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1. The Other Novel Questions

Many people ask themselves questions before and during the writing process. Common questions are:

  • Who is the Protagonist and what does he/she want?
  • Who is the Antagonist and what does he/she want?
  • What is the setting?
  • How much time will the story cover?
These are all essential questions, but there are others you might want to consider.

Why is this story important to me? Why is it important to my readers?

 This question helps you get to the heart of why you are writing it, and will help you decide whether the story is meaningful enough for you to spend months working on it. It might also help you find that elusive theme your English teachers always went on about.

Why am I uniquely qualified to write this story?

The purpose of this question is to help motivate you by discovering how your talents and experiences can make you feel awesome enough to put in the time and effort required.

Be careful with this question, though. Although it is an important question to ask, it is also an invitation for your inner critic to step in and try to convince you that you are not qualified at all. Don't let this happen.

What is my goal?

I wrote about this last week. You should understand what you hope to accomplish.

At the same time, I find it useful to think small. A novel is a big thing, a Big Deal. I can sometimes feel overwhelmed if I think about something as big as a book. It's easier for me mentally to think small. Even if my goal is to publish, if I think of what I'm writing not as a book, but as a story or a project, it is less daunting. Instead of writing a book, I'm writing a scene. Once I get through the scene, I can write another one. Then another.

Some of the common questions about audience, book length, genre, and so on fall under this question. Mainly, though, you just need to know what you want to accomplish and what constitutes success. Think about finishing a draft before you set a goal to write a best seller.

How am I challenging myself?

Maybe finishing a first draft is a big enough challenge for you, especially if you've never done it. If you have finished a story before, maybe your challenge is to write something more difficult that pushes your abilities to bigger limits. It doesn't have to be like that, though. Maybe the challenge is a new genre, a different time period, something out of your comfort zone. Maybe it's a daily writing goal. Or maybe it's just to get the thing written.

You know yourself and your limitations, so only you can really decide what your challenge should be.

#

By asking yourself these kinds of questions, or whatever questions work for you, you get to the heart of why you're writing and what you hope to accomplish. The purpose of the questions is to motivate you, to help you realize that nobody else can put these particular words together in the way you are about to, and that it's worth doing. They are to help blaze the trail you are about to walk down.


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2. WIFYR attendance options

Registration is now open for the Writing and Illustrating for Young Readers conference, or WIFYR. The week-long event occurs in Sandy, UT of the week of June 15-19.

This is a super writing conference and this year there are several options to fit varying budgets and time constraints. The prices listed below are the early-bird cost which will go up after March 15.

If you’ve only got one afternoon, make it Friday, June 19. Jennifer Nielsen (The False Prince series) delivers the keynote speech. For $18, you can join the book signing, sit in on an agent/editor panel, and can attend the end-of-conference party.

You can choose the afternoon sessions package that gets you in to all the craft presentations throughout the week, including Jennifer Nielsen’s keynote. It is going for $99..

If you’ve only got one day, you could do the mini-workshop package. These four-hour sessions take place in the morning with a different topic and instructor each day. These also list at $99 and will get you in that day’s afternoon session. You can do one or you can do them all. This is the schedule:
Monday, June 15 -  Guy Francis - illustration class
Tuesday, June 16 - Emily Wing Smith - memoir writing
Wednesday, June 17 - Sarah M Eden - YA romance writing
Thursday, June 18 - Matthew J. Kirby - mystery writing
Friday, June 19 - Cheri Pray Earl - writing a series

The heart of the conference is the hands-on, interactive morning workshops. In these sessions, participants spend the week critiquing each others’ works under the guidance of a published faculty member. Most classes are $495 with the boot camp class going for $695 and the full novel class running at $995. We’ll go into more detail next week with these classes, but if you want a quick peek now follow the link.

If you compare writing conferences, you see that you really get a lot of bang for the buck with WIFYR. James Dashner is giving back to the writing community by offering registration for five writers to attend. Applications for the James Dashener Scholarship for Writing and Illustrating for Young Readers end March 9th. There is also the Writing and Illustrating for Young Readers Fellowship Award which can help defray the cost for a lucky writer.


There are several ways to take advantage of this wonderful conference. Dubbed a mini-MFA (Master of Fine Arts) for a fraction of the cost, there are options to meet many writer’s budget and schedule.

(This article also posted at http://writetimeluck.blogspot.com)

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3. What is your goal?

What is your writing goal, and how does that affect your writing? What is your motivation?

In an old writing group years ago, there was a member who was very clear about his goal: to write something that made him rich. His motivation was clearly money. I often wonder if that motivation is why he never finished the project he was working on. There's nothing wrong with that goal, really. It's very rarely achieved by writers, but it is sometimes.

I don't think it would keep me going, though. I used to say my motivation, my goal, was to have a book on the shelf and maybe someday have somebody tell me it's their favorite book. But is that really a goal? First of all, the second part of that is completely out of my control, so it's not something I can purposely work toward. Publication is a more realistic goal, and it's something we're probably all working toward.

But why is that the goal, and is it really enough to keep us motivated?

These days, publication means different things. Is it enough to just want to have a book out there on the market? Maybe it is. A lot of people are publishing their own books to meet that goal, and many of us spend a lot of energy researching agents and publishers and submitting to them.

What I've come to realize is that the prospect of publishing a book with my name on it is not what keeps me writing. It's not the thing that keeps me churning away at the difficult process of writing multiple novels.

So if it's not money, and it's not recognition, what is that keeps me going? I think that's an age-old question. Why do artists make art? When you read the comments on blog posts that ask, "Why do you write?" you see several answers that people do it because they go nuts if they don't do it, or that there are characters in their heads who demand to tell their stories, and other similar responses.

If those are the reasons, what are the goals?

It seems to me that the ultimate goal is to tell the best story you can because you love the process, as painful as it can be sometimes. Publication is not really the goal. it's validation of the goal. Whether you publish traditionally and receive the feedback and validation that provides, or you self-publish and use reviews and comments as your validation, publication (hopefully) validates that you did your job well and that people like your work, and by extension, they like you.

But the real goal was to write something, to perform at the best of your ability. That's probably the reason why you spent so many hours writing, and even more hours revising, then a good chunk of time marketing. Maybe that explains all the hours you spent thinking and planning and rethinking and researching and worrying.

