Wednesday, August 31, 2011

4 Ways to Look at Your Whole Story

I recently finished a book and was thumbing through the back where it has the reading group discussion questions. I never really read those--I mean, honestly, I paid my dues in school, I don't need to answer any stinkin' essay questions anymore. But even so, I find that I often skim these questions, especially if I really liked the book.

So today when I was working on the revisions in my WIP, I thought about those discussion questions. I think I read somewhere once that authors have to actually write those. I shuddered with horror at having to come up with discussion questions for my own book--but then I reconsidered. Turns out, they're a great exercise for knowing your characters or plot elements or symbolism better.

And they're just one of the following four things I do to see the bigger picture in my story better:

1. Write your own discussion questions.
I was wondering about the importance of one of my characters, a kind of formal old aunt of my heroine's. So I wrote, "What does [aunt] represent to [herione]? How does [aunt] help or hinder [herione] in her [quest]?"

Naturally, I came up with my own answer, and that really helped me clarify the role of this character. It also helped enhance her place in the overall story.

2. Write your query first.
Lots of people say to do this and I couldn't agree more. A query describes your plot, the characters, and what's at stake. These are the basics of your whole story! I've always told myself that if I have trouble naming those elements, then I have trouble with my plot.

3. Write a quick and dirty synopsis.
Oh, not the dreaded synopsis! But yes--and this one's for you. Just freeform write everything that happens in the book, starting from the beginning. If you're writing an 85,000 word novel, then keeping track of all the events can be like herding cats. Write it down and see the forest for the trees. When I did this, I found myself adding in several elements that I wanted to highlight in the story, which hadn't been there.

4. Save your first chapter for last.
This is one I learned the hard way. I write a crappy first chapter when I start a story--because I know that only after I've finished the whole story will I be able to go back and rewrite it and have it foreshadow the rest of the book. And it really has to fit in with the ending in so many ways. And by the time you've written your whole book, you'll have a really good understanding of your character's flaws and desires, which can be hinted at in the first chapter.

Do you have any to add?

Monday, August 29, 2011

Strong female characters

Today I'm guest blogging over at Roni Loren's fabulous blog, Fiction Groupie, as part of my monthly guest column for her. Today's post is about strong female characters and how to write them.

Please join me there today!

(Yes, that's mean being all "riveting" over there in that picture. Sorry. For the pun.)

Friday, August 26, 2011

Google Reader Roundup

  • Meghan Ward posts about plagiarism vs. copyright infringement--and shares a very scary personal tale. If you think it can't happen to you, read Meghan's tale. A piece of her actual memory has been plagiarized and published. Where does that leave her?
  • Mike Chen has part 2 of the roundup from the talk agent Laura Bradford gave our local chapter of RWA--on professionalism. Good stuff.


Wednesday, August 24, 2011

4 things not to do on your blog

I am so sleepy and tired from being up repeatedly with Rainbow Puppy that I cannot plan a blog post for you today. Instead I have a nice picture for you. I hope it suffices.


Never do this.

If you're going on vacation, or your baby really is a little sleep demon like mine, or you have a ton of kids and they won't give you a moment's peace, or a barrel of monkeys just tipped over and are running rampant all over your kitchen like ants Toy Story-style, don't say so.

Blog readers don't care! And like as not, they'll skip right over your excuses and your apologies and click away.

Know what? Here's three other things readers don't care about:

1. How difficult it is for you to keep up with comments. When you complain that it's really hard for you to answer comments, readers don't have a lot of sympathy. It's kind of the blogging equivalent of saying "I'm so gorgeous that I can't seem to get people to stop staring at me!" If you really honestly can't get to all your comments, then just mention that you do read them and appreciate them. But not that you can't possibly keep up with the admiration.

2. Your blogging schedule. We all know it's important to keep--and stick to-- a blogging schedule. But when you post your schedule and it's complex and varied, readers aren't going to really remember it. They read your blog as part of their day. Blog about chickens on Monday and childhood scars on Wednesday, or vice versa. No one cares. We read your blog because we like you.
That being said, there's nothing wrong with posting your schedule--just don't expect people to remember it.

