Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Why David Farland is my hero

This time last year, I didn't have a writing group. I live in an area with few writers--and almost no genre writers (that I'm aware of). I knew intellectually that a group would be good, but had no idea how to start one. I tried to get a friend to be a two-person group with me, but, well, he was a bigger slacker than I was. Our group was a major failure.

Last April I attended LDStorymakers. In preparation, I researched the many authors who would be presenting at the conference, including David Farland. My research uncovered his Daily Kick, a regular email of writing and industry advice. Naturally, I signed up. (You should, too--it's awesome.)

At the conference, I got to introduce myself to David, and heard his advice on a couple of panels. He knows so much!

After the conference, I went home, determined to Finish. My. Book. But I still didn't have a group.

Round about September, the Daily Kick announced the opening of David Farland's Writer's Groups. Oh-ho! I said. Just what I need! And it was.

I now have the BEST writer's group ever, even though I've only met about half of them IRL. They give excellent advice, tear my work to shreds, and manage to be awfully encouraging all the while.

Also, through Farland's Writers' Groups, I've been given the incredible opportunity to interview bestselling, up-and-coming, and all-around-awesome authors through Farland's Authors' Advisory conference calls. I'm one of two hosts (with Mike Shaffer) and I'm having a blast. We are, to my knowledge (and there's a sad lot that I don't know) the only podcast that allows callers anywhere in the world to call in with their questions in a voice format.

If you don't have a writer's group, check out the groups at David Farland's Writer's Groups. If you enjoy attending writing conventions (or if you've never attended before, or if you can't attend as much as you like), check out the advice on Farland's Authors' Advisory. (Last week I interviewed Dan Wells!)

This week, on Wednesday, March 30, 2011 at 9:00 PM EDT, David Farland, himself, will return and will talk to us about How to Sell Your Novel. Mike is interviewing him, but I'll be there, pushing shiny buttons. :) If you have ever had a question about how to sell a novel (and who hasn't?), bring it with you and ask the master. We take caller questions throughout the calls, so don't be shy!

Complete call-in intructions are at the top of the Farland's Authors' Advisory blog.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Reading Woes

Back in April 2008, at the encouragement of Robyn Carr (oh, yeah, lookit me: she's my mentor) I started keeping track of the books I read . Between April 1 and December 28, I read 125 books.

The next year, my spreadsheet got a bit more elaborate (as do all my spreadsheets). In 2009, while working sporadically on my WIP, I read 173 books, 15,632 pages, and averaged 157.9 pages a day.

In 2010, I wrote most of my first draft--and finished it--but still read 138 books, 47,515 pages, and averaged 130.54 pages a day.

Now I'm editing my WIP and this year, so far, I've read 22 books. 7,179 pages. Averaging 85.46 pages a day. My spreadsheet now keeps track of book genres (most books are more than one genre): 12 YA, 13 Fantasy, 10 Urban, 14 Romance, 1 Dystopian (MATCHED), 1 Horror (THE MERIDIANS), 0 Non-Fiction.

Pathetic, yes?

I'm happy with all the other things I'm doing. I am. I'm managing a full-time career (the day-job), trying to start up another full-time career (writing), social networking, blogging, running my online crit group for David Farland's Writer's Groups, critiquing for my group (Meredith, I swear, I'll get your novel crit to you by the end of the month!), holding down two church jobs (teaching Gospel Doctrine and Cub Committee Chair) and being a wife and a mother to three young boys. I sleep 7-8 hours per night (or I get sick). It's a full, busy, and happy life.

But I sure did enjoy this week, when I got too sick to sit at the computer for long periods, and all I could do was lie in bed and read. (Sleep? Who needs sleep?) I MISS reading. I look at Jessica Day George and all she's reading (seriously, that girl is a reading fiend--check her out on Goodreads) and I'm so jealous. I mean, there are hundreds of reasons to be jealous of JDG, but mostly I want to be able to read as much as she does. I'm also jealous of my friend Susan Jensen, who has already read 39 books this year (including mine :))--and that while still writing HER WHOLE FIRST DRAFT.

