Friday, May 29, 2015

Keep On Keeping On, or: Top Ten Reasons to Continue Writing

I've been struggling lately, so I'm going to talk about it. I'm working on the third book in a historical romance series. The first book, Gambling on the Outlaw, will be released June 23, 2015 through Entangled Publishing. It should be available for preorder soon.

I wrote book two (still untitled because I suck at titles) and turned that in to my editor in February. I struggled with formulating a plot and writing that book, but I had six months to do it, and I diligently went to work on plotting in Month One, and started writing in Month Two. I completed the first draft in Month Four, edited it, sent it to betas, edited more, and turned it into the editor two weeks early.

Now I'm facing book three. I know who the heroine is. I know who the hero is. I have some general plot notes. And yet, I can't sit the fuck down and write the damn book.

I've had six months to write this book, as well. The deadline is August 31. This means I've already piddled away three of my six months.

At this point, I'm paralyzed by fear...fear of the deadline, fear that I can't inhabit the characters, fear that the words won't come, fear that it'll suck hard.

I keep telling myself that I haven't written anything yet because I've been so busy with everything else in my life, and as soon as that stuff's cleared up, I'll be free to write. But the truth is, I'm just fucking terrified.



Which brings me to the point of this whole rant: I know I'm not the only one who feels this when faced with writing a book. If, as authors, we're so discouraged, distressed, intimidated, by the job of writing...why do we even do it???

Here are my Top Ten Reasons to Continue Writing (in no particular order):

1. Because creating people and worlds is as close to magic as I'll ever get.

2. Because my brain won't shut up, so I may as well get something out of it.

3. Because it's illegal to kidnap people and make them act out the stories in my head (yes, you've seen versions of this as a meme...but it's TRUE).

4. Because it allows me to be someone else, somewhere else, doing something else, and exploring the things I'm afraid of.

5. Because the characters in my head beg me to tell their stories (even if I'm afraid I won't be able to tell them well).

6. Because it allows me to escape reality, which can sometimes be a prison.

7. Because (if I'm a lucky writer) I've signed a contract and I'm on deadline.

8. Because it was my first true love in life and even after I spurned it for years, it's always been there

9. Because everything around me every day is fresh storytelling material and I must use it!

10. Because it's as necessary to my life as breathing.


Okay, I feel a little better now. Reminding myself why I write helps motivate me to sit down and get it done.
 


When you're faced with the fear monster, why do you keep doing it?


~Margaret

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Drowning in Heroes and Abs

Which trends have started getting worn out?


Trust me, this is not just an excuse to post a few pictures of the Avengers! I  promise! However, I might as well get this over and done with. Boom:

There... I got that out my system.

Don't get me wrong. I'm a huge fan of all things Whedon and the dark brilliance of Marvel and flawed superheroes and the swarthy Avengers. I've seen all the films and I've enjoyed all too, including the most recent. However, at about 15 minutes in to the latest installment, when someone made another joke about Cap's good manners, I did find myself stifling a brief yawn! Inconceivable in the earlier films! The narrative did eventually pick me up and whisk me away on an adventure for which I thank it! Essentially though I realised that the Avengers series is going to have to introduce something different or snazzy to keep me hooked next time, because I'm slowly getting over the need to watch the Avengers. Again, I'll no doubt watch the next, but I'll certainly be less glued to the screen. All this because I've just watched so many of them and the novelty is wearing thin. I get easily bored when there's a glut of the same kind of story.

Which book trends are wearing thin?