3. Your failure to think of blog posts. Everyone who blogs regularly has had to figure out what to blog about when the well runs dry. So once in a while you have to pull out the story about how your four year old stepped in cat puke and then told you about it as he wiped his foot off on another part of the carpet, thereby creating more mess, except you can't see where he wiped his foot off, so now you have no idea where he wiped cat puke on the carpet and no idea where to clean. This happened to me yesterday. It's a better thing to post than "I can't think of a post today."

The bottom line here is, readers don't care how hard things are for you. They don't want to hear you whine and they definitely don't want to hear how hard it is to keep up with your adoring commenters. They want you to consistently deliver quality posts, and when you can't then do one of the following:
  • Call in guest posters.
  • Run old posts in re-run style. I had to do this in the weeks following Rainbow Puppy's birth.
  • Write posts when you have the inspiration, and then schedule them for the future. I anticipated being completely brain dead after I had Rainbow Puppy (and I was right and in fact still am-- guess what? He's screaming in his crib as I write this right now, he does this every night now and also wakes about every hour and I really can't take it anymore) so I baked and froze seven weeks' worth of posts for you, all scheduled ahead of time.
  • Be short and professional. Just simply say, "I'm closing shop for the next three weeks." Don't explain why-- again, no one really cares about your upcoming monkey head transplant.
Anything to add? Thoughts about when bloggers do this? Do you care as a reader?

Monday, August 22, 2011

Housekeeping

I have a couple of nice blog announcements.

Announcements
First, fabulous romance author Roni Loren has asked me to write a regular guest post on her blog every 5th Monday of the month (when there is one), and she claims it is not at all because I made a big stink of not being asked to guest post for anyone. (In fact, Roni politely pointed out that I had guest posted for her before.)

I'm delighted to join Julie Cross, Ashley March, Suzanne Johnson (who did last week, and it was fabulous), and Joan Swan.It's really quite an honor to be asked to do a regular post for Roni, and I'm really excited. I'm going to be blogging about women's fiction and marketing.

Second, I've started another blog. I know. I know. I can barely brush my own teeth somedays, and yet another blog? But yes. This one is quite different from this, my writing blog (which is my main blog, or "home" as I like to think of it), and my design and usability blog. This new one is a food blog. I'm a terribly unconfident cook and it turns out that after a lot of practice, some of my recipes aren't so bad after all. So, the launch of Making MissChef has occurred, and it's got several really tasty ones up there already. I hope you'll come over and check some of them out.

Thoughts on Blog Space
Lastly, I've been thinking a lot about blogs lately. Specifically, how authors evolve with them. You start out writing your blog as an unpublished writer, and when you get the agent and book deal, you suddenly need to step back and think about your strategy because your blog has become very much part of your brand. The aforementioned Roni Loren had a fantastic post about this recently that I've been thinking about ever since. Roni herself is in transition as to how to deal with her very popular Fiction Groupie blog, and also her author blog.

Migrating to a more permanent blog from a free service, like blogspot or Wordpress, is a big decision. It's a good idea to have your posts, especially if you're going to be blogging for years, on your own web space. Springing for your own domain name and web space will be a monthly fee, but if you're serious about publishing, you might want to do it. For writers already agented and have book deals, it's a must. I asked the question back in April what writers think they might do with their blogs when published. It's a question with answers I'm still interested in.

My friend Mike Chen and I provide the service of design and set up for web sites with a Wordpress integrated theme, making updating the site and blogging really easy. There's a fee, but we're pretty affordable--especially considering what other designers and builders cost.

It's something I need to think about too because I use this free Blogger space for my blog, but I also pay for web space. Why not integrate my blog with my site? Well, yes. I might. But there's the problem of having people update their links and finding me there. It might be a necessary move.

Because I think long-term blog consideration is an interesting question as sites and tools evolve, I'm interested in where you stand on it. Do you have your own web site? Do you also have a free blog space, like at Blogger or Wordpress? How do you think you'd treat the two when you're published? For those of you already with web spaces, what are your plans?



