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Saturday, September 22, 2012

Submit Like a Pro

You’re ready to submit your manuscript, and like a child on their first day of school, you want them to look their best. Get them in with the cool kids. Give them their best chance of success. With a child, you dress them up. With a manuscript, you dress it down. You want the writing to shine, and the surest way to look like a desperate amateur is to try and make the paper pretty or the font memorable or the envelope smell nice. Don’t. Just don’t.
What you must do is follow the publishing guidelines. Every publisher will have slightly different requirements for what to submit, but how your manuscript is formatted is fairly universal. In fact, it’s even called “standard manuscript format” or SMF. This is what SMF means:
1. Type your document, don’t write it.
2. Use a single, clear font, 12 point size. The best to use is Courier or Courier New. These fonts make it easier to edit your manuscript and show that you care more about what you’ve written than how it looks.
3. Use clear black text on a white background.
4. If you are printing out your submission (rather than submitting it electronically), use good quality plain white paper and print on only one side of each sheet.
5. Include your name and contact information at the top left of the first page. Put an accurate word count at the top right. Put the title half-way down the page, centered, with “by Your Name” underneath. Start the story beneath that.
6. If you write under a pseudonym, put that beneath the title but your real name in the top left of the first page. But unless you have an excellent reason, use your real name. Witness protection is an excellent reason. “Because it sounds cooler” is not.
7. Put your name, story title and the page number as a right-justified header on every subsequent page, in the format Name/Title/Page Number. Generally, you can also just use a key word from your title and not repeat the whole thing on each page.
8. Left-justify your paragraphs. Right margins should be “ragged” (meaning it doesn’t matter where the line ends on the right.
9. Use a tab indent to indicate the beginning of a new paragraph, not extra line space.
10. Ensure there is at least a 1 inch (2 centimeter) margin all the way around your text. This is to allow annotation to be written onto a printed copy.
11. Use double spacing for all your text.
12. Don’t insert extra lines between your paragraphs.
13. Indent the first line of each paragraph by about 1/2 inch (1 centimetre).
14. If you want to indicate a blank line, place a blank line, then a line with the # character in the middle of it, then another blank line.
15. Don’t use bold or italic fonts or any other unusual formatting. To emphasize a piece of text you should underline it.
16. Put the word “End” after your text, centered on its own line.
17. If you are submitting on paper, don’t staple your pages together. Package them up well so that they won’t get damaged and send them off. Put them in a nice padded envelope or clean blank box. Don’t reuse a box you got from Amazon.

These guidelines are for novel length manuscripts. Always make sure to check the specific
guidelines for any publishing house and the type of manuscript. If your publisher wants electronic submissions the guidelines are a little different. In e-mail you don't have to worry about paper quality, ink, margins, or running headers and page numbers. Here are some of the things you do have to worry about:
1. Don't attempt to double-space text. Most e-mail programs automatically convert a double-spaced document into single-spacing; don't try to change it back. This will only create format problems at the other end.
2. Double-space between paragraphs. You can still indent, but some e-mail programs "lose" the tabs, so a double-space may be the only way to indicate a new paragraph.
3. Use a readable e-mail font. I am always amazed to receive e-mail messages in microprint. Be sure to select "normal size". When in doubt, send yourself an e-mail; if the font looks tiny, increase the size or change fonts.
4. Avoid formatting, such as bold, underlining, or italics. Most e-mail programs still don't translate these well, resulting in odd symbols that make a transmission look garbled. Indicate underlining or italics by placing an underscore character next to the word being _underlined_. Indicate bold with asterisks on either side of the *word* you want to emphasize.
5. Turn off "smart" (curly) quotes in your word processing program, if you are going to transfer that document to e-mail. This includes curly apostrophes. These do not translate well in e-mail, resulting in a manuscript that is littered with weird symbols -- a manuscript your editor will not only find hard and frustrating to read, but will have to go to great lengths to "fix" for publication. Do not use a keyboard-generated "m-dash"; use " -- " to indicate a dash instead. Do not use symbols at all if you can help it; you never know what an accent mark will turn into at the receiving end.
6. Include your contact information (name, address, etc.) and wordcount at the very beginning of the e-mail, before the title.
7. Do not use HTML, or send material that has previously been formatted in HTML. Remove all HTML codes. Turn off any option in your program that is likely to convert your submission to HTML.
8. Do not send your submission as an attachment unless you have received permission to do so. (Do not send any unsolicited submission as an attachment.)
9. To be safe, convert your word-processed document to a text format before pasting it into your e-mail. This can eliminate many format problems. (Use plain text, not Rich Text Format.)
