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?

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Refreshingly Obvious

Last week, Mr. Sierra and I watched this movie called Devil. Understand that I never watch scary movies because I can't take the tension. I just hate the feeling. Anything slightly scary and I'm gone. I could barely sit through The Sixth Sense! That scene with the little ghost girl puking....I couldn't.

The only reason I consented to watch Devil was that I looked on the info for the film on the know, the little bit of summation when you press your Info button, and it said "A group of people are trapped in an elevator and the Devil is mysteriously amongst them."
Something bit her when the lights went out. BIT her. Gaah!
We'll have to save the discussion on kick-ass loglines for another day, but this one was particularly good. Or bad, depending. It was good for me in that it told me enough to not be scared. Maybe that's not what the writers wanted, but hey. Did they want me to watch or not? (It is all about me, isn't it?) Anyway, what this logline told me was that there would likely not be any scary things jumping out at you--I simply cannot abide jumping things. That movie Signs with Mel Gibson? Scared me poopless. Can't see aliens lurking! They could suddenly be popping out of your pantry! Gaahh!

So, Devil. One of the five is the devil. (The point of this post is seriously coming.) Thing is, it seems like nowadays you have to be sneaky and subtle to catch an audience off guard, to surprise them, to get beyond the cliches. Doesn't it? You have to find new, inventive ways to sneak up on readers/viewers so they don't see the next killing/creepy event coming. In an elevator, what are you going to do? The movie wasn't particularly good, it lacked a certain something I can't put my finger on (good acting? depth of characters? Subtly or complexity of the devil?), but it did one thing right: it made it really clear when the next scary thing was going to happen--instead of sneaking up on you, it told you. As a result, it was super scary. I will explain.

One by one, the people in the elevator get picked off. We know it's the devil doing it, but we don't know who he is yet (I totally guessed it early on though). The people in the elevator just think there's a psycho killer among them but they don't know who it is, either. Instead of being sneaky and pulling leg hairs off people, the devil makes the elevator lights go out every time he decides to knock off another person. So the elevator shakes, and the screen goes black. Then you know. You know something is happening, but you can't see it. It was brilliant! Giving us a visual cue made us on edge waiting for the next visual cue! Especially because we couldn't see it--yet the darkness was a sure sign of bad things! And for scaredy cats like me, I could leave the room every time the screen went black!

What do you think about this technique? What's the scariest scene or technique for showing the monster getting you that you've seen?

Monday, May 21, 2012

At Kew Gardens with the Queen

I never do this, but I have these awesome pictures I want to share with you. They were the basis of a scene I wrote in my completed manuscript. The scene involves two my characters visiting Kew Gardens in London. On the day of their visit, they see the Queen, who is there to "plant" a tree. (A tree is not planted unless she has flicked dirt in its direction.)

My mother was there a few years ago-- she goes to London a lot, and almost always visits Kew Gardens when she does. The Queen was planting there that day, and my mom took the following photos. In my novel, the Queen is wearing the same clothes as in these pictures. These photos all form the basis of my scene.

Impeccably dressed and ready to flick!

There's Prince Phillip here, too, in the red tie. "The air smells quite well out here," he might be saying.
The entourage was quite small, I thought. Shouldn't there be secret service planted in the trees or something?

My characters fall into a heap of giggles behind this bush.

Monday, May 14, 2012

The problem with having parents who are writers

Not my kid. But face was the same.
Over the weekend we were all driving somewhere* and my 5 year old whippersnapper was in the back looking through the best backseat entertainment ever for 5 year olds: a toy figurine catalog. He was oooing and ahhing over various dragon and knight stuff and every time he'd see something new he'd say "Oh man this is awesome!"  "Oooh, this is awesome!"  "Oh my God! This is awesome!"

*somewhere = shopping for Mommy. 

After about the third or fourth awesome, the thesaurus installed in my brain clicked into overdrive. "You know," I suggested, "Maybe it's not just awesome, but it's sensational."

He said nothing, but his face in the rear view mirror had him looking like he'd smelled one his baby brother's diaper bombs.

After a moment, he resumed his regular "awesome" programming.

"Oooh!" I interrupted. "It's radical!"

"Stop it, Mommy," he said.

"OMG! It's top notch! Really quite amazing!"

"Stop it."

"This is excellent!"

"Stop it."

"Amazing. Fabuloso. Tremendous!"

"Stop it, Mommy!"













I giggled and he fumed and I let all those synonyms sit with him as we passed the next few miles down the freeway in silence.

And then from the backseat, "Oh wow. This is awesome!"

You might think at this point that I would laugh indulgently and give in and let him have his awesomes, but you'd be thinking wrong. In fact you probably don't think that, because you are a writer too, so you understand that not only did I not give in, but I repeated the litany of very thoughtfully suggested alternatives to the pedestrian "awesome."

Because that's how we roll.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Author crushes

I love loads of authors, but I've come across one who just....well, I just love everything she writes. It's an official author crush. It was embarassing to admit it, but the signs are there:

  • You buy all the author's books -- all of them. Who cares what they're about.
  • You look up the author's webiste and then hang on every word.
  • You follow them on Twitter and/or Facebook.
  • You tweet to them as though they care who you are.
Note: There should be no stalking included in your activities. If you are stalking, then you need to sit down and have a little talk with yourself.

My author crush is Liza Palmer. She's my kind of funny. And her newest book, More Like Her, manages to use words like stalag and Cerberus, and references Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Feris Bueller's Day off, and Sixteen Candles. Like, I kind of love her. Plus? She lives in Pasadena, a city close to my heart.

And she's nice.

I'd like to say that at one time or another we've all had author crushes--that one author whose writing hits you in all the right ways, and whose characters speak to you. I'm sure all authors strive for that kind of connection. I've certainly seen author crushes from  fellow writers, but I always thought, God, get a grip. They're not writing for you. But they are. I was thinking about this when my cousin called this weekend to tell me she'd finished reading my manuscript and she couldn't put it down and she loved it.* I always write for her--she's my target audience. And if she told me she connected on a personal level with my character, I'd be thrilled.

*Yes, this is appropriate--nay, expected--from a relative, but she is in my inner beta reader circle and can be trusted. And even if she can't, it's still nice to hear good things from someone you love.

When you have an author crush, there must be a few possible outcomes:

  • The author finds out about it and is impressed and flattered and loves you back, and you become BFFs. Preferably, the author offers to read what you have and mentor you. (Obviously the mentoring offer is done tongue in cheek, because your manuscript is so good that you need no mentoring except a direct and enthusiastic referral to her agent, stat.)
  • The author ignores you.
  • The author is flattered. The end.
Do you have an author crush? I don't mean an author you really like, and not one whose entire list you've read, either. I'm talking you love the author, love their writing, and seriously admire them. You want to be friends with/be that author. Anyway, tell me. I'd like to know who!