Friday, August 19, 2011

Google Reader Roundup

  • Meredith Barnes talks about QR codes as they relate to book publishing. This is super interesting. I've posted before about the neatness and usefulness of QR codes, and since then I've noticed tons of magazine ads using them. That being said, I rarely get out my phone and click them anymore. I think they're best used when on the go.



Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Be Kind to your Writer-footed Friends

Last weekend I attended my first ever RWA (Romance Writers of America) chapter meeting. I also met my friend Mike Chen, who came to ascertain what we all already know -- that he writes women's fiction. Mike and I had a ton of fun and enjoyed swearing like a couple of sailors, but in general, it was really nice to spend a Saturday morning talking and thinking about writing.

RWA is a great organization--and as far as writer's organizations, one of the very best. It offers a load of support from professional growth to getting your manuscript and writing skill up to snuff. The meeting we went to also featured a very good speaker, agent Laura Bradford from Bradford Lit. Laura was not at all what I expected...she was nice, and personable, and made you feel like you wanted her as your agent. For some reason I thought she might be a chompy scary lady, but that just goes to show how little I remember that agents, along with every other type of profession (insert lawyer joke here), are people too.

Laura spoke on writerly professionalism. She spoke about not being a naughty blogger, and how everything you do as an author is pretty much public, and how one should reign oneself in. She talked about how a little kindness goes a long way. I had a lot of thoughts as she spoke, all of them naturally good blog fodder, so you'll probably be getting these over time. But today, let's talk about kindness.

I posted before about one aspect of writer kindness--being a mentor to others. But just being gracious is a really good thing to do whether you're published or unpublished. As Laura pointed out, the writing world is a small fishbowl and you'll meet people again and again. This is so true of the online world, too. A while ago, maybe a few years, I entered an online contest that was open to comments from anyone who wanted to read. The submission was the first page, I think. Anyway, mine was shredded by a great many people, but none so nastily as one particular writer who used her own name to sign her posts. Maybe my page deserved it, and it certainly could have been better, but it wasn't hideous, not pus-spouting-boil-on-your-neck hideous. Anyway, I remembered this writer. She writes in my genre, in fact. And more interesting, she kept popping up on my radar over the years since. In fact, she's in one of my groups that I participate in. Now she's agented. That's good--I'm glad for her. But that sure was really crappy back then, and I haven't forgotten it.

Being kind to people doesn't just mean not trashing their work and signing with your own name. It means engaging with people, answering their emails no matter how inane or rambly. (Roni Loren can attest to some of my rambly emails and with all she's got going on, she appears to read them all. In fairness, I read her rambly emails, too.) It means not shutting people out or thinking you're too good to talk to them, no matter where you are in your career and where they are. It means extending a hand where you can.

In particular, social media gives us the opportunity to be kind by engaging with others. (Reminder: engaging with others is all social media is.) And on the flip side of that coin, it's easy to be mean because it's easy to hide behind the anonymity of your computer monitor. One of the football forums I used to frequent called this being a "PC hardman" (there were lots of guys there who would take shots at others because they were anonymous).

What kindnessses have writers shown you, or you them? What unkindnesses have you experienced? The comments are a form of therapy, you know.



Monday, August 15, 2011

Baby Sleep and Writing

So Rainbow Puppy is three months old now. He's a darling baby and he and his older brother, the whippersnapper, get along swimmingly. I recognize I'm lucky in that. Rainbow Puppy doesn't have colic (like his brother did) and he's a very sweet boy who smiles and laughs a lot.

But he sleeps like a little demon.

I don't have any problems getting him to sleep (except sometimes), but he won't stay asleep when he's in his crib. He'll sleep fine in a swing and in my bed, but if he wakes up and finds himself in his crib, it's like someone stabbed him with a pitchfork. He won't tolerate it at all, even though his sheets are super cute and have piggies and kitties on them, and he has an equally cute bumper with cows and pigs and dogs and kitties. (You're not supposed to have bumpers on cribs these days, I know. I'll remove it once he starts moving.)

I really have no idea what to do except let him scream in his crib. It's a total battle of wills, and I have a feeling I'm going to lose. I desperately want him out of my damn bed, but I also want to sleep. It's very stressful.

