All the Recaps

Hello, friends! I’ve got about three ultra-mini posts here, so I decided to mash them all together so that I don’t have to drag any of it out for you. I’m sure you all have better things to do. So here are a few recaps of the things I’ve been working on lately, and a sneak peak of what’s to come.

Writers Conference This last weekend was the annual Alaska Writers Guild fall conference and I gleefully attended. As always, I had a great time, got great info, and chatted with great people! The speakers were all excellent, plus I got to relive my younger years by holding a friend’s sleeping two-month-old in one arm while drafting on my knee with the other. Plus, I had the luxury of flying down to Anchorage this year. (Eight hours of driving distilled into a forty-minute flight. SO LUXURIOUS.) I’ll be posting some of my conference lessons and stories in the weeks to come.

Grant Review Board Related to the conference, I was on a small board reviewing grant proposals over the last couple weeks. We had quite a few more proposals than we had in previous years. There were so many strong submissions and it was a tough time winnowing it down to just two. I hope this year’s winners can do amazing things with their funds!

Snow White Deadline This Blood and Ebony deadline has been breathing down my neck for the last few weeks and so I am pleased and relieved to let you know that I met it juuuuust in time. Therefore, I was able to get the olive oil of my homeland and not have to watch any doofy song-and-dance nonsense. Huzzah! Blood and Ebony went out to alpha readers Friday night and I’m hoping to have it out to beta readers before the end of the year. Except maybe this time, I’ll manage my time in such a way that it doesn’t arrive in their inboxes in the wee hours of morning smelling like panic and poor life choices.

Gals Read The fall session of Gals Read is officially upon me. I’ve been prepping for the last few weeks and today marked the start of training week. Hooray! After training ends, I’ll spend my days reading Space Boy and Anne of Green Gables to the fantastic fourth grade girls of Fairbanks. The program has grown again this year, and we are now in every public elementary school in the district. That is awesome! I can’t think of a better use of my time than turning impressionable children into desperate book addicts who stay up way after bedtime with flashlights. *hero pose*

Also on the radar is NaNoWriMo, which is working hard to sneak up on me, but not this year, NaNo! This week is going to be crazy, like the one before it, but once I claw my way through Gals Read and out the other side, I’ll start thinking about what I want to draft out for this session and post a project soon. As I mentioned in the halfway check-in on my annual goals, this session is basically my last chance for the year to get my one first draft in. I don’t plan to squander it (yet).

How about you fine folks? What bookish pursuits have you been up to lately? Any exciting projects in the works? Let me know in the comments! And until next week, happy writing!

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Talking Heads in Space

As mentioned, I’m working through an editing pass on Blood and Ebony, my Snow White retelling. It’s mostly solid at this point. (This is why I have to let drafts rest for a while before I start editing. I always set them aside convinced they’re utter rubbish and then when I look at them again, I’m surprised at how not-horrifyingly-embarrassing they are. It’s a nice surprise.)

There is, however, one thing that keeps cropping up, over and over again, a little problem I like to call Talking Heads in Space.

I’m sure you’ve seen these kinds of scenes before (especially if you’re one of my beta readers). The scene opens and two characters are having a conversation. And… that is all. There is no sense of the setting, or what is going on around them. There are no other people in this closed universe in which they chat. They aren’t doing anything. Heck, the only actions we have are nodding and sighing and laughing and eye rolling. All head stuff. They are two heads, talking in the blank vacuum of space.

And Blood and Ebony is, unfortunately, full of them. The book has a lot of interrogations in it, which tend to seem less like interrogations and more like boring, vaguely frustrating conversations between two people who don’t really like each other and can’t seem to get to the point.

This is a problem.

Talking heads in space is boring. In a lot of ways, it’s a glorified info dump in chit-chat form, disconnected from the rest of the plot. And that is lame-sauce. A lot of my edits for this book have focused on these scenes.

So how does one fix up a Talking Heads in Space scene?

Scenery These characters are talking somewhere, right? Even if you’re writing a space opera and these characters are legit chatting in the vacuum of space, the vacuum is not empty—far from it. So build up the scenery a bit. Where is this conversation taking place? What’s happening around them? If this scene was in a movie, what would the props guy put up around them. Be the props guy!

