Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Rules Are For Suckers!

Okay, the above statement is not exactly "true", but hopefully I can explain what I mean. I've been thinking about all the rules were told to follow as writers. Team Member Michael Winchell did a post on this earlier in the month, about all the things were told are bad  to do as writers and I have to say, while writing my first novel I threw all the rules out the window and not because I wanted to--I had to.

When we write a novel, the goal is to create an extraordinary world (realistic or fantasy), remarkable characters, and an unforgettable voice that draws readers in and keeps them wanting to know more, consequently turning every page of our novel until they get to the end and become very, very sad that our book is over and they have no more left to read. 

For the above reason, I threw caution to the wind, killed my first (and second) draft of Nightshade City, and started fresh, this time with my voice and mine alone--and of course my rules. I threw out the notion that prologues should be avoided (yes, my book has one), that all adverbs are evil, to never use the word suddenly (still use that when I feel the need), and that "said" should be the only word used to carry dialogue (there are a few more that work quite nicely), among other steadfast rules.

Once I did that, I freed myself of doubt...all the doubt first time novelists have about writing and what they should and should not do, and the thought of being laughed at by agents and editors, as they all stand around the proverbial water cooler, snickering about the greenhorn writer who was ridiculous enough to send them a novel with a prologue--oh how gauche!

But guess what? That never happened. Not one agent said you've broken so many rules you are permanently banned from writing. And no one said, "Listen you silly, tacky girl--don't quit the day job." Shortly after I chucked those rules and wrote Nightshade City, my way, I started getting several requests from agents for more, which resulted in representation and lucky for me publication.

I guess in a nutshell, what I'm trying to say is writing without rules is a sure way to bring your true voice to the paper. And I'm NOT saying the rules don't matter. For obvious reasons, they do. You just need to write your book on your terms, with no set rules hanging over your head, impeding your thought process. Once you've done that, you can tighten up your manuscript and at that point you can give much thought to the rules you do want to follow or that do make sense for your story, but at the same time keeping your unique and original voice.

Of note, opening a book with the weather is a rule I do follow (at least for now), but this rule was broken by English author Edward Bulwer-Lytton who wrote Paul Clifford. "It was a dark and stormy night..." Clearly even breaking this rule worked for him. :)

xoxo -- Hilary

Monday, June 27, 2011

Recycling Old Manuscripts, Rose-Family Style

Cut in half.

Rustle up some silly kids.

Spread out on the kitchen table.

Set up a chart.

Number your pages.

Create a Choose Your Own Adventure Story.

(Ours is called THE BLACK DOOM and includes a haunted castle with a parking lot, an eyeless lifeguard [who later gets olives as eyes], lots of gorillas, a pool full of raspberry Jello, and an annual haunted castle pizza party).



Friday, June 24, 2011

Writing with Taste

In L. M. Montgomery's Anne of the Island (pausing so all of us dedicated LMM fanscan collectively applaud), Phil says the following:

"The [Pickwick Papers] always make me hungry...There's so much good eating in it. The characters seem always to be reveling on ham and eggs and milk punch. I generally go on a cupboard rummage after reading Pickwick. The mere thought reminds me that I'm starving. Is there any tidbit in the pantry, Queen Anne?"

Y'all know exactly what she's talking about, don't you? Rowling's description of Honeydukes comes to mind. P.D. James mysteries inevitably make me want to go get a coffee (even though the caffeine puts me over the edge) and something with curry in it. Most epic fantasies end in me cooking beef stew with a loaf of crusty bread and a wedge of cheese. What scenes make you want to rummage through your cupboards and hunt up a tasty snack?

Including good eats in our writing is an easy (and enjoyable!) way to heighten the detail of a scene. Why not add a quick note about what your characters are eating when they sit down to discuss the latest gossip? Give her a bag of Doritos to munch while she's contemplating Big Problem in her life. Have her peel potatoes in the kitchen or sneak a taste of a just-made cake's frosting while she chats with her mom.