10. When in doubt, e-mail the piece to yourself first, to make sure nothing went wrong.

If you have any specific questions, feel free to email me. If I’m not sure, we’ll figure it out together. Remember, if you want to be a professional writer you have to go in looking like you already know what you’re doing. Send your manuscript off to its first day of publication consideration looking its very best.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Before You Type "The End"

            And they all lived happily ever after is an ending you should never ever use. At least, not as an ending. If you want to use is somewhere else in your story, that’s up to you. But as an ending, a final word, it invalidates your characters. If your characters are complex, honest, and real, then your ending should have those same qualities. By now you have spent countless hours with your characters and know them well, know what they want, who they are, and how they would act in a given situation. Your readers will think of them as friends, and ache to close the book. These readers want to know that your characters lives go on after that final chapter, that even though undocumented these friends continue to thrive. Endings can give them that. A good ending does several things.
            First, a good ending means that the ending is satisfying and fulfills all the promises you made in your manuscript. It doesn’t mean happy. It doesn’t mean the good guys win. I personally prefer books with happy endings where the good guys win, (I was depressed for a week after I read “The House of Mirth” by Edith Wharton. Do. Not. Recommend.) but that doesn’t mean you have to write them. You can end your story any way you feel like it, including with the death of your main character or some other tragedy.
The thing that matters most in making the ending satisfying is how the other characters feel about it. If the characters that the readers care most about accept the ending with grace and equanimity, so will your reader. For example, I read a series of books (not naming any names or even the number of books in the series to avoid spoilers) where the main heroine and her initial love interest and later husband went through increasingly difficult trials. It was a save the world kind of story, and at the end they had the choice to live or die. They chose to die, having suffered and done enough. Awful sounding, isn’t it? But it wasn’t. It worked, because we were given a glimpse of them afterwards and they were at peace and together. It worked because all the other characters were all right with their choice and ready to move forward without them.
So if your ending is tragedy or triumph, what matters most is how the people in the story deal with it. Fulfill the promise you made to the reader and resolve the main conflict. And the secondary conflict. Maybe even the tertiary one. But leave the rest. No one will reach a point in life where all of the conflicts are tied up in neat little bows and there’s no more struggle. You don’t want your readers envying your characters, you want the readers cheering. And wanting more. Always leave a window open in your story so you can get back in that world and keep exploring. Good overcame big evil, everyone is safe for the moment and can take a breather while little brother evil slinks away. There is always another monster to fight and another physical or metaphorical demon to slay.
Your ending also needs to have three important events, preferably as close together as possible while maintaining continuity. Your protagonist must face your antagonist in a battle that will determine the final outcome. Your protagonist must either win or lose the object of their desire. And your protagonist needs to have a reconciliation with the character that’s been with them along the journey. That last one can be the love interest, the best friend, the wise mentor, the sidekick, or even a persistent villain. But it needs to be the person to whom your main character had talked to about the reason behind your story; the theme. We’ll go into this more in a later blog post. For now just know those three events need to happen together and that all three must be present in a strong ending.
Finally, your ending needs to end. You’ve grown attached to these people and loved them. You dream about them and talk about them as if they were real. Maybe you just have no idea what you want to do next, or the idea of finishing your manuscript terrifies you because you read the post on editing. So you keep going in the rough draft to avoid starting the second draft. Whatever the reason, walk away from the story a little before you want to. You don’t need to type “The End” for the story to be over, just type that last period and go out to dinner. Finishing a manuscript is a great feeling. And if you’re worried you left something out, don’t. You’ll go back and read through it enough later to be able to recite it. Everything will be fixed in post. Just get the story down, and don’t be afraid to leave some loose ends dangling.
One of my least favorite books of all time has a very famous ending. It’s called “Tuck Everlasting” and it’s about a family who accidentally drank from a spring that made them immortal. They froze at whatever age they were when they drank the water. The book revolves around a currently mortal love interest for the son, and the question of whether she’ll drink the water on purpose to stay with him. It drives me crazy because the book doesn’t end, it just stops in the middle of a sentence. Give me closure!
My least favorite series of all time was a surprising disappointment because I love the author who wrote it. It was four books in a fantasy setting where there was a great evil threatening the world. I cared about the characters. They were well written, clever, and complex people. Unlikely friendships were forged. Alliances between enemies strengthened characters. Romance was found in unexpected places.
And at the end of four books, the gods of the world came in and went back in time to eradicate the evil before it started causing trouble. Seriously. The end of that series completely invalidated all the books that came before. The final conclusion was “none of it happened.” Please don’t ever do that to your readers!  Deus ex machina  is bad enough- don’t take it one step further to  Deos occidit fabula.  We read to know we’re not alone, and to know that we have power over our lives. Don’t take that away.
Endings give closure to a journey made with good friends. They don’t always need a twist or a big reveal unless the genre calls for it. Believe in your writing. Believe that your characters are strong enough. Fulfill the promises you made to your readers. Then tie up a few loose ends, and add that final period.
Because without it a story can feel very

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Endeavor to Reach the Stars

            Yesterday something awesome happened. The space shuttle Endeavor was being transported from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida to its new home in Los Angeles, and it stopped here in Houston for refueling. And it flew right over my house! It was incredible. I felt a little giddy and giggly about it for hours afterwards. I love NASA, and always have. The idea of exploring the galaxy and learning about the universe around us fascinates me, and the creativity and resourcefulness of the scientists and astronauts of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration has always been inspiring. It makes me feel like a kid again.
