Monday, December 31, 2012

10 Things About Sierra and 2012

I love doing my annual year-end posts. That's because I've done them for three years now and it's really fun reading over the past years. Here's 2009, 2010, and 2011 if you're interested (and because they're all about me, why wouldn't you be? I mean, I totally am.)

P.S. If you're looking for the final Superstastic Winter Writing Challenge wrap up post, check back here tomorrow.

1. I found a happy medium in my diet and shed 15 pounds.
One day last summer my friend and I and our kids were at the community pool. A woman walked by wearing bikini bottoms and a halter top bathing suit. She looked fabulous, with a pert, perfect butt. I said, "Even if I worked hard and trained all summer, I'd never have an ass that size." My friend suggested we join Weight Watchers online together. (In retrospect, was she calling me fat??) I agreed mainly as a lark to see if it worked.

It didn't.

I found the points thing rather unbalanced for actual nutrition  That is, they heavily penalize you for eating a handful of almonds, but I found that my body thrives on the nutrients and healthy oils in almonds. I don't eat 50 million of them, but I do eat more then then paltry 5 you're allotted by the WW fascists. They also say brown rice is as bad as white rice--same point penalty. That makes no sense. So I should just eat sugary starch then? Worst of all, when I went to cancel my account, they charged me the full month even though I cancelled 2 days into the month. When I complained, they said "tough toenails." I remarked that this policy was very bad marketing and quite bad customer service. Their whole business is based on people failing diets and then returning to WW in shame, and now I wouldn't be returning, I'd direct my shame elsewhere. They didn't care. This is too bad for Weight Watchers since treating people badly doesn't induce them to return. Ah well. Not my problem.

Where were we. Anyway, then I read This is Why You're Fat by Jackie Warner. Because I wanted to understand what was going on in my body. The book is great--it helps you understand why and what happens. And I started eating right. In particular I stopped allowing sugar to be my main food group. Et voila, fifteen pounds. (Oh fine, I walked too and I ate right. But the sugar was the main thing.) I have some work to do from my holiday sugar binge, but I'm all right.

The old girl in better times. :(
2. I lost a cat. 
My cat Ally passed away in February (or March...oh it's all a blur) at age 17. I'm not sure what she died of, but she probably had multiple problems and when something went wrong (namely, she started puking one day and couldn't stop), her body starting shutting down. She died at home with me. I would say peacefully but it wasn't really. She suffered all day, and was scared and upset. This was better than being furious and insane in the car and the vet's office, however. And my other cat wanted nothing to do with her, treating her as though she were a pariah who would spread a death virus if he got too close to her. And I had to bury her in the rain and her stiff body toppled into the hole in an ungainly and unseemly was all awful. Just awful. But the main thing here is that I had her for a really long time--all my early adulthood. And although I found her really annoying at times, she was with me through good and bad. So she gets a spot on my list. Poor Al. In a house full of boys (even our remaining cat is a boy), she and I were the only girls.

3. My most listened-to song of the year was...
'Blue Skies' (Unquote remix) by Blu Mar Ten. If I heard this song every day for the rest of my life I'd be a happy girl. Every time I hear it, I fall in love, then I feel soul-searing pain and loss, and I emerge hopeful and alive. That's a rather tall order for a song, don't you think? Have a listen. I'm listening right now as I type this! When it's finished I'll replay it. 

4. I have a baby who sleeps.
Can you believe this? All year, he didn't sleep. Six months ago, here's what I put on Facebook:


  • is fourteen months today
  • thinks dogs make the world go round 
  • fat and juicy
  • says "moo" and "hisss" fetchingly
  • screams all night long-- last night most of the night
  • has massive molar coming in that makes him--and everyone else--unhappy
  • has a really ugly scream when it reaches hysterical levels (frequently at night)
  • does not travel well
But! In the nick of time, sliding in right before the year is out, he is finally sleeping. Not always, and not entirely consistently, but no more waking 3-4 times at night. No more screaming like a banshee! The funny thing is, a mere two weeks ago I posted this out of sheer despair describing him scream and my accompanying pain. 

But we've really come a long way since then. I've taught him to put himself to sleep and he's learning well.
So. So! Heaven. 

5. I was on TV. 
It was a show on HGTV, I don't want to say which one in case adoring fans start clamoring for autographs and the like, you know that can get dreadfully tiring darling. We actually filmed in 2011, but the show went on hiatus and we were on their new season, which they didn't air until April 2012. It was fun. The glamorous hosts were exactly the same off camera as they were on, which is to say, fun and sweet. (The main host was actually a bit of a diva, but nice when you spoke with him.) When we filmed the show, Rainbow Puppy (now 20 months) was a month old, and I wore the only shirt that fit me and didn't look like a shapeless bag. I also had Rainbow Puppy in the baby carrier. I didn't realize until later that I was bouncing him up and down like a lotto ball non stop in all my scenes. (I totally just said scenes as though I filmed a movie. Where's my SAG card?!) I was sure I made awful TV--who wants to watch a constantly bouncing lady, you'd get a seizure. When it aired, Mr. Sierra and I sat and watched, cringing, but even though I'd my own worst critic, it wasn't so bad. It really wasn't! And our house has noticeably improved as a result of being on the show. Win-win.

6. I was reminded that despite blogging pretty heavily for about five years, I still have no clue what works. I tried different things this year: I tried to start a blogfest (no one participated), I tried not to post very frequently (no one cared), I tried to post pedantic writing posts (retweets were high and blog stats showed these got a lot of traffic, but no one commented, How to Write a Great Climactic Scene was a huge hit getter), and I tried being more personal and less writingish (no one commented and blog stats were low, although these posts - "5 Things I like" are some of my favorites). So I still don't know.

7. I wrote, revised, revised more, queried. I slaved over my query letter to death (let's just say I owe Janice Hardy and Kristen Lippert-Martin a kidney each; please don't simultaneously collect), and then pushed my baby out into the world. I got traction but not the winning kind. I pulled it back, had a long, long talk with myself and then did what I wanted with the manuscript, not what I thought everyone else wanted. The result? Something that works. Really, really works. There's a lesson in all this. When I discover it, I'll let you know.

8. I worked a LOT. 
This was the year of slaving away on my freelance graphic design and technical writing business. The previous year I worked hard too, but I'd had Rainbow Puppy, and that event kind of dominated everything else. This year, I worked hard and designed a ton of websites, met wonderful clients (like the lovely Lorrie Thomson), and learned lots of lessons, some of them painful--like the one where you think you and the client have discussed what they want only to find they don't want that at all, and there was nothing you could do about it. Or you could, but they didn't want to deal with you. Anyway, I am so lucky to be able to do what I do. So lucky that it earns a solid place on this list.

9. I came to terms with my family's political preferences.
As we all know, this year was a huge election year and my, how divisive it was. One of the biggest shockers was discovering that most of my paternal family are Republicans, including my dear dad and my closest cousin. No offense to anyone, but I believe so strongly in compassion for all, and other basic female reproductive rights, and loads of other things that I think make our society better, and that they don't support those things does my head in a bit. I wondered, who are these people? But I had to realize that Republicans are like everyone else -- they're even loved ones I've known my entire life -- and they probably don't think their views are odious. They probably feel the same way about me in reverse. So you have to let these things go. Or just stop thinking about them in connection to the person. And be thankful that it doesn't actually matter how they voted, because California was never going to be a Republican state in the vote count anyway because I love them.