Just make sure you've gone grocery shopping before you work on these scenes. You don't want to go on a vigorous cupboard rummage and come up empty-handed. ;)

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Highlighters, coloured index cards & gel pens, oh my!

(Side note: who says "oh my" anymore? Not any young'uns, that's for sure. Oh and plus, this post is looong. So maybe... don't read it on your lunch break?)

I have a stationery fetish.

 In fact, I'm writing these very words on gorgeous paper that can only be defined as orchid (aka purple). I take any opportunity to use my rawksome old-fashioned writing utensils. Yeah, that's right, I actually write on paper. And this is the Millenium baby you're talking to! In my opinion, there's no better way to put your hand muscles to work than when outlining. Here's a colourful method to try. (And, since this post turned out to be way longer than I thought, I gave you subtitles! Yay!)

index cards + setting = highlighters + characters

Assign each setting in your novel an index card colour, say orange for school, blue for home, red for the water park, etc. Write down a summary sentence for each scene on its respective colour and lay them out in front of you. What do you see?

If there's a lot of orange, then you know you can take the time to develop your protag's school life more in-depth. Add some teacher names, describe a favourite (or hated) class, maybe even a little description about the barf-coloured bathrooms? My point is: if one setting is particularly important, make it interesting, make it reactive. Make it alive. Setting is a powerful element you can manipulate, and coloured index cards will help you do just that.

Now assign each of your secondary characters (basically, everyone except your main character) a highlighter colour. Mark every scene with the colours of the characters present and then take a gander. Just like with your settings, identify which secondary characters are most essential to the story and make them distinctive. Consider giving them some backstory, or conflict amongst themselves. An active setting is a treat, but active characters are a must.

gel pens + small stuffz = OMG I WANT THAT GLITTER PEN.

Now that you've got some of the big-picture stuff down, arm yourself with those gel pens -- oooh, is that a sparkly teal blue? Here, I'll trade you my hot pink for it. Pretty please? What? Keep going? Oh right, sorry. Got sidetracked. Ahem. *clears throat*

We're going hunting for adverbs, telling vs. showing and dialogue tags. Underline any adverbs you find in, say, purple, any passages full of telling where you could be showing in yellow, and dialogue tags in green.

Look over each purple mark and ask yourself if those adverbs really are necessary. Same with the dialogue tags -- can the conversation carry itself after a while? And for yellow passages, decide whether showing or telling would be more effective. Sometimes it is the latter, but those occasions must be judiciously identified.

conclusion. Because my high school English teacher always tells me I need one.

By now your hands are probably smeared with glitter and your floor might be littered with index cards. But hey, who ever said a creative mind is an organized one? ;)

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Writers Matthew MacNish and Paul Greci join PROJECT MAYHEM!

TEAM MAYHEM is excited to announce the addition of two more writers! Starting next month, Matthew MacNish and Paul Greci will be adding to the fun, evening out our boy vs girl numbers a bit, as the Team Mayhem boys were sick of getting beat-up by us girls!
Ha, ha!

About Matt:
Matthew MacNish is the father of two beautiful young ladies, three lazy cats and one adorable German Shepard. Together they live in the mountains of north Georgia amidst his endless collection of vinyl records, Lord of the Rings memorabilia, Star Wars figures, and books about swords. You can find him on his blog, Facebook, and Twitter.

