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Rules We Love

This past Wednesday, the Insecure Writer’s Support Group question of the month was what writing rule do you wish you’d never heard? I had fun visiting various blogs and finding out what writing rules hurt rather than helped, or annoyed rather than bolstered. Some rules popped up multiple times. Some were unique like L.G. Keltner’s post that hilariously made me realize for the first time in my life that ‘i before e’ is actually not a rule at all because it’s only true about half the time. All in all, it seemed like everyone decided rules are meant to be broken!

So, I thought today I’d talk about the opposite: writing rules I love.

Here are some ‘rules’ (of course they can be bent and broken) that I felt really enriched my writing once I implemented them:

  • Get rid of filtering. This was like finding a hidden jewel. It was something I hadn’t even thought about until an editor brought it to my attention. It means getting rid of language that distances us from the point of view character. So instead of saying ‘she saw,’ ‘she felt,’ or ‘she heard,’ instead describe the sight, feeling, or sound, because we don’t need to be told the person is experiencing it–we just need to know what they’re experiencing. This makes the writing much more immediate.
  • No disconnected body parts. Hands don’t move on their own. Eyes don’t close by themselves. She moved her hands over the wall, rather than her hands moved over the wall. He closed his eyes, instead of his eyes fell closed.
  • Stop piling up actions. Separate multiple actions that can’t be happening simultaneously. Instead of “he walked across the room petting the dog and turning on the TV,” break it up into “he walked across the room, stopped to pet the dog, then turned on the TV.” I actually see this sort of piling up happening even in the books of well-experienced authors.
  • Action beats instead of ‘said.’ I shared this example on emaginette’s blog. One of my favorite ways to avoid using ‘said’ is the action tag: //”Oh my God.” Amy couldn’t believe this was happening. “Why today, of all days?” / “I know.” Roy’s heart ached for her. “On the day of your dead dog’s birthday!” // It shows who is speaking while also getting deeper into what the characters are feeling.
  • Get rid of gerunds. I used to be terrible about using too many ‘ing’ words. Once this was pointed out to me, I went on the lookout for them.

These are some of my favorite rules, even if I do bend and break them from time to time. What are your favorite rules?

Resolutions

It’s that time of year again when we make resolutions and promises to ourselves. The problem with resolutions is that we break them so easily, and the truth is we could choose to improve ourselves and our lives at any time of the year. However, the start of a new year seems to give us a clean slate, at least mentally. I think the reason a lot of resolutions fail is because it’s such an abrupt change. It’s hard to suddenly stop a bad habit and never pick it up again. Some people can, I’m sure, but for most of us it’s extraordinarily difficult. We would do well to start prepping for the change months in advance–that is, start doing little things and eliminating little behaviors that will ultimately set you up for success when you attempt to change altogether on January 1st.

For myself, I’m planning on making some personal changes, and I was thinking how best to make them stick. I haven’t done any ‘prepping,’ so what’s the second best solution? Of course, it’s the opposite of prepping–committing to the changes slowly over time. We see this a lot in people who want to lose weight. If you crash diet, you’re going to put the weight back on. If you lose it slowly over time and gradually change your eating habits and your lifestyle, it sticks much better.

Since this is a writing blog, I’ll address some writing resolutions that you may have, and talk about how to make them stick if you haven’t been gradually building up to your goal already.

Resolutions:

  • I want to write every day. If you don’t write every day now (I’m guilty of this, by quite a lot) you’re probably not going to start writing on January 1st and keep it up every single day of 2017. However, if you start in little increments: say, writing 200 words a day instead of 2000 when you first start, you might stick to it better. You may quickly find you don’t have time in your life to write every single day, but surely you can find the time to write 100 words? 50? It still counts as ‘writing every day,’ and the days you do have more time, you can write a lot more.
  • I want to finish X amount of stories/books in 2017. If you haven’t started on these stories/books, now is the time to start planning them. Project how long you want these works to be and how long it will take you to write them. You can perhaps schedule time frames, even. Also, pick a number that you know is realistic for you, or else you’re going to disappoint yourself and run out of steam. Even just one is better than none!
  • I want to get published. Whether going the traditional route or self-publishing, this takes work and research, and you need to do that first. Learn how to perfect a query letter, compile a list of agents or publishers, or research self-publishing services. With knowledge in hand you’re much more likely to reach your goal. Publishing isn’t just about writing, it’s a business too.
  • I want to be more active on social media/my blog. I’m terrible at social media. I hardly ever post on FB or Twitter unless it’s something promotional. However, I’m not going to be able to just jump in and become the belle of the ball. Start out making Tweets or posts a few times a week, then move up to once a day, and then if you’re really starting to feel comfortable with it, you can start posting multiple times a day and engaging your readers. Some people are just never going to get the hang of social media, and that’s okay, but remember as a writer making personal connections with your audience is important.
  • I want to get myself out there more. You can buy virtual tours, or approach bloggers yourself. Make a list of where you want to promote yourself and start finding ways to get in. Talk to people and seek out who is taking on guests. I’ve found that I can actually schedule tons of promotion without spending a dime this way.