10. I realized how happy I am.
I had a hard time thinking of major things that happened to me this year. I stewed in the lameness of this for a few days until I realized it was a more subtle year full of many small joys, excepting the not sleeping part. This year my baby learned to walk, talk, and turn one. He grew into a little person. Quite a difference from where we were this time last year. I also watched my six year old son grow into a little adult, bounding into a whole new world of reading and writing and psychologically out-maneuvering his mother, and shouting "Booyackasha" at every opportunity. I read a ton, and I played lots of games. I worked a lot (see number 9 above) and I walked a lot. And I felt comfortable with my goals and where I am with them, even if that means I'm still working on them.

Happy 2013 guys and thanks for reading my slaver.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Superstastic Winter Writing Challenge Week 2 Check in

Hey peeps! It's time for the Superstatic Winter Writing Challenge Check in, Week 2!

If you aren't familiar with what this is, there's plenty of time to tune in and join in. See this kick off post for information; then see this post for a list of the great prizes at stake.

So, how are we doing in week 2?

For my part, I've completely lost my head to the holidays and I haven't been writing. But! I also got feedback from certain awesome critique partners last week that my new first chapter is working, so I'm thrilled. I have two major goals now for the remainder of December, and then some big plans for pushing this baby out there in the world in January. My goals:

  1. Revise midpoint scene
  2. Re-read whole novel for POV changes and continuity. 
That's it. I'm close and I'm thrilled! I have to say, this writing challenge and Meghan's original one at Writerland have been hugely motivating. Even if I did very little, I felt like I was doing something.

So where are you? How are you doing?

Tuesday, December 11, 2012


I am sitting at my desk right now, listening to my 20-month old son scream.

He's in bed, and it's naptime. He wants to take a nap--he's a great midday napper--but he does not want to take a nap if he has to know about it. What that means is that he prefers for me to hold him until he is completely asleep, and when I put him in his crib, he is already in the deep, wonderful waters of sleep oblivion. He never knows a thing. And that's the way he likes it.

Problem is, this has led to mucho night waking, where he wakes 3-4 times a night because he doesn't know (or conveniently forgets) how to put himself back to sleep when he wakes. Which, as you might guess, is insufferable.

So we have begun this: I finish our bedtime routine, and then instead of putting him in bed when he's asleep, I put him in when he's awake, which is what I should have &$%#@ing done when he was a newborn. (I didn't, because he would immediately scream then.)

So. It's pretty bad. He is objecting strenuously to the plan.

I didn't want his sleep to be this difficult, but I also know that if we're going to get anywhere near him falling asleep on his own, unassisted, then we need to start somewhere. I dislike this in the extreme. It hurts. I can't even eat -- although I am eyeing the wine cabinet. It's incredibly hard. It's really, really hard. It's hard like childbirth was, like toddler tantrums are -- even like how almost two years of sleep deprivation is hard.

Normally I'd never make a comparison to how hard writing and editing a novel is, but I'm totally going to, because you may already know how very, very difficult it is to create a marketable novel that is good enough. And by good enough, I mean one that someone else wants to a) sell and b) buy.

And good enough takes a lot of sweat and tears, just like baby-raising does. That is, raising of stubborn, extremely insistent babies -- not those little angels who sleep through the night from day 1 and give you nary a second of sass, tantrums, or struggle. Probably those babies are made of clay, but you get my drift. We all have a friend who has that baby. None of us like her.

Anyway, back to the novel writing. In the past two, no three, years, I've worked so hard on my current ms. I've discovered several times that it has problems that needed complete rewrites in order to fix. I've spent countless hours fixing them and thinking about the story, the characters, the plot. I've lived with this story, I've loved this story. I've dreamt it. This is how it goes. This is what you do with a baby, non?

But you do it, because the end result is a happy, well-adjusted novel that will put itself to sleep unassisted.

Well, I'll let you know how that part turns out, anyway.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Superstastic Winter Writing Challenge Check in

Thanks to all of you who are taking part in the Superstastic Winter Writing Challenge! You can join in any time for this month.

I announced the Challenge on Monday and we're supposed to check in every Thursday, but a week hasn't technically gone by today so this is just a quick cheerleading post to say hi and how are you and how's it going so far?

And I also wanted to announce the super awesome prizes. At the end of the month, on December 31, I will randomly choose a winner--but you have to had commented on the first post to say you're in, and you have to check in on the last post to say how you did. The prizes? The following FABULOUS baking cookbooks:

  • Williams Sonoma Essentials of Baking
  • Home Baked Comfort
  • The Art of the Cookie

I have all three of these and I have to say, I freaking LOVE them.

So, how are you doing so far? Follow along daily and check in via Twitter. Use the hashtag #TTWC. We were going to change that, but it hasn't just keep the same hashtag.

Monday, November 26, 2012

How to Write a Great Climactic Scene

I recently removed a major element of my WIP. Removing major plot elements always leaves holes you have to apply mortar to and brick over, but this one was so massive that it required an entirely new climatic scene. Which was fine.

Except I didn't have a replacement climactic event.

There I was, with a heroine all set to apply newly-realized lessons, and to finally discover the last important pieces of information she needed to know, and with her ready to put the smack down once and for all on her antagonist....and I didn't have any place for them to do it.

The creative well was dry on this one. I needed a setting for all those above items to happen, but no place jumped out. Nothing. I had nothing. So I did what any stuck writer does: I turned to the Internet and watched the kitten web cam. After that, I watched some Limmy videos for a while. When I was done with that, I checked Facebook and Twitter...well, you get the picture. When I had exhausted all my usual diversionary tactics, I got down to work and researched what to do. And I came up with:

3 Important Points about Climatic Scenes

[1] The first point is a quick recap of what a climactic scene needs to accomplish. The climactic scene is a final showdown between your protagonist and antagonist. And the outcome must prove your story's moral premise and theme; it must contain a "moment of truth." A crappy or weak climactic scene will not accomplish the point of your story and it will leave readers feeling let down and disappointed.

So, after that little picker-upper, the next thing to do was refresh myself on the second point, which isn't actually a single point, but more of a header of many points.
[2] What should a good climactic scene contain? (this list is culled many other blog posts and books)
  • It should be an epic confrontation with a clear winner and a clear loser.
  • The hero must confront the biggest adversary.
  • The hero must save him/herself.
  • The scene should be resolved with action and conflict.
  • The climactic scene represents the dramatic highlight of the story.
  • The hero directly affects the outcome.
  • Often, this is done in a location we haven’t seen yet.
  • Sometimes there is a figurative or literal arena in which the showdown will occur.
Good. Now that I had those basics, it was time for the third point:
[3] The details of a good climatic scene. How to get the details? Well, I have to supply those, unfortunately  But you get those by asking yourself these questions (thanks to Stavros Halvatzis for this):

1. What is the primary strength of my antagonist?
2. What is the primary weakness/fear of my protagonist?

Oh, now we're getting somewhere. Stavros (fab Greek name, Stavros, in case you were wondering) says the answers to these questions need to play into my protagonist’s chief weakness\fear while promoting my antagonist’s primary strength. I also need to ask myself what setting best enhances my antagonist’s chances of winning, while simultaneously increasing the chances of your protagonist’s failing.