Personally, and of course we will all differ on this as we've all drowned in different seas, I'm getting a little bored of dystopian fiction. The fact that I am typing this horrifies me, but it's true! I was raised on dystopia and wrote my thesis on it, too! However, it's true. I'm kind of over it. I was hooked on Orwell's '1984' and Atwood's 'The Handmaid's Tale', then I was intrigued by 'The Hunger Games' and then mildly amused with 'The Maze Runner' (1st book at least) and now a bit worn out with all of them. Whether the dystopian fiction is by a literary giant like Huxley or an edgy writer like Zamyatin or a more recent bestselling author like Suzanne Collins, they all serve a purpose and I would like to be able to appreciate them all! Dystopian worlds are an excellent setting for some truly intriguing stories. However, at the moment and to me at least, a controlled society with a rebellion are the literary version of donning a cape and flying off to save the world. That is to say, they've been overdone. Cinema has superheroes and TV has psychokillers in every town and BOOKS have creepy dictator states.

Rather than being all negative about a genre I love, I am pushing myself to read some different genres that I don't usually go for and I noticed some predictions for the next big trends in books.I read an article that told me that con-artists and the like would be the next big thing. Another blogger said that fairy-tale re-telling (despite already having been big of late) will have another boost.

However, the trend that I'd like to see in 2015 or 2016 (I'm patient -  I can wait) is some more hard sci-fi. I've really been enjoying all the fantasy about and the dystopian fiction and the fabulous supernatural deluge over the last 10 years, but now I'm ready for some sci-fi with a tighter connection to realistic consequences and scientific accuracy. Even if the science is quite imaginative, I think it'd be refreshing to see more detail on the social impact on some of these fabulous worlds.

So, here are 2 books I recommend to get someone into hard(er) sci-fi: 


1. "Red Mars" by Kim Stanley Robinson (1st of the Mars Trilogy)

This is an epic undertaking to read so I can't imagine how overwhelming it must've been to write. Robinson shows us multiple perspectives of the people of Mars tera-forming a new world for themselves. It is a balanced and interesting read on what could happen if we have to leave the Earth.



2. "The Quantum Thief" by Hannu Rejaniemi

This book can be hard work in places but it is dazzlingly worth it! You meet a master thief in a world where humans aren't exactly human anymore. Rejaniemi shows this world where memory can be toyed with and therefore not trusted and the social effects around it.


And, let's face it... if you haven't already, you need to read some Asimov!





Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Audiobooks and the Impatient Reader (aka me)

I don't know about you, but I'm quite fond of audiobooks, particularly since they now come downloadable to one's favourite electronic device via the internet, rather than in boxes of countless CDs or, for those of you who remember, actual tapes. Those things always seemed to conspire against me by hiding the most important part somewhere so that I'd end up buying the book anyway (I have the sneaking suspicion that the cause for the cd/tapes disappearance is somehow related to the One Missing Sock phenomenon). These days (thankfully) it's hard to lose parts of your audiobook if it's right there on your phone or what have you. 

But I digress. 

So, I've told you I'm quite fond of audiobooks, particularly for long car journeys, boring waits for appointments, long, solitary walks and even during my runs. The problem is that some books are rather exiting, and it turns out that I have no patience WHAT SO EVER.

My most recent audiobook favourite is The Lion of Senet by Jennifer Fallon. It's an older book,  a fantasy of the political intrigue kind (no real magic). Brilliant book, the first of a trilogy, and so engrossing that about halfway through I had to buy the ebook and finish it RIGHT AWAY.  

The problem, you see, is that I read somewhat faster than the presenters of audiobooks are capable of telling the story. I've always been a fast reader, easily finishing exiting books in a single day (well, if they're not too long, anyway), and I've been known to read late into the night to find out WTF happens to the hero/heroine...(way too late, in fact...)...

In and of itself this is not a problem. Right? Right.

BUT.... well.

I've never done a course on speed reading (and yes, there is apparently such a thing), but it's through my troubles with audiobooks that I figured out the way I read so fast:

I skip things.

And by that I don't just mean that (GASP!!!) I sometimes flip to the end of a book to see what the last page says (SACRILEGE!!). I skip words and sentences and let my mind fill in the blanks. I'll consciously read, say, (and I'm guessing here) every 6th, 7th, 10th word, and just sort of register the rest of them.

I think.

Which explains the problem of ebooks... you can't skip ahead (well, not easily, anyway), and if you make it play faster you get Mickey Mouse voices. *grumbles*

It's frustrating!

