Monday, October 27, 2014

Do not use these phrases

One of the most cliche phrases that I absolutely loathe is "think outside of the box." I am sure at one time, it was the newest, most-fabulous way to say someone was a creative thinker...about 100 years ago. Today, though, it's an oxy-moron. Because anyone who is saying, "think outside of the box," is clearly not.

In marketing, vague, meaningless phrases crop up often. In fact, I've posted about this disease before. It's a brutal misuse of the English language to fill a page full of words that mean absolutely nothing. I think that's why writers, who are used to using lots of words to describe something, fall victim to cliches when asked to summarize their 300 page epic into two paragraphs for a query, or even worse, a couple of sentences for a logline. "His world turned upside-down," might seems like an exciting way to describe your hero's conflict but it really isn't.


Let's take a look.

When a young farmer on a remote planet gets a secret message from a princess in danger, his entire world turns upside-down.

OR

When a young farmer on a remote planet gets a secret message from a princess in danger, he's drawn into a rescue mission that kills his family and thrusts him toward his destiny of becoming a Jedi Knight. He is the last of the Jedi, and the only one who can save the galaxy from the clutches of the evil Darth Vader, the man who killed his father.

See! More details = more excitement.

If you see these phrases in your query, immediately change them

  • world turned upside-down
  • everything changed
  • more than she bargained for
  • a journey of discovery
  • uncovered secrets

Basically anything that can be replaced with more details, because we want to know...

  • HOW the world turned upside-down?
  • WHAT changed?
  • WHAT was more than she bargained for?
  • WHAT happens on this journey? WHAT did your character discover?
  • WHAT secrets?

It's like when you're watching an infomercial and they say, "This product will change your life and save you hours of time!" The first question that crops up in my mind is, "How is a one-shot kumquat slicer really going to change my life?" If you want to sell it to me, you have to tell me.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Internet Etiquette

Let's talk for a second about Internet etiquette. This discussion is inspired by an author who got a bad review on one of her books and then proceeded to hunt down the reviewer and stalk her at her home and job.

That's not OK, and in some states, may actually be considered illegal.

I want to start by giving you all the best piece of advice I have ever gotten in my entire life.


There is nothing you can do about other people; you can only choose how you react to them.

Got that? In case you didn't, I'm going to say it again.

THERE IS NOTHING YOU CAN DO ABOUT OTHER PEOPLE; YOU CAN ONLY CHOOSE HOW YOU REACT TO THEM.

This means...
You are not going to change someone's mind by insulting them.
You are not going to get an apology by attacking them.
You are not going to make them a better person by confronting them.

You are only going to make yourself more upset.

If you find yourself the subject of Internet harassment, or a bad review, here is what you should do:
  • Ignore it.
  • Delete the comment (if you can)
  • Block the user (if you can)
  • And if you find yourself really festering about it, take a self-imposed Internet breather. Life's too short. Do you really want to waste it fighting with someone you've never met?

You can also try one of my other techniques that I talked about here. Be empathetic. Maybe the Internet troll is just having a bad day. Haven't you ever had one of those?


Thursday, October 9, 2014

I'm older than the Internet

Yes, it's true. I'm older than the Internet. I remember my mom typing my sister's reports on an electric typewriter at our kitchen table. I remember our first computer, the glorious Commodore64, and the black and white dot matrix printer we used with it to make birthday banners in as little time as two hours. I remember when the Internet first arrived, and we received dozens of those AOL start-up CD's in the mail, the promise of dreams that later became coasters.

I remember spending hours after school in online chat rooms with my beloved cat on my lap while I repeatedly asked strangers, "a/s/l." And I'll never forget that horrible beeping, grinding noise that came with connecting to the Internet through your phone line.

I remember these things, but now that I can access anything from anywhere on a magic device I keep in my purse, it's hard to remember what it was actually like to live before the smartphone. I especially have a hard time remembering good things about it. I mean, how did we survive without being able to solve disputes about which actress was in which movie without IMDB to help us?

But when I think back to the dark ages of my cell phone-less, high-speed lacking life, I go all the way way back to high school, and there are a few bright sides to the under-connected that I'm sad future generations are going to miss.

Hand-Written Notes
My best friend and I used to spend hours crafting notes to one another, written in code or sometimes hand-drawn comics making fun of girls we despised or boys we liked. We would sneak in illustrated private jokes too, like the mystery of the severed cat leg stuck to the pavement outside of our neighborhood. What happened to the rest of the cat? With note-writing replaced by the more convenient texting, who has time to draw sketches of 3-legged cats nowadays?

Prank Calls
Who remembers Crank Yankers? Do teens even bother with prank calls anymore? Can you even get away with it with caller ID? It seems like all of the bullying takes place on Facebook now, but in my day if we wanted to harass someone after school, we had to call them on the phone.