Writing is different than the other arts because of the amount of time it takes to write a novel. I'm only marginally familiar with other art forms, but I think a painting or a piece of music or almost any other art form short of being an architect for a cathedral that won't be finished before you die doesn't take anywhere near as long. I've noodled with a poem for weeks or a short story for months, but it's not the same thing as trying to write a good novel.

The thing is, I'm not even sure I'm right about this goal. I just know I keep plugging away, trying to get better with every effort, challenging myself to tackle increasingly more difficult stories, even though it often feels like I have a love/hate relationship with the process. I like knowing I'm doing the best work I can. I still want to publish somebody's favorite book, but I find myself being less motivated by that as I grow as a writer, If I knew I'd never be published, I'd still write.

Maybe there's not really a goal. Maybe there is no clear motivation. Maybe, like so many other artists, we're just loonies.

I'm OK with that.

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4. Going from an Idea to Writing

I got a new book idea a few weeks ago. My husband asked me to explain it to him the other night and it came out like, “Well I had this dream about this topic, and then I read a blog post about it, and then I thought, that could be a book…” And I realized that it didn’t sound like much a story idea at all, just a bunch of random thoughts. I tend to be the unorganized, pantsing type when it comes to writing books, so for someone to ask me about my plans when I’ve literally written nothing is to ask to hear a lot of mumbo-jumbo that makes no sense.
I have seen a pattern, though, in how I tend to go about starting a new book, taking it from a random, nonsensical idea to a book I’m actually writing. This is pretty how much how it goes:
1.       Something sparks an idea. I love this quote that explains perfectly how this happens:
“Writers and artists know that ethereal moment, when just one, fleeting something—a chill, an echo, the click of a lamp, a question—ignites the flame of an entire work that blazes suddenly into consciousness.” –Nadine C. Keels
I’ve never been able to force myself to come up with an idea, but it does help if I have in the back of my mind that I’m looking for ideas at all times. Then, I get into this mode where at any moment all kinds of random things have the potential to spark something in my head and turn into a story idea.
2.       I write down the gist of my idea right in the moment so I don’t forget it. Ideas come to me in weird, fleeting moments that sometimes feel surreal enough that they can be totally gone before I know it. I’ve gotten a few story ideas from dreams and I’m a dream-forgetter, so I have to get those on paper fast. Like I said earlier, at this point my ideas don’t make much sense, but even the act of writing often makes something stick in my mind so I don’t lose it in case it ends up being a good idea.
3.       I think about it for days, weeks, months. It just percolates. With the idea sitting in my head, everything starts to add to it. I start getting inspiration from everywhere; suddenly everything relates to the idea in my head. I might read up on it a little. I start to form characters and a storyline.
4.       I write down any scenes that come to me. I may start at what I think will be the beginning, but a lot of times it helps me if I don’t stress myself with the idea of writing a perfect first chapter right now. I just write whatever scenes are in my head, and start to get to know the characters.
5.       I throw stuff out. I start over several times usually, because once I start seeing things on the page it I realize what doesn’t work. It usually takes me a few tries to feel like I have a story I can work with. Like I said, I’m a pantser so I don’t really outline. I’ve tried, but it hurts me. But, I do feel like I need to have some sort of idea of what the story is going to be out, some kind of solid starting place before I can really plough on through the whole thing.

I’m currently in step three, and hoping to get through it faster than I have in the past. I’m still kind of steeped in editing the novel I just finished, but I think I’ll get to step four soon. In some ways, this is one of the most fun parts of writing a novel—the part where it’s all perfect and exciting in your head. I’m looking forward to it. 

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5. Conference season

Oh, to be in New York City right now. The annual SCBWI winter conference is in full swing and I would love to be there, too. Utah’s own James Dashner is giving the keynote on Sunday.

It is the kick off to the 2015 writing conference season. The SCBWI is the biggie, attracting a large national level

LTUE - Feb 12-14
Life, the Universe, and Everything. That about covers it. The conference moniker is borrowed from a Douglas Adams book with the same title. Running now for thirty years, LTUE bills itself as a “three-day academic symposium on all aspects of science fiction and fantasy.” Of course, it deals with “everything” so there’s bound to be something for most any writer. It meets at the Provo Marriott Hotel and Conference Center. For complete information, go to LTUE.net.

Writing for Charity - March 21
This one day event features presenters, many of whom are Utah authors, panel discussions and a chance to have your work discussed with an agent, either Ammi-Joan Paquette or Minju Chang. They have four options for registration, each with varying levels of exposure to the two agents in attendance. Oh, and your registration fees are charitable. Writers for Charity chooses different organizations to donate to with a goal of getting books into the hands of children. They’ll also meet in Provo and more information is available at WritingforCharity.blogspot.com.

LDStorymakers - May 15 & 16
Agents galore and more Utah writers presenting on various aspects of the craft. Martine Leavitt delivers the keynote. Prices vary depending on the degree of involvement you choose. This conference also happens in Provo and their site, LDStorymakers.com provides details. 

WIFYR - June 15-19
My personal favorite is Carol Lynch William’s Writing and Illustrating For Young Readers. Like the others, this conference offers agents and Utah authors, and pricing varies. This is a week-long conference and differs from the others in that writers in the morning workshops are more active participants. Listening to a lecturer tends to be a more passive role. The workshops are interactive and intense. Their purpose is to critique and improve your manuscript. The afternoons have presenters and Jennifer Nielsen is the keynote speaker. This conference meets in Sandy and the WIFYR.com website offers details.

It’s winter in NYC, balmy in SLC. I would love to do SCBWI’s conference one of these days. But why spend the money on airfare and lodging when we’ve got some excellent opportunities for writers right here in Utah.


(This article also posted at http://writetimeluck.blogspot.com)

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6. Historical fiction

There is sci-fi and fantasy, but I say why build a new world? Historical fiction offers our world, but in a different time. All the writer has to do is a little research.

Okay. A lot of research.

Stories are about people. There is something I find fascinating about the lives or people in this world, yet of another time. The only problem is that the term itself - historical fiction - is often met with outstretched forefingers in the sign of the cross from wild-eyed agents and editors. 

I find the genre fascinating and don’t understand it’s adverse connotation. Story is story and if you people them with intriguing characters and you place them in perilous situations, what does it matter if they are in a time long ago? Just to get around the negativity, I have to dress my stories up with a modern day time traveler in order to sneak in historical settings.

