Wednesday, April 23, 2014

12 Essential Rules to Live More Like a Zen Writer

“Simple is good.”
              -  Jim Henson

I am not a Zen monk. I am not posting this blog from a monastery perched atop a remote, cloud-
shrouded mountain. But I recently read an article that shared “12 Essential Rules to Live More Like a Zen Monk” and I thought that these rules translated well to the writing life.

Barefoot and breathing and listening to the sound of one hand clapping, I give you…

12 Essential Rules to Live More Like a Zen Monk Writer:

1. Write one project at a time. Find your main project and focus on it. It is easy to collect new ideas, to become infatuated with the potential new story. However, a dozen started projects is easily a dozen unfinished projects. For every project you are simultaneously working on, you are slowing down every other project you are trying to juggle. And not only that, each of these other projects takes creative energy and focus that could be better spent fueling your novel-in-progress. Write them down. Record those ideas. File them away and come back to them...but stay focused on one primary project. If you need a creative break, allow yourself a small side project, but keep it as that; a side project. 

2. Write it with determination and deliberation. Write like a shark. Keep moving forward. Be determined to finish that draft. Be deliberate in your actions, letting every word, every sentence, serve your story. Know your characters, believe in yourself, shrug off doubt, duct tape your internal editor and write your way to your goals.

3. Write it completely. DO NOT edit along the way. A well polished first 50 pages is just that...50 pages, not a book. Write through (not necessarily in linear fashion) to the end. Complete the draft, and then ride into the magic of revision on the backs of rainbow unicorns. And while you're writing your way through the entire draft, be completely IN each scene. Be in that moment...don't worry about the entire forest. Focus on that one tree you are hugging...and then move on to the next and do the same. Be IN that scene, be on THAT page and eventually you'll string together a story, page by page, scene by scene. Otherwise it gets pretty darn scary.

4. Do less. That's right. Say "No" to things. What's that? Nope, can't mow the lawn. Novel to write. Sister's wedding? No. Cricket tournament. No. Call of Duty 17 for the Xbox? Nope. Ok, occasionally you are allowed to take a break and get to do something with other humans...but stop watching television every night, or tricking yourself into feeling obligated to attend every social event. But it's National Canned Peaches Day next Wednesday and everyone is getting together at Sven Jorgenstein's to make Peach Syrup Margaritas!! Write your novel.

5. Put space between things. Make time to step away from your story. I believe that we have creative batteries and that they are rechargeable. But they need time to recharge. So maybe step away and take a nice walk (while talking to your character in your head. See multitasking?). Or throw a Frisbee with the kids. Or lie on the grass and watch the clouds. Or read a book. But hey! You just said no breaks! No, I said "Don't go to Sven Jorgenstein's for Peach Syrup Margaritas." At least these breaks recharge your creative batteries and don't end with you suffering a severe fructose syrup hangover.

6. Develop writing rituals. Establish routine. Are you a night writer? A morning writer? A coffee shop writer? Do you need to write barefoot or on a unicycle or on a typewriter or with Scandinavian Yodel Quartet music blasting? Find what works for you and make these your rituals. Own your process.

7. Designate time for distractions. Facebook, Twitter, checking emails, etc., etc....all those wonderful little interwebs distractions right at our fingertips. Don't tell yourself "no," tell yourself "not yet." Write for 50 minutes and then take 10 for social media. Wash, rinse and repeat. Use them as rewards.

8. Devote time to sitting. That's right: BIC (Butt In Chair). MAKE the time to write. Nobody is going to do it for you. Sure, it'd be easy to just plop down on the couch and make origami penguins. And yes, you're tired from sitting through classes or a day at work. Sure, there's laundry and the living room needs to be vacuumed. But you know what? Making origami penguins is hard...and those other things can wait. Maybe until tomorrow. Maybe for an hour. Excuses collect entirely too easily and the next thing you know a week, a month, a year has passed. And you're no further along in your novel.