It’s my opinion that resolutions shouldn’t be all or nothing, but should be a commitment to working toward improvement. Giving or picking something up all at once is hard, and will probably fail. However, a dedication to change over time lays a foundation for you to stand steady on.

What are your resolutions for 2017, and how do you plan to implement them?

Gatlinburg

Today my heart and thoughts go out to the people of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, who were devastated by wildfires over Monday night and Tuesday morning, resulting in almost all of Gatlinburg being burnt to the ground. The destruction is terrible and many people lost their homes and livelihoods. Unfortunately, most major news outlets barely gave any airtime to the story, instead continuing to rattle on ridiculously about politics. I find it disgraceful that most people had to rely on the internet for any information at all. I’ve never been to the area, but it looks beautiful.

If you would like to know ways you can help, here is an extensive list of places and charities taking physical and monetary donations.

Ten (More) Life Lessons We Can Learn From Our Cats

One of the most popular posts on this blog is Ten Life Lessons We Can Learn From Our Cats. Since, like that day, I’m struggling to come up with a topic, I thought why not find ten more lessons to keep you laughing? So here we go:

Ten (More) Life Lessons We Can Learn From Our Cats:

  1. If you don’t like your food, complain until someone gets you something better.
  2. Sometimes you just have to let the hairball it all out.
  3. If you hear a weird noise at night, it’s best to be over-alert and anxiously on guard. It might have been just the wind, but it’s probably an axe murderer breaking into the house to chop you to pieces.
  4. On that note: always overreact and hide from most noises.
  5. The most comfortable sleeping positions are weirdly the ones that twist you into strange shapes.
  6. Find a high spot and watch the world from above, with an air of superiority. That’s why you’re up there, after all, because you’re better than everyone else.
  7. Don’t wait for treats, find them and take them.
  8. A sunbeam is a good place for a nap.
  9. If someone accuses you of something, just give them big eyes and make cute noises, they’ll forget about it.
  10. If you don’t want to be touched, bite.

Have a great Wednesday!

What The Hell Is Urban Fantasy?

I get asked this question a lot. Especially in my daily life, when I tell people I write books and they ask what I write, I say “urban fantasy” and get blank stares. I have yet to distill down a simple and clear answer that won’t take ages to explain when they inevitably ask “what’s that?” Sometimes I try to point out movies and TV shows that have an urban fantasy vibe, to make it clearer. Of course, they’ve never seen any of them (in case you’re confused as well, here’s a list of TV shows, though I don’t necessarily agree that all of these are urban fantasy).

So what’s urban fantasy?! Well, here’s some key elements:

  • Usually set in a city. This is what makes it ‘urban.’ However, to complicate things further, not ALL urban fantasy has a city setting. Because:
  • A general gritty/modern/dark vibe. If it has this feel, it can be set outside an urban area and still be considered urban fantasy.
  • Paranormal elements. This is the actual one universal rule.
  • Usually has a female protagonist. Especially when it comes to urban fantasy books. However, guess what kids? This is not a hard and fast rule either.
  • Has some romantic elements. Again, not universal, but especially when it comes to books. Urban fantasy is often listed as a subgenre of romance. But does it have to be romantic? Of course not! None of this makes sense!
  • Has some action/high-stakes. This is another element that actually seems to be universal.

Is it any wonder I can’t explain to people what the hell urban fantasy is unless they actually read it? I guess it’s…a paranormal, action-y, gritty sorta romance with no clear perimeters on content?

I just write romance, guys. Romance! Let’s leave it at that.

Query Do’s and Don’t’s

A lot of authors and writing blogs talk about query letters and dispense advice on how to compose one. There’s a lot of tutorials out there, some very detailed and informative. As an author who has written many query letters, and even gotten a few publishing contracts out of them, I thought I’d throw my two cents in as well.

A query letter is a pitch you make to an agent/editor/publisher in the hopes they will say “this sounds interesting, show me more.” It can be nerve-wracking and stressful to put together, as you only have one shot to make a good impression. As a rule of thumb, query letters should be 90% about the project and 10% about you. Why? Because agents and editors are busy people and they want you to get to the point. They want to know about the story. Even if you have 100 books published and a trophy case full of awards, those things have nothing to do with this project.