Yes, it was still anonymous (we didn't have caller ID way back when), but there was always the risk of voice recognition even when you were using a spot-on French accent. And since the gag was running live, you had to be quick. No time to sit and ponder your response before you typed it, and the where-should-I-deliver-your-200-pizzas bit just doesn't have the same punch in an email as it does on the phone.

Freedom
Okay, I'm a mom, and when my son is old enough to go out on his own I am going to be tracking him online like a celebrity stalker. It's going to be awesome for me, and it's going to suck for him.

In addition to never wearing a seatbelt or a bike helmet, I was also free the moment I stepped outside. The only rules: call when you get there and let me know when you're coming back. So I would get to my friend's house, call, tell my mom I would be home by 12 and then my friends and I would go wherever and do whatever with whomever without anyone policing us.

Granted, this arrangement did get me into trouble occasionally, grounded for the better part of a summer, but looking back, I wouldn't have changed a thing. There is a feeling I'm afraid my son isn't ever going to experience, and that's the feeling of complete and utter independence. I was free. My parents didn't know where I was, or who I was with. I was just having fun, doing what I wanted to do and I wasn't going to get caught with pictures on the Internet later. I always think, "How do kids get away with anything these days?" Or in other words, how can they find out what kind of person they're supposed to be if no one gives them the chance to explore it on their own?

So at great risk of sounding like a crotchety old lady, those are the things I miss about the dark ages. But what about you, any readers who remember the archaic life before Google, what do you think we've lost in the age of technology that today's kids will never know?

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

On Self Editing

It's hard. It's really, really hard. I'm in the midst of something new. I poured out a first draft of 83,000 words. Parts of it are good. Parts of it are not so good. I went through and started re-working the most troublesome areas and still wasn't happy with it.

When I tracked down the culprit, I found it right at the beginning. I'd done what I criticize other writers for doing all the time. I'd started in the wrong spot and loaded the beginning up with backstory, which was leaving the rest of my story pretty bland. I'm a firm believer in that you need a solid base if you want a strong story, which means I have to start almost from scratch (at least there's a little framework to guide me this time.)

Before I started deleting out mass amounts of text though, a tiny thought crept into my brain, "maybe I can let it slide for now, send it out to a few Beta readers and see what they think." I've already been working on this one for months, and I've set myself some pretty firm deadlines. But I couldn't do it. I personally get hives if anything leaves my laptop that I'm not psyched to share, and I try not to burden my Beta readers with multiple drafts. I trust my internal editor when she says something's wrong, even when she says, "This needs a complete rewrite." (Although there might have been some cursing involved)

I've seen some work from Beta readers with comments woven into the text, "Do you think this is too much?" And every time I  answer, "yes." They're not posing those questions because they think they can slip something by, they're asking because good writers always question their work, and unfortunately the validity of their own opinion.

And sometimes my own characters try to tell me something's wrong.

"I didn't know why I was acting this way. It wasn't like me." If my character can't explain her actions, then maybe I shouldn't be making her do them.

I feel like there are lots of little signs we give ourselves, flags we wave to say, "Hey, this isn't working," and we let them slide because we don't trust ourselves, or we're so close to the story we can't make them out anymore. Which is why self-editing is so hard. So I'll ask you, how do you self-edit? Are you able to listen to your own gut, or do you need a second opinion? How do you take your work from good to great?


Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Review: Girl on a Wire

Rating: 3 out of 5 kitties






Jules Maroni is one of the Amazing Maronis, a family of circus folk whose own small circus is failing. To bring them into the spotlight, she pushes them into joining the Cirque American where they come face to face with family rivals, the Flying Garcias. At Cirque American, the past comes back to haunt her, and Jules and her newfound crush, Remy Garcia have to uncover the secrets of the ancient feud if they want to end it.

I don't exactly know how to describe this except that it needed to be much muchier. The description sounded incredible: mystery, acrobatics, magic. I was hoping for something more along the lines of The Night Circus, and instead got something kind of blah.

I was wary from the beginning, with the dreaded prologue that every literary agent says never to use. For good reason. It was all backstory. History was piled onto me, and then somehow we end up rushed into the circus and dancing in the muscular arms of Remy. Surprise. Surprise. What happens next is a lackluster romance in which I have no idea why either character likes the other one except that their parents might be kind of mad if they were dating, they are both attractive, and they are the same age.

The "threat" is kind of the same. Nothing really happens to Jules so the stakes aren't running real high, and I didn't love any of the characters enough to care that much anyway. Then, around page 250, we go from 0 to 60 in a few pages. The mystery picks up from there and I was definitely intrigued enough to keep reading, but I had to slog through 250 pages of nothing to get there. I never got hooked on the romance. There just wasn't enough passion or tension or emotion or anything. It was sort of like be together, not be together, whatever. *Shrug.*

While I was reading I tried to pinpoint why this was falling flat, and I think it was because there was a lot of "telling." At the beginning of each chapter Jules tells us what happened in a one or two page summary that sounds much the same. She tells us the history of her family. She tells us she likes Remy but we don't really see it through action. But then there were parts that shone, like when Jules mounts the wire for her first outdoor walk, because it was described with feeling and tension.

