Monday, December 22, 2014

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year!

Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Happy Kwanzaa...whatever the hell you celebrate, make it a good one!


Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Just say YES!

There is an emotional upheaval that happens when you receive a list of edits from your Beta Reader/Agent/Editor.

First Reaction: No, no way. What is she thinking? I can't make these changes. That will alter the ENTIRE story. Does she even get me and my work? No, just no.

Then you walk away.

And you do something else for a few days. Bake cookies, ride a bike, watch a movie, have game night with friends...anything but writing. And while you're playing Scrabble, those editorial suggestions are brewing in your head. You're pulling apart the pieces of your story, updating names, changing settings and you're seeing how you CAN turn your contemporary romance into an historical romance and write it from your secondary character's POV. Because making edits is problem solving. And my favorite part about writing is solving problems.

So I end up making the changes, and for the most part, when I'm done, I love my manuscript 100 times more. I know this for a fact. So I'd like to say I've found a way to eliminate the grumbling, complaining, swearing phase out of the editing process, but I haven't. I still need that. But what I have done is left myself open to, "yes."

You want me to take the sci-fi element out of my thriller? Sure!
I should cut the love triangle? Why not?
You want me to write this in third person? You know, I was thinking about doing that myself.

No matter what the change is I say, "Yes." Because at least then I'll try it. Sometimes I'll rewrite a few pages in third person and see right away that it isn't working. But I wouldn't have known that if I'd said, "No," right away. I can always go back to the original if I don't like something. That's why everyone uses that annoying track changes feature.

For a writing exercise, give it a shot. Take the most eye-roll inducing, annoying suggestion you've ever gotten on a manuscript and make it. Even if it turns out terribly, it could be good for a laugh.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Bad Surprises

Lately, I've been reading a lot of YA mysteries, and I've been finding them to be a little unsettling. The big reveals are coming across like a train wreck in the middle of the ocean. Yes, I know you want to surprise your readers, but you also don't want to subject them to an alien invasion in the middle of a historical romance. (Unless you've touted your novel as historical science fiction, which would be really cool.)

Let me try to explain using the greatest story of all time...the Star Wars saga. (I'm going to assume you've seen the movies, and if you haven't, go watch them now. I'll wait.)

The Star Wars franchise has perhaps one of the biggest reveals in movie history. Do you remember that moment when you found out Darth Vader was actually Luke's father? My mouth dropped all the way into my lap, but when I thought back to previous scenes, I said to myself, "Wow, I can totally see it." 

  • In the vague way Obie Wan and Yoda spoke about Luke's father and how Darth Vader killed him
  • How Darth Vader and Luke always seemed to sense when the other was near
  • Why Luke had such strong Jedi powers
All the evidence was right there, hiding under my nose. We'll done, Mr. Lucas!

Now, on the flip side, here are examples of bad surprises:

  • Ann has been acting completely normal, then we find out she was date-raped last weekend.
  • Sue has her list of suspects narrowed down to the janitor, her next door neighbor and her ex-boyfriend when we find out the killer was actually a girl from another town, someone we've never met who has no reason to kill the victim.
  • Carol is an ordinary girl in an ordinary town recovering from bulimia when we find out she is actually a robot.

Wow, these are all pretty shocking scenarios, and the reason they are shocking is because they are unexpected. But not in good this-just-got-really-intense way, more-so in a this-is-completely-unbelievable way.

We want to see Ann unravel and then we want to wonder why. If she went from party girl to shy girl or quit cheer to hang with the stoners, our curiosity would be piqued. We would still be surprised to find out she was date-raped, but it would flow seamlessly into the story.

For Sue, when she finds out the murderer is no one she ever suspected, we feel as duped as she does. Yes, it's possible that the victim was killed by some illogical psycho stranger, but it's not very likely.

And Carol, well, she just needs to figure out what kind of story she's in, a contemporary coming of age or a paranormal romance. When I sit down to read a book, I want to know what I'm reading. I don't want it to switch in the middle.

Good writing is making the unbelievable, believable. And for me, a lot of this happens during the editing phase. In my first draft, I have the path laid, where I want my characters to go and what I want them to say and do. When I go through it the second or third (or eighth) time, I make sure that I've given my characters reasoning for their actions, and I drop in subtle little clues to my big reveal. I want my readers to go, "No way!" and then, "But I can totally see it."

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

My life as a smoker

I started smoking when I was fifteen. It was my cousin who gave me my first cigarette. She was about a half-year younger than me, but totally rebellious with this devil-may-care attitude that I envied. The kind of girl parents would call, "a bad influence." As a follow-all-the-rules straight A student who was a founding member of the "nerd herd" I wanted to see how the other half lived. So I said, "What the hell?" for the first time in my life, pinched the cigarette in my fingers, and took a long drawl.

It was a Virginia Slim, the old lady of cigarettes, that she had stolen from her mom. As you might suspect, it tasted like the inside of a chimney, and sent me into a gut-roiling coughing fit. But there was something else as I was bent over my knees retching, a sort of euphoria, the nicotine buzz that made me light-headed and tingly. It sent me and my cousin into fits of giggles. We rolled back and forth on my grandmother's guest bed laughing, and for the rest of that family vacation, my cousin and I would sneak away when ever we could to have a couple of drags of a cigarette and then revel in that post-smoke haze.