Whoa. That hardly seems fair. And yet, that kind of conflict is going to make a great climatic scene.

Stavros adds, "improve your writing by exploiting an appropriate setting that strengthens the antagonist while simultaneously weakening the protagonist."

So whatever setting I end up choosing, I'll need my antagonist to be comfortable and on even footing when my protagonist catches up with him, so that the antagonist things he's on Easy Street. Then my protagonist can pull the rug right out from under him and triumph. Tribal drums may or may not be involved (probably not).

A Note About Settings for Climatic Scenes

All of the above was great for grounding my head in what the scene needs to accomplish. But I still needed to primarily consider the setting. A Writer's Digest article on plot and climatic elements recommends the following for choosing a setting:

"There’s nothing that says your climactic moment has to be in a different location. If it’s a sports story, for instance, the climax may occur in the same place as much of the rest of the book: the court or field. If the characters have been trapped in an elevator for the whole book, the climax will most likely take place in the elevator. So long as you cover all the elements, you’re fine. But why not take it to a new fun location?

Think about your story a moment. You may have a good idea for where the big showdown needs to happen. And even if you’ve thought of a place, considering other options will help you find surprising wonders or can verify that you have, indeed, found the right place for this crucial action.

 What is the ultimate setting for the final conflict in your book? If you’re writing a thriller about a killer who preys on children, could the final standoff occur on a playground? If you’re writing a romance about flirtatious ornithologists, could the final will-he/won’t-he moment take place in the world’s largest aviary? If it’s a pirate story, the climactic scene had better be on the high seas.

There’s an appropriateness about your story regarding the “right” location for the big scene. Where is the perfect place for your book’s climactic sequence? If you’re still not sure, perhaps looking at each element of the climax will help you decide."

Hope the above helps. I put this post together primarily to help organize my own thoughts about climactic scenes. I hope it helps someone.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

5 Things I love

1. Call the Midwife on PBS. You are watching that, right? If you loved Downton Abbey, you will like this. Sadly, this British series appears to finished airing its first season, but that matters not because you can watch all the episodes on Even better? You can watch them on your Kindle or any tablet that connects to the internet. That is heaven.

2. The Paper Source catalog. Paper Source is a store with lovely things and great design, and their catalog is like crack, I tell you. Here are a few things that inspire me out of their catalog:

There are many, many more things I love (and need) from Paper Source, but I am not a Paper Source catalog, so you must browse for yourself.

3. Walks in the November sunshine. Here in California, it's still sunny, but the light has an orange quality to it, and there's a slight kick to the air. It's sort of spicy and windy and promising of crappy, cozy whether to come. The time just changed, and you sort of know good things are ahead.

Here's a picture of the walk I took last weekend. I thought I was the luckiest girl alive. I still do.

4. Sandwich bowls. These were invented by my husband for our 18 month old son, who likes sandwiches, but not actually eating them. That is, he likes the ingredients but a sandwich is too much for him unless it's cut in bite-size chunks. And then, he just takes those apart and makes a grand mush of it all. So Mr. Sierra cut the bread, turkey, and cheese up and just made a bowl of it. It went over so well that I tried it myself and loved it. Probably I just like the idea of the name sandwich bowl. But how awesome is it not to have to pick up a drippy sandwich and have it slop all over? I can eat it with a fork like a civilized girl.

5. The election results. My worry with the presidential race was that people weren't bothered by the lying and cheating from Romney's camp. I personally don't believe that any person who wins the biggest job in the world is free from a certain amount of ego and spinning and pushing, but I do believe that Obama comes across as a honest guy who does genuinely cares. I also think he acts within his means--which sometimes doesn't seem like enough. Overall, I feel that I was served. I know others don't. My own dad is heavily conservative and thinks Obama will change us all into a communist country. So he's pretty angry. But from where I'm sitting, I'm rejoicing in the ideology of hope, change, and movement, and I saw none of that with Romney. And well done to the states that legalized gay marriage-- Maine and Maryland. Well done, you! Well done!

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

5 Things I Love: Birthday Post

So today is my birthday and I thought in honor of my birthday, I would post lovely things that I like. Happy birthday to me!

1. Eos Lip Balm. Yes, these lovely egg-shaped little wonders are great on the lips and smell good, too. Packaging is a complete win--the second my 6 year old saw these, he wanted them too. Smell is a win, too with flavors that hearken back to the awesome old tin Lip Lickers-- remember those? How awesome were those?

Photo is from Gen

Anyway the Eos lip balm eggs above are available in tons of flavors, but I especially love the Alice in Wonderland pack of blueberry, vanilla, and watermelon. Not sure why they're Alice and Wonderfuland but I don't care, and the packaging comes with the delightful quote: "Very few things indeed were really impossible." Sublime.

2. Any magazine with Kate Middleton on it. Except the photos of her nekkid. Because I don't agree that we need to see that, especially when she didn't put her boobies on display for us all to see--just her hubs. But apart from all that, I freaking love reading about her and looking at her because she is so calm and collected and always put together. Doesn't she ever throw a strop and get really PMSy? Doesn't she ever have the runs? I know she does, but we never see it, and that's the way I like it.

3. The Communication Arts Design Annual, which comes out every fall and gets delivered to subscribers in a BOX. This issue is chock full of winning entries in Comm Arts' design entry categories like packaging, identity, brochures. I got mine the other day and have been guarding it and petting it and calling it my Precious. It's pretty much crack for designers.

4. The Grey's Anatomy season premier this week AND the series premier of Elementary. I've watched GA for years now and while it's getting slightly stale, having to wait all summer to watch more of the dramatic plane crash was annoying, so it's nice that it's back on. Elementary, now, oooh. Lucy Liu--YES. Johnny Lee Miller of Trainspotting fame? YES YES YES YES. Mr Ex-Angelina Jolie? Snore! Let's remember him as Sick Boy, shall we?

5. The start of fall. It began officially on 9/22. God, I love fall. Colors, smells, and cozy nights. I got out all my fall decorations right away. I'm ready for smoky chimneys and hot cider, aren't you?

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Bad Bookstore Behavior

Although I have no money to spend on books, I do anyway--because what is life if not filled with books?  So the other day I took the baby and went to Barnes and Noble. We spent an enjoyable 45 minutes there, leaving with several books to our delight, including several new books for the baby and one delicious book on logos for me.

As I wheeled the kid out in his stroller, struggling and cajoling him to keep his remaining shoe on, I found myself checking furtively over my shoulder to see if any store employees would tackle me. You see, I had been a bit badly behaved.

Naturally, none of it was my fault. And upon reflection, it's the stuff I do almost every time I'm in there.

First, I was waylaid and detained by the New Fiction shelf. Surreptitiously, I pulled out my phone, shooting the baby a look to keep his yap shut about this. *Snap!* *Snap!* Yes, I took pictures of the covers so I could download them later on my Kindle. I committed the most egregious sin to bookstores everywhere. (Henceforth to be referred to as Bookstore Sin #1.) But the thing is, the covers are gorgeous! And I simply can't read hardbacks in print anymore! But Mein Gott, what a lovely bunch of cover art that's being produced these days! Look at this!