So, I'm still trying to find balance. Work, writing, family, service, networking, reading, sleep. I watch almost no TV. I hardly ever go anywhere.

Everyday, excellent books are released, and I just DON'T HAVE TIME to read them all. It's tragic.

So how do you do it? How do you decide which books to read? Do you carve out specific time each day for reading, or just grab time as you can find it? How many books have YOU read this year? (Go ahead--rub it it.)

(Also, if anyone wants a great spreadsheet to keep track of their books--with genre--let me know....)

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

How to Build a Better Villain

If you haven't yet read Dan Wells's books I AM NOT A SERIAL KILLER, MR. MONSTER, and I DON'T WANT TO KILL YOU--repent! (Okay, so I haven't read the last one--it isn't technically out in the US yet.) Not only are they spine-tingly fun, but they manage to accomplish the impossible: they make you love characters you would normally run screaming from.
In my day-job, I work closely with many of these "unlovable" types. These folks are often defined in society by the worst thing they've ever done. They cease to be husbands, mothers, brothers, and daughters, and become instead "rapists," "dealers," "robbers," and "murderers." Once that label is applied, it can be very, very difficult to convince ordinary citizens that there is still good in them. That their one (or two, or a dozen) horrible acts didn't eradicate the good people they can still become--and, often, still are. (Much like my chronic laziness, snap judgments, and occasional holier-than-thou complexes don't make me a horrible person.)

One of the hardest labels to overcome is that of "sociopath." Hardly anyone can come up with anything good to say about someone diagnosed as a sociopath. We think of them as knife-wielding bush-hiders, as suave serial rapists, and as slick salesmen who will take our grandmothers' fortunes with a wink and a smile and suffer nary a pang of conscience. They are as foreign to our experience as all our messy emotions are to them.

Until now.

In I AM NOT A SERIAL KILLER, John Wayne Cleaver, the protagonist of Dan Wells' books, is a diagnosed sociopath who is, inconveniently, named after two serial killers and a murder weapon (his father's name is Sam). He's also fifteen, lives in a mortuary with his mother, the mortician, knows everything there is to know about serial killers... and has decided NOT to become one. He has an elaborate system of rules in place to keep himself from following his more disturbing instincts (like "no stalking people"). He's bright enough to have seen his destiny and to have designed a way to thwart it. He is intelligent, humorous, and as loving as a sociopath can be (more than you'd expect, not enough to satisfy his mother).

Then, as in all good stories with this sort of set-up, a serial killer starts killing people in John's town. John decides that, as the ultimate serial killer profiler, he has the best chance of anyone at catching the killer unscathed. He's right... and wrong. To catch the killer, John must break his own rules (like "no stalking people") and consequently grapples with the monster inside himself, who likes being out of his box.The killer's identity (discovered rather shockingly about halfway through the novel) is a surprise not just because of what he is, or who he is, but because, like all good villains, he is the perfect foil for the hero. Who is, as I've mentioned, a sociopath.

Most shocking (which is saying something about a book that opens with a graphic account of a particularly messy embalming) is how utterly lovable the killer is. The killer, in fact, understands love, compassion, and devotion much, much more than John ever will. This operates to make the reader not quite sure who to root for--and creates an ending that has a sad sort of triumph.

I've been crushing on John Cleaver since April of last year, when, out of all the books at the LDS Storymakers conference I wanted, I AM NOT A SERIAL KILLER was the one I decided I couldn't live without. I was SOOO right.

Dan Wells accomplished what so many authors try--and fail--to do: he created a fully-rounded antagonist. An antagonist whose admittedly evil actions were nevertheless understandable. An antagonist who could have been the hero of a different sort of story--a hero whose actions we might have regretted, but whose goal we can't help but support.

