Thursday, November 29, 2007

Bits and Pieces

I'm officially in my standard nail-biting, nerve-wracking waiting period. I mailed out two novel excerpts yesterday for a contest. Now, I get the joy of waiting as patiently as possible to hear the results. I have plenty to keep me busy in the meantime. In addition to my never-ending search for paying proofreading/editing work, I've decided to renew my effort to find an agent. I think I identified the problem in my query letter and spent the morning revising it. Now, I just have to update my list of agents I want to query, make sure the letter is individualized for each of them, and start sending. Then, while I wait for responses, I'll look over my revised manuscript and make sure it's absolutely perfect (or as close as I can possibly get it).

Of course, if I get tired of that manuscript, I still have one waiting for me to finish rewriting it. I keep getting bogged down in it, but I'm trying to get through it. I want to get it done so I can let it sit for a while, then read through it to look for anything that could be better. Basically, the same thing I do with everything I write.

That's all of the exciting news I have for the moment. I'm off to prepare and send queries now. Wish me luck!

Monday, November 26, 2007

Queen of Procrastination

Anyone who's known me for long has heard me refer to myself as the queen of procrastination. I've almost perfected it as an art form. I have a manuscript I'm rewriting. I was supposed to have chapter 9 done a week or so ago. I still haven't gotten to it, because I constantly find something else that needs my attention. Like my two novel excerpts for a contest. The deadline is November 30. I've known this since September or October. I've known almost as long which manuscripts I wanted to use for my excerpts. Here it is, November 26, and I only have one of the excerpts revised to my liking. I started on the other one this morning, but I needed to check my email (which I hadn't done since sometime Friday). In addition to the twenty-page excerpts, I also have to make sure my one-page synopses to go with them are perfect...well, as perfect as I can get any synopsis.

Now, you'll notice that instead of working on the remaining excerpt and the synopses, or even chapter 9 of my rewrite, I'm writing a post on procrastination. Ah, there's nothing like the internet for a procrastinator. There's always something to keep you from what you're trying to avoid.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Black Friday

The day after Thanksgiving, at the end of a busy week of preparations, means it's time to get back to the business of writing. Taking a few days off was a good thing, and since it involved celebrating a holiday, it gave me some ideas for my writing. Thanksgiving dinner with family and friends, the rushed atmosphere in the kitchen as last minute touches are put on that dinner, the conversation after the meal, leftovers for the next couple of days... All of this is inspiring to me.

What inspires you? Think about it, and let your writing flow like a clear mountain stream. Or if your brain is still on vacation, let your writing flow like a muddy trickle. You can always revise it later. :)

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Random Thoughts and a Question for You

This is most likely the lamest post I will ever write. When I come up with an even lamer one a few months from now, please forget that I said this one would be the lamest.

Between rewriting one novel, revising another, and going through a third for a writing buddy, I'm drawing a complete blank on interesting topics to blog on. All my brain power is taken up with actual writing work. One thing I can mention that I learned the other day affects all of us writers looking for someone to publish our work: apparently, the two spaces between sentences format is as obsolete as a typewriter. Back when I started writing in high school, I used one space between sentences and was informed that was wrong. I had to use two spaces. Over the course of the next couple of months, I trained myself to double-tap the space bar after a sentence, and everyone was happy. Now, I'm hearing that this is wrong. Brian A. Klems wrote about it on his Questions & Quandaries blog over at Writer's Digest. Click here to read what he has to say about it. So, on top of all my rewriting, revising, and reading, I'm trying to retrain myself to only put one space between sentences and replacing double spaces in my writings with single spaces.

And people think writing isn't real work. Ha! They should try writing sixty to eighty thousand words, then revise it all repeatedly while learning about things like using one space instead of two. For me, the creation of the work is easy compared to the revision/rewrite process. Nearly everyone I've talked to (other than writers) think writing the first draft is the hard part. Nope, getting the story down is simple. Changing entire sections to make them exciting, tighten up the writing, and improve the wording is the hard part. Though that's not entirely accurate. It's not so much difficult as it is tedious. Don't get me wrong, there are times when I'm ready to bang my head against the wall in frustration when I can't find the perfect way to say what I want. But the hardest part is seeing what's actually on the page, and not what I remember from the last six times I read through it. That's why letting the manuscript sit for a while between revisions is so important. It gives you a chance to get away from the story so that when you come back to it, you're more likely to catch things you missed the last time through. Getting someone else to read your manuscript is a great way to see how others will react to your story, and they'll also find things you're blind to because you're close to the story (it's your baby, after all!).