And to close up, here's what I was in design raptures about:

That is so cool, I totally judged it by its cover art and am going to read it. Then I'll be reading this one:

Here's a gorgeous use of typography on a cover, although I don't think I'll read this one--historical novels are not my cup of tea:

Alas, I didn't get more photos because an employee walked by. So I scurried away to hide among the fiction aisles. There, I committed Bookstore Sin #2. I used my superior powers of alphabetization and made a spade where my own book will go once it is published. That's right. I shoved Gail Godwin aside and a slim Goethe volume (which completely didn't belong there) and made room on the shelf for myself. I should have taken a picture, but the picture author Linda Godfrey took a few years ago on my behalf using a Chinese take-out menu will have to suffice:

That accomplished, I moved on to the Romance section, where I like to commit Bookstore Sin #3: checking for the published copies of my friends and acquaintances. This isn't a sin, no, you're right. But I am not a huge category romance reader so going over there with the sole intent of checking seemed wrong. Plus, one time I did it with my 6 year old whippersnapper in tow and he was all, "oooohhhh" when he spied some overflowing bodices and bosoms on the covers. 

Anyway, I found Roni Loren's latest novel out, facing out on the shelf in the New section, no less!

I didn't want to commit Bookstore Sin #4, which is my baby chewing the toddler books with abandon, so we made our purchases and got out of there before further offense could be made. 

How about you? What naughty things do you do in bookstores? And I don't mean having sex in the back corner next to the SAT guides, either. 

Monday, July 30, 2012

5 Books that Influenced Me

In this month's issue of O magazine, author Jennifer Weiner did an interview called "5 books that influenced me." I believe she meant influenced her writing, but doesn't every book a writer reads influence their writing? I'm embarrassed to say I hadn't read 4 of her listed books. But! I have read many others! Et voila!

5 Books that Influenced Me

1. My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell. 
When I was kid living in Greece (on Santorini), a friend of my mother's gave me a copy of Durrell's awesome memoir about the years he and his family spent on Corfu in the 1920s. Gerald was the youngest by far of his three siblings; he was about 10 or 11 and his two brothers and sister were in their early 20s. The book (and its two sequels) are hilarious, mostly thanks to Gerald's family and a succession of visitors, all of whom were eccentric and hilarious. Gerald was an early naturalist, madly into creature collecting of all kinds. (As an adult, Gerald started his own zoo, the Jersey Zoo and dedicated his life to conservation.) This book and its sequels were written so well, with such humor. I still have the books, and remain impressed. I related at the time, but even as an adult finding the silly in everything is still relatable.

2. Coming Home by Rosamunde Pilcher
I love epic British wartime dramas, and Coming Home is exceptionally good. It's so good that I re-read it every few years--I make myself wait a few in order to forget parts so I can rediscover them again--and the love story, the plucky heroine, and the cozy, bucolic setting always get me. Pilcher plots the story wonderfully--and for an epic, it never gets boring.

3. Watermelon by Marian Keyes
This was the first book by Keyes I'd read and also her debut novel. It's not her best or my most favorite (and I've read all her books, I adore her so), but the first line got me like no other--and that's when I started paying attention to first lines. Her first line goes something to the effect of "The day I gave birth was also the day my husband left me." Man! I had to read about that!

4. Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson
Bill Bryson is an American who transplanted to England in his twenties and stayed there, married, had kids. He's proof that the dry, always delicious British wit isn't bred in. Notes is Bryson's memoir of his adopted country, and he tours it from bottom to top. At times the humor can come across as too cynical and harsh, but overall he's makes me giggle, and he inspired in me a whole new way of writing and seeing the landscape. You can't go wrong with any of Bryson's books, and I venture that A Walk in the Woods is better than Notes, but Notes remains my favorite because at the time I read it, I was actually traveling across England and Scotland so it was timely and I have great memories of it and the trip. I didn't read it on purpose, that was the great part--it was given to me at just the right time.

5. Toss up: Light a Penny Candle or Echoes both by Maeve Binchy
Hmmm. Looking at this list of books, I see either English or Irish writers, and one American who turned into an Englishman. What does that say about me? It says I like British wit and settings, but there's more to it: when I was about 9 I read every thing I could get my hands on--and because we were living in Greece at the time, that meant all the holiday reading the tourists left behind. The hotels would keep the books in a basket and I (and other ex-pats) were welcome to raid it anytime. Most of the tourists were English, and that meant I read a ton of British authors at a time when I was learning story cadence, grammar, and other fine writing points. Maeve Binchy's two epics, Light a Penny Candle and Echoes, are superb and I've reread them since I was a kid. As with Pilcher, Binchy (hmm, another common demon: the ch in their names) put heart into her stories--and that's more elusive than you think. Heart is what made both authors massive worldwide bestsellers, and it's not that easy to duplicate or else everyone would be doing it.

* Special edit: I didn't know when I wrote this post and scheduled it for publication on July 30 that Maeve Binchy died on July 30. I am deeply saddened by this news. (Link goes to a news page with more info about her life.)

So those are my most influential books. What are yours? I'd love to know! Please share in the comments.

Monday, July 23, 2012


"You're being rude."

"No, you're being rude!"

Uh oh. You can tell a lot about the speakers in that conversation. And one of is firing back with a pretty silly reply. Why? I have theories...

Over 4th of July, we visited the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which is a lovely and humongous aquarium in the San Francisco Bay Area (well, Monterey Bay actually, but SF counts it in). Just outside the seahorse exhibit, one of the staffers was putting on a magic show. People began to assemble, and I sat down at the end of a bench with my sleeping baby in the stroller next to me, against the wall and out of the way. My 5 year old whippersnapper sat on the bench with me. 

Meanwhile, a lady and her baby in an obnoxious stroller, the $1000 Stokke upright (yes), came along and parked herself and her ensemble right in front of the magician, right in front of all the people sitting on the bench including me. 

I assumed she would move as soon as it got more crowded; it was pretty clear she was blocking people. 

Silly me. 

More people gathered, and it became clear the Stokke lady had no intention of moving. A bold older lady sitting next to me said, “Excuse me, can you move your stroller to the side so we can see?” 

The Stokke lady, who also had a massive diamond ring on her finger—2 or 3 carats—at first pretended not to hear. But my seatmate was strong. She repeated it loudly until Stokke lady turned and said, “What?” 

“We can’t see,” said my benchmate. “We’re sitting here, and you’re blocking our seats.” 

Stokke lady smiled broadly and said, “Oh yes, I’d love to sit down, thank you.” 

My mouth fell open in shock at such a countermove, but my benchmate was quick. “No, we’re sitting here. Can you please move your stroller over to the side so we can see?” 

Stokke lady – I mean, a $1000 stroller!—said, “I was here first.” 

Me, again, mouth open in shock. Strong benchmate lady said, “It’s very rude not to move so we can see, no matter who was where first.” 

Stokke lady, in a predictable but nonetheless disappointing response, said, “You’re being very rude.” 

