if he doesn’t know that Max usually parks there. She may know there are ten steps between her bedroom door and the bathroom, but have no idea there is someone waiting in the hallway in the dark. Third person limited examples. And if you’ve gotten them all this far, start thinking about what kind of poem you’d like me to write for you, the victor.
            “It was an incredible sight. The dungeon was full of hundreds of pearly-white, translucent people, mostly drifting around a crowded dance floor, waltzing to the dreadful, quavering sound of thirty musical saws, played by an orchestra on a raised, black-draped platform. A chandelier overhead blazed midnight-blue with a thousand more black candles. Their breath rose in a mist before them; it was like stepping into a freezer.”
            “Kendra stared out the side window of the SUV, watching foliage blur past. When the flurry of motion became too much, she looked up ahead and fixed her gaze on a particular tree, following it as it slowly approached, streaked past, and then gradually receded behind her.
Was life like that? You could look ahead to the future or back at the past, but the present moved too quickly to absorb. Maybe sometimes. Not today. Today they were driving along an endless two-lane highway through the forested hills of Connecticut.”
            Third person omniscient has fallen out of favor somewhat in recent years, but it used to be the go to for writers. In this POV, you the author know everything that everyone knows and can share any part you want. It is tempting to reveal too much, but it can also be fascinating. Imagine if you will a group of people sitting around a table at a restaurant. They are eating delicious food. The conversation is lively. Then the table explodes and they are thrown backwards in heat and pain and shrapnel. Intense? Maybe. Surprising? Yes.
            Now imagine that as a reader you know the bomb is under the table. You know it’s going to go off very soon. You watch the people be seated and order, and you hear their lively banter and compliments about the food, all the while knowing that at any moment-boom. Surprising? No. Intense? Absolutely.
            “She was a notable housewife; her work was always done and well done; she "ran" the Sewing Circle, helped run the Sunday-school, and was the strongest prop of the, Church Aid Society and Foreign Missions Auxiliary. Yet with all this Mrs. Rachel found abundant time to sit for hours at her kitchen window, knitting "cotton warp" quilts—she had, knitted sixteen of them, as Avonlea housekeepers were wont to tell in awed voices-and keeping a sharp eye on the main road that crossed the hollow and wound up the steep red hill beyond.”
            “The old woman was let in by the side door down the vaulted passage by Paul's room and she was allowed a moment to peer in at him where he lay in his bed. By the half-light of a suspensor lamp, dimmed and hanging near the floor, the awakened boy could see a bulky female shape at his door, standing one step ahead of his mother. The old woman was a witch shadow -- hair like matted spiderwebs, hooded 'round darkness of features, eyes like glittering jewels. "Is he not small for his age, Jessica?" the old woman asked. Her voice
wheezed and twanged like an untuned baliset.”
            All right, now that we’ve gone through plot, setting, character, and point of view, it’s your turn to tell a story. The first person who can name all the books correctly gets a poem, and as for the rest, write. 

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Tron, Time Travel, and Tiny Troubles

            He had to go to the bathroom. All the signs were there, the uncomfortable fidgeting, grabbing between the legs, walking with knees bent together. But when I asked, “Do you need to go potty?”
He emphatically replied, “No!”
This was unusual behavior for one of my preschool kids, especially this one who is in my class for the second year. While the other kids played, I pulled him aside and asked him what was wrong. “I’m afraid of the potty,” he admitted. This was new.
“Why are you afraid of the potty?”
“I saw a Tron movie and there were black guys and blue guys and I saw one of the guys gets killed,” he answered, near tears.
“Can I put a dragon in time out?” I asked him. He nodded somberly (there’s a story behind that question, and if you haven’t read the Kids’ Quotes page on my website, you should). “Do you think I can put a bad guy in time out?” He nodded again. “No,” I said, and his eyes widened. “I don’t even let bad guys into preschool. No bad guys, no monsters, nothing scary at all. Preschool is a safe place, because I will always keep my kids safe.” His tears spilled over and he threw his arms around me. I hugged him back, and then asked if he was ready to go potty. He nodded.