I thought when I got home, I would return to my non-smoker, rule-following, nerd herd status, that the deviation I'd taken from normalcy had only been a part of the trip, something I'd left behind the moment I stepped onto the plane. But when I told my best friend about the tingling, light-headed, first smoke experience, she wanted to try it too.

We shoplifted a back of Marlboro menthols from the gas station. As my friend hacked and coughed and choked after her first drawl, I took another one, already immune to the burn, like I had been smoking for years instead of a few stolen cigarettes over a week.

When the school year started, I was still smoking, and the first time I went to sneak a smoke between classes behind the 300 building, I found I was not alone. There was a club I'd never known existed, a magical place where everyone came together. Jocks, cheerleaders, stoners, the punk kids, the theatre kids, the art kids...people who did not associate in real life. But here, huddled in the shadows, watching for spying teachers, we were all bonded together as one thing...Smokers.

With the glowing end of a Marlboro pinched between my fingers, I had bought myself passage into a new identity. I was no longer the straight-A semi-friendless nerd. I was that smart girl who smoked cigarettes and listened to punk rock. That girl was much cooler. That girl went to parties and dated boys. That girl was popular. And I had my dear, sweet cigarettes to thank.

I continued smoking into college. Practically everyone smoked in college, even people who had previously glared down upon smokers, calling it "a disgusting habit." The moment you turn eighteen, you do two things: you buy a pack of a cigarettes and a lottery ticket. Because you can. My sophomore year roommate and I would lie awake in our twin beds at night, talking about guys while the glow of our two cigarettes filled the dark room. Our dorm room smelled like a dive bar on a Saturday morning, and we didn't care. Truthfully, the stale smoke covered the odor of moldy cheese and dirty socks.

When I turned twenty-one, the smoking got worse. This was before bars and clubs had banned smoking, and it was before smart phones. When your girlfriend left you alone to go to the bathroom, you couldn't keep yourself occupied with Candy Crush while you waited; you smoked. And the more you drank, the more you smoked.

At the beginning of the night I'd go out with a full pack of cigarettes and come home with one lone smoke rattling around in an almost empty box. Truthfully, I would have smoked that one too, but I had enough willpower to save it. Because I knew the moment I woke up the next day, my body would start aching for its next cigarette and I'd be too sick to go out and get more.

When bars did ban smoking, I was almost grateful. I wasn't sure my lungs or my wallet could take the chain smoking anymore, and I was tired of waking up the next morning with ashtray smelling hair. The smokers were part of a secret club again. Not the ones who hid behind a building, but the ones who stood in front of the bar, sucking down nicotine. We even had our own hand signal. Two fingers pressed to your lips in a tight V was the international sign for, "Wanna have a smoke?"

At first it was a large group, maybe ten, twenty people outside, all laughing, all drunk. Strangers could meet strangers with an easy conversation starter. "Do you have a light?" or "Can I bum a smoke?" A few years later there were only a handful of us. A few years after that I found myself alone, my hood pulled over my head while I shivered in the misty, dreary thirty degree weather feeding my addiction while I sadly watched my friends laughing and drinking inside, toasty and warm.

I was still in the club, but it wasn't the cool club anymore.

I remember when I was sixteen and my parents caught my smoking. My dad said one thing to me that stuck, "You'll always be a slave to them. For the rest of your life, every minute of every day you'll be thinking 'when can I get my next cigarette.'" I laughed it off at the time, but sometime in my early thirties, I realized he was right.

I made a couple of sad attempts at quitting. They lasted days, sometimes hours and then I wouldn't try again for years. I had in my closet Chantix, nicorette, e-cigarettes...every tool known to mankind to help you quit smoking, and they sat there collecting dust. I always had an excuse like, "I can't possibly go to that party and not smoke," or "I'm just so crazy right now, I can't handle the stress." True, those were genuine concerns, but those weren't my worst fear. I was afraid to quit smoking because I was afraid of losing my identity. For almost 20 years, all of my adult life, I'd been a smoker. Who was I without the cigarettes?

I had heard that quitting before you're thirty-five greatly reduces your risk of cancer so I had set that as my goal, but even as I neared the deadline I knew I could push it if I needed to. Was thirty-six really that different from thirty-five?

It was two things that really pushed me to the edge. One, my son. He has asthma and my smoking around him was not helping, and two, while I was on maternity leave, I watched daytime TV, and at the time they were running the most terrifying anti-smoking commercials I had ever seen. I keep meaning to thank someone for those. They literally saved my life.

When I set out to quit, I never really set out to quit. I was only going to switch to the e-cigarettes. I had a couple of long-time heavy smoking friends who had done it so I thought, why not give it a shot? The e-cigarettes were nowhere near as satisfying as the real thing, but they showed me one, extremely valuable thing. I could survive without cigarettes. And if I could survive with a paltry, plastic substitute, maybe I could break-up with nicotine for good.

Gradually I eliminated the e-cigarette from my life, but I occasionally snuck a real cigarette here and there when I was really anxious or out drinking. Other days I crawled into bed hours early, avoiding the cravings by sleeping through them. December of last year I was at a party and pretty drunk and itching for a cigarette. It had been months since I'd had one. I thought, what could it hurt? Excited for it, I lit the end and took a long drawl. I almost gagged. It was disgusting.

That was my very last cigarette.

For the longest time I'd kept an emergency pack in a drawer, untouched but still there, like a crutch. I came home from that party, took the pack out of the drawer and tossed it in the trash. I was no longer a smoker.

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?