I could see where this was going. I began calming my innate fear of public confrontation in preparation for jumping in. Luckily, I didn’t have to (although I would have! I think!) because the lady sitting next to my benchmate said to Stokke Lady, “No, she’s not being rude. We’re just asking you to move so your [massively expensive yet having money doesn’t mean you’re more intelligent!] stroller so we can see.” [Bit in brackets is mine, obvs, but she was totally implying it.] 

Defeated and unable to think of a clever retort, Stokke Lady capitulated and began moving her stroller over toward my sleeping baby. To save face, she said rather stupidly, “I don’t know where I’m supposed to put the stroller!” 

Ah! My chance! “You can put your stroller against the wall there, see how I did? See how that’s out of the way?” I said, in a masterly stroke of passive aggressiveness. I made sure to keep my tone helpful but clear, but I was prepared for battle should she make further comment or jar my baby (she didn’t). 

The show started and all was well. Stokke Lady left after the show, all smiles, as though she’d never behaved badly. Upon later discussion with Mr. Sierra, I felt that it all boiled down to the fact that Stokke Lady was in the wrong and it was too much for her to admit it. All she had to do was accept the request gracefully (“Oh! Sure! Sorry!”), but her aggression and ridiculous argument made me think she must have known she was in the way, and was hoping no one would call her out on it. Maybe she feels entitled and isn’t used to getting called on her greediness. She did have that ring and that stroller. There was no reason for her put up such a fight, and then degrade herself by calling my benchmate rude. (Mr. Sierra tried to give her the benefit of the doubt, saying maybe it wasn’t up to Stokke Lady to accommodate every person who decided to sit behind her, especially as there hadn’t already been a crowd behind her when she got there; I refuted this because why not move so everyone can see rather than dig in your heels and act like an asshole about it? Mr. Sierra finally agreed because he had spotted Stokke Lady coming out of the Jellyfish exhibit, which is clearly marked “no strollers.” Entitled. Greedy.)

One of the major themes I’m working with in a new story is taking responsibility for your actions after you’ve done something wrong. It seems to be such a painful thing for people to do that most of us don’t. How many times have you honked at someone in the car as they barely avoid hitting your, or veer into your lane and narrowly miss slamming you, and then they honk back at you, as though you’d done something wrong? How many people do you know who have steadfastly ruined their lives because they were too stubborn to admit they’d made a mistake, or a bad choice, and were too proud to say they were sorry? How many young people have you seen fail to understand the concept of humility? How many lies have you told to avoid the truth, which will get you in trouble? Coming back from a low place and taking responsibility isn’t pretty and it’s bound to be painful. My guess is that the pain is so great that most people shy away from responsibility instead.

One of the best recent examples of taking responsibility comes from author Roni Loren, who went through a pretty bad time recently of nearly being sued for a picture she put on her blog. If you haven't read her post on it, you need to. It'll scare the bejeezus out of you, but after you're done obsessively combing through your blog for all pictures whether they're unauthorized or of your cat, you don't care, they're all going, please pay attention to the way Roni owns up to the whole thing. Look at what she says. This lady had to pay serious money for something she shouldn't have had to pay for...but she did it, and she says "I was wrong, there's no getting around that." 

That's class. And that's strength of character, too, because she admits where she is wrong even though she made her mistake in innocence, and honestly tried to correct it once it was brought to her attention. She has every right to be indignant, angry, sad, and hurt that she still had to pay even though she'd corrected the situation--that goes against everything we're brought up to believe--but she still accepts responsibility. 

Have you had to take responsibility even though it's painful? Please share. I'm really interested in people's stories about responsibility because it shows such strength of mind and character. It's something I try to drill into my older son's head because I want him to know that owning up to your nonsense is the way you grow.

Monday, July 16, 2012

That Moment

There’s a reason certain love songs speak to us—because I think they capture that moment—that MOMENT—when you look at someone and know they love you back, or at least that the interest is mutual, and that moment is so exquisite. It’s why we read good romance stories.  It’s certainly why I write them—all for That Moment.

You know the one. My fave author and BFF (in my head) Liza Palmer often addresses this through the one movie that most accurately sums up the hopes and dreams and wishes and anguishes of all the ladies everywhere: Sixteen Candles, in which Molly Ringwald lusts after Jake Ryan who doesn’t know she’s alive (oh but he does!), and she knows she doesn’t have a hope, and he’s got a hot and well-developed senior girlfriend and poor Molly is not only flat chested but a lowly sophomore and her awful family forgot her most special of birthdays. Oh my God! Who hasn’t been right there with Molly? Mein Gott, I spent my teenage years and most of my twenties feeling this way! But Jake Ryan—he notices her and by the time he’s leaning against his Porsche, waiting for her (!!!!) and he says “you” and she looks behind her! Looks behind her! Because he can’t be talking to me her! And she goes, “me?” and then he says, but she can’t hear him, “Yeah you.”

Oh my. That’s The Moment. In my stories, my character always learns and grows as a person, but my stories always, always try to capture That Moment. In fact, I think I write them with that ultimate scene in mind.

Sixteen Candles had a superb soundtrack, and That Moment is perfectly illustrated by the Thomson Twins’ If YouWere Here – who couldn’t listen to that over and over? I think songs do a particularly excellent job of summing up That Moment in 3 minutes give or take—but they’re lucky, they get beautiful sounds to make the job of telling the story of That Moment easier. A really good That Moment song is U2’s All I Want Is You (I melt inside when I hear this song). In my stories, I make it as difficult as possible for my love birds to get to That Moment, but when I do, I spend a lot of time on the scene because it’s just as much fun to write as it is to read. Here are two of Those Moments from a few different stories I’ve written: 

  • The guy arrives by train and they’re running to meet each other at the station, and she watches him walking toward her, and has to wait and think about him and look at him, and lust after him, and worship him, but she’s not sure he feels the same way back. After all she doesn’t want to presume anything and he’s so fine and wonderful (obvs), how could he love her back? But then he finally gets to her, and of course he loves her back! He’s Jake Ryan! (This is from my current manuscript.)
  • The love birds are separated by their own pigheadedness and due to other circumstances, my heroine is running away from other people. She runs out in the snow, poorly dressed (of course) and she’s running and can’t feel her toes, and all her boogers have frozen in her nose and just when she thinks she’ll be one of those human popsicles that litter Mt. Everest, only on the side of the road in an American town (because she would be lame like that), she finds the hero’s house and he’s there! With a fire! And although they’re not speaking to each other, he takes her in and nurses her back to feeling her digits, and she’s not sure how he feels but by golly she knows what a massive mistake she’s made by leaving him. And of course he tells her he loves her. In fact, That Moment comes and she doesn’t even believe him because he’s such a Jake Ryan, and he has to do something in order to show her—he has to throw away an object that had plagued their relationship, and then she sees he means it.
I have more in older stories, but in general, I try to build up to That Moment so it's as full of relief, realization, growth, and truth as possible. Do you love That Moment too? What are some of yours? Or favorites in movies or songs?