“Don’t forget to shut the door,” he instructed, and I smiled and shut the door as I left to supervise the other children.
This happened in preschool today, and it got me thinking. Now I’ve never seen Tron or the Tron Legacy movie, but I doubt that one of the guys gets killed on the potty. Both of these movies are rated PG and we would assume then that they would be safe to show. I’m not sure at what point my young student associated the pixilated death of a program with dangers of bowel movement, but for him it was very real and very scary.
I’m glad he talked to me about it. I don’t know if how I handled it was the right way or the best way, but I did listen to him and try to understand his point of view. My first journal entries are when I was in about the first grade, seven years old. They’re really funny to me now to read, as I detailed the difficulties and dramas of elementary school life. But even as I giggle over passages like, “I have a crush on two boys. How does that even happen?” I remember how incredibly lonely I was as a child. Being six or seven inches taller than almost everyone else in your class is intimidating, and I wasn’t very socially savvy. Not having friends to sit with at lunch may feel less critical now, but I still remember the sting.
I saw the movie “Labyrinth,” with David Bowie when I was eight and although I love it now, back then it gave me nightmares for over a week.  I was terrified that goblins were going to come and kidnap my sister. My older sister. Rationality didn’t have much to do with it. I ran screaming from the theater when my parents took me to see “E.T.” and was so traumatized that I don’t think I have even tried to watch that movie again, my love for Spielberg notwithstanding. And yet I think I watched “The Dark Crystal” when I was three or four and loved it. Maybe it was because there were no people in it so it seemed completely fantastic. Maybe I was too young to understand the danger. But either way, that movie put “being a muppeteer in a muppet movie” on my bucket list.
But one journal entry sticks out to me more than most. It was written in May of 1992 in terrible handwriting with a red pen that I remember being proud of owning. “Remember when you’re grown up to listen,” it says, “and what it feels like to be a kid. I’m trying to talk about the biggest things in my life and no one cares. When you get big you have big problems. When you’re a kid you have kid problems. But my problems are just as big to me as yours are to you. If I’m ever a mom, I’m going to listen when my kids talk and never laugh at them. Because sometimes getting laughed at hurts when you’re trying to be serious.”
I wish I could write a letter back to that self of mine. I have some things to apologize for, because I haven’t always listened and I have sometimes laughed. I try not to, because I do remember how much that bothered me. And I would tell young me that we were going to be okay, and we would be a mom and have big people problems but we wouldn’t be alone to face them. And that we were never alone to face them.  Then I would give her a hug and tell her to stop worrying so much even though I knew she never would.
When our children come to us with problems it’s because they believe we care enough to help fix them. What they can’t understand is when we care enough to let them fix their own problems. But they will always remember if we listened to them or not. It’s hard when you know you’re right and you just wish they would accept that and move on because we have other things to do, but I was at lunch with a good friend of mine recently and she said she remembered thinking that she was going to tie her parents up and just make them listen.
Most of my kids’ favorite part of preschool is show and tell, when they’re the ones in center stage. They want to feel listened to and heard. I encourage other students to ask questions after each presentation and let the child answer, so they get the chance to pick who talks next. They each love the power trip. And we can’t listen to them every time, sometimes dinner is burning and our phones are ringing while someone is at the door. But we can say, “In ten minutes (or a half hour, or right before bedtime) we’ll talk, and I want to hear everything you have to say.” Then stick to it. We need to keep our promises, even when it’s inconvenient, because that’s how they learn to keep theirs.
When that boy’s mom came to pick him up, he and I told her together about his potty fears and the guy that got killed in Tron. It came out that he’d seen the movie at a friend’s house and had been too scared to talk about it afterwards. His mom listened, and asked him questions, and did not laugh at him. He went home happy and comforted, and I worried that I wasn’t listening to my kids enough. I’m still a worrier, even without my red pen. Maybe my future self will come and give me a hug and tell me it’s all right, they grew up to be wonderful men, and they knew they never had to face their problems alone.
I’ll have to add time travel to my bucket list. 