            Not that feeling like a kid has ever been particularly difficult for me. Given almost any excuse I am ready for an adventure and to throw off responsibility and take the world by storm. One of the comments I get most often about my preschool is from parents who tell me, “[Child] is always so excited to come to your preschool. He wasn’t like this with [former preschool].” That’s gratifying to hear and I love it, and I think the reason is twofold. One, I have a theater degree and no shame so I will be as entertaining as possible, arms flailing and feet kicking while I sing goofy songs to teach them about everything. Two, I like to have fun and pretend to be a kid with them whenever I can.
            Here’s a secret. I take my preschool advanced class on a field trip once a month. We go a different place each time, and everything we learn about for the weeks leading up to the field trip is related to the subject. For example, before we went to the Mercer Arboretum we talked about photosynthesis in science, counted leaves and petals in math, practiced writing the words “flower,” “dirt,” and “sunlight” in our handwriting, and read stories about plants and growing, so even though we were covering all our topics, they were all related. So when we went to the gardens and walked around, we had a great time.
            But that isn’t the secret. My mother thinks I’m crazy for doing a field trip once a month. Even the parents are pretty surprised. I love my parent volunteers who come along with me and help out, they are invaluable. People ask me why I do something that’s such an extra and requires so much more work. The secret is I do the field trips because they are my favorite part of preschool.
            I love taking the kids out into the world and being able to show it to them. It’s good for them and good for me, because it gives me that chance to see it again through their eyes. We run and play, make jokes and sing songs. The world to them is new, huge, and incredible. It refreshes me to be out in it with them. We go to farms and museums, parks and playgrounds, and once a year we drive down to the Johnson Space Center and tour NASA. That’s my favorite trip of the year. It’s a long drive for the kids, it’s almost an hour and a half, but it’s so worth it. If you live in the area and haven’t gone, you must go. If you don’t live near either the Johnson or the Kennedy Space Centers, go on vacation and see it. NASA is a piece of America unlike any other, because it transcends our entire planet. Give into the magic and the wonder, like your kids do.
            Kids believe. I love them for that. They believe in Santa and the tooth fairy and the Easter bunny, they believe in magic and science all together and that anything is possible. If you stand in front of a preschool or kindergarten class and ask who wants to be a dancer, every hand goes up. Who wants to be an astronaut? Everyone. A doctor, an artist, a writer, a musician, any child believes they can do it 100%. Go in front of a high school class and ask those same questions. Maybe one hand will go up for each. Most of them won’t believe they’ll ever be anything special.
            Why? What happened in the interim that destroyed our faith in ourselves and in the possibilities of the universe? It happened to me, wanting to be a writer so badly but waiting decades to even try. What beats us down so harshly? Was it grades? Other kids? Adults trying to be helpful by giving us a dose of “reality”?
            I think in many ways being with these preschool kids has helped me believe in myself again. They believe in me. Yesterday I overheard a conversation between a little girl and three little boys. The little boys were pretending to be tigers and the little girl was the tiger tamer.
One of the boys said, “The only thing stronger than tigers are lions.”
“There are no lions in preschool. Miss Angie would put them in time out,” said the girl.
“Not if the lions came to eat us!” said boy number two.
That sweet girl put her hands on her hips and stuck out her chin. “If a lion came to eat us, Miss Angie would eat him! She won’t let anything bad happen in preschool!”
How can you doubt yourself when someone believes you would eat a lion to protect them? Your kids have that kind of faith in you. You can make things better. You can fix it. That kind of belief makes us stronger, and makes us willing to try. And we need to protect that precious and fragile belief for our children as long as we can. I believe, as I have always believed, that we can have, do, or be anything we want as long as we want it badly enough. Want it enough to put in the work. Our belief and our work really can change the world. Our kids know that.
The picture below is of the space shuttle Endeavor flying over downtown Houston. My husband’s co-worker took this picture out their office window. That aircraft has been in space. That fragile piece of equipment was made with human hands and human ingenuity, and it burst out of the atmosphere and escaped the gravity of an entire planet to fly among the stars. If it can because we built it, then why not us? Our kids know the secret. Let them remind you to believe.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Hitting the Wall

If any of you are hardcore readers, you may have read this already. This is a blog post I wrote about writer’s block but it was before I launched my site or opened my blog to the public, so here it is for the world to see!      
I stare at the blank page and it stares back, mocking me. My deadline is looming behind me and reading all the emptiness over my shoulder while silently judging me. The characters cry out for resolution and I suddenly feel like I’m on trial, about to be charged guilty on four counts of being a terrible writer. If I was good at this, I wouldn’t feel like this. Right?
Wrong. Did you know that writer's block was first recognized as a condition in 1947? And almost every writer experiences it at one time or another. It doesn’t have to mean that you just can’t think of anything else to put on the page in front of you; it can be anxiety about your writing to such a degree that you don’t feel like you should even finish it. Hundreds of authors experience this every year. Not just struggling, aspiring writers, but published authors who make a living through their works. Neil Gaiman calls his agent nearly every time he’s 75% of the way through writing a manuscript. Their conversation consists of Mr. Gaiman saying the book is terrible and his agent saying that this happens every time. There are lots of reasons writer’s block exists, and you can either find the source and fix it there or you can try curing it through intervention strategies.