Consequences from the Past Character conversations must be informed by what the character has already experienced. So think about what has already happened in the book and how it would carry consequences into this scene. Maybe the characters were arguing the last time they spoke and so now they’re sulking. Maybe Character A ruptured a bursa earlier in the story and she spends the scene crankily massaging her still-sore knee. Maybe she’s worried about revealing too much information because she saw Character B talking to Character C and is worried that B is a traitor. Maybe she should be thinking about these things throughout the conversation. *strokes chin thoughtfully* Maybe.

Consequences for the Future Much like consequences from the past, make sure that each conversation knits into the rest of the story. No conversation should be there just because you really wanted a tense scene, or a funny scene, or a whatever scene. Every scene needs to have consequences for the future of the book. It must move the plot forward in meaningful ways.

Sensory Details This is closely related to adding scenery, but specifically from the perspective of the point of view character and going a little deeper than you would in a movie scene. What smells does the character pick up? What colors are there and what do they remind the character of? Any distracting background noises? Any tastes? Textures of the seats? Blisters in the shoes? The waistband feeling a little tighter than it used to? Adding these details will change the perspective of the reader from outsider-looking-in to benign-undetectable-brain-parasite-looking out.

Inner Workings Another detail that will help your reader inhabit the characters’ worlds and minds is a glimpse of the characters’ inner workings. What is your character thinking throughout the scene? How are they processing their verbal combatant’s quips and insults? How do they handle a confession of love? How hard is it to stifle their desperate hunger and have a coherent conversation when they haven’t eaten in two days and can’t stop smelling the burger joint next door? Let readers know the innermost thoughts and emotions of your characters to help shift us from a talking head to a working whole.

Adding details like these grabs those talking heads right out of space and puts them on top of bodies which are a part of the world around them. It plops those conversations in the midst of a time-space continuum between the past and the future, where the characters were and where they’re going.

So now that I’ve worked out what needs doing, I’d better get to doing it. Blood and Ebony is due to readers this weekend and if I don’t finish on time—*gulp*—musicals. I’ll let you know how it shakes out next week. Until then, happy writing!

Obey or Be Destroyed: A Guide to Bending Yourself to Your Will

Last week, I was chatting with some friends and lamenting my lack of progress on my latest edits for Blood and Ebony, my Snow White retelling. I had a self-imposed deadline for it that was coming up fast, but I wasn’t getting much closer to being done. I was frustrated with myself because I’m normally pretty good about making myself keep my own deadlines.

And then it hit me: the reason I wasn’t feeling any motivation on this project. I’d given myself a deadline, but I hadn’t affixed a punishment to it. I hadn’t assigned myself a consequence.

It can be hard sometimes to feel like a professional in this trade, especially if you’re not making a working wage and claiming tax exemptions and putting out a new book every two months. Any given project is less likely to make me a dollar than it is to make me yell at my kids because, oh my giddy aunt, how can they always tell when I’m trying to work and know the perfect way to ruin it? *clears throat* Anyway, if the rest of the world isn’t treating you like a professional, it can be hard to think of yourself that way as well. But that kind of thinking can easily nudge writing a little lower on the pecking order of what gets our time and attention and before you know it, you’ve blown half of your project time and aren’t any closer to your goal.

There are lots of ways to combat this struggle. For me, I respond unfortunately well to looming punishment. I assign myself terrible consequences and—here’s the important part—I follow through on them. I once confidently told my friends that I would have a story to them by a certain date and declared that I would run a mile for each day I was late. Yeah. I was eleven days late. I hauled my non-runner-rear down to the track and ran eleven miles in one go, fueled entirely by determination and high fructose corn syrup. It hurt so badly I worried I’d damaged something, and I was wincing and limping for days. But I haven’t missed a deadline since.

Now I’m not suggesting you immolate yourself in retribution for dropping the ball once in a while. (Seriously. Please don’t damage yourself.) But I am suggesting you find the things that motivate you. By leaning into the things that you love/hate, you can amp up the motivation to do a thing that maybe isn’t quiiiite as high on the to-do list as it should be all by itself.

So if this sounds like something that might help you hit those goals a little harder, here are a few ideas for coming up with your own system of rewards and/or punishments.