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Making Your Idea into a Story

            You have an idea. And you love it. It’s a little vague, and you haven’t fleshed it out yet, but that’s all right because we’re going to go through the process of turning that idea into a story. So pause here for a moment and pull your idea into the forefront of your mind. Got it? Okay. Now we approach it differently depending on what kind of idea it is. There are ideas for a memorable, unique character, ideas for an incredible setting, and ideas for potentially epic conflict. Once you identify what kind of idea you have, we start asking questions.
            The genesis of The Scales Trilogy came from the idea of my main character, Feather. You always hear write what you know, and even though I’ve never had to live on the street or been deprived of my parents, I have had difficult living situations. And I have narcolepsy. My husband is a big tech guy and he loves to talk about where technology is going and how web integrated we’ll all be in a few years. Boom, there’s Feather, a tech savvy girl who has to make it on her own and struggles with narcolepsy.
            Then the questions come, the first being what could the conflict be? She has several, a few on a very personal level like trying to care for herself and her brother and then trying to save her brother from being illegally drafted, and a few on a much larger level like how corrupt and greedy the government has become. Eventually in the series these conflicts join into the same fight. She can’t survive under the current regime and so must find a way to change it. Conflict is a great place to start anytime you’re looking for a story, because without a conflict there is no arc, no inciting incident, and no climax. Your characters have to want something they don’t have and need to fight to get. Whether that fighting is literal or figurative, it’s the struggle that defines the story.
            Then there’s setting. For example, my idea for The Darkest Lie came from a setting, specifically Sanctum. And the idea for Sanctum came from a story that a friend wrote. So I asked myself if magic really did exist in this world, where had it come from? So identify what about your setting makes it memorable. Where a story is set can become as important as the characters. It isn’t just blank canvass, it is somewhere specific and unique. It could be a monastery high in the Tibetan mountains. Or another planet entirely. Or a small town in a specific part of the United States. Or a school in England where they teach magic. Once you have your setting you have a tool of immense value in telling your story. Don’t neglect it.
            What questions should you ask here? First, ask yourself who would live in this setting. If it’s another planet, are humans colonizing or are there already a species of alien living there, or both? My prologue in the second book of The Darkest Lie series takes place in a Sanctum holding facility for those weak in their Song. I needed to have a specific interaction between two of the characters, but I needed it to happen through someone else’s point of view. Who would be in a prison? Guards, sure, but they’re not going to watch this, they’re going to try and stop it. I needed a prisoner, weak in Song, who could witness this and pass the information along. Your setting can give you your characters and will inform how they behave and what options they have. It can even provide conflict because of the restrictions of the setting. An abandoned warehouse can only hold so many people. A frozen tundra can only support a limited amount of life. A foxhole can have conflict internally as well as externally.
            If your idea is a conflict, then you’re well on your way. There are a few types of conflict, such as man vs. man, (I’m using the word “man” because it’s traditional, you could just as easily say “character”), man vs. nature, man vs. society, man vs. technology/fantasy/supernatural, and man vs. self.  It’s important to know what kind of conflict yours is so you know what elements you need. If your conflict is a teenager’s fight for survival after getting lost on a mountain and being stalked by a predator, that’s man vs. nature. You’ll need research into survival techniques, a specific mountain (real or created), and to plan a story arc for your character. Man vs. man, you need a protagonist, an antagonist, a place that puts them in contact, and a conflict between them (As a side note, the antagonist and the villain are NOT always the same character, but we’ll get to that).
            Once you’ve established what kind of conflict you have, you need to figure out who would be involved in this conflict. Does the conflict involve biochemical weapons? You’ll need a scientist. Likely more than one. Where does the conflict take place? You’ll need farmers on a farm, New Yorkers in New York, astronauts in space, etc. Are you noticing the pattern, here? When you have a character, you need to establish conflict and setting. When you have a setting, you need character and conflict. With conflict you need setting and characters. It doesn’t matter what order your story elements arrive in, what matters is that you take the time to seek them out and put them together.