Write a blurb for your book–the type of thing you’d see on the back cover–and make that the bulk of your letter. Keep your own bio brief and relevant. For example, if I was pitching a paranormal romance, I’d mention the paranormal romances I already have published. If you don’t have any or many writing chops, mentioning any background or education you have on the subject matter is good.

A great blog for learning more is Query Shark. There, hopeful authors get real advice on their query letters and how to improve them. If you’re trying to write a query letter I suggest checking it out.

Here are some pieces of advice when writing a query letter:

  • Keep it short. 3-4 paragraphs maximum. Agents and editors are busy people and if your letter is pages long, they’re probably going to pass it over. You only get a few seconds of their precious time, so make sure you utilize it wisely.
  • Keep it relevant. Talk about the story, as I said above. Too much rambling about yourself and your plans for the future will derail the point of your letter.
  • Don’t ask rhetorical questions. A lot of new authors think this is a way to build excitement. They start with a hook like If ravens pecked out your eyeballs, what would your life be like? Don’t do this, it’s pointless and annoying and A LOT of publishing professionals don’t like it. Instead, ask yourself the question and put the answer in the letter. After having his eyeballs pecked out by ravens, Timmy finds his new blind life difficult and traumatic.
  • Put some technical details in there somewhere. Tell the word count and genre of your story, and if it has series potential. Don’t call it a ‘fictional novel.’ All novels are fiction, that’s the definition of ‘novel.’ Don’t say the manuscript is ‘complete,’ that is implied (see below).
  • Get names right. Make sure you don’t misspell the agent/editor’s name or call a Mrs. a Mr. You should do your research before you send the query off, so you have this information correct (however, if I don’t explicitly know if a woman is married, I use the ambiguous Ms.).
  • Know what you need to send. Every publisher and agent has specific requirements for what they want you to send along with the query. Make sure you follow these to the letter. Some don’t want anything but the query, and that’s all you should send.
  • A query letter is not a synopsis. A synopsis details a story from start to finish, in deep detail. You don’t need to do this in a query letter, and you don’t need to tell the ending of the story. A query is simply an enticement.
  • Don’t query unfinished projects. Your book should be fully written and edited before you begin querying. You’re not going to make a good impression if someone wants to see your full manuscript and you don’t have it finished yet.
  • Check your formatting. Email can do wonky things to your text. Make sure you give it a look over before you send it off–breaks between paragraphs, no weird fonts or random symbols.
  • Don’t be chummy. Unless the person you’re sending the query to is someone you actually know, keep it professional and focused. Use formal language, don’t make jokes, and present yourself in a friendly but not overly-familiar way, like you would in a job interview.

Querying is stressful, but it’s the necessary first step in getting a yes. There’s lots of information out there–do some research before you send that letter off!

Slow and Steady

If you’re an anxious sort of person who likes things to happen fast, the last thing you want to be is a writer. Writing and publishing are the slowest activities you can imagine. How anyone manages to make a stable career out of it is beyond me (I’m sure it takes a thousand years to get to that point). If you want to go fast, race stock cars. If you want to watch yourself slowly age while nothing happens, become a writer.

Every step of the writing and publishing process is slow:

  • Need an idea? If your brain is anything like mine, it’s going to take its sweet old time coming up with something for you to write. Even once you get that spark, the details need to be slowly untangled before you begin. If I try to push my brain for ideas it gets even more cranky and just goes to sleep.
  • Got an idea? Now write a book. How long do you think it will take? Weeks? Months? Years? Everyone is different. Sure, there’s some writers who can churn out a book in a few days or a week, but it probably took them a long time to get that fast, and also they probably sacrifice puppies to gain their dark magical power.
  • Now edit that book. This might take even longer than writing it, especially if it needs major rewrites.
  • Start sending it off to agents/editors. If you want to feel the true passage of endless time in all its horrifying reality, send a submission off and then keep refreshing your inbox while you wait for a reply. Stalk the agent/editor on Twitter as well if you really want to experience what eternity feels like.
  • Got an offer? Great! You think things will speed up now, don’t you? You sweet summer child. When they finally send you the contract, you’ll want to make sure you read that sucker thoroughly and consider all your options. Definitely not the time to rush.
  • Now your editor/cover artist/proofreader gets to make it into a real book. Days and weeks will go by where you’re fairly certain the publisher has forgotten they’ve taken you on board. Then, your editor will email you in the middle of the night with fifty pages of edits that they want back in two days.
  • Release day! Finally! …wait, I spent all that time waiting for this? Where is the choir of angels singing? Why isn’t Channing Tatum at my door ready to give me a lap dance? Why hasn’t Kim Kardashian called me up to take me on a shopping spree for being so clever and published? Now you get to wait for someone to care that you wrote a book.
  • Now wait to get paid. Keep waiting. Better start writing another book.