How did he do that? I'm pleased to announce that I will be interviewing Dan tomorrow night for David Farland's Authors' Advisory Conference Calls. Our topic will be (you guessed it): Monsters, Sociopaths, and Other Sympathetic Characters. For a full hour, we will pick his brain on how we can make our villains slightly less stereotypically (read: boringly) villainous. How we can remember--and help our readers remember--that our villains are also sons and daughters, parents and siblings, friends and neighbors. Please join us, bring your questions, and learn about writing villains from the master. Full call-in instructions are on the Authors' Advisory blog.

Update: Dan's call was awesome (no surprise) and the recording is now available here.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Query-less Timing

This week, my editing schedule has been severely delayed because I've been obsessing over my query. I know, I know--that doesn't make much sense, right? If I never finish the edits, I'll never need the query. Bear with me, though--I think this has actually been very helpful.

The point of the query is to distill your full-length novel down to its essence. Anyone who has ever tried it knows that this is HARD. Your query blurb is supposed to be only 250 words (or less). That's .3% of a 90,000 word novel. Try doing that with any other work of art:

5% of Starry Night

3% of The Last Supper

2% of the Mona Lisa
(Disclaimer: percentages are approximate and were not double-checked by someone who can actually do math.)

I tried, but my free photo-editing software wouldn't let me select smaller chunks of the paintings. If you feel like NEVER getting published, try submitting a 2500 word blurb of your novel in your query letter pamphlet and tell the agent that you tried, but you just couldn't say it with fewer words. I'm sure she'll give you an A for effort.

Anyway, one of the great things you learn while writing a query letter is whether or not your novel has a POINT. Also, WHAT THAT POINT IS and WHETHER IT IS STRONG ENOUGH. Ditto with the plot. (Plots and points are both important. So you know.) The earlier you figure this out, the more time you have to, you know, fix it.

For example, let's imagine you're writing your query and you say "John must choose between X-impossible-choice and Y-impossible-choice"... but your novel shows him practically flipping a coin on those options while he's in the middle of saving the princess. (Not that MY characters would ever do anything so foolish.) What to do? You can certainly revise the query to focus more on the princess-saving, but what if he really does have to choose between two impossible things? What if (now that you mention it) he struggles (or really should struggle) with those choices throughout the novel? Don't you WANT to make that moment of choice more important?

Now imagine that you don't realize the importance of that choice until you've run your novel through 10 rounds of edits, polished all the -ly verbs out of it, removed 5000 superfluous words, and tightened up the language until you can bounce a quarter off of it. Imagine you have your list of dream agents, complete with their detailed submission guidelines, sitting in a quick-access file on your computer, and you've set a goal to start querying... next week. Just as soon as you write a query letter.

Heck of a time to figure out what your novel is about, huh?

I'm sure I'll revise my query a few hundred more times before it's agent-ready. I'm sure the revision process itself will help me isolate what my book is about. Still, writing my query now has been amazingly helpful in pin-pointing exactly what I need to fix, what needs to be emphasized, and how my MC needs to feel about her choices. I tried to write a synopsis earlier, before I finished my first draft--it wasn't the same. It had a very "exercise" feel to it. There's a sense of urgency in writing an actual query letter that I'll actually have to use someday that makes me want to get it right--and to make it interesting to someone else.

What about you? When did you / are you planning to write your query letter?

(This post brought to you today by Elana Johnson's wonderful, amazing, splendiferous, FREE e-book: FROM THE QUERY TO THE CALL. Download it here. Read it. Love it. Use it. Why are you still here?)

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Getting a Little Pitchy

Has anyone else been obsessing over pitching lately? Pitch contests, twitter pitch contests, and their ilk have been almost omnipresent for the last few months. I've been entering these various contests like a woman obsessed and have discovered a sad truth: I'm not at all good at this.

My main problem? My book has pixies in it.