What is your goal?We’ve talked about making smart goals here before, but just for a very brief recap, make sure your goal is specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time bound (aka- has a deadline). Maybe you want to finish an editing pass, or write a single chapter, or enter a short story in a contest. Knowing exactly what you want to do and how you’re going to do it is the first step. Always have a goal. (And when you attain it, make another one! Onward and upward!)

What do you love? These things make excellent rewards. Pick a thing that you really want, or that you really want to happen, that you won’t just go out and get/do for yourself regardless of whether you hit the goal. Just make sure that it fits the size of your goal. Promising yourself a vacation to the Caribbean every time you draft a new scene isn’t very sustainable.

What do you hate? These things make excellent punishments. Pick a thing you don’t want to happen, and that is an appropriate punishment for the crime, but is still mild enough that you’ll actually go through with it. Maybe do a hard workout, or pledge a small donation to a political party you despise, or go sing on karaoke night, or whatever you wouldn’t normally do. But if you won’t hold yourself to it, don’t assign it. Make yourself miserable, but not so miserable that you flake out.

What is a reasonable deadline? As Goldilocks would surely tell us, you don’t want a deadline that’s so ambitious that you have to stop feeding your dependents to achieve it, or so lame-sauce that you won’t have to worry about actually working on it until it’s time to retire. Instead, pick a deadline that’s juuuust right: challenging, but possible if you put in a balanced amount of work.

Who can help you stick to it? Not everyone needs this part. Some people have all the grit ‘n’ gumption they need to make it happen no matter who is or isn’t watching. But then again, not everybody can just will themselves to follow through with their rewards or punishments. If you’re one of those people, grab a buddy! Writing pals, parents, partners, whoever—let them know of your task, your deadline, and what they’re to pressure you into doing at the end of it all.

Once you answer these questions, bring all the elements together into A Plan. Your plan, and those looming consequences shadowing it, will give you that extra burst of motivation to hit that goal out of the park. I know it works for me every time.

After pinpointing my lack of consequences, and therefore lack of motivation, my friends stepped in to help. In short order, they had assigned me a nightmarish punishment (they will deprive me of my ancestral right to piri piri sauce and high quality olive oil and instead make me watch a musical—a musical, people *shudders*) and then—poof!—just like magic, I suddenly had all the motivation in the world.

Killing Your Darlings: When A Character You Love No Longer Exists

I’ve had a character on my mind a lot lately. She’s this super cool, hyper-intelligent mermaid excavating ancient underwater libraries and toppling on-land monarchies. The victim of a generations long curse, she’s just become free and isn’t taking anyone’s trash one second longer. She’s fierce and clever and the undisputed leader of her shoal. She’s also like thirteen. The girl is totally boss.

She also doesn’t exist. Like, super doesn’t exist, even more than most fictional characters. This character and her entire arc were cut from a book that had too many side stories. She was on the page only long enough for me to fall in love, and then she was gone.

I tend to produce hefty drafts that are waaaay too big for their genres. Even epic fantasy (from which this particular character hailed) doesn’t usually leave enough room for me to squeeze in everything I want to. So when it comes time for editing, I have to be pretty aggressive about what gets trimmed. You can only tighten the wordcount so far by changing ‘have to’ to ‘must’ and ‘is not’ to ‘isn’t’.

When I edit, I try to use this as my rule of thumb—does it further my core story? I like a side quest as much as the next guy, but if it doesn’t tie back into the heart of the story I’m trying to tell, it stands great risk of getting axed. Especially if the word count is already nearly 40k above industry standards. *coughs*

They say no word is ever wasted, and I believe that. But cutting still hurts, especially when I have to cut something or someone that I adore. So as I’m slash-and-burning my way through a sloppy first draft, here are three tactics that I employ to help me through the carnage.

Meld your characters. Combine your favorite aspects of the character-to-be-cut into a more meh character who’s sticking around for the long haul. Or replace the meh character entirely, but keep that character’s role and scope. This can be a little dissatisfying, since you know the character has so much more in them, but sometimes it can be enough for you to just know that they are awesome and move on. (Besides, you can always dream of wild literary success and then you can create entire spin-offs of whatever the heck you want, no matter how ridiculous. I’m looking at you, Bree Tanner. *glares*)

Move the character to a different book. Set aside the character and maybe even their entire storyline to be picked up in a later book. Maybe this is a series and the arc can be used to tighten up a sagging middle on a later book. Maybe their delayed quest can even become the key arc of its own book. Or maybe this character is so boss that they can move into an entirely different world and still rock it.