About Paul:
Paul grew up in northern Indiana where he spent as much time as he could on the Lake Michigan shoreline. After high school Paul discovered mountains. He worked his way west and north, and after a five year lay-over in California, settled in Alaska, where he’s lived for the past twenty years. When he isn’t teaching English or writing YA and MG fiction or figuring out how to keep the moose out of his vegetable garden, Paul roams the mountains and paddles his kayak on the coastlines, watching bears catch salmon and sea otters cracking mussel shells. His middle grade novel, Stranded, a survival story set in the Alaska wilderness, is a finalist in the 2011 Pacific Northwest Writers Association’s annual contest. blog  twitter facebook

Please everyone, give our new guys a warm welcome! Follow their blogs and stalk them on twitter and facebook! I know they are both going to have great insights on  middle-grade writing and will hopefully be able to get us girls in-line! Okay, yeah...not likely on the getting us girls in-line part, but it sure sounded good!

xoxo -- Hilary

Monday, June 20, 2011

Harry Potter's World - Rowling's ability to create a huge cast of characters

While we're waiting to find out what the new J.K. Rowling Pottermore website is all about, a group of writers and I have been discussing the Harry Potter books as a fun way to look at writing techniques that work. Going back and rereading had made us aware Rowling’s skill is in her use of character descriptions to fix the characters’ images in the readers’ minds. She has created dozens and dozens of characters in the Harry Potter world. Depending on who and what you count as a character, there are over eighty in the first book alone.

Rowling introduces many characters with a visual clue to help us picture them. For example, in the first few pages Mr. Dursley is described as having had hardly any neck while Mrs. Dursley has twice the usual amount of neck, which Rowling writes is useful because Mrs. Dursley spends so much time spying on neighbors. Not only is it a funny description, but it’s such an unusual pick as a physical characteristic to describe. It makes the writing much more interested. I get bored if I read a character description that just describes hair color, for example, unless there is something about it that would make me remember.

Even in her descriptions of the more fantastical characters, Rowling doesn’t take the easy way out. She could have just described Dumbledore as a wizard with long hair and a long beard, but instead she adds in one tiny detail to make his appearance unique: his hair and his beard were both long enough to tuck into his belt. Hagrid is described as having wild hair, hands the size of trash can lids, and feet in boots so large they were like baby dolphins. I’ve never thought of the juxtaposition of boots and dolphins, so that was a great image for me. And one of her first mentions of Harry post-babyhood tells us about his round glasses held together with tape because they had been broken so many times from Dudley punching him in the nose. Not only is that a clear visual, it also tells us something about Harry’s life.

I’ve been trying to be more conscious of this type of description in my own writing. It doesn’t have to be just physical description. I tend to go more with aspects of personality. In WOLF STORM, the main character likes to do imitations of everyone from Elmo to Gregory Peck, and it’s his way of coping when he’s in an awkward situation. So what do you remember about the characters in the Harry Potter world? Do you use something similar in your writing?

~ Dee Garretson

Friday, June 17, 2011

Back is Best...Right?

My beautiful baby boy has been in the world for six and a half months and every time we buy some sort of sleep attire we’re attacked by the BACK IS BEST catch phrase. Hey, I understand the saying, so don’t feel like you have to explain it to me—my wife has read every article known to (wo)man about the reasons back is truly best for infants while sleeping. My mother, though (like many women of the “old guard”), laughs at this catch phrase and says, “Um…sure.” When I press her for her real thoughts, she tells me when I was a baby I slept on my back, stomach, side, and heck, even on my head sometimes. My mother also likes to explain that I ate all kinds of food when I was an infant, stuff that doctors say is “dangerous” in the present. My mother-in-law also talks about things she used to do that are now taboo. It gets you thinking: when did these practices become bad? And, are they really bad, or is it just trending presently?

That got me thinking about the literary world, and the things we are told are “bad.” Not are bad, but things we are told are bad. 

My son, A.J., getting ready to sleep (on his BACK).

Take, for example, prologues. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard the “no prologues, please” cry from agents and editors. "Start the book where it starts," they say. But is it really a no-no to have a prologue? Take a look at your favorite MG book—is there a prologue? A book I just finished and LOVED was the EMERALD ATLAS (highly, highly recommended). Great book…with a prologue. Another favorite, ARTEMIS FOWL, has an awesome prologue. The list is actually pretty long. Is this a “back is best” type thing? Not sure.