9. Smile and serve your characters. This means knowing your characters. Follow them through the story. Listen to them. Trust them. Ask them what they want, all of them, from the protagonist to the secondary character in chapter eleven who surprises the heck out of you and reveals a side of your antagonist you never knew existed! What!? Yep. Serve your characters and they'll serve you.

10. Make research and revision become meditation. When it is time to embrace these processes, be mindful of where you are and what you are doing. Do not be afraid to make the tough cuts. Know your purpose in research and what your research goals are, lest you fall into the trap of becoming lost or encumbered. Be mindful and embrace these roles. They are vital pieces of the Zen writing process. 

11. Think about what is necessary. Does everything in your story serve a purpose? Put nothing in your story for its own sake; not for shock, not as a gimmick, not because it's cool. It all must move the story forward, it all must have a purpose. If not, it is your job to remove it. Be strong.

12. Write simply. Don't overcomplicate your story. Rita Williams-Garcia, author of P.S. Be Eleven, One Crazy Summer, et. al, once told me that I had "too many things in the lifeboat. Start throwing some of them overboard." It's easy to start adding in all kinds of ingredients to the soup, but then you get some kind of convoluted inedible jumbo. No. Keep it simple. Simple, straightforward...a story that your readers can follow. No, that they are eager and anxious to follow. Be a storyteller. Just like Jim Henson said up there at the beginning of this post: "Simple is good."

While I cannot promise you enlightenment, or the path to publication, I can offer you this:
"Listening is the first step and the last step." - Cantus Fraggle

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Heroes and Villains #3: The Evolution of an Antagonist by Dianne K. Salerni

Character Art by Rachel Gillespie
We all know a villain when we see one. Black cape, nefarious cackle, possibly a mustache or long, sharp fingernails. Villains generally have evil goals, so they’re easy to spot even when they're not dressed in standard villain attire. But what makes a character an antagonist?

By definition, an antagonist is a character who stands in the way of the protagonist’s goals. An antagonist doesn’t have to be evil or act with open hostility against the hero. Sometimes, the antagonist might not be what he or she appears to be, as is the case for Andrew Clements’s character Mrs. Granger, the teacher who tries to thwart Nick’s efforts to adopt a new word for pen in Frindle.

In my latest book, The Eighth Day, which releases today (Today! Today! Today!), I have a few villains (some minor, some major), but there's also an important antagonist who, like Mrs. Granger, is not what he seems to be: Riley Pendare.

In an email regarding his review of The Eighth Day on Middle Grade Mafioso, fellow Mayhemer Michael Gittel-Gilmartin said that he liked how I “made a couple of initially not likable characters into people that by the end we were rooting for completely.”

I’m guessing Riley was one of them, since I deliberately set him up to be disliked. The protagonist, Jax, lays it out bluntly on the first page:

Riley sucks.

Riley Pendare is the 18 year-old tattooed and motorcycle-riding stranger who showed up after Jax’s dad died, claiming to be his legal guardian. Riley whisks Jax away from the only family he has left and then proceeds to neglect him.

What Jax told the caseworker was that Riley had forgotten to pay the electric bill and almost missed the gas bill; that he only brought home as many groceries as he could carry on his motorcycle; that he could barely take care of himself and was in no way capable of taking care of Jax.
Even after Jax gets an introduction to Grunsday, the secret eighth day of the week, via his guardian, he stubbornly refuses to revise his opinion.

Just because they shared this weird Grunsday thing didn’t mean he liked Riley.

Change happens slowly – and only as Jax learns about Riley’s backstory. They have more in common than he realized, and there’s a reason (a sad one) for his guardian’s neglectfulness. Almost against his will, Jax starts seeing Riley as person instead of an obstacle …

“When did I start worrying about Riley?”

… and eventually as someone to be admired. By the climax, when Jax is steeling himself to do something brave and daring, he knows who he needs to model himself after.

Riley would do it, he told himself.