A while back, Susan Sherman contributed a post for Writer’s Digest entitled “Tackling Historical Fiction.”

Sherman starts her research in the map room of libraries. This is to get a good working knowledge of the geography of the story. The Internet can help in this regard, but the local university may offer more if the city library can’t provide.

Then she researches the big history, the major events going on at the time. That seems obvious. But it is in what she calls the “tiny history” that details emerge that bring the story to life. She asks herself a thousand questions to discover the minutiae of everyday life. She imagines arriving at one of her characters’s house and wonders, how she got there, in a cab a carriage or on horseback, if the road paved with cobblestones or is is mired in mud, if the house is lighted and if so by candle light or gas, if the place is in a good neighborhood or a slum. All these questions provides details of the time and place that give the story a sense of immediacy and reality.

Sherman warns that we must be careful not to let the research show and turn the whole thing into a history lesson info dump. The writer can’t show off the amount of research they’ve done. The trick is to provide enough description to flesh out the character and give life to the world, without burdening the reader with unnecessary details.

The nature of historical fiction, its limits of an earlier time, does allow the writer some advantages. Authors are supposed to create difficulties for their characters. In addition to the conflicts, barriers, and misunderstandings characters in any novel can face, there were no cell phones or Google to provide the quick fixes our modern day characters may employ. Using a smart phone to locate a Starbucks in a foreign part of town is much easier than sailing to the Far East when an unchartered American continent gets in your way.

Whether as a reader or a writer, there is pleasure in seeing real people dealing with day-to-day living in times long ago. 


(This article also posted at http://writetimeluck.blogspot.com)

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7. Finish your novel

Have you got a NaNoWriMo project mostly done and need a kick in the pants to complete it? Me, too. Brian A. Klems from the Writer’s Digest blog reposted an article that addresses that. Called “5 Things to Stop Doing (If You Really want to Finish Your Novel),” it hits on some of the things distressing me that may be affecting you.

The first is to quit with the excuses. Too busy, kids too demanding, the house needs cleaning, the muse is away, need to research more, Facebook is too accessible, don’t have ideas, too tired, my writing sucks, all the good stories have already been written, too stressed, not much money in it, I’ll write later, too distracted, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. Sure, life gets busy, at times more so than at others. But as Klems says, writing goals “don’t die on their own. We suffocate them.”

Stop trying. Just write. Sometimes we try too hard. The best thing to do is back off and don’t think about it so much.

Shut out the internal editor. Man, that thing can be demanding. I seem more able to keep him quiet during NaNoWriMo. For the other eleven months of the year, I’m stymied by the inner critic. Especially for a first draft, just slap it down and know that the self-editor, like a player on the sidelines saying, “Put me in, coach,” will be back in the game. 

Klems’ next tip is don’t overdose on caffeine. Maybe not a problem in Utah, so we’ll leave it at that. 

Lastly, stop thinking writing should be easier. It is what it is - sometimes a breeze, sometimes a gale. If you expect it to be work, then you’ll be delighted when it is not. 

So, go out and finish that novel.


(This article also posted at http://writetimeluck.blogspot.com)

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8. Slogging Through the Bog of Historical Research

If, like mine, your stories often require historical research, then you have no doubt run into some common problems:

  • How do you tear yourself away from the fascinating research and actually start writing?
  • What do you keep and what do you leave out?
  • How authentic do you need to be?
 How do you tear yourself away from the fascinating research and actually start writing?

This is a serious problem for me. I love doing research. One reason I choose to write about a particular period is that it fascinates me. I want to learn more about that time and what it would have been like to live then, and find stories that support my own quest to learn.

Writers find all kinds of ways to avoid writing, and none are more convenient that research. If I am researching, I am engaging in an important part of the writing process. So, I convince myself, as long as I am researching, I am spending my writing time wisely. After all, everything I learn will make my story more authentic, right? Well, not exactly. I mean, yeah, I guess, but the story will not be authentic if it is never written.

There's another  problem with research besides taking up all of the time and being addictive: Too much information can be paralyzing. I'm dealing with that now (again). I have so many interesting people and events that I want to include, that I feel absolutely have to be in my story, that I'm having troube writing. Sure, I've written about 40,000 words, but it's a mess. And it's hard to continue because I'm trying to figure out how to make it work with all this great material.

Obviously, something has to be done. I've been through this before with other novels and a couple short stories, but it doesn't make it any easier. I have to decide what is really important.

What do you keep, and what do you leave out?

The easy answer here is, keep only what really applies to the story and leave everything else out.

Only, of course, it's not really that easy. As you research, you make note of all these cool things that can enhance your story, so leaving any of that out will make the story weaker, or at least different than what you had planned. The last part of the previous sentence is actually true, but the first half likely isn't.

Stories are about characters, and your main story is about your main character. So you have to figure out what that character's real story is. Not the plot, but his growth or failure as a person. What is he trying to do? Who gets in his way? How does opposition and conflict affect him?

Once you've answered those questions, use the answers to determine which historical events and people actually contribute to that story. If your story is based around real people, and not fictional people in a past world, you can choose only stuff that was true to what that character faced. But even then, you have to choose. You can't include everything you know, just because it's true, or you'll have an unwieldly, messy story. You have to choose what really applies to the story, the real story about the character.

It's a little tougher if you're writing about fictional characters in a real time and place, because the history itself doesn't create limits to help guide you. But the same basic principle is true. Everything you include in the story needs to help tell the character's story. Adding color is OK, but that color has to mean something to your characters. And too much color might show your dazzling knowledge of the time and place, but it also distracts the readers from what is really important, and that's your character. (By the way, this applies equally well to fictional world building. Show off your world building skills, but make sure the story remains about your characters, not the world you created for them.)

You want to leave enough color to create a vivid impression of the time and place. After all, as I wrote in a previous post, your setting is a character too, and affects your character like any other fellow character would. But that doesn't mean you keep everything in. You want to create an authentic world for your people to move around in, but you don't want the world to overshadow the characters.

How authentic do you need to be?

We've all read historical books about a period we know something about and come away dissatisfied. No, 7th Century medieval knights did not wear 16th Century plate armor. No, Vikings did not storm huge stone castles when they started to invade Europe. Yes, they have earthquakes in California, but no, a strike/slip fault like most of the ones in California does not affect the ground the way a thrust fault does.