Chalk it up to practice. Professional athletes don’t just show up on game day, stretch out, and play the match of their lives. They practice for hours, days, years, leading up to it, and writing is the same. Sometimes the words you write are simply to help you clarify what you actually should write, or to work on improving your language, or, heck, just to become a faster typist. Practice is what takes you from novice to grandmaster. Not all practice is pay dirt that will be cashed in some day. Sometimes it’s just dirt that you have to move out of the way to get to the gold underneath.

Right now, I think my mermaid friend is destined for Door Number Two. I tried to just cut her and forget her, but that was like eight years ago and she’s still haunting me, leaving cold puddles at my bedside and tipping over cups of water. It may be best to just indulge her. She’s the stubborn type.

How about you fine readers? Do you have any beloved characters/places/mechanics/etc. that you’ve had to cut? How do you deal with it? Let me know in the comments! And until next week, happy writing!

Why Am I So Bad At Goals Whyyy

So this post was originally intended to be a halfway-into-the-year check in on my writing goals. Due to some scheduling issues, we’re a bit past the midpoint, but I’m doing it anyway. Because deadlines are for mortals, which is a response that probably will give you a lot of insight into the way my goals are going so far this year.

The short answer is that I’m doing awfully. At everything.

My reading goals were progressing beautifully until summer struck and then all bets were off. I didn’t read a single book over the entire summer that wasn’t for work, and it was difficult to squeeze even that much in. *claws at own face* I can’t live like this.

Giving myself more leeway on short story writing maaaay have been a mistake because I took that leeway as an excuse to do next to nothing. I have written two short stories so far this year. Two.

Editing is likewise a giant sinkhole so far this year. I just started editing Blood and Ebony about a week ago and have made it about halfway through the first chapter. And… that is all. Yikes. Zero down and three to go.

And I guess I started my one new draft of a novel, but realized about halfway in that it’s terrible and has some plot holes you could fly an Airbus A380 through and I have no interest in finishing it before the year is out. So… back to square one on that, I suppose.

My rejections goal for the year is currently sitting at fifteen of my forty-eight rejections, which is terrible in and of itself, but made exponentially more terrible by the fact that that is all. I have nothing more currently on submission right now that counts toward this goal. So unless I get my rear into gear, that number is going to stay at fifteen. At the beginning of the year, I had intended to have all the subs out that I needed for the entire year (plus a little extra under the assumption that some will be accepted) by the end of September, giving those rejections time to trickle in over the rest of the year. Yeah. Not happening. This goal is so far sitting at flaming-airplane-wreck-two-minutes-before-takeoff level of fail.

Soooo… yeah. That’s where I’m at.

But I have excuses. Do you wanna hear my excuses? Please?

My biggest excuse is that a few of those probable rejections turned out to be acceptances—and on pretty big projects, too. On top of my having normal day jobs, I’ve been working on these projects, steadily, daily, for about three months now and it’ll be at least another month before they’re all completed. It’s taking up nearly all of my free time.

Other excuses have been of the much less fun family emergency variety. Just this summer we had a string of chicken tragedies and three unique medical emergencies. (Unless we want to count each of my son’s complications as their own thing. Ah, dog bites. The emergency that keeps on emerging.) These things take time, and they also take brain power. I can’t work very effectively if I’m worried that my husband might need surgery (still a possibility) or that my son might lose an eye (off the table—whew!).

So, yeah. I’m still going to get myself as close to those goals as possible before the end of the year. I think I can catch up on the reading goal without too much fuss. Just two more short stories would put me above what I managed for last year, so that will have to be good enough. Editing might get trimmed back to just one book; if I really turn this thing around, maybe two. I’ll get about half of a first draft in November and try to finish the rest of it in December, so that one is still in the realm of possibility. But the rejections goal will definitely have to come down; I just won’t know exactly how much until I finish up these other projects. We’ll see.

All in all, I’m trying not to beat myself up too badly. I’m doing my best and I’m not just being lazy, so that’s a definite win in this game.