Oh, and can I just say that I did have a total Jake Ryan once, but he was basically repulsed by me or something--I don't know, but he never leaned against any Porsches for me. So that didn't turn out well, and now I write to make up for it.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Monday, July 2, 2012

6 Tips for a Friendly Author Website

I've done a lot of posts on web sites for both unpubbed and pubbed authors on why you'd need one or not. For some reason I simply can't fathom, I haven't been heralded as the next web site theory oracle. :) (jokey joke)

But: I do design web sites for many types of businesses, including pubbed authors. Here are 6 tips to making your website more user-friendly, with the goal of retaining your readers and gaining new ones.

6 Tips for a Friendly Author Website

Tip #1: Be Friendly to New Readers
I recently visited the web site for an author I hadn't heard of before. She writes in a category I love to read (women's fiction), so I was interested in her books. But on her home page, her books weren't front and center. Instead, praise took up the main space, and her books were listed by title out of site. Praise is good, but I don't care how much people love the book until I've seen whether the book is something for me. Praise comes second in my decision making factors.

The Solution: Make sure your home page is simple and draws the reader in for more first. Make things clickable. Don't make them wade through your reviews or bio first.

Tip #2: Make it clear what your books are, and provide links.
Put up pictures of your book covers, and make them clickable, because people expect to click on book covers. One author's website listed her book covers--but the covers themselves weren't links. The only way to learn more or --ahem-- buy one was to click on a "buy" link no where near the actual cover images. But there, only book titles were listed and no cover images! I didn't know the difference between her books, and I hadn't taken the time to memorize her titles after being shown covers, so I was frustrated with nothing to click on. 

The Solution: provide pictures of your book covers, and let me click on them right away. Or, give me a "Books" link. This author had neither. I couldn't figure out how to get at her books easily. I left her site.

Tip #3: Don't use alternative terms for standard navigation items.
One author's site I visited recently used "Profile" for the author bio link. Use something simple, like "About" or "About me." The word "About" is understood instantly by everyone. So is "Bio." But "Profile"-- what is that? Profile of your books, or you?

The Solution: Don't make your site visitors think. Give them what they expect so they will click on things. When you make people stop to figure things out--even for a second--you lose their already short attention spans. Use web-standard terms. If you're not sure what those are, check around other websites and make a note of the terminology.

Tip #3: Don't separate out information that should be grouped. 
This echoes the linking tip above. One mega best-selling, household name author, who has upwards of 20 books published, made a fatal mistake on her website. She has a Books page with her huge list of books. You can click on each book cover for more info. Is there a buying link on the list of books page? No! Is there a buying link on the specific page for the book? NO! Instead, there is a nearly useless separate page called "Where to buy books." Why? Why? I'm not looking in the menu bar for that. I'm looking on the book page for a link to buy. Give me what I expect, and I'll click it. Make it hard to find, and I won't. Not out of spite--but because it's harder.

Note, too, that if you make your visitor open up a new web browser, type in, and then cut and paste that book title into Amazon, you've already wasted three steps that didn't need to happen if you'd just provided a link. And guess what? No one likes doing the work.

The Solution: Just add links everywhere. It's not hard and links aren't obtrusive.

Tip #4: Make sure all your links work.
Nothing is more frustrating then clicking on a "subscribe" link and getting a page full of code. Hey, things go wrong. But quality check your site. It reflects personally on you if things are broken. Sad, but true.

The Solution: Whether you're doing your own site or having someone do it for you, perform a quality check by clicking on all links and playing with your pages. Links get broken. Sometimes a single letter is off in a link and it doesn't work. Pay attention--your website represents you.

Tip #5: Make sure your name is the largest piece of text on the page.
Why? Because if you make everything the same size, I can't pick out who you are. And you want me to. You want me to remember your name. 

The Solution: Stand back about five feet from your screen and see what jumps out at you the most. If it's not your name, get back in there and fix it. Look at my name on this blog. Are you confused as to who writes this blog? Look at my website. Are you clear whose site it is?

Tip #6: Think through who might visit your site.
When I design web sites for clients, I always ask who they think their target audience is. This is a really hard question to answer, because you have to open your mind to varied scenarios. For example, you might think you need an author web site for potential readers, and therefore potential sales. But you'd be ignoring other types of visitors: people who are already fans and want to learn more and connect and tell other people about your work, or people who are writers but not necessarily readers, and writers want to share your info and further your name. Or, journalists writing an article and your name came up in a search.

Or, did you know your website might be useful enough to serve as a resource for people? Do you look at your site differently if you knew it could be seen as a reference tool? Likewise, let's say you have a list of recipes that you've posted from your books, which feature characters as chefs. Now readers might want to visit your site specifically for the recipes. You've built a cooking site and you didn't even know it. Those visitors may be readers, too.

The Solution: Brainstorm and make a list of everyone you can think of who might visit, and why. What can you do to give them what they're looking for?

BONUS Tip #7: Provide an index for information that you regularly feature.
This is really applicable to blogs--but again, blogs are seen as part of the greater website, when you've incorporated it in. What's an index? It's a list of your content. Let's say you have a running series of a certain topic--say, books you recommend. You do a series of blog posts about the books, and even tag the posts with a "Recommended books" tag. But you don't have an index of the books, and someone might want to use your blog or site as a reference tool because you regularly reference bloopers in Star Wars films (see tip #6 above). Give them an index of those references. Don't make people wade through tags or other convoluted info for your content.

You might be wondering, "How does providing lists of recipes result in more book sales for me?" A good website is about providing information that people want. You have a good website with good content, and people will be more likely to buy your books, because they like you. Make it easier for them.

The Solution: Create simple, bulleted lists of things you have a lot of.

Hope these tips help. Let me know if you have any questions.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

How to Sell Books

Last week I went to my local Farmer’s Market and nosed around a local nursery’s booth full of really wonderful looking herbs in pots. I’d never been to the nursery itself—never even heard of it despite it being in my town, so the booth was a nice introduction. They had fetching little tubs of thyme, basil, Thai basil, oregano. It was all lush and gorgeous. I really wanted some spearmint – for some reason I’ve had a hard time finding spearmint in stores to grow. Spearmint is best in cooking and baking.

They were out of spearmint. I asked after it and the lady said. “Oh, yeah, shoot, we didn’t bring the spearmint today.”

The Farmer’s Market is only once a week and I go every week because it gets the kiddos out of the house. “If you bring it next week, I will buy it,” I said. 

“Oh, sorry. We’re not coming next week. We’re done until August or so.” 

Wow, I thought. Okay, bummer. 

Then a second lady in the booth said, “Yeah, and my back hurts.” 

Woah, I thought. TMI. I’m just trying to buy some spearmint! 

I shrugged. The ladies shrugged (I hope it didn’t hurt the one lady’s back to do so). I left without purchasing anything. I also left without: 
  • An invitation to come visit their nursery and buy spearmint there
  • Enticement to visit them online or keep their name in mind
  • A personal connection
  • Incentive to ever buy anything from them again 

These ladies missed so much opportunity. Bottom line: they missed out on sales. So when you’re marketing anything, whether books or herbs, there are some simple follow up actions to take. Blasting your product out there and hoping you catch some customers like chickens pecking corn kernels amounts to spam and little else. 