They say that a villain is always the hero of his own story. Likewise, antagonists might not really be blocking the way to the hero’s goal – but, rather, pointing out the right path to a better goal!

Monday, April 21, 2014

Tax Time for Writers

I think taxes have been on my mind lately since I filed mine a few weeks ago. (A whole 13 days early this year—woohoo!) Someone recently tried to convince me that as a writer, I could legitimately claim as a business expense any book I had purchased in the prior tax year. Yes, any book. It didn’t matter if it was directly related to research for a specific writing project or was actually a book on writing craft. I should claim any and all books, this person claimed, because in reading these books I am honing and sharpening and studying the art of writing and storytelling, even indirectly, and therefore they are valid expenses related to my writing. This person went on to say that I should consider claiming all the money I spent on movie tickets or plays throughout the year, (again, I’m studying story), as well as any DVDs I purchased. By this line of reasoning, I suppose my Netflix subscription fees for the year should be deductible as well. After all, I only ever rent and watch DVDs because I’m studying the art of storytelling in an effort to hone my writing skills, right?

Sure, right.

I guess I’m just not as comfortable claiming as wide a variety of expenses as some people. The general rule I’ve always gone by is that if I would have incurred the expense even if it wasn’t related to my writing, it’s not a valid deduction. Would I have seen all those movies and purchased all those books even if I wasn’t a writer? Probably. That makes them not a business expense in my mind.

I do claim books I purchase specifically to perform research for a writing project, author website maintenance expenses, fees and expenses and travel costs related to writers conferences and events, membership fees for writers’ organizations, and things I feel I can directly connect to my writing. I want to be fair and honest in claiming deductions, and I certainly don’t want to send up any red flags for an audit.

Do you have any tax tips for writers? What do you view as valid deductions?

I have this memory of someone once telling me she claimed a pedicure she got in anticipation of making an author appearance as a business expense. Lol—no comment on that one.

-Dawn Lairamore

photo credit: kenteegardin via photopin cc

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Researching Historicals - Down the Rabbit Hole

“One Breakfast Cape - $3.00” What is a breakfast cape, you may ask? I’m going to tell you if you didn’t ask, but first, I wanted to share something I’ve learned about historical research. Be warned-once you start down the path of research, you may disappear in a rabbit hole of discovery you don’t ever want to leave!

Even though I’ve always loved history, and took several history classes in college, I’d never done research at a history museum archives until recently, and it was more amazing than I ever imagined. I can’t recommend it enough for the fascinating bits of information you can find, which can add incredible detail to your stories. My trip wasn’t even related to a story, though it did spark a story idea. My daughter had to research a Civil War event for a history project, and because she’s not yet sixteen, this particular facility required that I stay with her and help. To give some background on what we found, her project was on a major exhibition in our city to raise money for the war. The archives had twelve boxes of material on the exhibit, from lists of items donated (in beautiful handwriting) to actual tickets people purchased. She had already found a book on the event, but seeing the items from the event gave life to it in a way the book did not.

It was easy enough to get copies of newspaper articles about the event, but we also found a newspaper in the archives that was only printed for the event by the people involved, and detailed the events of each day. It was quite a find, because the newspaper had never been scanned and made available anywhere else.

Here’s one of the tidbits from the paper:
“A gentleman requests us to apologize to the lady, whose dress he trod on and ripped off the skirt, last evening. He is diffident, and she appeared so very angry, he was afraid to express his regret. He hopes she did not break the China vase she dropped during the incident.”

I love this, because I can picture it vividly.

Here’s another:
“There was an incipient fire at Greenwood Hall on Monday evening, creating quite a sensation. The decorations of a chandelier caught fire, falling upon one of the refreshment tables and setting things thereon in a blaze. In a trice it was denuded of its sweet contents, the flames smothered under shawls and cloaks, (not the first time these articles have covered “hidden fires”), but soon order was restored, and the table resumed to its former state.”

With these two descriptions, a writer could add such detail to a story to bring the reader right into the event. I wouldn’t have been able to imagine these on my own.