What I did like about this throughout was the voice. Jules is a stubborn, focused, quippy girl with her eyes set on stardom. The author also did her research on wire walkers and circus life, and the way Jules relates this information to us felt authentic, not like a regurgitated lecture. 

It's frustrating because I know I would have really really liked this is if was just a bit more. Even the ending came off a little Scooby-Doo-esque. I wouldn't shy anyone away from reading this, but I don't know that I would recommend it either.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Review: City of Heavenly Fire


Ah, the long-awaited conclusion the the Mortal Instruments series, which I almost didn't read except it has such wonderful reviews and one of my friends suggested it. I was kind of over the whole series with the last book. It's not that I still totally don't think Cassandra Clare is a wonderful writer, and that the characters are well-developed and unique and that the Shadowhunter world is vibrant and full of surprises...it's just that it's too much. It's like when a television series hangs on for too long and the cute kids are old now and they desperately throw in new, younger characters to keep it alive and then we start heading toward spin offs. CoHF was that. Exactly that.

I just re-read the book synopsis, and truth be told, that's maybe one-third of it. There is a one-hundred page end battle and then an eighty page epilogue that I mostly skimmed through. About forty-seven people narrate this story, and most segments were obvious set-up for other novels or unnecessary backstory from other Shadowhunter novels. We also have a lot of characters passing out, another situation that prevents Jace and Clary from having sex, and countless drawn out soliloquys.

"By the time we found you, you'd already broken free on your own. So what it showed you, that wasn't what you want...but it wasn't what you want, not really. So you woke up."

How many times do we have to say the same thing? And this is only one example of many, many speeches like that. What CoHF still had, what made me fall in love with the other Mortal Instruments books, was Cassandra's classic blend of humor, adventure and surprises...it was just suffocating under a lot of politics and useless drama. I certainly wouldn't shy anyone away from reading this. Overall it's a good conclusion to the series. Just be prepared to do your own editing.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

What's that smell

One of my first critique partners left a very simple comment that has stuck with me ever since, "What does it smell like?" Good question. What does it smell like? I often read scenes where a picture is painted describing the color of the walls, the feel of the upholstery, the glisten of sweaty muscles, the sounds of screaming, and the taste of someone's tongue...which is all great, but the picture is incomplete. We're forgetting about smell.

Smell is an incredibly important sense too because it's commonly linked with memories and emotion. When I walk by someone wearing Ponds cream, I think of my mother. Moldy basement? I remember my summers spent at my Great Aunt's house in Tennessee. Drakkar Noir? Horrible flashbacks to the elevator in my sophomore dorm.

Take this scene:
When I stepped into the living room, I was reminded of my Grandma's house. There was plastic sheeting on the floral sofa and mounds of cat hair tangled in the threadbare rug. 

Now let's add this:
When I stepped into the living room, I was reminded of my Grandma's house. There was plastic sheeting on the floral sofa and mounds of cat hair tangled in the threadbare rug. All of it complemented by the burning stench of cat pee.

We move from being a little itchy and uncomfortable to running from the room with our hand over our mouth.

But let's talk a little bit more about smells and using the right smells. The one above works because 1, we're trying to make an unsightly environment and 2, even if you haven't smelled cat pee, you've smelled pee, and you know it stinks.

Let's change our scene to something nice.
When I stepped into the living room, I was reminded of my Grandma's house. There was an overstuffed floral sofa with a sleeping cat nestled in the cushions and the smell of warm, chocolate chip cookies baking in the oven. 

Now I want to live there, curl up next to the cat, and eat warm, chocolate chip cookies. But let's change it one more time.

One more time.
When I stepped into the living room, I was reminded of my Grandma's house. There was an overstuffed floral sofa with a sleeping cat nestled in the cushions and the smell of snozzberries in the air.

What are snozzberries? What do they smell like? Are they bitter? Sweet? Does this turn our cozy couch into something yucky or keep it nice?

So many times I'm reading books where a room or person smells like lemongrass or honeysuckle or some other plant I can't immediately identify with so it doesn't really resonate with me except to say, "it smelled like flowers." And then I wonder why I'd want to go out with a guy who smelled so flowery. Flowers are a lazy way of adding scents, and using rare or indistinguishable scents don't help paint your picture.

Just for fun, let's change it again.
When I stepped into the living room, I was reminded of my Grandma's house. There was an overstuffed floral sofa with a sleeping cat nestled in the cushions, and the smell of gunpowder in the air.

WHAT?!? What's going on here? Who decorates like Grandma and smells like gunpowder? Why did the MC's Grandma's house smell like gunpowder? Are we looking at secret, old lady spies? Or just hardcore members of the NRA? Not only does this scent add flavor to the scene; it adds intrigue.

Now I think you're ready to start smelling things up on your own. Talk a walk through your latest work in progress and stop at each scene. Once you're there, ask yourself the burning question, "What does it smell like?"