            I remember my high school English teacher, Mrs. Bridges, had a song she would sing. She’d play her lap harp and sing, “Plot, setting, character, and point of view. Plot, setting, character, and point of view. Plot, setting, character, and point of view, and you can tell a story too.” I’ve used “conflict” instead of “plot” but you get the idea.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Parenting: Don't Take it Personally

            I want to reassure you right now that your kids are not out to get you. Probably. Unless you have a Stewie or a Bart, but that’s unlikely since your kids always last more than a half an hour and don’t stop for commercial breaks. They may never stop for breaks of any kind. And you may feel that you never get a break, and I absolutely know what that feels like. In addition to my own kids, I also teach three preschool classes for four hours Monday through Thursday. There are ten children in each class, all under the age of five. Believe me, I know exactly how crazy kids can get.
            Occasionally I will be asked for parenting advice by a friend who is experiencing her first pregnancy. Or second. Or third. But by that time, they’re asking me how to survive doing this again. I actually have solid advice! The first thing I want you to know is this: parenting. Don’t take it personally. I mean it. We make the mistake so often of thinking that our children are doing these things to us, when for them we don’t figure into the equation at all. They aren’t being disobedient because they don’t love us or don’t respect us, they’re being disobedient because whatever it is that they want to has absorbed their whole attention.
            Nobody can make us angrier than the people we love most. Have you ever stopped to wonder why that is? If we love them so much why does it take less than a minute for us to be infuriated? Because everything is personal. We read so much into the actions of our loved ones and interpret them through the filter of our relationship to them, and so small actions become charged with meaning. Let’s use the example of a child being told to clean their room. They don’t want to clean their room, they want to play with the cool new toy. Mommy comes back and nothing has been picked up, and she gets a little angry. Why is my child ignoring me? The underlying question there is, Why aren’t I more important to my child? So the child is told again to clean their room. The child may think, why is mommy pestering me when all I want to do is play with this toy? Is my room being clean more important to her than I am?
            And suddenly there’s a fight. Mom is yelling because child didn’t listen and mom feels unappreciated and unimportant, child is hurt and angry because mom is placing more value on the room being clean than the child’s happiness. This is what I mean about not taking it personally. We get angry when we are hurt or scared, and no one can hurt us or scare us as much as people we love desperately. But these types of communications aren’t about us, and we need to stop making them about us. Children aren’t disobeying to be defiant, they’re saving that for when their teenagers. And even then, it’s best to assume they’re just being teenagers and trying to figure everything out, not trying to hurt us personally.
            After almost every preschool class at least one of the mothers will ask me some variation of, “How do you do it?” I tell them I don’t take it personally. When a child breaks the rules in class, it’s the rule they’re breaking, not me. They have made the choice to go to time out, and all I do is enforce the rules. And I explain that isn’t personal either: this was the choice they made and I am obligated to follow through with the consequences. It’s amazing how much better our relationship is from student to teacher when if things go bad, neither of us feel personally attacked or unloved.
            I wish it always worked. Sometimes it’s SO HARD to be objective and calm. I am a firm believer in time out, both for them and for me, because sometimes it’s me who needs to walk away. I need a moment of quiet, calm breathing to think rationally and not just react. Which is the next advice: act, don’t react. Reaction is that knee jerk gut punching first instinct when something goes wrong. It’s the screaming when the egg gets dropped and the urge to strike out when the crystal vase heirloom gets broken. This piece of advice evolved into a personal rule, which is this. In all capitals, NEVER PUNISH WHEN YOU ARE ANGRY. Send them to time out and walk away. Breathe, get perspective, come back and talk to your child about why that was wrong and what an appropriate punishment would be. If needed, send them to their room first to give yourself more time to calm down. Remember, you’re the grown-up here. Take however much time you need so you can act like it.
            And finally, be consistent. Children need to feel safe, they need boundaries and they need love. They need to know what to expect, because for them the world is still a new and scary place with monsters in the closet and strangers who might take them away and candy that could be poison. The best way to help them feel comfortable and have confidence is consistency. If going to time out is the punishment for playing in daddy’s office without permission, than it needs to be the same punishment every time. If they get a sticker every time they go in the potty, then it needs to be every time. We need to be the grown-ups they can count on, so that they know action A=consequence B and they can rely on that.