If you really care about the history in your story and are not simply creating an imaginary period background for readers who probably won't know the difference anyway (as is common in romances and medieval fantasies), you want to make sure that you are authentic enough that you don't undermine your story by including incorrect facts and unlikely scenarios for the period.

The good news is, really, the less you try to show off your knowledge, the less likely you are to offend the sensibilities of people who know more than you do or, as is very often the case, simply think they do when they are wrong.

You want the flavor of the time, including maybe some key events (as long as they affect your character's story) and a good sense of what people were thinking about in those days. You want enough to make it feel real. But you really don't need that much. Historians always want more, but readers want to feel like they spent time in the period while enjoying the character's story. I like my chili extremely spicy, but that doesn't mean I cook it that way for my family. They love chili, but their expectations are different than those of a chile-head.

Every bit of seasoning you include in your story needs to be authentic and contribute to the enhancement of the period's importance to your story. But a little seasoning goes a long way.

So does that mean all that research time was wasted? Not at all. The better you understand the period, the better you are able to mix the right blend of spices.

So what's a poor writer to do?

When it comes down to it, if you don't want to leave something out in your first draft, then include it. When you take it out later, some of the flavor will remain behind. Just know that your first draft will be especially messy. But they always are.

There will inevitably be places in your final draft where you look back and think that you wish you could have left that really cool scene in there, and somewhere in your mind you might actually believe the book is weaker without it. Chances are, though, that you'll realize that the story is better, flows better, without the intrusion of the coolest stuff you know.

Historical writers have an awful lot of darlings to kill.

The good news is, you know that scene you took out with the really interesting facts about that 3rd Century political assassination? That just might be your next book.




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9. Beta Readers

So, I’ve moved on to the beta readers stage with my novel. I’ve never gotten to this stage before. I’ve never had anyone read a completed novel of mine that wasn’t a friend or family member—aka someone who wasn’t subjective.
This time around, I asked on the Facebook page of the writers’ group I’m in if anyone was willing to read my finished manuscript, and I got three people who expressed a willingness. I had never met any of these three people before. One of them finished the whole thing in one night! She’s got to be one of those people who reads a book a day or something. She was so positive in her feedback. A second girl I sent it to hasn’t finished it yet, but also told me she was enjoying it so far.
I’m trying really hard not to get too excited here. I know my manuscript still needs a ton of work, but it’s so great to get positive feedback from people I don’t know. I know it’s not that they like me, but they actually like the story and characters I created on the page. This is my first taste of what it actually might be like to be an author, and it’s so exciting.
I know, it’s just two people. I’m trying to stay calm, I am. I need to make sure I’m still super open to inevitable criticism and emotionally ready to make all the edits that still need to be made.

And if anyone is willing to read and critique my full manuscript, let me know!

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10. Flaws

We’ve all got them. Your characters should have some, too.

Many craft experts agree. Writing characters with flaws makes them believable and real, more complex. Who is more interesting, Luke Skywalker or Han Solo?

If you buy into the notion, an invaluable tool to add to your library is Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi’s The Negative Traits Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Flaws. Ackerman and Puglisi spend about a third of the book rationalizing character flaws and the remainder examining more than a hundred specific flaws. You have the biggies like manipulative, evil, controlling, dishonest, and jealous. There are other more subtle flaws such as impulsive, pessimistic, verbose, and apathetic.

Flaws provide excellent fodder for building character arcs. These faults and weaknesses can not only block the main character from reaching her goal, but hinder her. Recognizing the flaw then overcoming it entails the MC’s inner journey.

As the title suggests, this is a writer’s guide. Ackerman and Puglisi address character flaws in a manner useable to authors. In addition to defining the flaw and listing associated behaviors, they suggest possible causes for the imperfection - backstory for your character that you the author to need to understand but does not necessarily have to be shared with the reader. They offer suggestions on what the MC needs to do to overcome her flaw and traits in supporting characters that may cause conflict. Examples of characters from literature and film illustrate each flaw.

Recently The Negative Traits Thesaurus was used to flesh out one of my characters. The guy has several things going against him. He is abrasive, aloof, disrespectful, and volatile. He is slight of stature and fears being perceived as feminine. After considering the alternatives, macho is the flaw that fits him best with his role in the story. Some associated behaviors of macho include, aggression, bullying, competitiveness, getting into fights, and using anger or rage to express uncomfortable emotions. Other story ideas came out by examining this flaw. Macho people are prone to proud belching and spitting. I like to give my characters defining behaviors to help distinguish them from others and there it is for this guy.

Jeff Gerke says, “a character who is ripe for an inner journey is a character who has something inside her that needs to be changed. She’s living out of balance with herself, even if she doesn’t realize it. And the universe is going to conspire to rectify her situation.” 

Give the hero the perfect imperfection and you have the makings of a character arc. The Negative Traits Thesaurus can help nail the flaw.


(This article also posted at http://writetimeluck.blogspot.com)

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11. Try, Try Again

So this week I sent out six new agent queries. I'll do more next week; it takes a lot of time to explore agents and pick those who you think will connect with your writing. I feel good about it, even though statistically speaking I likely won't end up with any of them as my agent. I am pretty sure I'm not the only one who gets frustrated by this merry-go-round of submissions and rejections. Why do we keep doing it?

I'll tell you why I keep doing it. I am not interested in self publishing. I have nothing against it, per se. It gains more and more credibility every year as a viable path. But I want to write. I don't want to negotiate contracts, pay for my books to be printed, market all by myself. I just want to write my books. So I keep doing it. (I will say that most of the self-pubbed books I've read have not been of the same caliber as traditionally pubbed books. This isn't to say it's not possible, but traditional publishers have teams of people who work on your book. It's bound to improve the quality of the thing. I should also add that I edit for self-publishing authors, and I think those who hire an editor end up with a much better book.)

I have several friends who were almost at the end of their proverbial ropes when they finally signed with an agent and sold one or more books to traditional publishers. Their stories lift my spirits when I want to give up.

Here are a few of things I've learned over my many long years of writing, submitting, being rejected, and trying again.