Here’s what the ladies should have done: 

  • Not mentioned the aching back as a reason to not provide me with product –very sad but I don’t care, nor should I care
  • Offered to have me come to their nursery where they would set aside spearmint for me or even give me a tour
  • Taken my name or number 
  • Given me a business card
  • Introduced themselves by name 

Now let’s imagine you’ve published a book. You’re talking to someone somewhere who asks about it. You give then the finely-honed pitch – a logline even—and the person, let’s call them Bob, says, “God I would love to read that! That sounds awesome!” 

You: “Yeah, great, thanks.” 

Bob: “Can I get it on Amazon? Is it in bookstores?” 

You: “Sure.” 

Bob scratches head and smiles. “Okay.” 

You: “Great.” 

Bob: “Okay, then, thanks. Nice to meet you.” 

You: “You too.” 

Bob walks away and forgets the name of your book because Bob has a baby at home and hasn't slept in two years and can’t remember anything. Later, he gets home and he’s talking to his wife and says “Oh, man I met this great author, she was so nice! And her book sounded amazing!” 

Bob’s wife: “Really? What was it?” 

Bob: “Um….can’t remember the title, but it sounded good.” 

Bob’s wife: “Well who was the author?” 

Bob: “Can’t remember the name.” 

Bob’s wife: “Is it Jodi Picoult?” 

Bob: “No. Some author. Anyway, I’m in the middle of the latest James Patterson, I want to go read that.” 

Bob’s Wife “Okay.” (She thinks this is good news because then she won’t have to put out, and she’s exhausted from the baby to put out.)

So if you haven’t guessed already, here’s what you, the author should have done: 
  • Had business cards on hand, maybe even a small printed postcard for the book with the book’s cover 
  • Offered to take Bob’s name and email and then sign the book when he gets a copy
  • Said to him, “Yeah, it’s in local bookstores! In fact it’s in the [insert local bookstore here] – I know because I signed a pile of copies for them! And if you can’t find it or want it on your eReader, just do a search for my name at Amazon or B&N—here, let me write it down for you.” 
  • Thanked Bob, made sure he knew your name. 
  • Maybe even made a jokey joke about the book title. 

Does that seem like a lot of work? Maybe. But you’re selling books. That’s what you do. 


Monday, June 25, 2012

4 Query Resources

There is a ton--a ton!--of information out there on how to write a good query. Writers are lucky today! I thought I'd present a few of the more informative or helpful places I found. I hope these help someone! Of course, there are a ton of wonderful, well presented posts out there on writing queries--many of them written by agents. Do a Google search for "writing query letters." Here are just a few other resources that may help.

1. General Advice - stuff I've gleaned over the years
  • Keep the pitch portion of the query to 250 words.
  • Try writing the query in first person as your main character in order to inject your voice
  • Write the query about the first third of the book only
  • Don't wear pants while writing your query. "Pants" here is defined as restrictive bits of cloth that make you feel uncomfortable. Take those off! Wear happy, loose fitting pants and then tackle that query. (Fine, I made this one up. But I feel passionately about not wearing pants.)
2. A Few Query Collections

  • Ugliest Tattoos. Not technically a query site, but we all need a break now and then from query instruction--and staring at the screen with your mouth hanging open at these atrocious tattoos is a good diversion.

3. Query Deconstructions
  • Lauren Ruth is a Bookends agent and she does query critiques called Query Dice

4. Twitter Query Rejects or Accepts
The following agents do live query responses on Twitter.

and the following hashtags: #query and #10queriesin10tweets (typically done on Thursdays)

For a look at rejections from editors, follow @AngelaJames who does the popular Edit Report, which details the weekly reports from her editors and why they ended up rejecting.

If you have any to add let me know in the comments and I will update the post! And let me know if you wear pants!

Monday, June 11, 2012

Conferences...Women writers...wait. What?

I had a boring post all prepared about how I wished I could have been at last week's Book Expo America, or BEA, conference but then I re-read it before scheduling it, and fell asleep.

When I woke up, I rubbed the imprints of the letters P, O, L, and K off my cheek and decided that instead of asking you all which conferences you've been or not been to (thereby ensuring a mass click-away from the blog and zero comments), I should instead tell you what stuck in my mind last week as I watched all the BEA news.

Okay, I didn't watch a lot of BEA news. But I did hear about Jennifer Weiner's keynote speech at the BEA Blogger mini conference. In fact, I read it (Here's the text of her speech) AND I watched it (here's the You Tube video.) By the way, Jennifer Weiner is married to a lawyer who represents the husband of a lovely woman in my former writer's group; I'd like to say the girl and I really good friends but in fact we never did get together as promised--but the intent was there--anyway this connection obviously makes me Jennifer's BFF. Jen, as I like to call her in our BFF moments (shopping, pedicures, you know--actually I don't do shopping and pedicures with my BFFs, but sitting on my ass and gabbing, with a drinky drink in hand does feature highly), gave a great keynote and made many points, but one in particular stuck out more than any other. She said things are stacked against women writers when they publish. "Things" can include reviews, fair coverage and promotion in comparison with men and other genres, and really anything you want "things" to be if you're feeling feisty.

I did not know this. It makes sense, since so much else is stacked against women, like fair pay and maternity leave and respect and the right to birth control and the right not to have forced vaginal probe ultrasounds in Virginia. You know, "things."

Look, I'm not trying to sit here and say "poor women," but a few weeks ago on my RWA women's fiction loop, members of the group were outraged that women's fiction as a genre should be slagged off as being lesser fiction. I'm outraged, too, but I'm not surprised, I guess. Still, Jennifer's comments were a surprise because she said she knew what to expect, and it still surprised her.

I didn't want this post to be one that gives you tons of evidence for or against the case, but rather a discussion. If you're a female writer, have you experienced "things" -- and what are they? Have you, in fact, expected certain "things" or not expected them?

Monday, June 4, 2012

5 Etiquette Rules for Writer Friends

First, I just wanted to say: I'm giving away a copy of the yummy cookbook Home Baked Comfort by Kim Laidlaw over at my cooking blog, so check it out and enter a comment to win by June 8, 2012!

5 Etiquette Rules for Writer Friends

If you're an unpublished writer busy learning and honing your craft, via writing a lot, reading books on craft, and staying plugged into the writing and publishing social media scene, then you're in a good place when it comes time to presenting your work to the world. And if you're particularly keen, you've developed friendships or at least solid associations with other writers--especially published ones.

We've all heard dream stories of how an unpublished, unrepresented writer was given his or her big break from a friend who referred them to an agent or editor. Seems like half the debut stories in Writer's Digest got agents this way. And that's good. Referrals are gold. But there's definitely an etiquette to your relationships with pubbed writers.

Because let's face it: when you're unpublished, they've got something you need. So do make sure you're polite about it.

1. Be gracious for any help you get. This is a no-brainer, but plenty of people aren't gracious--especially when they get negative feedback. Big-time Author Friend didn't like your book, and tells you what's wrong with it? Thank them anyway. Do not throw a strop and get angry. They did you a favor and you forgot--forgot-- that they are in a place of knowledge about this stuff. If you get feedback and it's clear you have  a lot of work to do, do you want that author friend to give you advice or read your stuff in the future? If so, be professional. No further beseeching on your part is acceptable.Which leads me to #2...