Wait! Before you run away to find something interesting to read, let me assure you that my pixies are, like, cool and stuff. They go to high school with regular modern humans, their dust has medicinal and (depending on the color) hallucinogenic properties, and they have their very own subculture.

I know, I know. You're still not impressed. See? I can't express quickly how utterly awesome my book is. Really. It is. *sigh*

So this is why I keep entering contests. I figure if I enter about a hundred pitch contests, I'll eventually figure out a way to pack everything I need into 140 characters. And, if I can do that, I can pack it all into two paragraphs of my query letter, easy. (Though, really, I'm counting on my so-awesome writing groupie Jenn Johansson to help me with that part, whether I figure this out or not.)

Anyone want to help? Following is my most recent pitch contest entry. (Coincidentally this contest is going on today and tomorrow over at Market My Words--go join in the fun!) This is a Twitter-pitch contest... but not on Twitter. 140 characters max, which explains the abbreviations:

Teen half-human pixie returns from kidnap… stranger than b4--must learn new powers, dodge HS dust addicts, & expose ancient pixie secrets.

I'd love to know what you think when you read it. Does it make you think of flitting through flowers, full of sweetness and light (#pitchfail); or are you suddenly excited to see what a high school pixie party might look like (#pitchwin)? Any tips to fix this mess?

Oh, and Market My Words also has great links to people smarter than me, who have written about pitching. That's what today's blog was going to be: I was going to research and write about how to write one of these suckers. No need: it's already been done. :)

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Choosing What's Important OR Why I'll Never Be Good At Journaling

When I got my first set of scriptures with my shiny new red scripture marker pencil (how's that for a string of adjectives?), I immediately set to work underlining the important scriptures. Three completely red pages later, I looked back and wondered why I bothered marking at all. The scriptures weren't easier to find or read now that they were all red. If I wanted to find a scripture on faith, I still had to look in the index. So I stopped marking scriptures unless a teacher suggested one as "markable." Or if it was a scripture mastery scripture and therefore in my best interests to be able to quickly locate in the event of a scripture chase.

Lest you think this was just a youthful inability to identify truly important things... it has never gotten any better. In desperation, at the age of 21, I developed an elaborate system of marking, that labeled each word according to topic. Faith and repentance were green. Prophets and references to records were light blue. Christ was orange-red. I had a pack of 24 scripture markers and all but white had a designated purpose in my scriputures. Reading them was more akin to coloring. I spent more time deciding what color each word should be than I did deciding how I felt about each one. I wish I could report that I've finally found a happy medium.

Elana Johnson posted a list of tips for writers recently, including "Write in a Journal." I'm really REALLY hoping this isn't a hard-and-fast rule, because I'm just as bad at picking the important parts of my life as I am at picking the important parts of the scriputures. During the very infrequent periods in my life when I've kept a journal, it took hours to maintain. Also, it quickly devolved into a blow-by-blow account of contacts with my current crush. Great fodder for YA? Certainly. I'd love to locate that journal and read it... before burying it deep in the earth. Was my crush the most important thing that happened to me during those months? Probably not. Just the most obsessive.

Right now my life is busier than it has ever been. I'm maintaining a full-time career, trying to start up another one (Best-Selling Novelist--have you heard of any openings?), I have three church jobs (Gospel Doctrine teacher, Cub Scout Committee Chair, and Visiting Teacher), three young sons, and a house that doesn't clean itself. Oh, and a husband who likes to get attention at regular intervals. If each day were twice as long, I'd still need more time. Girl's gotta read sometime, right? So for now and for the forseeable future, this blog is my only journal. Long live the internet.

Which brings me to my final, startlingly happy point: choosing what's important in fiction is worlds easier than choosing what's important in the scriptures or in my own life. Why? Because I don't know the future of my own life. Because I don't know the future of my own life, it is impossible to know what to put in a journal. What will I want to look back on later? *shrugs* Can't know. (Since my crush wasn't my future husband, it seems I was very wrong to think it would be important to record every word he said to me.) Which scriptures will I want to lean on in the coming months and years? How the heck should I know that? Will I most need scriptures on patience or on pride? On balance or on self-improvement? (I know which I'd rather need....)