1. If the same work keeps getting rejected, maybe it's time to set it aside and work on something new. I know for a fact that each book I write is better than the last. And every time, I think this one is it, until it's not. Each one teaches me something I didn't understand before. So don't put all your eggs in that one basket.

2. I am confident that I am a good writer. Maybe even a great writer. I know this because I go to a lot of workshops, conferences, retreats, and critique groups with professionals, and they tell me this. Also because I've been practicing for a very long time. Also because I read by the ton, and I know what's out there. Also, because I have no ego left, so I can assess my own writing in a fairly unbiased way.

3. It's a good thing that some of the agents and editors I've submitted to have rejected me. As mentioned, I been in this rodeo quite a long time, and I've seen the big stall that can happen to a writer with an agent who isn't right for them. Inevitably, that partnership ends, and one has to start all over. As I have gotten to know some of the agents I once thought would be perfect for me, I cry happy tears that they didn't sign me.

4. Agents are just people. Very fallible people. Very nice people. Professional people. But there is nothing to be afraid of. I have given up the role of sweet little author who needs the help of an agent (if that ever was me), and I have started being completely myself when I query and submit. I tell people straight out what I want, what I'm willing to do, and what my vision for a particular book is. I am too old to tiptoe around, hoping my good behavior will get me in the door. You know that saying about well behaved women rarely making history? That.

5. Even when nothing happens, something is happening. I spent the last year hoping to nail down a particular agent. She asked for fulls of two manuscripts, read them, sent back copious editorial notes. I spent two months revising one manuscript per her notes, resubmitted at her request, and waited. For six months. Nothing. All my writing friends said to move on, which I am doing. But that was a good experience, because it gave me more confidence, revision notes to work with, and some good revisions came out of it.

6. Never, ever sit around and wait for that reply. Be working on new things and revising old things and researching and everything else. It gives me so much energy to be working on the next, new, shiny manuscript that I can forget there is ever one making the rounds out there. It keeps me from obsessing or worrying. It keeps me moving forward and writing better books.

I wish us all the best luck this year in achieving our writing and publishing dreams.




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12. The Mobile Author: Taking Scrivener on the Road

Many of you use Scrivener as your primary writing tool. Turns out, Scrivener works pretty well for the mobile author.

You can, of course, install it on a laptop and take that with you. But what if you want to travel light, or what if you think of a change you want to make and all you have with you is your phone or tablet? You can still edit your Scrivener files.

All you need is a portable device, an app that reads RTF files (most office suite apps do), and an account on a cloud storage site, such as Dropbox.

When you set up your project in Scrivener, set it up to save to a folder in Dropbox. This is a good idea anyway, even if you don't plan to use a tablet to write. If you save to Dropbox or a similar service, you do not have to worry about a sudden disk crash erasing your files. They are on the web. It also makes it easier to sync your files between your desktop and laptop computers, or work and home, or wherever you have Scrivener installed. But it's also nice if you have a smaller portable device.

To edit on your tablet, all you have to do is download the file from Dropbox and open it in the editor on your tablet. Be aware that the files won't have the nice names you set up. Scrivener stores its files as numbered rtf files, such as 18.rtf. Just edit your file, save it back to Dropbox, and next time you start Scrivener, your changes will be there. This works for your documents and your project notes.

Of course, it would be nice to have your full Scrivener set up on the tablet, but you can't do that yet, exactly. Unless you have a Surface or other device that can run Windows programs, and you have the Windows version of Scrivener. You can, however, use Google Remote Desktop (finally released for iOS just this week) to control your computer from you tablet. It's a little awkward and takes some getting used to, especially if you don't use a mouse, but it works. That's beyond the scope of this post, though.

The main thing is, you can easily edit your Scrivener files remotely. So if you are out and about and have the sudden urge to tweak a file, all you need is an Internet connection and the setup I described. It's kind of cool.

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13. Get your WIFYR on

First, I must confess a shameless partiality toward Carol Lynch William’s WIFYR conference. Pronounced, wiff-er or wife-er, it is coming in June. It’s time to get your WIFYR on.

The assistants met today to plan. It felt good to be back with a community of writers. That is what the conference is about, coming out of our solitary endeavors and sharing with like-minded others. No matter your level of skill or where you are along the spectrum, there are others cheering for you and helping you improve your writing. The draw is the the collegiality, the chance to mingle with other writers.

The WIFYR site is almost up. Technicals issues, you know how they go. The authors include: Dean Hughes,  Dave Farland, Kathi Appelt, Dan Wells, Julie Berry (whom I’m assisting for), Lisa Mangum, Jennifer Adams, Ann Cannon (whom I’ve assisted for previously and can attest is a kind heart and an entertaining writer. And of course, Carol.

You should consider joining WIFYR this year. It will do you and your writing good. All the local conferences - LTUE, LDStorymakers, League of Utah Writers - have a community of writers in common. It is inspiring to being in their midst. WIFYR offers five intensive days of it. The level of commitment varies with each writer depending on cost, time, and other commitments. There are less expensive options for just the afternoon sessions or one of the daily mini-workshops. But I say take a big bite of the whole thing. The morning workshops is where real writing takes place. Knowledgeable, published authors pour over your manuscript and offer suggestions. Ten or twelve of your new best friends, in a gentle and caring manner, look at each other’s stories try to make them all better it. Bang for buck, there is no better deal than this conference.

The most important reason to should consider WIFYR this year is you’ll love yourself for it. You’ll  grow as a writer. Your manuscript needs this make-over. 

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14. Choose-your-own-adventure tip

The virtues of plotting become more evident for me every day. Gone are the days of winging it and seeing where the story takes itself. Hours are no longer wasted writing in circles. Not just for the story’s big picture, but short scenes writes smoother with a bit of planning ahead. 

The sweet thing about it, even with carefully calculated scenes, surprises still pop up. There you are, typing along, fleshing out the scene as imagined when a fantastic Plan B presents itself and demands to be heard.

I wish I knew who to credit for this idea, but during the recent NaNoWriMo, someone suggested a way to take advantage of diversions in the intended story. When new ideas pop, they said to do a choose-your-own-adventure number on them. 

Remember those books a few years back? Right as the action of the story would heat up and a decision had to be made, the author would stop and say something like what should heroine do now. If she should go into the mine shaft, turn to page 49. If you want her to continue climbing the mountain, go to page 54. The story moved in various ways, depending on which choice the reader made. Elementary grade readers loved them. They were great read-aloud books. My students would vote to go to page 49, then we would try page 54.