Looking back over this post, I guess I did have something to say. Ignore the fact that I called this a lame blog post. The thoughts in it may be completely random and not really connected to each other, but hopefully you wonderful readers will get something out of it. Even if all you do is get a laugh out of it, I've done my job. Entertaining and informing are two of the main reasons I write. Give me enough time and I'm sure I can come up with a few more. In the meantime, what are some of the reasons you write? And it doesn't have to be a novel or even a short story. If you're commenting on here, you likely have a blog. What caused you to start it? I'm always curious to know why people do things. I look forward to seeing what everyone has to say.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Reptitive Words

Every writer has, at some point, discovered a word or phrase they use often. For me, it's for a moment, in a moment, after a while, and various other forms of the same theme. Then there's the word smile. I'm currently revising a YA manuscript and I'm trying to cut down on the occurrence of smile, smiled, and smiling. The Find feature in Microsoft Word is my best friend. I search for smil, then highlight every place a form of smile appears. In one twelve-page chapter, I highlight twenty-five instances. Twenty-five! Talk about over usage. The good news is that I recognize it as a problem, and I'm taking steps to correct it. The bad news is that I still have a long way to go before the bad habit of repetitive word usage is broken. Every time I think I've done it, I start seeing a trend in my word choice that leaves me cringing. Someday, I hope to get past repeating the same word over and over and over. Until then, I'll get plenty of practice at rewriting the repetitive bits.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Teen Sex, Romance, and Writing Responsibly

One of the most difficult things about writing for young adults is handling relationships. Teens have emotions just as strong as adults, and possibly stronger. As YA authors, we don’t dare come across as trivializing their emotions, feelings, and thoughts. Unfortunately, realism in your novel can bring about the necessity of dealing with uncomfortable topics such as sex and teen pregnancy. How do you handle these subjects without coming across as preaching or worse, disregarding the difficult realities of what teens face?

This is something I think about every time I look at my YA works. Did this character act in a realistic manner? Is this too preachy and will cause the reader to lose interest? Can teens identify with my characters thoughts and emotions in a meaningful way? Yes, I’m writing to entertain, but I also know that my writing will have some influence on the reader. Whether good or bad, big or small, my writing will have an effect on the reader. That’s where the responsibility comes in. It would be so easy to say, “I wrote it, but it’s not my problem what the reader takes away from it.” Actually, by writing it and putting it out there for teens to read, it is my problem. Yes, there will be unintended reactions. I can’t predict what everyone will get from my book. But I can be responsible in how I write and do my best to keep from influencing the reader in a bad way. My goal as an author is to uplift the reader. Sometimes I do that with bad things happening to good characters and the characters coming through changed but still good; other times, bad characters are influenced by good characters and becoming good characters themselves by the end of the story. Either way, the point is to show the reader that regardless of what happens there is hope.

One trend I’ve noticed in YA novels is sex. Whether it’s the main character being promiscuous or making the decision to have sex for the first time, or another character in the same situation that gets the MC thinking about sex and relationships, it’s a subject that permeates the genre. I recently read a fairly long thread on a message board for YA writers about teen sex. What troubled me was that the writers all seemed to think that it’s a necessary topic to cover in their books, but not one of them mentioned abstinence as a legitimate way to handle the subject. They were more concerned with showing the characters having safe sex, dealing with the consequences if they didn’t, what kind of emotional impact teen sex has on a girl, etc. That got me thinking about two things: Is a secular YA novel with characters who abstain from sex marketable? And what does teen sex do to a guy’s perceptions of women?

The first question is one I’m sure I’ll learn through my own journey to publication. Abstinence opens up a whole world of possibilities for conflict, both internal and external. There is a lot of pressure for teens to “fit in” and a lot of them feel that having sex is the only way to be popular. I want to show them that abstinence gains respect from others and can actually make a girl more valued by the guys. There are some who would disagree, but from my own experiences as a teen, and what I’ve observed since then, girls who won’t let a guy sleep with them tend to be more respected than the girls who will do anything a guy asks.

The answer to my second question is a little more difficult and complex. I’m not sure there is any one answer for it. The best I can come up with at the moment is that it could teach guys to objectify women, to see them as being on the planet for the guy’s personal pleasure. I’m sure that’s not the case for all males who engage in teen sex, but it is one possibility. This is a subject I’ll have to do more research on before I can say anything with certainty.

All of this ties into another theme that is involved in my YA writings: romance. A lot of teenage girls are romantics to some degree. But do they understand that romance and sex are two completely different things? You can have romance without sex, and sex without romance. I want to show girls what romance is; sweet, innocent romance that makes girls value themselves as much as any guy they date should value them. Holding hands for the first time, the tension leading up to the first kiss, a guy giving a girl a single rose…these are the things we should be showing teens. These are the things that are romantic and meaningful in young relationships. I believe that we as writers should show kids being kids, not encouraging them to engage in adult relationships while they’re still teens. Let them enjoy innocence as long as they can, and show them that innocence is something to value.