The end result of his will against mine is that I am exhausted and my energy level for working on my WIP is greatly reduced and tends to comes in fits and starts (rather like his sleep). It's just a challenge right now. I just got done getting over the complete brain death that resulted from pregnancy.

It's always something, isn't it? We always have some calamity in our lives that could keep us from writing. When Rainbow Puppy is finally sleeping better (please God soon please I'll be your best friend), he'll probably start the teething hell. Then it'll be nightmares. It's always something.

Despite all this, I'm still writing. I do it because I want to, because it's my me-time, but most of all I do it because I refuse to stop.

What kinds of things have you had going on in your life that made you slow down your writing? Did you write anyway? Feel free to whine. Whining in the comments is always allowed.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Google Reader Roundup

Short one this week darlings, because I forgot all about the GRR (See Kristen Lippert-Martin's post, listed below, for why).

  • Kristen Lippert-Martin explains in perfect detail why many kids are difficult. I would wager that 4 month old babies (one of which I happen to have) are largely the culprit rather than so many kids, but I hate it when I do that thing where I speak on things about which I have no idea--like having four kids--and here I am doing it. Anyway go read it. KLM is just funny and delightful as always.
  • And Roni again with a helpful post on the dreaded synopsis with 5 tips. For what it's worth, I actually quite love the synopsis because I like seeing my big picture plot.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Genre Crossing

Most of you know I write women's fiction. I love writing it and I love reading it. I don't see a change for me in that department. When I first starting blogging and discovering the world of other writer blogs, I was really surprised at how many other writers say they write in (sometimes wildly) different genres because I couldn't ever see myself writing in another genre, especially not YA, which I didn't understand (but which I like reading), and certainly not sci fi or fantasy.

And while women's fic still holds the biggest draw for me because it offers the most enriching experience of exploration and discovery for me personally, I've changed my mind a bit about other genres. Partly this is because when I started getting a few storied under my belt and began understanding plot and structure and story, it was like creativity starting bursting everywhere. I find myself asking "what if..?" and "how about..." when I consider other worlds and genres.

Most of these idea seedlings won't ever come to pass, because as we know, writing a full-length novel that is properly plotted with the correct depth of characters is incredibly hard work. I don't know if I'd want to spend the time on something that isn't women's fiction unless it was a sure shot, and somewhat related to what I write already. Probably a realistic one is women's fic with paranormal elements (think ghosts or psychic events-- not mythical creatures).

Do you write in different genres? Do you have a favorite? Tell me about it--I like to hear how other writers handle this.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Using Social Media for Action

If your father went missing, would you have any idea what to do in order to keep the story in the media?

I don't think I would. Or, I didn't anyway.

Recently, the father of a close friend went missing on a fishing expedition in Mexico. You may have heard about this. Twenty seven Americans were on the boat, which capsized, and all but eight people made it to shore or were picked up. One died. Seven are still missing, including our friend's father.

The friend and her husband, who is one of Mr. Sierra's closest friends, were advised by the media to use social media as a way to garner attention and notice, and to remain in the public eye. I'm not sure if our friends were given advice on what this might include.

On the day after the news broke, which I regard as the first day of action after the accident, my friend asked me how to start a blog, and I told her. They started one. Then, they started a Twitter account. After this first day, my friend posted on Facebook: "thanks to all of your blogging and Twitter efforts, local politicians have heard us and are taking action!"

This wasn't true.

The social media ball had begun rolling, but it was quite small. There was zero chance that a few blog posts and tweets had gotten politico attention after one day.

But in the following days, momentum gathered. Mainly, this was through Facebook. Our friends set up a Facebook page in addition to the blog and Twitter account, and then set up a petition to sign at Causes.com or care2.com. The "likes" on the Facebook page grew each day from the double digits to the thousands. The daily re-posts from people on their Facebook pages was great to see. People were commenting, sharing, and liking-- and it really paid off.

Local congresspeople actually did take notice, partly because our friends repeatedly gave us information on how to write and call the congresspeople. The congresspeople wrote letters, and the effort started reaching awesome milestones: the Mexican government, which initially said it wouldn't extend the search past the standard 48 hours, extended it to 92 hours, and then after that it extended it again. The Navy and the Coast Guard got involved. Newspapers picked up the story and carried it to other newspapers across the country. My friends' family held a press conference. News reports did stories on it. In our local papers, including the biggest (San Francisco Chronicle), our friends were repeatedly pictured and best yet--the blog they had set up was mentioned repeatedly.