Writing is slow. Publishing is slow. But it’s all worth it in the end, right? Right?!

Friday Encouragement

Have you had a long, hard week of writing? Things not going so well? Maybe you need a little bit of a nudge, or a hug? I think as writers we should all be supporting and encouraging each other, so in that spirit, I’m going to devote today’s post to some cheerleading. I’ll start at the first seedling and go to the finished project and beyond, so there’s something for you no matter where you are on your journey:

  • Do you have writer’s block? Take heart, it will pass. We all get stuck sometimes. What you might need most is to give your brain a rest, or focus on something else.
  • Are you struggling through the first draft? Keep struggling! Each word you put down gets you closer to a finished manuscript, even if the words come slow.
  • Stuck in the middle? Try a few different doors, even one you wouldn’t normally consider. It just might show you the way forward.
  • Agonizing over the end? Maybe you can write several endings and see which one works best. Remember that nothing is set in stone at this stage.
  • Groaning over edits and rewrites? Take it one little bite at time. Don’t overwhelm yourself. Looking too far ahead makes you trip over what’s under your feet.
  • Not sure if your rewritten/edited manuscript is right yet? Set it aside and come back to it with fresh eyes later. It will still be there.
  • Nervous because you’re about to query? It’s okay to be nervous and anxious. Do some research on where you’re sending it. Polish your letter. Make sure you have everything ready to go. Breathe. Hit send.
  • Waiting to hear back from an editor/agent? Get to work on another project so you’ll have something to distract you and you won’t be pulling your hair out as much.
  • Rejection? It hurts, but it’s part of the writing game. Don’t give up. Keep trying.
  • Acceptance? You may be running around in frantic circles. Celebrate! Congratulations!
  • Is your editor making your life difficult? Try to look at the criticism and corrections with an objective eye and ask yourself what you can learn. Don’t take it personally, because it’s not.
  • Waiting for your book to come out? Focus on marketing and what you can do in the future to promote it. That might help the days from going by so slowly.
  • Your book just came out? Congratulations, breathe a little!
  • You got bad a review? Remember that reviews–good or bad–are one person’s opinion. Your book isn’t you and they’re not attacking you personally. Nod and move on.
  • Your book isn’t selling well? Take heart, only a comparative handful of writers are lucky enough to make a real living off writing. Give yourself career goals and work toward them. You might just end up in that handful.
  • Worrying you’re a hack? We all feel that way sometimes. You’re not a hack. Hold your chin up and look to the future–you will get better and better with time!

No matter where you are on your writing path, I hope today finds you well. May your words be abundant and clever, your ideas bottomless, and your readers plenty! If you have other words of encouragement for each other, leave them in the comments!

Organizing A Story

The other day I was sitting on the couch and looked down, and noticed my cat matches my rug. I was so amused, I had to take a picture.

I didn’t plan this, of course. I saw the rug in the store, liked it, it was a good price, and so I bought it. I wasn’t thinking about my cat at the time. It was just a funny coincidence. But, my brain happens to love organization and coordination. They’re my favorite things to do, and sorting things, putting things in order, and making things ‘go’ together gives me a sense of happiness and relaxation.

I promise this has something to do with writing!

I think that’s how I create stories too. And maybe, how many of us do. Writing is about making everything go in its place and work together. It’s about organizing ideas so they form something neat and beautiful, hopefully.

When you’re about to sit down and start a story, it’s like you have a big box of stuff that goes in all different rooms in your house. Like when you’ve moved, and you have to figure out where to put everything in your new place. You dump the box out on the floor and get to work.

New writers may be under the agonized impression that seasoned writers–those who have been at it for a long time, are very skilled, and may have tons of publications under their belts–receive this box for each new project already organized, labeled, and easy to put away. This is not true at all. We all get the same jumbled box every time, and what’s worse, some of what’s in there we may end up throwing or giving away instead of finding a place for. Which things? You won’t even know until you try to put them somewhere and they won’t fit.

As you write the story, one by one, you put the objects somewhere in your house–a character’s backstory, a plot point, some foreshadowing, a little bit of humor. You might place them somewhere only to realize later they look better on a different shelf or wall, but that’s okay. Unpack the box piece by piece, and put things where they seem right at the time.

At the end, things might looking really uncoordinated and you might need to go out and buy some new things to tie it all together, but that’s okay too. That’s what editing is. You’re going to adjust things and toss things out, and add pieces.

But one day, you’re going to look down and realize without even intending it the cat matches the rug, and you’re going to smile, because it’s all coming together.