Another supposed no-no is front-loading your story with backstory. Cringing agents and editors alike ask to merely sprinkle this backstory throughout your story. But tell me…ever read a good MG book and, say, fifty pages in you’re like, “This is a ton of backstory, man”? Sure you have. Did it make those books bad? Probably not. There are plenty to choose from as examples, but to name a few: MANIAC MAGEE (prologue included), the aforementioned EMERALD ATLAS (again, prologue included), and HOLES. Is this a “back is best” type thing? Again, not sure.

Tell me, can you think of other things we’re told are bad in the literary world, but upon further inspection, may not be bad after all? Do tell.

* Oh, and by the way, my son always sleeps on his back, never his head. Don’t want him ending up like me (thanks, Mom).

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

How Not to Get an Agent

No one will deny it’s tough to get an agent. There are tons of aspiring authors out there, and a comparatively small number of agents. Demand greatly exceeds supply. And it doesn’t help that agents are extraordinarily busy people. It’s not uncommon for a manuscript or query letter to sit around for weeks, even months, before an agent gets around to looking at it. Is it any wonder that we writers sometimes feel a bit desperate to have our manuscripts seen?

Yes, writers sometimes resort to some rather extreme methods to get agents to take a look at their work. Here are a couple of bad stories I’ve heard:

An agent was staying at a hotel for a multi-day writers’ conference. One evening, rather late, there was a knock on his hotel room door. He answered it to find a woman standing in the hall, manuscript in hand, who proceeded to pitch her book to him. Curious as to how she knew which room he was in, he coaxed from her the story: she had convinced the front desk to give her his room number by calling them up, pretending to be a relative of his, and claiming she needed to speak with him immediately because there had been a dire family emergency. Once she had his room number, she was free to show up at his door.

Another agent was in the restroom at a writers’ conference when a hand suddenly came over the top of the stall door, holding a manuscript. That’s right—someone had followed her into the ladies’ room and attempted to give her their manuscript while she was on the toilet.

Oh dear. Please let such stories serve as a reminder—always strive to be professional in your dealings with agents. Going to extremes to get an agent to read your manuscript isn’t going to impress them. It’s going to amuse, annoy, vex, or creep them out. They might even call the police. At any rate, it’s sure to convince them that you are absolutely, positively not someone they want to work with. Writing is like any other profession—respectfulness, reasonableness, and common courtesy are much appreciated.

What are the worst stories you’ve heard when it comes to approaching agents?

-Dawn Lairamore

photo credit: Pink Sherbet Photography via photopin cc

Monday, June 13, 2011

Nice to Meet You, Mr/Ms Character

We've all met the writers who proudly proclaim they have a character who "just won't behave." Or the one in your crit group who talks about hearing her character's voices in her head. Whether you are smiling in sympathetic agreement (while hushing your obnoxious sidekick character's voice) or rolling your eyes at such imaginary play, don't skim to the end yet. As Rose pointed out a few weeks ago, I think all writers need to admit the benefit of creatively engaging with their characters.

I resonated with the Character Interview method Rose mentioned, because that's exactly what I did when I first started writing STORYBOUND in earnest. I googled "interview with characters" or something like that. I've since modified the original list, but I wish I could credit the original post where I found many of these suggestions. At any rate, I think it's a helpful starting point.




Physical Build:

Hair Color:

Eye Color:

Skin Color:

What happened on the day you were born? What was your birth like? Who was there? Who made up your family of origin? What was your relationship with your mother like? Your father? Siblings?

Tell me about your early years. Where did you go to school? Who were your friends? What was your most embarrassing moment? What did you do in your free time? What was your favorite subject? Your worst one?

Tell me about your first true love. Your first kiss. Anything else from the world of romance you're willing to share?

Tell me about any significant relationships in your life now.

Do you have any bad habits? Any distinguishing features? Recurring traits?