How about you fine readers? How are your literary endeavors going so far this year? Any wins to report? Any fails that could use some cheerleading? Let me know in the comments! And until next week, happy writing!

I Miss Plastic, and Other Tales of Woe

seal paintI stood helplessly in the grocery store last Friday, wandering in bewilderment up and down what had to be miles of grocery aisles. Everything I could possibly put on my grocery list was right here, but I couldn’t seem to buy any of it. I stared at racks that soared over my head and thought, ‘I just… I just want to make rice krispie treats.’

A little background: each year, my family observes its own weird version of Lent. It’s not a part of our religion, but we’ve decided it builds character. And since we subscribe to Calvin’s Dad’s School of Character, calvin shovelingwhat it usually boils down to is forty days of making ourselves as miserable and deprived as possible. This year seems to be the granddaddy of denial and, guys, I don’t know if I’m gonna make it.

My kids and I have been worrying a lot about penguins and baby turtles and dolphins and stuff, and so we decided to give up single use plastic. This wasn’t a completely naïve decision- I had been working at cutting back on plastics for several months going up to it- but holy guacamole, I don’t know if this is even possible in Fairbanks Alaska. We knew we would have to make exceptions for things like milk and medicine, but this is nuts.

Did you know that paper ice cream cartons are lined with plastic? And really any paper food container, such as shortening or my favorite almondmilk? As well as metal cans and aluminum soda cans? And the looks-like-metal-to-me twist off caps of glass bottles? The stickers on produce? Like everything ever? It makes me angry that I researched this at all because I thought things like glass bottles and fresh fruits and vegetables were safe. What the heck are we supposed to eat until Easter?

The thing is, the closer I look at my habits as a consumer, the more I notice all the ways I am a bad hippie (and, at least this year, a bad observer of Lent). Sometimes, when I’ve done everything I can do and it still doesn’t feel good enough, I just have to make a mental note and move on and hope that maybe, in a more perfect future, this will be fixable.

There’s a writing lesson here too. (I know you were waiting for it. [Although, really, I did just want to complain about plastic. Man, I would do some horrible things for a bag of salt and vinegar potato chips right now.]) Everybody knows that first drafts are pretty ugly little things, and that can be for a lot of reasons. Maybe the characters don’t feel real and layered, or maybe the plot got a little off course somewhere along the way. But one of my omnipresent reasons is the abundance of writing tics that slip in uninvited.

Writing tics vary from person to person. Some people find themselves using tons of brackets, or dropping necessary helper verbs, or writing in passive voice, or using the same three actions over and over. But the common thread is that these are the same sloppy little quirks that sneak into your writing over and over again, without your even noticing them. Drafting from scratch tends to dredge them up the most frequently because that’s when the ideas are first forming out of nothing, producing large streams of text for tics to sneak in with. Drafting is when we are most likely to write the way we speak, complete with all the hedges, repeats, and asides that are totally normal and acceptable in casual speech and informal writing, but less so in a finished piece.

Going back to edit is when I tend to notice my tics. And much like plastic in a grocery store, once I start looking, it’s everywhere. I swear, not a paragraph goes by without someone sighing. If I really want to shake it up, maybe they’ll roll their eyes instead. OR BOTH. But even knowing about the sorts of tics that I gravitate toward, I can’t seem to stifle them when I draft. They’re like dandelions.

Next month is Camp NaNoWriMo. I have been failing miserably at pretty much all of my goals so far this year, so I am determined to pick up the slack and get this thing back on track. I’m going to draft a brand-new story (a side story in-betweener novella in a series I’ve been working on forever), and I’m already anticipating all the funky little quirks that I won’t notice until the editing stage begins.

Your tics and mine are probably different, but just for fun, here are my most common writing tics. Maybe you’ll recognize a few from your own writing!

JUST, A LITTLE, SORT OF Okay, maybe I just like to hedge a lot. (I see you there, Just.) And on the other hand…

A LOT, VERY, SO Same issue, just bigger. (I can’t un-see all these ‘just’s. I’m not doing this on purpose.)

PET VERBS like sigh, pause, grin, and hesitate. Just these four words are probably a pretty good synopsis of most of my first draft stories. Look out for the pregnant pause. (Oh my gosh, there’s another ‘just’. Normally I would fix these, but I’m leaving them in for your benefit. You’re welcome.)