So here's my point, or rather question, for the day (and yes, I have one):

What type of reader are you, and, if you're a writer, what type of reader do you think would enjoy your book most?

There's all sorts of readers out there, and I'm in no way saying that one way is better or more legitimate than another (where would be the fun in that?). Some people like to savour every word and ponder sentences, others drop into the flow of things and can't stop without getting to the heart of the book. Some skip ahead like me, and some would never even dream of looking at the last few pages ahead of time.

Do you think there's a certain type of book that invites (or seduces?) the reader to hurry forward in their nail-biting exitement to figure out who it was, and others that invite the reader to linger? Is it a genre question?

Let me know what you think!

I promise next time I'll tell you all about that One Missing Sock Phenomenon. : )





Monday, May 25, 2015

Writing and Editing Advice from the Greats


The amazing Margaret Madigan and I recently finished a first draft of a novel we're writing together. I love the characters, and the story line. Unfortunately, I don't love editing, and I'm guessing that I'm not alone.

The beautiful feeling of "I'm finally finished" gives way to the depression that comes when you review the writing. The "I suck" blues set in.

That's when I remind myself that "the first draft of everything is shit." Ernest Hemingway said so, after all.

If that doesn't make me feel better, I remember another of Hemingway's little maxims: "Write drunk, edit sober." Sadly, sober editing doesn't make me feel any better, so I chuck Hemingway out and look for a great writer whose advice I might like better.

Terry Pratchett reminds me to “Let grammar, punctuation, and spelling into your life! Even the most energetic and wonderful mess has to be turned into sentences.” 

Apparently no one is about to let me off the editing hook. Even Joyce Carol Oates has something to say about my editing. "The first sentence can't be written, until the final sentence is written."

Fine. I give up. I'm off to edit. 

Friday, May 22, 2015

Make Your Manuscript Stand Out: Tips for Better Beginnings




No matter how interesting its premise, or how skillful the use of language, getting a literary agent to notice your manuscript in the first place, depends on how compelling is its opening. A novel's beginning is one of the most difficult writing feats to pull off well. I say this because the beginning has to flex more narrative muscles than other parts of the novel. In a short amount of space, it sets up events of the story, introduces characters, situates the reader, and immerses him deeply enough to  keep him turning the page. From the many manuscripts I've read over the past couple of years, I put together some tips on writing a better beginning for your novel.



Establish story goals and stakes clearly and promptly. Does your reader know what to expect from your beginning? If not, it needs to be revised so that it clearly shows what stands to be gained if your protagonist succeeds and what would be lost should she fail. These stakes need to be worthy of the reader’s investment. The higher the stakes, the more a reader will care about seeing the protagonist succeed. To avoid melodrama and help the reader understand how close or far the protagonist is from reaching her goals, both external and internal stakes need to be defined with concrete language and specific imagery. This should be revealed on page one, preferably within the first two paragraphs. If not, then they should be revealed no later than the second chapter. Bear in mind, the longer you wait, the greater the risk of losing your reader.




Begin in media res, or in the middle of the action. A story with a dramatic opening is an almost guaranteed hook.  The reader is brought into the story in the middle of a scene with characters in movement or taking action. This scene should carry meaning throughout the rest of the novel. It can be an inciting incident that creates the story’s conflict. It can be where the character changes direction in pursuit of the story goal. It can be a scene that exposes old wounds. By showing (external) conflict in action, the protagonist’s inner goals and struggles can be revealed. It is a way to effectively introduce the story problem and plot while hitting the ground running. The aim is to lay the foundation of the story’s forthcoming crisis, so make sure that this scene does not overshadow the rest of the novel.


Begin with a hook. A narrative hook is a powerful way to begin and the quickest way to pull a reader into a story.  It reveals something of significance that is related to the central conflict, theme or the protagonist’s desires. Effective narrative hooks are outside of narrative time and place. They reflect the style and voice of the piece. They can identify a turning point and highlight larger life themes such as love, hate, birth and death. Ideally, the hook hints at the character’s struggle or need and engages the reader on an emotional level. A well-written hook is layered with characterization, story conflict, theme, or something from the story that is tantalizing, raising questions and suspense.