Causes of writer’s block are as numerous and varied as the people who write. It isn’t just a mentality. If you’re under a lot of stress your brain will shift control from your cerebral cortex system to your limbic system, essentially from higher reasoning to fight or flight, and that’s not because of how you’re thinking, it’s because of the environment you’re in. If you’re too stressed out to write, then write. Put pen to paper in a stream of consciousness manner and talk to yourself through your writing about what is upsetting you. You might be surprised what you learn about yourself.
Sometimes I begin this with a thought paper. I write down the first word that comes to my mind. Then I read that word and write the next first word that comes to mind, and draw an arrow from the second to the first. I repeat this over and over until I return to the first word again.  Then I read it, and almost always something that I didn’t even realize was bothering me keeps popping up. And it’s great way to get the writing juices flowing, because I have been writing.
Another common cause of writer’s block is the broken story. A broken story happens when a writer has been writing but the manuscript has a flaw that your subconscious has recognized but hasn’t let you in on the secret yet. In my rough draft for “The Darkest Lie,” I was over 100,000 words in and couldn’t go anywhere. I was frustrated and trying to push through anyway, but it just wasn’t working. With the help of some feedback and a Writing Excuses podcast I realized the problem wasn’t me, it was my main character. He was broken. In early chapters I’d had him behaving in a way that was contradictory to who he was, and it was draining the power from later revelations. I had to fix him. Once I did that, we went merrily along for another 15 chapters.
Writer’s block can also be caused by feeling sick, feeling overwhelmed, or being too conscious of your audience. You need to write with a genre and an audience in mind, but if you find that you’re restricting your manuscript and yourself because of what you’re afraid your audience might think, then you’re doing your story a disservice. My rule number one of writing: fix it in post. This is actually a film term, meaning get all the shots in and film all the scenes, then fix it in editing. Write your story and get it all out before you try to edit it.  Don’t worry about your audience or your genre. Be aware of them, but don’t worry about them. You can always fix it later.
Can’t figure out why you’re blocked? Worry not, fellow writer, there are lots of ways to get help. If you are a writer who has a specific and set amount of time each day that you dedicate to writing, then use it. Write something. It doesn’t have to be a continuation of your manuscript, it doesn’t have to even be good, just write something. Take your main character and put them in a completely bizarre situation and see how they react. Pick three random words from the dictionary and write a story blurb about them. Here, I’ll give you an example:
My three words: crucible (a severe, searching test or trial), octopus, space lab. Okay, so the last is two words, but it came up. Let’s see. So we have a location, a space lab. We have an object, an octopus. And we have an event, a crucible. We can take these literally, Captain Owen Boxley of NASA is called to transport a beautiful Marine Biologist, Breen Rowland, to the international space station where she will conduct tests on the effect of zero gravity on an octopus. Hilarity ensues when the octopus escapes its enclosure and travels around in a bubble of water, but danger strikes when the water causes a malfunction of key systems in the space lab. Will they survive the crucible of imminent death in space and return to earth?
Or we could take it figuratively. The octopus is the unofficial animal of the steampunk subculture (which I learned just now by typing “octopus associations” into google) so we could make our story a steampunk novel. Dr. Horatio Jason Fidelius believes that with imagination and machinery man can accomplish anything. He’s spent his entire family’s fortune trying to prove it. But now that his wife is ill and his children are nearly destitute, he has one last chance to redeem himself and care for them. Sir Ryan Gunwitch-Black has offered a sum of 2 million pounds to any man who can create a flying machine.  But not just any flying machine; a machine that can fly to outer space.
There. Two completely different stories with the same three words. And once you get your juices flowing again, maybe you’ll get some ideas for your own stuck story.
Curing writer’s block can be as easy as going for a long walk, or for me, a run. Physical activity does marvelous things for the brain, and my favorite tactic is to read through my story just before I leave, and then let it simmer in the back of my mind while I run. What does my main character want? I’m at point D and I’m really excited to get to point H, but I don’t know what needs to happen at E, F, and G to get me there. Well, what could happen? Do I really need E,F, and G, or can I skip one? What did I like about my story to begin with? By the time I get back, I almost always have something more I can write for my manuscript. It doesn’t have to be written chronologically. Some of the best stories aren’t.
And my secret writer’s block go-to? Thispodcast.  Each episode is only 15 minutes long, and they’re entertaining as well as creative.
You’re not alone in staring at that blank page. But don’t just sit there and be judged, write! Run! Play! Listen! Live! It will come, and if it doesn’t, then maybe you have writer’s block on this manuscript because there’s another one rolling around in your head.  Get that jotted down in outline or note form so it can get out of your way and you can get back to writing.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Yawning with Sociopaths

            Have you heard of the principle of contagious yawning? Researchers have been fascinated for years with the study of human empathy, and whether you yawn when someone else yawns is a sign of how much you care about the feelings of others. Those who yawn when others yawn have a greater ability to connect with others emotionally. Those who don’t yawn in response to a yawn have a more difficult time connecting. And all little children are sociopaths.