How do you make a living? How would you describe your socioeconomic status? Are you happy with it?
Do you wear any jewelry? What kind of clothes do you wear? How are they made? What is your favorite item of clothing?

Do you have any weapons or special skills? Anything only you can do? Any secrets?

Are you religious? Tell me about that.

What motivates you? What is the single most inspiring thing that's happened in your life. What makes you cry?

Are you facing any problems in your life right now? Why is that a problem? What is the one thing you'd like to know right now?

Obviously, all of these questions may or may not be applicable to your characters, but if you put your imagination to work, you may be surprised where your characters will take the conversation. If you like the idea, you can pour yourself some coffee, grab a cookie,a and pretend you're sharing an afternoon snack with the character in question. So even if you don't have fun with the interview, you'll at least make out with a tasty treat.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Are Writers Crazy??

By crazy I mean, do writers think on a whole different level than non-writers? I think absolutely! Who doesn’t evesdrop on conversations thinking it would make great material for their next book? Maybe a friend comes to you with a problem and instead of offering advice or a solution, you think about how you could use that in your book too. I think our minds are wired differently. We see things from a different perspective and sometimes it’s only other writers who can truly appreciate this.

An example. Last night me and the hubs went through the drive thru. The car in front of us, at the ordering menu opened up his car door. Without thinking and just observing, what is your immediate thought?

Me: Oh look, that guys is gonna rip off the menu or something.

Hubs: What are you talking about?

Me: I don’t know. He’s suspiciously doing something. Just wait for it.

Meanwhile, my mind is running through all these possible scenarios, some unrealistic, but I’m totally watching this guy with his car door wide open. I’m waiting for him to pounce. To do SOMETHING. Because I know there must be a movtive. Why else would he be doing this?

Hubs: Yeah, wait for it. He’s ordering.

Me: Ordering? What do you mean? Just watch. Something is about to happen. I KNOW it.

Hubs: The only thing that’s happening is he’s ordering his food.

Me: Ya, right. With his car door wide open?

Hubs: (rolls eyes) His window is broke. It doesn’t roll down.

Me: Oh.

But in my mind, I had a whole story figured out for this guy. And the fast food menu. And maybe he had vengeance for one of the workers inside. But the boring reality of it was he was hungry, his window was broke.

Imagine the kind of world we would live in if everyone had boring brains. We need writers with overactive imaginations and dramatic thinking skills. So tell me, who’s with me? Who’s crazy too?

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

In other words...

Actual listing in the TV section of the Marin Independent-Journal, Marin, CA 2002:

MOVIE "The Wizard of Oz": Transported to a surreal landscape, a young girl kills the first woman she meets, then teams up with three complete strangers to kill again.

I found this in All Things Oz, edited by Linda Sunshine, and at the same time it was cracking me up, it made me think.

It's a perfectly accurate summary of a story that we all know and love, while at the same time being the total opposite of what we understand that story to be.

I feel it could help as a great learning tool to everyone who is struggling to understand their stories, or trying to summarize their plots for queries, etc. Are you focusing on the angle that most suits your material?

—posted by Timothy Power

Monday, June 6, 2011

Review: TAKESHITA DEMONS, by Christy Burne

Publisher: Frances Lincoln Children's Books (UK)
Author: Christy Burne
Illustrator: Siku
Pub Date: 2010
Age Rage: 8 - 12

Summary from Publisher:
Miku Takeshita and her family have moved from Japan to live in the UK, but unfortunately the family's enemy demons have followed them… Miku knows she's in trouble when her new supply teacher turns out to be a Nukekubi - a bloodthirsty demon who can turn into a flying head and whose favourite snack is children. That night, in a raging snowstorm, Miku's little brother Kazu is kidnapped by the demons, and then it's up to Miku and her friend Cait to get him back. The girls break into their snow-locked school, confronting the dragon-like Woman of the Wet, and outwitting the faceless Nopera-bo. At last they come face to face with the Nukekubi itself - but will they be in time to save Kazu?