Immediately orient place and time. Within the first paragraph, make sure to orient the reader to the story’s time and place. A scene that happens nowhere will have an affect of not having happened at all. Failing to establish a sense of where and when a story takes place will leave readers bored or confused. Narrative time and concrete setting help a reader to more fully engage in the story and invest in its characters. While time frames the protagonist’s life in a larger context, it also provides perspective to the story’s events as they unfold. Setting then grounds the story in a particular place at a particular moment of the character's life. 




The importance of a novel’s opening should not be underestimated.  This is not to say that sustaining the tension and energy level of your story through to the end is just as vital. But a beginning that hooks,  has high stakes, situates the story's time and place and hits the ground running gives your manuscript a competitive edge. And that might just be enough to make it stand out among the thousands of other manuscripts that are competing for a literary agent's attention. 



Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Get Moving!




After reading Bree Despain’s post Beating Deadlines with Healthy Writing Habits on Publishing Crawl and her follow-up post Beating Deadlines with Healthy Writing Habits Part 2: Write Happy! on Janice Hardy’s Fiction University, I was reminded how terribly unhealthy being a writer can be. Food choices, mental and emotional wellbeing, posture and physical fitness all play a role in keeping our writing inspired and our bodies healthy. But this problem isn’t just limited to writers. Anyone sitting at a desk for long periods of time and subjected to stress is at risk (I realize this might include a lot of people ;).

So what are we to do? Bree’s lifestyle choices are a great start! But in case you’re interested or looking for more nifty tidbits (unabashed and shameless self-promotion plug coming up :D) in my book Life: Living in Fulfillment Every Day there are a lot of great tips and techniques to help us achieve a greater sense of wellbeing by upping the happiness factor and decreasing our stress.  By choosing a creative path such as writing, by following our passion and dreams, we’re already well on our way to a fulfilling life, but it’s essential to cut the negative self-talk, manage expectations, and foster balance.

Very zen-like and balanced.
But that’s not all. Once we get our mind psyched and in to the game, we also have to achieve a symbiotic relationship with our wonderful, luscious bodies.

I go to the gym three times a week. I lift weights for an hour then swim my cardio for thirty minutes. I do this Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings. I teach yoga Monday and Wednesday evenings and play either floor hockey (fall/winter) or baseball and volleyball (spring/summer) on Tuesday or Thursday evenings. The rest of the time, I write, run errands, nap, catch up on social media, look after my children, manage a household … you know, life stuff. One might consider me active.
Apparently not.
Here’s an article that might just blow you away and make you reconsider your lifestyle choices.
It said what?
Here’s a wee excerpt:
“How bad is sitting?
Growing evidence suggests that inactivity is a cause of obesity, insulin resistance, dyslipidemia, type 2 diabetes, hypertension and other metabolic diseases. This is the case even for those who meet general exercise guidelines, meaning exercising for an hour 3-5 times per week may not offset the negative health effects of being sedentary the rest of the day. In addition, sitting or being sedentary appears to still cause these issues when individuals follow a good nutrition plan.
Think of exercise as what you do for an hour to optimize your health. Movement is what you do throughout the day just to maintain basic metabolic health. The key is that it must be done daily.”

Damn.

Bad sitting. Bad.
Here I was thinking I was doing everything right, but apart from those very active ‘moments,’ I’m pretty sedentary. I sneak in as much writing time as I can. Usually Tuesdays and Thursdays are spent sitting at my chair from 9:00am – 9:00pm with breaks for water (both intake and outtake ;) and food scattered throughout. Saturdays and Sundays I’m usually wiped out and enjoy hanging around with the family, mostly sitting or reclining.