            We sing a song in preschool which begins, “If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands.” We proceed through several verses, but instead of merely changing the action I also change the feeling. When you’re sad and you know it, when you’re grumpy, silly, scared, etc., and when you’re sleepy and you know it you close your eyes. During this verse I always yawn several times, and the only time any of the kids yawn is when I sing, “If you’re sleepy and you know it then your yawns will surely show it.” Then some of them do, but not many.
            I was curious about this response because I was familiar with the yawning and empathy connection, so I did some research. It didn’t take long to find out that most children under five won’t yawn when you yawn, and the hypothesis is that it’s because empathy is a learned (and therefore taught) behavior. So when your three year old smacks the baby, she isn’t being mean- she’s being scientific. Either she wanted to see what would happen if she hit her little brother, or her little brother was the target of angry feelings and she hit him without the intention causing him pain. She just wanted him to go away, and hitting was a natural response.
            We all know we should teach our children not to hit. Hitting is socially unacceptable. We send them to time out and make them apologize. This is good. Learning not to hit is an important life skill, because the underlying premise is teaching them to control their anger. But I worry that we’re only teaching less than half the lesson here, and that huge problems in our country and in our culture come from the lack of the other greater parts.
            In preschool, we talk about feelings. A lot. Almost everyday. Not just the feelings we feel, but how we express them and what each feeling feels like. The first lesson about feelings is that every feeling is okay to feel. It’s okay to be angry, just like it’s okay to be happy. Being sad isn’t fun, but it isn’t bad to feel sad, you’re not doing anything wrong. Every feeling, every emotion is valid and valuable and no matter what they’re feeling I want to give them the words to talk about it. “I feel angry because,” and “it makes me sad when” are just as important to express, if not more so, than “I feel happy because.”
            That’s the first feelings lesson. I think that the thing we are missing most in the country are people in positions of power and authority who received and took to heart the first lesson, “don’t do it because it’s bad.” The lessons on feelings continue in preschool with “The Feelings Game.” We sit in a circle and sing a song, “Look at my body, and tell me this: Do you know what feeling this is?” and I point to someone. They decide on a feeling and express it with their body. Then using only the facial and physical cues, the other kids have to guess what feeling it is. Sad and happy are usually obvious, but we also do shy, scared, sick, silly, wiggly, proud, bored, jealous, grateful, and surprised.
            This game serves two purposes. It makes each child consider what feeling they want to portray and what that feeling feels like, which is introspective, and also it teaches them to look at the emotional cues of others to determine how they feel, which is extrospective (yes, it’s a word, but mostly in psychology texts). The biggest developmental “wow” this game provides is when the students realize, “Wait, they have feelings too?”
            Little kids are sophists. They believe the word revolves around them and disappears when they close their eyes. It’s a natural perspective when everyone in your life is there to take care of you. But we have to help them grow out of that, and getting them to recognize their own feelings is the first part. Helping them recognize feelings in others is the second.
            There is a third part. This is the part I feel is most lacking in our society, in our leaders, in our entitled culture, and possibly in our whole world. The third feelings lesson is “I did that.” This is the last part of every time out and the part right before I give an exceptional student a sticker. This is where we assign responsibility.
            If a student shares a toy with someone else who really wants it or gives up a seat so close friends can sit by each other, I get the attention of the whole class. I bring the helpful student to everyone’s attention and say, “Jordan just shared a toy with Brennan that Brennan really wanted. How do you think Brennan feels?”
The class looks at Brennan’s smile and says, “Happy!”
            “Who made Brennan feel happy?”
The class ponders, then shouts, “Jordan!”
            “Good job Jordan. You did that!” And Jordan gets both a sticker and the understanding that his actions changed someone else.
            The opposite is also true. Jon is crying because Lisa hit him. This time I don’t get everyone’s attention, just those two. “Lisa, how does Jon feel?” She looks at his tears.
            “Why does he feel sad?” This question doesn’t usually get an answer right away because no one wants to admit to wrong doing, so I have to prompt. “Does he feel sad because it’s Tuesday?”
            “Does he feel sad because you hit him?” Long pause. Then a nod. Then the explanation. “Hitting is bad because it hurts people. Jon is sad because you hit him. You did that. How can you make it better?”
            She still has to go to time out, because hitting is a time out offense. Does this sound harsh? It shouldn’t. We can and we should protect our children from some of the consequences of their actions, such as I will intervene right away before Jon tries to hit Lisa back, but we should not protect them from the responsibility of their actions. We have to stop teaching our children to be victims in their own lives. We need to show them what the consequences of their actions are so that they never wonder how much they can get away with.
            When Lisa comes out of time out we play act through the problem with Jon again, this time with the whole class playing along. “How are they feeling?” I ask. Lisa is angry and Jon is sad. “What would be a better choice?”