            We will fail, just so you know. All of us. Both my sons are in school now, and I’m just getting a handle on this with them. I feel like I’m holding onto the edge of the parenting precipice with my fingertips now instead of just my nails. I am not consistently consistent, or perfectly objective (but I do try and talk about it, as in “When you don’t listen to me, it makes me feel like I’m not important to you. Is that what you were trying to say?”) and I still scream “GO TO TIME OUT!!” with fire and spittle once in a while. But I’m trying.
            More than anything else, parenting is about loving your children. Whether you’re with them all the time or only from dinner to bedtime, they can tell how you feel about them. They don’t need perfect homes or even always clean ones (I gave up wanting a totally clean house years ago in order to preserve my sanity). They want a place to feel safe with people who love them. If you can give them that, you’re doing great. Everything else is practice. And patience. And for the love of your sanity, take a break once in while. Maybe watch some TV and be glad those aren’t your kids. 
           What about you? What are your best pieces of parenting advice?

Monday, September 3, 2012

What Kind of a Writer Am I?

            Historical, fantasy, horror, science fiction, historical fantasy, action-adventure, crime, detective, mystery, romance, urban fantasy, legal thriller, paranormal, military; there are many different genres of fiction to write, each with its own subcategories and crossovers. And with all those different genres it is incredible to believe that there are generally only two types of writers. There are discovery writers and outliners. The two types can bleed into each other and any writer can try both, but an author will fall more into one category or the other. They each have their strong points and weaknesses and neither is inherently better than the other; the difference is that you, the writer, will find yourself more comfortable and ultimately more successful at one or the other.
            Discovery writing means that you discover the story as you write it. You start with an idea. It may be a character, a setting, a conflict, or just a scene that pops into your head and you write it down. That becomes the starting point of your manuscript. Then you work around it, flesh out more characters and keep going, discovering more about your characters as they come to life on the page in front of you. It’s very exciting and fresh as it comes out of your head and onto the page in front of you.
            For some discovery writers, the more often you tell the story the less enthusiasm you have for it, so outlining the story from the beginning takes some of the joy from the process. Outlining is, after all, just telling the story in bullet points. You learn the parts of the story as you go along, sometimes hanging on to your characters by your fingertips. If they run away with the story, you can follow them to see where they go because it might be more interesting than where you were going to take them. Things happen you didn’t expect. You’ve discovered the conflict already so you have in mind a solution that you’re working towards, but getting your characters from the beginning to the end is a journey you get to take with them. It’s very exciting every time you sit to write.
            It can also be a frustrating, seemingly never ending process. It’s similar to driving across the country from Washington D.C. to Hollywood without a map or GPS. You know where you want to go and have a general idea how to get there, i.e. go west, but it’s incredibly easy to get lost along the way. The stories are exciting, but once you finish your rough draft your editing can take twice as long because you have a lot more manuscript than you have story, or not enough. If you discover a big twist at the end you have to go back through and make sure it’s supported and foreshadowed. You’ll have to cut scenes, great scenes, because they don’t fit your story (but don’t delete them, cut and paste them into a “Reuse” document. Great writing should never disappear). And the hardest pitfall of all in discovery writing is writing thousands of words in a story that never goes anywhere or ends too abruptly.
            Outlining is aptly named, because it is writing out an outline for your story before you begin to write it. You still begin in the same place, with a character or idea or setting that you write down. But instead of starting your story there, you begin to outline. What is the conflict? Who is the main character? What does the main character want? Who/what is standing in his way? These questions are all answered in the outline. And outlines don’t need to be long- decide what needs to happen in each chapter and write 3-5 bullet points. Chapter One: Main Character, brief description, does this or has this happen. MC meets this person and makes this decision. Side Character one is in this peril. Chapter Two: Main Character meets love interest looking for Side Character and they have this interaction. They don’t like each other. Introduce antagonist and central conflict in this setting.