So if you are writing a historical and have a chance to get hold of some primary source material, you may find some real treasures.

And the breakfast cape? It was one of the items donated. After some further research, we discovered it was a very common item of women’s clothing from the mid 19th century, usually knitted, and worn by ladies when at home (not to be confused with an opera cape.)

Happy research!

~ Dee Garretson

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

You got a book deal? Now What? Continued....

Do not lick your editor. Maybe your agent though....

I posted this a while back, but have been asked about this a lot, so here is my list of things to consider after you get your book deal, with some brand new additions. Please feel free to add anything I might have missed and you don't have to be published to contribute! This list is for all!

1. Don't be scared of working with your editor! You'll do fine! Generally, they are very nice people who will be indispensable to the success of your novel.

2. Be prepared to take what you consider the most special parts of your book...OUT!

3. Concerns? TALK TO YOUR AGENT! He/she knows the business and they will tell you if you're concerns are justified or you're freaking out for no reason. (I would fit into the freaking out for no reason category). If you don't have an agent, don't worry! Ask your friends. Check forums, author websites. The information is out there.

4. Don't be afraid to ask your publisher LOTS of questions-- if you don't ask, you won't get.

5. Your publisher may change your release date several times--this is totally normal, especially for a debut.

6. Know that you have NO control over the cover art...but be happy when your publisher does ask for your input and if they don't, have a nice piece of cake (preferably tiramisu) and tell yourself, they know what they're doing.

7. Keep in mind that Barnes & Noble, along with Indie stores, do NOT pick up every book, even from big publishers! There is nothing you can do if they decide not to carry your book in their brick and mortar stores, so don't worry about it--it does not mean your book won't be successful and this happens to authors all the time.

8. Don't fret if you only get a one book deal (becoming the norm these days), but be merry when they buy the sequel six months later--off a proposal no less! That means they like you, they really, really like you!

9. There are a lot of things out of your control in publishing--in fact--most things. Before giving yourself a facial tick, take a step back, inhale a deep solid breath, and realize no matter what's in store for you, you made did're a first-rate writer--YOU!

10. If you're publisher wants you to speak somewhere--DO IT! Suck it up and say yes. I was terrified the first few times, but it gets easier and you will get BETTER! Speaking engagements can be thrilling! They are a fantastic way to connect with readers and to land more speaking gigs, which can be very lucrative! :)

11. Remember QUALITY, not quantity. It's not a race! Put out good books and the deals with come!

12. Ask ALL your friends to help you with a blog tour and return the favor!!!

13. Walk into indie stores and introduce yourself! DO IT! They will be happy that you did. Don't be shy. Tell them you're an author. Give them an ARC! They may order your book and do a whole lot more. Indies are GREAT!

14. When you get your first royalties statement, don't freak out about returns! Even bestselling authors have returns--lots of them! It's a normal part of the business!

15. Sleep is for suckers.

16. Foreign rights are awesome! If at all possible, keep your foreign rights. Your agent can sell them literally all over the world and you sit back and watch it happen. Generally no work involved on your end, let alone seeing your book translated into another language with an amazing new cover. If you don't have an agent, check online to see how other indie authors sell their rights. There is tons of great information out there!

17. Getting published is no guarantee that it will happen again. In other words, you can be published, well published, and still not get play on your next manuscript. It happens a lot more than you'd think.

18. Projects get squashed! Yes, it happens all the time. I can't tell you how many times I've seen it happen. You get a deal, but 6 months down the road the publisher changes their mind, your editor leaves, the economy slumps, the publisher merges with another...there are millions of reasons. If this happens, DON'T FREAK! You got a deal once, you can do it again. Take a deep, deep breath, regroup, and move forward.

19. If you slack on your blogging, Facebook, and Twitter duties, don't sweat it. Use it as an occasional break from writing/editing and explain to your peeps you're underwater. They will understand.

20. Sleep is for suckers. Yes, this one gets two slots. :)

What would you add to this list?? :)