The end result of all this is that many, many people have heard about this and want to help. My friends have been offered support and help in incredible ways. All because of the powerful speed and sharing capabilities of social media. My friends have called their effort Find Our Fathers.

To review, let's go over what you should do in a case like this.

What to Do
  • Start a blog. Update it every day.
  • Blast it your news all over Facebook as much as possible--and repeatedly.
  • Start a Facebook page that repeats what the blog says.
  • Start a dedicated Twitter account and tweet all your blog posts and related news stories.
  • Set up petitions at sites like care2.com.
  • Start a web site that collects contact info from all the other sources.
There's much more, of course--tactics like giving people a form letter to copy and paste to send to their local and state officials, and giving out email addresses and phone numbers of those we need to contact. I also think it's wise to tell people exactly what you need--tell them what to write, who to write it to, what the goal is, what to tweet, etc.

Unfortunately, this story does not have a good ending.

My friend's father has not been found, nor have the other six missing men, and the US Department of Defense has declined to send a dive team in on the taxpayer's dime to see if the missing men went down with the boat. My friends now are raising money to fund a dive. They think their fathers went down with the boat--but there have been no bodies and without a dive, we'll never know.

I would end this post here, but there are a few very important things to say at this juncture. And that brings me to:

What not to do
As days went on, the husband became exhausted and frustrated, grieving and hoping and preparing for the worst case scenario--two weeks is a long time to be lost at sea or on an uninhabited island. He posted lists of those who had signed the petition, thus shaming and guilting those who hadn't and mentioned rather testily that if people wanted to help, then they should get off their butts and read the posts. He posted lists of names who had contributed via Paypal, even before the family had indicated what the donation was for. He posted names of those who had offered prayers to the family and left several people off. It was all rather unseemly. (Ultimately, he can be forgiven. His grief and anger has been unbearable-- in the days following the accident, the wife's grandmother died [mother to the missing father] and then the husband's mother died. It's been a really, really, really shitty summer for our friends.)

Nevertheless, you don't want to do anything that would drive people away from supporting. So, let's review what not to do when seeking support for action:
  • Do not shame or guilt people into doing something.
  • Do not publicly call out those who have given without their permission.
  • Do not assume that everyone else is living your daily reality -- this is a sensitive point on which the bereaved and distraught can understandably find difficulty, but very important nonetheless. As awful as it sounds, people need to be reminded of your reality.
  • Do not fail to make it clear what everyone should strive for -- what or whom you are petitioning and what donations will support.

If you're interested in helping or learning more, here's the info:
www.findourfathers.com
Find Our Fathers blog
FoF on Twitter
FoF Facebook page

If you have any questions, please e-mail me.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Google Reader Roundup

  • Allison Winn Scotch has a great article on parenting as a competitive sport, in HuffPo. It's a human and honest note that I hope parents who do try to be better than everyone else (which is a classic sign of insecurity or guilt over their own parenting abilities) read.
  • Jenny Bent does another "How I got my agent" post, but this one highlights hard work--not just lucky breaks.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Reuse. Resist Packaging. Eat well.

My mother has been preaching to me for years--and living by good example-- about reducing, using less plastic, not wasting as much. It's sunk in, mostly. And recently I was all fired up by my friend Meghan Ward's epic post on plastics, which gives us well-researched reasons why plastics are awful, and then does what I absolutely love people to do--gives us suggestions for improvement.