(I wasn’t a writer back then, but would love to get my hands on one and see how the author carried the final storyline.)

The point is, when faced with a dilemma in our stories, we can explore various alternatives in a similar fashion. During NaNo, when time was a premium, I found a way to do that, all along adding to the word count and keeping the momentum of the writing going.

When a new idea came up, I would change my font color to red and write: Choose your own adventure and make myself a note explaining the idea. Then I would type CYOA1: heroine goes into mine shaft and finds the missing child. I would switch back to black font and write the scene in that direction. Once that possibility was exhausted, I would switch to red font, write CYOA2: heroine climbs mountain and finds the missing child up the trail, then switch back to black and write the scene from that perspective. 

Silly, I know. But it worked. The story continued to advance without a stoppage or the story skipping a beat. Of course, that is added effort during the revision phase. But at least there is more time now to explore those alternatives and see which serves the story best.

It’s still working. While stuck the other day on another story, I changed to red font and explored the options.

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15. New Year's non-Resolutions

I am not a New Year's Resolution type of person. I'm not much of a goal setter, either. Everyone says to make your goals precise and reachable, but when I've done this, I inevitably fail, and then feel like a failure. I don't think that's the point of setting goals, or making resolutions, so I gave up on that. Besides, I'm not a super organized person, so making a resolution in my mind often means I can't even remember it next month, Even if I write it down, I find that I easily forget it. And if I do manage to remember it, by the time I do, the goal has often been revised or circumstances have changed in such a way that the goal no longer even applies.

Here's an analogy from yoga class. Often, the yoga teacher will have each person silently set an intention for the class session that day as we let go of the rest of the world to focus on yoga for this one hour. Usually my intention is something along the lines of "I just want to make it through the class." While I love yoga, it does push my physical limits sometimes, especially when balance or strength are elements of the pose, so sometimes getting through it is all I can hope for.

I feel the same way about life sometimes. Just getting through the day ahead--or the week, month, etc.--is my best goal.

So, I don't do resolutions.

However, my friend and fellow writer, Joanna Marple, wrote this blog post the other day, and it really spoke to me. Instead of resolutions, she suggests we choose a word that we wish to be the focus and intention for the coming year. Hers is serendipity.

I can get behind this kind of thinking. I chose the word EXPAND. In all areas of my life--work, friends, writing, music, travel, cooking, all of it--I can focus on expanding my horizons, increasing the number of new experiences, looking at things in new ways. It makes me think of expanding my mind by reading, listening, and learning. Expanding my circle of people, especially writing people.

This isn't a goal or resolution I can fail at. I can expand my life in so many ways that every day provides opportunities. Maybe it's just a mindset or a mind game, but this feels so much more useful than resolution making. So I'm on it.

If you'd like to join in, feel free to comment with your word and what it means to you. Otherwise, just keep on writing, which is what I'm going to do.

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16. The Forgotten Character

When thinking about characters, we always think the protagonist and antagonist, love interests, sidekicks, and other people who play major or minor roles in our story. We seldom think of the forgotten character: setting.

We think about setting in other ways. We consider the place and time as part of the framework of our stories. But a good setting does more than provide a stage where the story takes place. A good setting affects the story in all the ways a character does by providing conflict, plot elements, and all the emotions that accompany a relationship.

People react to our surroundings in complex ways, just like we do our personal relationships. We feel differently about the town where we grew up than we do about the places where we live later. And those who moved around a lot, for example in a military family, are affected by the lack of a real home town as much as the lack of a long-term childhood best friend.

A story set in say, Chicago, is going to be different than the same story set in Miami. The main plot points may be identical, but the landscape, the attitudes, the priorities, and the weather are different. All of those differences affect the human characters in the story.

The same is true of time. San Franciscans reacted to their surrounding differently in years just before the 1906 earthquake and fires than they did during the dot com boom or at the height of the AIDS epidemic.

All of this holds true as well in fictional worlds. The hobbits of The Shire are not the same as the hobbits of Bree. They have different concerns and are affected by their environments in very different ways.

When setting your story, think about how the time and location affect your character. It's one thing to to mention landmarks and other elements that set up the location. Those are very important. But equally important, and maybe more important, are the ways your character interacts with the other influences of a location. Research (or create) the outer elements of the location, but also look at the inner workings. What do the people think about? How do local politics and trends affect the way people live? How does a city's history affect the attitudes of its current residents? How does your main character react to his surroundings? Is your character a local who shares the inner feelings spawned by the place, or an outsider who finds the town foreign and has to deal with the shock of a different culture, or a newcomer who wants to fit in but has to fight the conflicting ideals of where he is from and his new town?

Treat time the same way, and consider not only the timepoint of the actual story but the time when the human characters were raised. Consider generational differences in attitudes, speech, and ideals and the problems that arise when those differences conflict with the human character's sense of self and how he fits in with the world.

Where we are, and when, are among the most powerful influences that tug at as as real people. The same is true of the people in your fictional worlds. As a result, time and place affect the emotional stories of your human characters as well as the external plots.

Setting is more than the stage. It's a real, breathing, living character that pervades every aspect of your story.

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17. Revision tips

It’s been about a month now since NaNoWriMo. Perhaps it is time to drag out that November endeavor and see what can become of it.

A recent article by Allen Eskens addressed revision. In 3 Tips For a Better First Revision he says the first revision is probably the most important factor in sculpting your novel. One of his favorite quotes on the idea is by Shannon Hale who wrote: “I’m writing a first draft and reminding myself that I’m simply shoveling sand into a box so that later I can build castles.” Eskens says the first revision is the building of those sand castles. Though there are numerous tips to a successful rewrite, his three to make a novel better are: conflict check, transitions, and the “was” edit.

Conflict Check:
As Terry Pratchett says, “The first draft is just you telling yourself the story,” so it is centered on getting the main storyline established. Eskens says that Kurt Vonnegut once wrote that every character in a scene should want something, even if it’s only a drink of water. In his second pass, Eskens asks what does every character in each scene want, and what obstacles are standing in his or her way, trying to add suspense. Rarely does a first draft take advantage of all the opportunities for tension and conflict. They can be added in the revision.