Fiction, happily, is different. I know where my characters will be a few weeks down their lives. I know which experiences they need to have at the beginning of the book so they'll react appropriately at the end. I didn't always know this, but now that I'm editing, the picture is a lot more clear. It's still hard to winnow out the throw-away experiences, but at least I have a template--the end of the book--I can use to help me figure it out.

Editing is cool.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Mocking Children for Fun and Profit

This will come as a shock to parents, but it has to be said: children are deeply flawed. Yes, even yours. Sorry. The job of parents (as I often reiterate to my own hellions) is to try to correct these flaws before they are released into the wilds of adulthood.

When these flaws manifest, there are many ways to deal with them: 1) Screaming; 2) Yelling; 3) Time-Outs; 4) DHW unapproved physical discipline; 5) Loss of privileges; 6) Grounding; 7) Lecturing; or, my personal favorite, 8) Mocking.

Mocking has several benefits for both parent and child. The child is impressed with the utter futility and foolishness of his flawed behavior while the parent is better able to retain her hair, her vocal chords aren't torn raw by shrieking (actually, this has never happened to me--why do you ask?), and she can maintain an aura of adult superiority while still acting like the child she has always been inside.

The applications are vast.

Toddler throws full-blown-kicking-screaming-on-the-floor tantrum in PUBLIC? Don't be embarrassed: point and laugh. What an entertaining show your progeny is putting on. Accept tantrum tips from nearby parents and enjoy connecting with kindred spirits until peace reigns anew.

Five-year-old declares (for the very first time) that he HATES you? Don't feel hurt: you've passed an important milestone. While your heart swells with pride, engage in a little cathartic No-You-Don't-Yes-I-Do back-and-forth with your wee one.

Nine-year-old announces that he will NOT be doing [insert recent parental proclamation]? No need for a health-endangering rise in blood pressure: level your pint-sized prince with your best "Who's the Boss" stare, raise one eyebrow, then burst out laughing. Wait out the tantrum, then reiterate [insert recent parental proclamation]. Repeat as needed. See? All better.

As you may suspect, this method has applications for more literary babies, as well (and no one will think you're a bad parent for suggesting this method for correcting flaws in your manuscript).

Did you send out your newly-completed-and-rough-polished first draft to alpha readers only to realize (a day and a half later) that the plot is a screaming mess? It's too late to keep your darling home, so point it out and laugh. Encourage others to join in. The points your readers mock the most? Change those first. Thank them for helping focus your revision efforts.

Realize (not for the first time, alas) that you are dreadfully bad at (picking a completely random example) description? Don't fret. Accept the blank canvas that is created by all your invisible characters wandering over your white landscape, pull out your crayons, and engage in a little cathartic coloring.

Has your hero declared that he will NOT be doing [insert recently realized plot-pivotal action]? Don't toss your computer into the street. Pull out your bag of Horrible Happenings, allow a maniacal laugh to issue from your lips, and provide him with the proper motivation. Repeat as needed. See? All better.

All in all, mocking is much more entertaining than screaming. Trust me on this. You'll see that I'm right.

In completely unrelated news, I've recently "completed" my WIP to the point that I can let a few select brave souls read it. My mother, predictably, finished first (aren't mothers cool?) and (with complete objectivity) called my story "Fascinating." (Yes, I'm totally quoting her in my query letter.)

Then, last night, she spend one and a half hours explaining all the ways I'd screwed up. Most notably by including a host of nameless, faceless, personality-devoid parents for my teenage characters. Oops. She kept apologizing for being so negative and I just laughed (oh, yeah, look at me, practicing what I preach): she had so many solid ideas for making it better! Why would I be sad?

Mocking is good.

Now excuse me while I go scream at my children.... Anyone have a throat lozenge?