            “Lisa can ask for the toy and say please.”
            “Jon can share.”
            “They can take turns.”
            And so we practice the last feelings lesson, and the one I repeat the most often. All feelings are okay to feel, but you have to decide what you want to do with them. You can choose. If you’re angry, that’s all right to be angry. What do you choose to do? Something that will make everyone sad, or something that can make you and others happy?
            Does this cut into my teaching  time? Yes. Sometimes a lot. But it’s more important to me that we talk about their feelings and the consequences while they’re happening. We can talk about the number 4 or the letter F next time. We have to take the time with our children to help them understand, so our little sociopaths don’t grow up to be huge egoists.
            I’m going to teach them to yawn.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Learning to Speak

            You see the term everywhere. Creative writing classes, “What I’m looking for” sections on agent’s and publisher’s submission pages, book reviews and writing groups. I love this author’s voice. Learn to find your voice! Looking for distinctive and fresh voices. I think the author’s voice is weak in this passage and it pulled me out of the story. Be true to your voice.
            What does voice have to do with writing? Your voice is the sound produced in your larynx and uttered through your mouth as speech or song. Those who read your works have no idea what your voice sounds like. If you called them on the phone, they wouldn’t know who you were. If they heard you singing, there would be no mental connection between that song and the printed words they’ve read. Where and what is your writing voice?
            And most importantly, how do you find it?
            This question has stressed out beginning authors from the moment they start their first story. They worry and then make the mistake of trying too hard, and the moment you try to have a voice you lose yours. But fear not, my fellow writers and friends; the answer to the question is difficult to articulate but simple to do. Because you already have your voice. You just need to learn to speak.
            When you were a child you learned to talk first by mimicking. Your parents would lean down  to you and say, “Mama,” and “Dada” and point to themselves. These early sounds weren’t perfect words, but they were sounds you could reproduce and when you said “mama” and “dada” they were happy. Learning to write well has much the same beginning. You mimic those far beyond you in prowess by reading their works, books that you love and want to read over and over, and then trying to write in their voice. It’s okay, it isn’t plagiarism, because these exercises are not for profit. They are for learning.
            Then once you’ve read and practiced one writer’s style, pick a different one. Try one that’s vastly different- if you were reading Nicholas Sparks type romances, try a John Grisham thriller. Epic fantasy? Try historical fiction. Or even biographies. Go somewhere in the library that you’ve never been before, and grab a book that you’ve researched on Goodreads. Then read it, and write a page or two trying to emulate that author’s voice.
            It won’t sound just like them. Anyone reading a passage from their book and then what you’ve written will be able to tell the difference. That’s great! It means that your voice is different than theirs, and you are refining that by testing out different styles. And of course this mimicking of others isn’t the only writing you should be doing- you should be writing your own story during this time also.
            Do this three or four times, different authors in a variety of genres, and watch how your own story changes. You are broadening your vocabulary with every new book and every new author. This is the easy part. This is where you get to stand on the shoulders of giants and look out past the horizon.
            Enjoy the moment, because the next part in finding your voice gets harder. You have to decide what you want to say. George Orwell said, “The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as if it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink.” Again here many writers give into fear and pull back, put the breaks on their story because they don’t believe (as I didn’t believe) they have anything worth saying. We want to be thought braver, smarter, wiser than we are. So we couch our writing with intelligent phrases and high ideals, and we lose ourselves in our writing by pretending we are better people than we are. We want credibility.
            That’s what Orwell meant by our real aims versus our declared aims. Our declared aims are the high and lofty, the change the world by waking mankind to their greater potential goals in writing. Our real aims are to tell the story in our heads and hearts and hope that someone in that dark void out there will hear us.
            Drop the pretense. Forget now trying to sound like anybody else. You’ve read and practiced and heard other’s voices and now you need to trust that you know the language. Every author’s voice is an amalgamation of their experiences and beliefs squashed together with every book they’ve ever read. The more you’ve read the more you have to draw on. Now write, and be honest. Be honest in every word you write about whatever fictional imaginary setting and characters who’ve waltzed into your brain and taken up residence. Expose every zit and imperfection. This is what makes a character real, because this is what readers can relate to. We cannot grasp a perfect world and so writers who try to write them get left behind for vampire romance, which is anything but perfect.
            I remember being in the 6th grade and my writing teacher talking to me about one of our writing assignments. It was two or three pages long, single spaced, and he told me that it was pretty good, but there was only one line in it that was great. He pointed to it. “This is the kind of honesty we want in writing,” he said. The line he’d pointed to was a short sentence near the beginning of a story I no longer remember. The sentence was “Old people make me uncomfortable.”
            Awkward? Definitely. And it isn’t true anymore, but it sure was then. When we talk about honesty in writing we don’t mean nonfiction. An undead half vampire half werewolf who was hatched from the egg of a dragon can still say, “I don’t like to fall asleep on my own. In the dark, it always feels like something is watching me but I can’t ever make out who.” We all know what being afraid feels like. The character is 100% fiction but the emotion is 100% fact.