Transitions:
Quite often in the first draft we may tend to jump abruptly from one plot point to the next. Eskens says transitions should be eloquent and have wait on their own, not just move the reader from one scene to the next. He compares reading a novel to kayaking a river, sometimes shooting through rapids, bound up in the excitement of the action. At other times, one floats peacefully, admiring the landscape. “The pace of a novel is the balance between those two competing forces (between plot and scene),” says Eskens. If your transition floats, maybe you can go off on tangents that deepens characters or enriches the scenes. If you’re shooting through the rapids, the transition will be shorter. 

The “Was” Edit:
I’m guilty of including passive language and probably nowhere as much as in my first drafts. Esken uses a word find function to look for instances when he’s used “was,” then tries to find a way to rewrite the sentence to make it stronger. “He was taller than me,” may be revised to say “he stood three inches taller than me.” Other times, “was” may work just fine, but at least the “was” edit forces one to examine their word choices.

If you’re ready to dust off an old first draft and start revising, incorporating these tips may be of use.

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18. It's Christmas Eve

It's Christmas Eve, and I wish each of a very Merry Christmas. May you have a wonderful holiday with your family, a day filled with love and happy memories of those who can no longer share the day with you.

And, if Christmas means extra time off work, may you find some good writing time!

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19. Now what?

It’s over. The annual November writing marathon is a thing of the past. We’re done. 

Almost, at least for me. 

I hit 50K words but I’m not yet done. It was more of a Na3/4NoWriMo thing for me, with a quarter more to go. The final few chapters are done. To muddle through the murky middle melancholy, I jumped ahead, knowing how it was to end, and wrote the ending. Then I doubled back, filling in the story with short summary chapters that helped march the story toward the end. Once the general direction had been established, I went back and expanded on the individual chapter summaries. I’ve still got about ten or so chapters to flesh out.

The question is what to do with it now, other than to finish it? Once it’s complete, then what? 

I suppose there are varying strategies. These imaginary characters have been a major part of my life for the last five weeks. They and their issues are on the brain and I’m very aware of what kind of things need to be resolved. I’m in a groove, the keyboard is tapping, the story is flowing and I’m not sure I want to let that go. Plus, I want to workshop it this summer at WIFYR and it’s not ready for that.

On the other hand, forgetting about the whole thing for a few months is not a bad option, either. Hide it away on a flash drive and let it stew in the subconscious and view it later with fresh eyes and a refreshed head.

I’ve ignored the story somewhat this week. I was steady with it and dedicated up through November 30. Once December hit, the urge to keep up with it wasn’t as strong, and other obligations have been ignored for a while. I’ve been more sociable with loved ones this last week. And reading. I didn’t get much of that done in November and have been enjoying that again. 

So, what is your strategy? Make December NaNoRevMo - National Novel Revision Month, or give yourself a break?


(This article also posted at http://writetimeluck.blogspot.com)

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20. Description is also Voice

By Julie Daines

I keep hearing people talk about descriptive narrative as though it's something different from internal dialogue. I suppose if you're writing some kind of literary fiction from an omniscient POV, it might be. But for the most part--especially in children's and YA fiction--it is the same thing.

Interiority and description are the same. It's all in the POV voice. It's all about what the POV character is thinking. Sometimes they're thinking about their feelings and motivations, sometimes they're thinking about what they're seeing/hearing etc.

All of it needs to be written from the mindset of the POV character.

Remember this poem by Wordsworth?

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;

This is good practice to think about description in your own writing. Imagine a huge field of daffodils. Now ask yourself, how would a lonely or depressed person see that field verses an angry person, a betrayed person, or a happy-go-lucky person. Then write the description through their eyes and in their voice.

It's easy to try too hard to write a snarky narrative voice, but then when it comes time for description, wax into an eloquent Dickensesque voice. 

It should be all the same voice. 

All writers struggle with this, so practice and always keep it in mind.

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21. Fried

During the month of November, I was a writing fool. For the last two weeks, there’s been a rebellion.

It was an exciting month, watching a story develop under my fingers on the keyboard. If I had a solid direction for where the story was going, I could put down 600-800 words per hour and could find three or more hours a day to write. The month ended before the story did, and after 50,000 words had been reached. So exciting was this story, I figured another week or two was all it would take to finish.

Then December hit. Admittedly, there were a few items around the house, neglected for thirty days, that needed attention. People included. Yet for some reason I seem to be fighting myself to get back into writing. It’s not writer’s block or anything. It is more like writer’s enough-is-enough, or writer’s take-a-break. 

It is worrisome to me, this lack of motivation. I had a coupe of stories in various stages and with NaNo, now there’s one more. I almost skipped the November writing marathon, just to keep moving on the other two projects. I even found a writing craft book on characterization last month that I became excited about. Now none of them holds my enthusiasm.

I think we writers need to back off every once in a while. I’m trying to give myself permission to let up and take a break, but it is hard.

On the other hand, Carol Lynch Williams talks about acting like a writer, and writers write. Thus to act like a writer, one should plant themselves down at a computer and plunk out words.

So easy to say. Sometimes so hard to do.


(This article also posted at http://writetimeluck.blogspot.com)

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22. Writers' Conferences

Writers' conferences are so valuable. Some of the best Utah Valley ones are coming up in the next several months.
I just finished registering for the LDS Storymakers conference that’s going to be in Provo in May. I entered the drawing for a manuscript consultation with an editor, kind of assuming there was no way I would get it since I never “win” anything. To my surprise, I found out this weekend that I did get lucky this time, and I need to have 10 pages of my newly-finished manuscript perfectly polished by the beginning of March so that an editor from a publishing company can look it over and critique it.
Ensue panic.
Probably I should do my best to have my whole manuscript polished by May just for the tiny chance this editor will ask to see it. This doesn’t help my panic.
But in the end, this will be great because it forces me to really get my MS edited and consult with the experts that are available to me and force down my pride and my fear and fix those dang things that need fixing.
The value of writers' conferences in general is often that they kick me back into gear. When I’m feeling myself in a lull or when I’m even a little bit ready to just give up, writers' conferences get me excited again. In this case, it’s even giving me a deadline to work for with my manuscript. That alone will be so helpful.

So, I’m excited. This writers' conference is already doing its thing. 

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23. What Makes Your Sidekick Interesting?