             It feels dry writing like this, but there are several benefits. When you start writing your manuscript, you’ll write faster. It helps you stay focused on the story and know where you’re going. Any time you spent outlining instead of writing is more than made up for in the time you save editing, because you were able to put all the important plot points in place. You’ll have your research done, because you’ll know beforehand what research needed to be done. Character name choices are easier because you know them and what they want before you start writing, which is key to getting excellent and realistic dialogue and thought from each character. Outliners have less writer’s block. And outlining doesn’t have to take a long time or be an arduous process. It’s your outline; you can do as much or as little as you want. And the best thing about outlining is that you get all these benefits but if you find something better as you write, you’re allowed to change it.
            The drawbacks to outlining aren’t as many as the pitfalls discovery writing has, but they are perhaps more insidious. For some writers, writing out a full and descriptive outline pulls the joy out of their story. They already wrote it, why would they want to write it again? So the outline, no matter how brilliant, sits in a file that hasn’t been opened in months because in the writer’s heart, that story has been done. If writing a complete outline answers your need to tell the story, then it isn’t for you.
            The second drawback has been called “World-builder’s disease” on the WritingExcuses podcast. Essentially it’s a writer who loves to outline and who wants to fill in all the details because they don’t feel ready to start writing yet. That’s all fine and good until your desire to detail out the setting and characters overwhelm your desire to actually write the story, and you disappear into a rabbit hole of increasing complexity in the name of making the world of your story authentic. A noble goal, but not one to sacrifice your story to attain.
            I do something that’s more of a combination of the two. I outline, and I made a full, detailed outline that’s several pages long. Once I have the outline finished, I ignore it and write the story. The outline for me is a place to work out the bumps and kinks of the story so I have it in my head who the characters are and what they want. Then as I’m writing I follow the story. Sometimes the order of the scenes is changed; that’s no big deal. Then other times I introduce new characters and plot twists that I wasn’t expecting at all, but since I still know what needs to happen I know how to make them fit and work towards my conclusion.
            I think most writers fit somewhere more happily close to the middle. Write an outline, make a plan, and get a map. Then as you drive through the story, feel free to stop in new and interesting places and enjoy yourself on the way. You can always refer to the map if needed to make sure you get where you’re going, but the exact route can vary as you grow and change with your characters. Because the most important thing about writing is to love it while you’re doing it. Not every day, not every scene, but overall to love that this is what we get to do. In every genre, love your story. And be thorough in your editing.  

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Advice to Myself

            I work with the youth at my church, specifically I work with girls ages 12-18. I love this for several reasons. 1) I have two sons whom I adore, but it’s nice to have girls to play with! 2) These girls are amazing. They’re sweet, smart, beautiful, and they honestly want to help each other. 3) There are so many things I’ve wished I could go back in time and tell myself when I was that age. This is getting to do it vicariously.
            What I wish I’d known when I was younger is a topic that seems to be required of all parents, teachers, writers, and everyone else who passed through the fire of adolescence and survived. Not unscathed, but stronger. So here is my list of things I wanted to know, and these are all themes of my books, too. Working with the youth helped finally push me over the edge to start doing what I’ve always wanted to do, because there are millions of people out there who I want to talk to, to hug, and to comfort. (My nurturing instinct is way off the charts.)
            Get out of your head this weird idea that life is fair. Life on Earth isn’t fair, it can’t be. Otherwise we’d still have dinosaurs because how is it fair that they went extinct?  If one person got sick, everyone would have to get sick. That’s fair. And awful. Life  is about survival and some people get breaks and some people don’t and that’s fine. If you spend all your time trying to work out what’s fair and what isn’t and who got what that you didn’t or who has more to do, you will end up depressed, bitter, and annoying to anyone who talks to you. Don’t be that person. Do be the person who can accept and move on. I’m talking about little things, here, cars and toys and chores and houses and clothes. Dealing with big things is the next paragraph.