My Thoughts:
This book was a lightning fast read and will appeal to kids who like anything creepy or Manga. The line at the top of the cover, SOMETHING HAS FOLLOWED YOU HOME, to the last line of the book we'll keep you'll be pulled in. They great thing about this book, kids will learn from it! There is lots of history on the Japanese Yokai (demons) and even a little history and glossary in the back of the book, provided by Cristy Burne, the author. The stylish illustrations by Siku are sure to draw kids in, along with the text, which is straight forward and easy to understand, even with the wealth of Japanese mythology within.

This book is also about two girls who kick demon backside, which is awesome! So, this is also a great way to dispel the myth that girls need boys to protect them! Not in this book!

Given how quick this book reads, this is highly recommended for the reluctant reader set. It's something they can read in a few sittings and not get bored! They may even want to pick it up without you bugging them, though they might want to hug their teddy bear...just a little anyway.

Also, look for the sequel, Takeshita Demons, THE FILTH LICKER, available now, but only in the UK! 

Friday, June 3, 2011


Publicize Your Book (Updated)
I picked up a copy of Jacqueline Deval’s PUBLICIZE YOUR BOOK! while my novel was on submission. Deval’s book ended up being exactly what I needed at the time: an intentional way to think through my book. I spent a few days applying Deval’s suggestions to my novel, and once the book sold, I had a framework for the all-important Author Questionnaire, a key document used to market books.
With Jacqueline Deval’s permission, I’ve created an overview of a marketing plan.
"A marketing plan tells the publishing staff what's interesting, unusual, and special about you and your book and how you think the book can be promoted."
There is no one way to write a marketing plan. Here are some things Deval suggests you include:
Target Audience: Remember to think beyond your initial audience (the reader typical to your genre). Brainstorm a list to broaden your thinking about those who might find your book appealing.

Positioning Statement (or Pitch): “The positioning statement is one or two appealing sentences that make the listener highly curious about the book…[It]will become the basis of how everyone in your publishing house can talk about the book…Why should we care about the book? The positioning statement answers this question.”
The Background Story:A short background piece – a couple of paragraphs to a couple of pages long – about how and why you wrote the book.” This can include your publication journey, “any unusual events in the research and writing of the book or specific influences on your work.”
This is the story of your story. It’s a chance for publicists (and hopefully readers!) to talk about your book.

The Marketing Strategy and Campaign: “The marketing plan addresses how you or your publisher will reach your readership, and will probably require the most time and thought and continual refinement on your part. This section is really the heart of your campaign – the blueprint for how you will reach your target audience.”
Here’s a list of some of the things Deval suggests “to stimulate the marketing side of your brain”:
• “Can your book tie in with a local or national event?”
• Does your book have “a strong spiritual or social message” that might interest religious or community groups?
• If you have a niche readership, “what media vehicles reach that readership?”
• “Can you team up with other writers in your genre?”
• Does your book tie in to a holiday or anniversary? (For example, last year was the 200th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth. I remember several wonderful picture book and mid-grade titles released to correspond with President’s Day.)

• “Does your book tie into current social trends and concerns?

  • “Can you host a fund-raiser or other charity event” that connects to your topic?

Sales Handles and Media Angles: “Sales handles are the specific facts that prove the book’s appeal to its market and why the book will do well.”
“Sales convey what’s new and different about your book – your authority as the writer, the marketplace for your book’s topic, its advantages over the competition, and its marketability.”

Books That Compete or Compare With Yours (Comp Titles): “What books are similar to yours, in terms of shared audience or similar literary quality or subject matter?...Comparative titles…help your publicist frame a pitch for the book.”
Your in-house publicist might want to take your book on a different route than what you've planned. Maybe the only thing to come out of your marketing plan will be a way to answer the questions: "You're an author? So what do you write?" 
Whatever happens, the process is a wonderful way to re-learn your story, your audience, and your book's appeal.