I wanted to give a few ideas on what I do to combat the use and effect of plastics in my family:
  • I talk to my whippersnapper about plastics and what's in them.
  • I never use plastic water bottles if I can help it; I always bring a Klean Kanteen bottle for both me and the whipsnap when we go out.
  • I buy glass bottle milk-- Strauss is a fantastic brand. Also this reduces milk carton waste.
  • I use my own grocery bags and if I forget them, I insist on brown bags.
  • I switched to glass food containers and ditched my Rubbermaid plastic.
  • And thanks to Tweeting about this subject, I got these fabulous reusable sandwich bags recommended to me, and I purchased them.
  • I buy some foods in bulk and keep them in jars. Good ones are: rice, oatmeal, pasta, corn meal.
  • Purchase stuff with less packaging-- and notice when stuff has plastic packaging (and grimace accordingly).
  • I compost my scrap food in this very attractive ceramic compost bin. Our garbage service includes an every-other-week "green" bin for yard waste, but it also takes compost, so even if you don't have a compost bin, you might check if your city takes it in yard waste.
You'll get comments. My cousin was recently visiting and I love her dearly, but she was like "Oh!" when she saw my glass milk bottle. She assumed it's special milk, and more expensive. It actually isn't much more expensive--although you do need to put a deposit on the bottle, you get that back when you return it the next visit to the store. And I'm not tossing some damn crap in the trash when I'm done drinking it. She also commented on the glass jars in my cabinet full of bulk items like rice and oatmeal.

This brings me to food.

There is no shortage of reports on what pesticides and hormones in our food does to us. It makes our kids mature faster, it causes cancer. And even if you're sitting there going "Those reports aren't true," then let me ask you this: Do you honestly think that you're better off eating something with chemicals in it?

If so, go right ahead.

I like to give myself and more importantly, my kids, the best chances possible. Dairy products and meat are the ones to most be concerned about. You can check this link to see which produce is best to buy organic and which isn't--but again, I like to eat stuff without chemicals if possible. Root veggies are terrible because they absorb pesticides in the ground.

Even though people have given me huge pushback for it, I buy my meat and dairy organic always, and produce when possible. I search out stores that let me buy in bulk and have really good fresh items. I love Trader Joe's dearly, but they don't do fresh very well and they use an incredible amount of plastic packaging. My friend Kathleen mentioned when were talking about this that grocery stores with butchers and bulk items and brands like Strauss are far away from her. And this is true-- there's going to be lots of places in the country where this stuff is hard to find. But if you insist on it, for yourself and your kids, then it doesn't become much of an effort.

That's all.

Monday, August 1, 2011

How to know when you’ve arrived

You know you're considered a blogger/writer/smarty pants person when people ask you to write guest posts for them.

I've never been asked me to guest blog for anyone--no, stop, I’m not trolling for requests, nor trying to make my bloggy friends feel bad. Nor am I looking for sympathy or praise or "you'll get theres." It just is.

I think it says you haven't quite arrived.

I've spent a lot of time on my blog over the past year or so. I used to blog an insane 5 days a week, in fact. I know agents take into account a writer's social media presence with particular emphasis on their blog when considering them as a client. Some agents even approach writers based on their blogs. (I know two people who have had this happen.) That's one of the reasons I've labored on this blog. I've thought long and hard on what makes a successful writer blog. I've watched other successful blogs for what seems to make them tick. (And in several cases, I noticed that I was posting the exact same information as more successful blogs and getting a fraction of the response in the comments.)

The blogs I enjoy reading contain consistently useful advice on writing, or are funny and a delight to read. The best are have all three characteristics. I'm not sure I've managed to hit any of those marks. No, please, let's not pretend otherwise. We're being very honest here.

One of the interesting things to note is that if you have an agent, or are published, you are seen as imminently more interesting than you were before you got an agent or were published. In fact, your readership and comment rate goes sky high when you get an agent. My friend Meghan Ward once remarked that no one wants to hear from someone who hasn't been there yet--but that doesn't take into account her own blog, which dispenses sage advice, nor, say, Roni Loren, whose blog has long dispensed great advice to wonderful response. Way before she got an agent.

So what I'm wondering is:
  • What importance does blogging have for you in the scheme of your writing and future career? Is having a successful blog important to you?
  • If you haven't produced useful information about writing and/or aren't a delightful wit, what do you think you're giving readers when you blog? Does a strong readership matter to you? Do lots of comments on your posts matter?
  • Do you strive to make your blog interesting to fellow writers?
I sometimes wonder if maybe I'm just a massive bitch and it comes through in my blog posts. I kind of suspect I am and it does, but that's a post for another day.