            In life big awful things will happen. Someone you love will die, or get really sick for a long time, or you’ll lose your home, or all your money, and this is a big thing. Anyone who tells you here to just accept it and move on is not being either helpful or realistic.  And if you encounter someone who has had one of these awful experiences under no circumstances try to make them feel better by telling them about someone else who has it worse. THIS IS A TERRIBLE IDEA AND COMPLETELY UNSYMPATHETIC. If you’re just trying to get them to count their blessings, do it by helping them count their blessings. Telling someone who is in pain about someone else’s pain only shows that there is even more pain in the world. This is a pet peeve of mine. So my advice to someone who has undergone something terrible and heartbreaking is, I am so sorry, you do what you need to do to deal with it and someday the pain will ease and your chest won’t feel so tight but for now just know that there are people who love you. My advice to everyone else is DON’T BE AN INSENSITIVE JERK who says things like, “At least you’re not so-and-so who has this much worse thing,” or “Just get over it and move on,” (variations of which are “buck up,” “suck it up” or “you’ll be okay”). If you feel the impulse to say any of those things, give them a hug and walk away. That’s it. No more talking for you.
            Don’t wait around. Four of the young women I worked with left for college recently. I was asked to give them advice about college, and this is what I told them. Don’t wait in your dorm or apartment for someone else to call you and plan something fun. Pick up the phone or open your email and invite people to do something with you. Friendships are built in two main ways: talking and spending time together. If you want a friend, pick a few likely candidates and set something up with them all. Invite them over for a make fun of terrible movies night or go ice blocking or tray sledding. Find clubs you’re interested in and join them. If they’re too much work or you don’t end up enjoying them, drop it and find something else. The warning with this is sometimes you’ll get burned. Sometimes you’ll throw a party and no one will show up, or everyone you call will be busy. That sucks. But it’s also okay. Because the risk of putting yourself out there is getting burned, but getting burned sometimes to find a best friend or a circle of best friends is worth it. Absolutely 100%.
            Be yourself. Is a terrible piece of advice. Most of us don’t really know who “ourself” is, and if we spend the whole time worrying about whether we are being disingenuous or not we’re not going to have fun or be very much fun. What people mean with that advice is relax. Not everyone is going to be your friend, not every member of the PTA will like you or think you’re the best person ever. It doesn’t matter. Them not liking you doesn’t hurt you unless you focus on it. If you ignore it and find people who do like you, then the only person it bothers is the person who doesn’t like you. And really, what better revenge could there be? Calm down. Take a deep breath. And go have fun. Make fun, if you have to. Don’t worry about being funny or well liked, because everyone else is worried about that. If you can relax , you can laugh, and everyone else will want to be around you because they wish they could be the person who was relaxed.
            Eventually, you will like yourself. This takes time. It doesn’t happen overnight, either. I remember being in my late 20s and still not feeling comfortable with who I thought I was. Then after I turned 30, I was getting ready one morning and realized I liked the person I’d grown up to be. Maybe it was not having the social pressure of being in my 20s anymore, maybe it was because I finally felt like I was starting to be successful, but mostly I think it was because I finally spent enough time with me.
            My last advice is this. Everything will turn out okay in the end, and if it’s not okay, it’s not the end. Humans have an endless capacity for adapting and the world is constantly changing. Whatever awful thing is going on in your life right now, it has an end date. Sometimes knowing that doesn’t make it hurt less, but sometimes it does. I have a laundry list of medical conditions, some common, like rheumatoid arthritis, and some less common, like narcolepsy. These are things that I will have my whole life, but I’m okay with that because I have learned how to cope so they don’t interfere with my life. You will be okay too. Just give yourself the time, and take time out every day to do something you love. It doesn’t have to be a lot of time, maybe ten or fifteen minutes, but in those minutes just be with you. And you don’t have to take them all consecutively, either. Steal a minute away from all your young children and read a paragraph of a book you love or listen to a song that gets you pumped. Go in your backyard or your closet or somewhere you can be alone and just breathe. It’s important. More than you’ll ever know.
            There’s something you should know about my advice. I don’t care whether you take it or not, or listen to me or not. But it is what I think and how I feel and it informs how I view the world. So my young self, you made it, you grew up, you found friends and loved ones and you’re a person that you would like. Keep your chin up and fight through it. The bad stuff is easier to believe, but the good stuff lasts much, much longer.