UNREASONABLY LONG SENTENCES It’s not editing unless I’m breaking behemoth sentences down into two, three, sometimes four much more digestible tidbits.

There are definitely more tics. Soooo many more. But at least I’m not quite as food obsessed as I used to be. I’d wedge in these Redwall-esque banquets and I swear, my characters did nothing and said nothing without a wad of food in their hands. Now they just fold their arms and slouch in doorways instead.

How about you guys? Any tics tend to crop up in your writing? Let me know in the comments! And until next week, happy writing!

Editor v. Beta Readers: A Comparison

20180507_093600So I’ve written in the past about manuscript swapping with beta readers and about whether it’s worth it to pay for professional editing. But  for the latter, I had never actually had a professional edit of an entire manuscript, so I was mostly going off what other people had to say on the matter.

But a few months ago, I actually did the thing. I shelled out for a real live professional editor to go over an entire manuscript. As a result, I now feel a liiiiiittle better positioned to talk about professional editing- I mean, one experience isn’t a lot, but it’s more than zero. Since I’ve now had manuscripts edited on both ends of the spectrum, I thought it might be most helpful for you lovely readers if I did a compare-and-contrast of the two.

In a lot of ways, the two experiences felt very similar. In both cases, I selected someone that I thought would be a good fit for the story and who had time to squeeze it into their schedule. I did a final pass on the manuscript and then sent it off and sat in a flaming torment until I got a response. At this point in the game, both of the scenarios felt very similar, except for two differences. One, I was paying for the professional edit, so I was chewing my nails about money, which I tend to do. And two, I didn’t know the editor on a personal level like I tend to know my betas, so I was a little tiny bit uncomfortable sharing a work in its entirety with a stranger. Just a tiny bit. (I guess there was a third difference in that I sent it to one editor and I usually send out to betas in batches, but the wait didn’t feel any more or less torturous for that.)

One thing that professional editing really has going for it is a quick turnaround. The editor gave me a two-week time table. (She had a family emergency come up which knocked it back an extra week, but three weeks is still a fair bit faster than I typically hear from most beta readers.) So if you’re in a hurry, going with a pro might be the better option for you.

Next, already briefly mentioned, is the monies. Professional editing is expensive. It varies a lot from editor to editor and project to project, but it being expensive is especially true if you need a lot of work, have a very long story, need a rush job, etc. This stuff ain’t cheap. Beta reading, on the other hand, is free as far as money goes, although it usually comes with the expectation that you’ll return the favor at some point with your own time and editorial eyes.

I have had a lot of beta readers, and I have had only one professional editor. I can say without reservation that beta reading is a bit of a mixed bag when you’re first starting out. Sometimes you get really good betas that make you wonder why they’re not professional editors themselves. But sometimes you get gushy I-loved-it-it’s-perfect betas that, while a nice pat on the ego, isn’t super helpful to improving your manuscript. And sometimes you get the betas who… don’t… beta at all. (I know things come up, but if you’re just not going to read a thing, you should really let the author know as soon as you do instead of just letting it hang silently in the air for several months.) Most people fall somewhere in between these extremes.

I can’t say any of that for sure about professional editors. And I’ve winnowed my beta team down to a solid team that I trust and they are amazing. That said, I felt like I didn’t get as much out of the professional edit as I typically do from my favorite beta readers. Even if I don’t count all the back-and-forth weirdly-specific-question-and-answer sessions I tend to do with beta readers (Since I didn’t feel comfortable asking for that from a stranger who was expecting to get paid for her time, I didn’t ask much of anything.), I still felt like I got more from my average beta reader than I did from the editor even before I would have moved on to this step. If I’m being completely honest, I was disappointed, and the odds are low that I’ll be making this choice again any time soon.

All of this said, this is one small experience and maybe I just had a bum experience. (I mean, the lady did have a family emergency. It’s possible her mind was just somewhere else at the time- namely a hospital bed.) Lots of people out there swear by their editors, so don’t take my one small experience as the Gospel truth.

Anybody else out there have any experience with professional editors, good or bad? Let me know in the comments! I’d love to hear about it!

Until next week, happy writing!