That’s the honesty in writing. That is your voice. Create any character in any setting that you can imagine, fill the background with fantastic and impossible, but be honest and direct with emotions and motivations. You are a person. You have feelings. You don’t know what it’s like to be pushed off a train, but you know what fear feels like. You’ve never lived on another planet and met an alien species, but at some point in your life you’ve been the new kid. Writing is uncomfortable because being honest requires us to face every imperfection we think we have and vomit them all over the page for the whole world to look at.
And it’s wonderful. You get to dump every fear, every insecurity, every moment of love and joy onto characters you create and get to watch them grow from the experience. Like you did. Like we still are. Your voice comes from your experiences and so will be unique and fresh automatically because you are unique. Finding your voice is speaking and living the truth. When you find it, your story will be told and you will be heard. The best way to find your voice is the same as the best way to get better at any part of being a writer. Read, then write. Then do it again.
And your voice will sing from the page so that the next book review on Goodreads might be yours. “This author has a voice I really connected with.” Don’t apologize, don’t equivocate, just write what you know, and you can put it anywhere you want.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Sick and Tired of Sick and Tired

            I apologize for the lateness of my post today. I am sick, the kind of sick that seeps down into your bones and makes your joints feel like glue. The kind where you sleep for 15 hours and wake up feeling like the first victim of the zombie apocalypse at that moment when your body has turned but your mind is still partly your own, and the only thing you want is for it to be over. That sick. That’s me, today, and since it’s Sunday I get to post about whatever I’m thinking about.
            I’m thinking about fear. I’m thinking about mortality. And I’m thinking about what I coward I am and have always been. Last night I was working on my website, updating photos and adding new content and trying to fix my Kids Quotes page. It still isn’t fixed and I had to go to bed before I figured out what was wrong with the code that made it wonky. You can go look, and I’d appreciate any helpful suggestions. Especially if you don’t notice what’s wrong and has been driving me crazy, so I know it’s just me. That’s cool, I’m used to it. But what started me thinking was the new picture I put on the Editing page.
            The picture I took was of a manuscript being edited. One of my manuscripts, actually. It was a story called “The Blue Rose” that I wrote in 9th grade under the direction of my English teacher, Mrs. Staheli. She was one of those English teachers that you either loved or hated, and I loved her. I like to think I was one of her favorites too. I wrote the first few chapters and submitted them for a creative writing assignment in her class, and she pulled me aside a few days later and told me to finish the book. “You could publish this,” she said. “I know adults who only wish they could write this well.”
            I was flattered. I was inspired. I wrote hundreds more pages of that story, but I never finished it. Because deep down, I didn’t believe her. I read voraciously, consuming hundreds of books every year. That isn’t a hyperbole. I have proof, in that my two years in Junior High I read every book in that library by halfway through my 9th grade year, and begged the librarian to order more. I couldn’t be like these people, Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman, Robin McKinley, Ursula Le Guin, Mercedes Lackey, these amazing beings whose characters were my friends, sometimes it felt like my only friends, through those difficult years. I couldn’t do that. My stories were great, for my age. I wrote really well for being 13 or 14. I wasn’t an author, I didn’t know anything worth saying and who on earth would listen to me anyway?
            I’ve kept that unfinished manuscript my whole life as kind of a talisman, a relic of a time when someone believed that I could honestly do the thing I’ve wanted my whole life to do. And I scribbled all over one of the pages last night in red ink and yellow highlighter to demonstrate what hard work editing is. But I also read it. Not the whole manuscript, just a few pages. And it really is good. Not 9th grade good, it’s writing good. But I never finished it because I didn’t believe in it. I was afraid of believing in it, because I’ve always wanted to be an author so badly that the belief I could be someday was more important to me than actually trying. I didn’t want to fail at it and have that belief taken away from me.
            How stupid is that? This story, this fraction of a manuscript that I’ve kept buried for years, has never seen the light of day because I was too afraid of failure. And I didn’t even know what failure meant! I want to know at what point I decided having one book rejected was failing as an author. Do you know how many manuscripts authors submit on average before they have one accepted for publication? Do you know how many times the book they sell was submitted before it was accepted and published?
            Author Jim C. Himes, a fantasy author, did a survey among 247 published novelists asking them how they broke into the business and how many times they were rejected before making a sale. One novelist who responded said their first book was REJECTED NINE HUNDRED AND NINTEY TIMES before it was published. WOW. You can look at the full study here.
            I was so afraid of being rejected once that I never even tried. So for me, what changed? You know if you’re reading this blog that I’ve written a young adult urban fantasy novel (You can read the Prologue here and the first chapter here) and I’m trying to get it published. Why now? Fear. Again. Once again, I’m being motivated by fear.
            I’ve had a hard last three years. Really hard. Medically hard. Starting about three years ago my body would collapse and I couldn’t move for several seconds for no reason. My hands would shake and my whole body would hurt. There were days I couldn’t get out of bed for almost an hour because of pain and trembling. My muscles would tingle and weaken. I started going to doctors and getting MRIs of my hands and my brain. One afternoon I make a panicked phone call to a good friend and asked her to pick up my kids from school, because I’d been in an MRI machine for over three hours and the test was only half done.