2. Don't abuse their good will. If you have an author friend, they might be willing to read your query or first chapter or if you're super lucky, your manuscript. But you are not to abuse this privilege. If they review it and the comments aren't along the lines of ecstatic monkey joy, then you will not write a diatribe in response, asking for another look, berating the author for not understanding you. Nor will you vomit repeated drafts their way unless they are a very good friend indeed and they said you could.

3. Don't assume the author has time for you. Authors have reams of things to do, usually on a deadline. In addition to actually writing, they have to read loads of stuff, sometimes as part of their contract. They have to socialize online and they have to be nice when they don't want to, because authors are very public. When you ask for help and they give it to you, you've encroached on that time. Be respectful of it.

4. Don't assume every author friend will help you. You might think you're being polite by not asking for help from a published author friend. Here's you, just sitting there nicely with your hands folded in your lap, not asking for anything. The nerve of your author friend for not noticing your non-neediness and offering to help because you've been a good boy or girl!

The unpublished think authors are oracles of wisdom, but every published author was once an unpublished one. They don't have all the answers, especially not for your situation. If you have an author friend, you will not assume he or she will offer to help--and if they don't, it usually isn't anything to do with you.

5. If the author helps out and gives you feedback and it's terrible, it doesn't mean they're right. This isn't exactly etiquette, but the result is: not every published author has all the answers, and sometimes the feedback they give you just isn't quite right for you or your book. All the same, you'll weigh their opinion carefully and thank them for their time.

What do you think? Have you experienced any of the above on either side of the fence?

For more very good information on this topic, check out this post from Warrior Poet Blog called 5 undying myths about published writers and their eerie powers.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Online Writing Communities

 Last October, I heard about a new writing/publishing site called Bookish. Mysteriously, the website had nothing but a sign up button for when it launched. I got an auto-email saying Thanks for signing up! We look forward to our launch this fall!

The Bookish auto email in October 2011.

I was going through old emails this weekend and found that. Hmmm. Never heard anything more from them, certainly not a launch announcement. And what the heck is Bookish, anyway? I popped open my web browser, expecting to see a bustling, news-laden website that would reveal all. But I got was:

I'm not falling for that again!

Ummmmm.....Well, they changed their logo anyway.

It got me thinking about the publishing and writing websites that have stood the test of time (or, um, launch).

Red Room
Some time ago, my friend Meghan Ward had an interesting post about (or by?) the founder of Red Room. I confess I couldn't find the post--my apologies. I remember the founder talking about Red Room as a great portal for authors to sell books. I wondered in the comments how many people are using Red Room. I signed up for an account ages ago but stopped using it because I was never quite sure what it was. Plus, I blog here. So while I do get that it's a strong community, I couldn't quite see how it was better than a blog I could control the design of. I believe Red Room is successful, although how successful compared to a few years ago, I don't know.

For me, Goodreads is the best. I used to keep Excel-based logs of what I read, so having an automated, shared, and searchable (not to mention the awesome end-of-years stats!) list of what you've read and are reading is great. and my profile on Goodreads.

This is Amazon's answer to Goodreads and my only visibility on this website is that I've seen the app on people's blogs. But I've never used it. It bills itself as "a community-powered encyclopedia for book lovers." That sounds pretty good. Anyone use it? Let me know in the comments what you do with it.

I joined this years ago, too, and I confess have never been back. Again, it's a contained blogging community but to what end? Shewrites tends to be all about community, which is good. And it appears to offer webinars, which is also very good. I just don't use it.

This is obviously not an exhaustive list, and there's so many genres we could go into like teen writing, and sites like Authonomy. I guess I'm interested in the biggies, and what you all have consistently used over the years. Let me know in the comments and I'll update the list.

Monday, May 28, 2012

The best writing advice ever

I've been meaning to do this post for a really long time--it's about the best writing advice book I've ever read. Seriously, it changed how I look at plot. I'd been putting off the post because I wasn't sure what I wanted to say other than it's freaking fantastic. But  last week on Twitter I noticed Roni Loren had scored a guest post on the actual website for this book because she talks about it so much. She was the one who alerted me to it in the first place! And I knew it was time.

I'm talking about Save the Cat by Blake Snyder. This book is written for screenwriters but applies to novelists. Essentially, Blake gives us a logical way to look at the drama of a plot and keep your story on track. I don't do anything now without "beating it out"-- that's the lingo for what happens to you after you read this book.

The essence of Save the Cat is Snyder's Beat Sheet, which is 15 points along your story that keeps your "beats" in line. You can take a look at sample beat sheets here. But where they really start making sense is when you watch well-written movies. Well-written movies almost always follow the 15 beats to the T. (Or B, if you will.) Some of the best movies with good, solid beats are:
  • Star Wars
  • Beverly Hills Cop (thanks to commenter Handy Man Handy Woman!)
  • Ocean's Eleven (2001 version)
  • Die Hard
  • When Harry Met Sally (my  personal fav, and this is a great example)

You can take a look at beat sheets for a bunch of different movies at the Screenwriting Wiki, which is dedicated to using Snyder's beats for movies. You can also get Snyder's follow up book, Save the Cat at the Movies, which is well worth it.

One of the things Save the Cat does for you is help you keep going when you've hit sticking points, and it helps you climb out of plotting holes, too. It also (for me, anyway) ensures that you have an interesting story as opposed to good bits with saggy parts--or even slightly saggy parts.

After you read Save the Cat and start understanding how the 15 beats hold up the structure of a story, you'll start noticing the beats in every story you read. Or the lack of them in some cases, I'm sure.

One of the things I wanted to address with this post (you see why I avoided it? Already it's long because I knew I'd be gushing over the book in general!) is that in Snyder's 15 beats, the first four consist of:

1. Opening Image (really applies mostly to films but can easily adapt to the first few lines of a novel)
2. The set up
3. The theme
4. The catalyst

According to Snyder you've got 15-20 pages of set up before you get to the catalyst. And while that's a completely fine way to do it, in novels you often have the catalyst right in the opening chapter. It's also called the Inciting Incident (which author Janice Hardy wrote about for me last year here). You don't have to let 50 pages go by before you get to your catalyst/inciting incident. Sometimes you can do it right up front. But as Janice said in her post, you need to do it somewhere in the first 30-50 pages.

Snyder elaborates on this point in his follow up book, Save the Cat Strikes Back, which is equally wonderful as Save the Cat and Movies. (Get them all, just do it now.) He says some catalysts need what he calls a "double-bump." This is where the protagonist needs an extra shove to move forward. He used Star Wars as an example (original version/episode 4). Luke's catalyst for action is the message he sees from Princess Leia projecting out of R2-D2. She brings news of the plans and the rebel action. The two droids then lead Luke to Obi-Wan, who tells him his father was a Jedi Knight. All of this is great, and should propel Luke to leave Tatooine and join the Rebel Alliance, but it doesn't. He won't leave his aunt and uncle. So George Lucas uses the "double bump" of killing off Luke's aunt and uncle (nicely tied into the rebel thing; the Empire does the killing). Once Luke sees that his home and family is gone, NOW he's ready to act. He's been double-bumped.

Once you start understanding how the beats work and what they apply to, you'll notice them in every story you read.

Have you read Save the Cat? Has it worked for you? If you haven't read it, will you read it now?