Our writing influences our readers, whether we want to admit it or not. Will your writing have a good influence on them or a bad one? Teen romances rarely last long, but the choices made during those brief interludes can affect the teen for the rest of their lives. Write responsibly, and be aware that your words could be the only mentor a teen has.

Monday, November 5, 2007

The Business Side of Writing

As any author can tell you, there's more to getting a book published and into the hands of readers than just putting words on paper. Once the story is written, it's time for revision. Then more revision, and more revision, and even more revision. There might be a rewrite or two somewhere in there as well. Then, when your manuscript is perfect, it's time to submit to agents or editors. Or is it? You have an awesome manuscript, but what about a query letter? a synopsis? a clue as to where to send the thing?

Now you're getting into the hard stuff. Trying to describe an entire 300-page book in one to three pages is a daunting task, especially when you have to make it attention-grabbing. Writing the synopsis is something I put off until the last possible moment because I dread it so much. Writing and revising a novel is nothing compared to trying to make that novel sound interesting in a very limited amount of space.

The query letter is also intimidating. How much information about the plot should you put in? Which words best describe the book? How do you get around having next-to-nothing to say about yourself that might convince the agent/editor that you really do know how to write? The letters I send out are always the third, fifth, or twentieth version. The originals are great starting places, and usually include a great lesson on editing for interest and clarity. Never would I submit those to even my most trusted critiquing buddies. They get anywhere from the second draft to the tenth. And by the time they're done with it, I have a much better letter than I could have come up with on my own.

Where to send the perfect submission package of query letter, first chapter, and synopsis can be almost as difficult as writing the letter. The only way to find an agent or a publisher is to research, research, research. Once you've found what you think is the perfect match for your book, research some more. I once found who I thought was the perfect agent for me. She was interested in the kind of things I wrote, she worked for a well-known agency, she just seemed like the right match. Then I did a little more research and discovered she was the audio rights agent. I need a literary agent and a publisher before I need to worry about audio rights. Sigh. I went on to query another agent in the same agency who seemed like a good fit (I got a very nice form rejection).

After many submissions to agents, I've learned a very important lesson. Never give up. I've received many form rejections, one personal rejection that let me know my story has potential, but was quite right for that agent, and one query that got lost in cyberspace. From all of this, I was able to see that my "perfect" manuscript wasn't quite as perfect as I'd thought. I'm revising it again and will hopefully send out a submission package to a publisher this week. I still have to read that first chapter one more time, go over the letter for what seems like the millionth time, and make sure my synopsis is as exciting as the book. And while I'm waiting for a response, I'll be looking at the rest of the manuscript to make sure it's as perfect as I can get it just in case the publisher asks for more.

Ah, the joys of writing for publication.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Writing Emotion, and Critique Groups

As persnickety as proper comma placement can be, writing realistic emotions can be even worse. As an autistic, what I think sounds like good emotion for my characters and what others see as good emotion can be two very different things. I've noticed many places in my writing where I've told the reader what the character is feeling rather than showing it. Many more places have been pointed out to me through critiques by fellow writers. I'm learning to recognize places where I could show emotion rather than telling, but it's difficult to know exactly how to show it. That's where the autism gets me. I don't usually get a lot out of body language and subtle expressions, which makes writing realistic reactions difficult. Thanks to reading a ton of books and studying people in real life, TV shows, and movies, I'm getting better at it. But nothing can replace the impartial eyes of a critique for catching my errors.

I firmly believe every writer should join a writers group where they can receive honest feedback on what works and what doesn't in their writing. It can be a group that meets in person or an online group. The point is sharing your writing with people who can help you make it even better. One very important thing to remember when giving critiques is to provide constructive criticism in a kind way. There's nothing worse than receiving harsh comments and unkind words about the story you worked so hard on. Even stories that need a lot of work can be critiqued in a way that doesn't destroy the dreams of the author. I've received critiques that hurt, but because the comments were made in a kind way, it left me hopeful that I could improve the chapter. It can be hard sometimes to accept even the kindest criticism of your writing. Just remember that a good critique group can help you grow as a writer in ways you never imagined possible. Giving critiques helps improve your own writing as well, because you learn what to look for and how to analyze a piece for clarity, proper word usage, and many other things.

Be open to suggestions for improving your writing. Not all suggestions in a given critique will fit your style, and it's okay to not use all of them. The ones on proper grammar and punctuation should be used, however. We want our writing to follow the rules of the English language. I know some people advocate breaking the rules you feel stifle creativity, but I have a different view. Once you know the rules (and can use them properly), then it's okay to break or better yet bend one very rarely in a book. Too many broken rules leads to an indecipherable mess that might not even fit the definition of experimental writing. Having your work critiqued is an excellent way to make sure someone other than you knows what you meant your story to say. And sometimes it takes a little rewriting (or maybe two or three rewrites) to make things clear. I've run into that often enough with my own writing, and I can't thank my fellow critiquers enough for their help.