            The worst parts were all mental. I would wake up at night and not know where I was or who I was with. I could remember my husband’s name but not who he was in relation to me. Or I would wake up unable to move, completely paralyzed, and panicked, but have to force myself to relax and go back to sleep so my body would wake up with my mind. I couldn’t remember simple words. I would sometimes hallucinate at night. I thought I was going crazy.
Theories and diagnoses ranged from multiple sclerosis (degenerative and painful, no cure) to Hashimoto’s thyroiditis (one surgery, some medication, and you’re good) to Systemic Scleroderma (you might have a 50% chance of a five year survival). Have you ever been truly afraid? Many of you have. Some of you have had near death experiences, either for yourself or for someone you love desperately. I spent nearly twelve months kissing my two young sons goodnight and tucking them in without knowing if I would live to see them grow up. I went to bed and tried to fight the feeling that I was going crazy. I wrote a poem once and posted it on Facebook where the last lines were, “where the enemy that stalks me / is my own injured psyche / where can I find refuge when the thing I fear’s myself?”
 I did my best to hide my fear from my husband, who was already plenty worried about me, my sons who did not need that kind of stress, and from my parents and siblings, who were already praying for me and worried about me. Increasing their worry wouldn’t give them the opportunity to help more, and they all had their own problems. I still try to keep my biggest fears and pains to myself because I hate to see the ones I love hurting, and what can they do?
But after years of testing I started getting answers. The pain in my hands and joints was aggressive rheumatoid arthritis. The nighttime confusion, hallucinations, and paralysis were narcolepsy. The pain and weakness was fibromyalgia. And my immune system is shot, so I have to take a lot of medication every day to stay healthy and being sick is harder on me than it would be on most others. But I get better. None of these things have cures, but they all have treatments and none of them shorten my life span.
They do make everything harder. I have a good handle on the narcolepsy, so no more collapsing and paranoia. My fibromyalgia is under control as long as I eat well, exercise, and take the medication to help dull the pain receptors. The arthritis has slowed in its progression on my medication, but it hasn’t stopped. It’s the kind of arthritis that’s going to eventually turn my hands into claws and make them unusable. And there again is that fear.
In about 10 years I won’t be able to type anymore. Or play guitar, which I’ve done since I was 13 and I’ve taught lessons for the last four years. No more teaching, because I won’t be able to write on the board or help the preschoolers write their names. And no more writing.
So now I have a new fear. I’ve always put off writing and trying to get published because I was afraid of rejection. Now I don’t have the time to be afraid of that anymore. And medical science is doing a ton of research into arthritis and making strides every year, so by the time it becomes an issue the treatments will be better and this will likely never be a concern for me. But instead of ignoring it or hoping, this time I’m making my fear work for me.
I’m writing, because I choose to believe that I have to do it now or I won’t have the chance later. I’m trying to get published because it is what I want, what I have always wanted, with more passion and belief than almost anything else. I spent three years having no idea how much time I had left, or whether it would be my physical body or my mind that gave first. A publisher’s rejection letter will sting, but it won’t cripple me. Not anymore.
What are you afraid of? What is holding you back from being the person you want to be? It isn’t worth it. There are two things that constantly stand in the way of being the person we want to be. Fear and procrastination. We spend countless hours doing things that need to be done, that should be done, that we are doing now instead of putting them off until after we do the things we must do. My advice?Stop doing laundry. Ignore the dishes. DVR the show, or watch it tomorrow on the internet. Everything that clamors for our time will be there clamoring in an hour. Put it down. Walk away. And spend the next 45-60 minutes doing something that you’ve been putting off. Write. Work out. Pray. Read. Take a hot bath and plan your next move. Decide what it is that you’ve always wanted and for one hour every day ignore everything else and work on it. If you do the dishes now it’ll take 20 minutes. If you wait until after the next meal it’ll take 30. You’re saving 10 minutes of dishwashing and a large part of your sanity by deciding that WHAT YOU, YOURSELF, WANT FOR YOUR SELF MATTERS.
As for me, I’m still sick. Bone weary, aching, this will be twice as bad for me as it was for my kids sick. And I’ve only been up for a few hours and this post is more than half a day late. But I’m writing it. I worked on my book in the hot Epsom salt bath I took to attempt to warm my muscles enough to get them moving. I worked on my networking while I dried my hair. I have a feeling, a feeling I’ve had for decades. I’ve had a feeling ever since I was nine or ten that I would die relatively young. But it doesn’t matter to me as much anymore, because my life is going to be exactly as long as it was always going to be. I don’t know how long that is or when it will be over, but I will not die now without having tried to be her. That person in my head that I’ve always pictured I would be someday. She’s awesome, a good mom, an excellent wife, and a published writer who made the world a little better because she was here.
Fear can suck it. I don’t have time for it any more.