Recently, I've posted about how to make your protagonist and antagonist interesting. Today I'm going to write about a character who never gets as much attention as those two, the sidekick.

First of all, your story might have multiple sidekicks. Both the antagonist and the protagonist might have a sidekick, and they might even have a different sidekick in different scenes. I'm going to focus on the hero's sidekick, his bestie, but what I say applies just as much to other sidekicks.

Have you ever read a story where the sidekick is just an extension of the hero, a helper character who sees the world in much the same way as the protagonist? Of course you have. It happens a lot. But to write a sidekick that way is to rob a ton of potential from the story.

A sidekick, like the protagonist and the antagonist, is her own person. Like all people, she has her own objectives and perspectives. She might be helping the protagonist win the day, but she's doing it for her own reasons. Sure, a big part of it might be loyalty to her best friend, but that loyalty only goes so far. As a person with her own views and needs and wants, she does everything to further her own agenda. Remember, every character has an agenda, and those agendas create conflict.

Just because two characters are best friends and are helping each other doesn't mean they always agree. The best sidekicks are an additional source of conflict. Think of Frodo and Sam, two characters whose affection for each other is almost sickening. They both want to get to Mt. Doom at all costs. And yet, there's conflict between them. As Frodo sinks into ring-induced paranoia, he no longer trusts Sam, and this causes trouble and, more importantly, enhances the plot.

The same is true of Luke and Leia, Harriet and Sport, and many other characters. In fact, the sidekick often seems much like another antagonist.

The sidekick provides help and shows the protagonist other ways of thinking, but at the same time, the relationship is often strained by conflicting goals and differing views. In many stories, the protagonist and sidekick aren't even friends. They might not even like each other. They might be reluctantly traveling the same road.

Remember, stories depend on conflict. There shouldn't be anything in the story, including your hero's sidekick, that does not add more conflict and peril. There is probably no other character who gives you more opportunity to add emotion and heartbreak as the sidekick.

As the hero's life goes out of control, she needs to be steadied by her sidekick. But the sidekick has his own ideas, and is sometimes unable to offer the support. He might even oppose the hero's goals and actions. Best friends, siblings, and spouses all oppose each other sometimes.

One of the most important things to remember as you write is that every character is a person, and every person has his or her own story. That the stories intersect in the one you are telling doesn't mean their individual paths are any less distinct. This is true whether characters appear to ultimately be on the same side or not.

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24. Random, Possibly Helpful, Thoughts

One of the problems with regular blogging is that you sometimes feel like every single post should be breathtaking, new, insightful, and most of all exciting. But, truly, none of us has anything new or exciting to say. Maybe different ways to say the same thing. Or new-to-us insights into the same old material. Disclaimer: this is one of those mundane posts that may not have anything new to say, but perhaps it at least offers a new twist on the same old stuff.

Random Thought #1: Strategies for first draft writing come in all different sizes. Some like outlines, some prefer complete plot diagrams, some are pantsers (writing by the seat of your pants). I'm usually a pantser. I frequently know where I'm starting and where I'd like to end up, and maybe a few scenes in the middle, but beyond that, my first drafts are where I discover how I'm going to get from start to finish. I have a lot of fun with rough drafts, even though it's agonizing to create something out of nothing. Here's one thing I've discovered that helps me keep the momentum going--I stop writing before the scene or chapter is over. I send the character into the midst of the problem of the moment, build the tension, and then leave the character there while I go make dinner or whatever. A lot of my writing takes place in the synapses of my brain while I'm doing other stuff, so I let the character be in trouble for a day or two or three and when I come back to the writing, often the character has figured out a great maneuver or solution. I can write that scene, which moves me into the next one, and then I leave the character hanging off the edge of the cliff for a while again.

Random Thought #2: Things not to say to writers. Most of you reading this are writers, so if you'd like to cut and paste this section into an email to all your family and friends, you have my blessing.

  • "That's cute." No, cute isn't what I was going for. I don't do cute. So "cute" to me just means you're not getting what I'm writing. Or else you're illiterate and have no idea what you read. Or maybe you didn't really read it at all. Typically for me, the people who describe what I've written as cute are, in this order: 1) my mother, and 2) any of my mother's friends. So I don't show them my writing anymore. It is now my policy that anyone who calls my writing "cute" will never again have the privilege of reading it. 
  • "How's your great American novel coming?" I hate this for several reasons. First, it implies that I am ignorant of the publishing industry and I think my novel is the ONE and ONLY important piece of literature of my age. Second, it assumes that I have only one novel in me, ignoring the many others I have already written. Also, it suggests that I'm never really going to finish this thing (despite the fact that I have already completed others), because I'm not really working at it, nor do I really have any serious intent of writing professionally. 
  • "I like it." Okay, I know, we all like to hear this--once the thing is published and public. But until then, if I'm sharing my writing with you, it's because I want your feedback, your critique. When you have nothing useful to say, I know you aren't a helpful critiquer, which means, again, that I probably won't be sharing with you anymore. I need critique, by golly, not admiration. I'll call you when the book is for sale, since I know you'll "like it."
Random Thought #3: Why do others want characters to act consistently? People aren't consistent, are we? Nobody I know is consistent. Sure, someone might highly value honesty, say, but they sometimes fudge the truth or tell a "white lie," rationalizing it by saying it spares the feelings of others. I know some people who are definitely one persona when out in public and quite another when they're at home. I think the secret of writing characters who aren't consistent is to make sure the inconsistency doesn't appear just at the moment of highest tension or just jump up when it suits the situation. You have to build the character's inconsistency into the persona and voice of that character from the beginning of the book, so that when the moment comes for that inconsistency to rear its ugly head, it is not a surprise to the reader. Plus, most of us here are children's writers, and kids are constantly changing--sometimes for the better, but not always. So the characters in kid lit should be, I think, inconsistent too. It's a way for them to learn about themselves, see ways that the characters grow, and contemplate their own path. 

There you have it--all the wisdom floating around in my brain today. Well, I do have lots of other wisdom about all kinds of other things, but I don't think you want to here that right now. 

by Neysa CM Jensen
up in Boise, Idaho

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25. Merry Christmas

This bears repeating. A Canadian airlines, JetBlue, went out of their way to spread the joy of the season.


JetBlue did it again this year for a Dominican Republic community.



Merry Christmas to all and to all a good write.

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