Ah, the weekend!
The Core3 article outlines a goal of 10,000 steps a day. A DAY! Even after two hours at the gym I’m not even close to hitting that target!

So, what’s a girl to do?
Grab the leash, enlist the dog, and get moving.

My Razz.
Walking. Often. For as little as fifteen minutes every hour or so helps knock down that daunting task to more manageable levels. It requires motivation, sure. Effort, absolutely. But, I’m not going to let my dreams of writing crash and burn because I couldn’t get up off the chair and move a little more every day. In order to do what we love, for as long as we can, we need to be healthy—body, mind, and soul.

So, what do you think? Are you ready to join me?

In gratitude,
Marissa xo

Monday, May 18, 2015

Furthering Your First Pages

by Charlotte Levine Gruber

Photo by Stephen Poff 

We all want the magic ingredient that keeps readers turning pages — whether the reader is a agent, an editor, or a fan, what holds their interest? 

As a writer I’ve gotten lots of advice how to begin, and how not to begin my story. 
  • Never have a prologue. 
  • Start with action. Or don't start with action—why should readers care if they don’t know the characters?
  • Don’t start with a character waking up, talking on the phone or getting an email. 
  • Put your main character on page one. 

Weeding through such conflicting advice is challenging, and ultimately, only you know what works best for your story. But lets face it. We have to start somewhere. 

Do you need a prologue? Most often, the answer is no. But in certain instances, a prologue can be an effective device.

A prologue can provide the story question right up front. It may relate to a scene near the end of the story, and the story itself then shows what led up to this moment. This enables you to introduce your characters in a more leisurely fashion, and your reader's experience with 'meeting' them will be enhanced by foreshadowing of what is to come. Marg McAlister has an excellent example of this type of prologue on her blog. 

A prologue can be used to introduce a certain character's viewpoint on one occasion only. The rest of the book may be told from just one other viewpoint, or from several different viewpoint characters that are in some way removed from the one you've used in the prologue. The prologue can bypass the danger of viewpoint violation. 

J.K. Rowling’s first book, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, is told in a close 3rd person POV (Harry’s), but her first chapter is quite different, told when Harry is a baby. This chapter switches between omniscient and 3rd person POVs. Rowling may have considered setting this information aside as a prologue because of those different voices and the ten-year lag between it and the next chapter, but she didn’t do it. The information contained in those first pages is critical, it helps to set the story up. Had it been a prologue (at 17 pages) what do you think would have happened to Harry Potter? 

My critique partner, Christina Dalcher,  wrote about the Prologue Problem on her blog this month. She has an impressive list of bestsellers that all have prologues. Another book I’ll add to her list is the Book Thief (Markus Zusak). And I’ll admit that I loved the book, but skipped the prologue.

As Christina points out, most agents and editors hate prologues. Our in house-agents concur and add that established authors have more craft under their belt and more clout with publishers. My recommendation do what works. Never say never. And don’t give anyone a reason to skip pages.

How do you like to start a book?



Friday, May 15, 2015

Next Lifetime

If you were currently in my head, you'd hear me say the term "next career" a lot. While it's not the newest of phrases, it seems common over the past few years as people are finding layoffs and unexpected job changes the norm. Once a person's life reaches a point where they would have to use a term such as "next career" their social media becomes a never-ending stream of inspirational quotes and memes, all of which I would ignore and hashtag something snarky (usually #eyeroll).

Another phrase you'll hear is my head is: "Aren't you tired of this already?" I'm not one to feel the pressure of age, per se, but I am approaching 40, and the part of my mind that's a project manager is wondering why I've missed so many milestones. Everything feels unfinished, chapters feel undone.

It's been almost a month and these are the first words I've written in that time-space. There were priorities to figure out, bills to get paid, sleep to catch-up on. Those "life" items seemed to be a culmination of the cycles I allow in my life and repeat, but why can't I just write?

I left out the "during all this" because it is an open ended question, one that speaks to what I've always wanted to do with my life and one that asks "why can't I just write during all this?"

Do you experience "creative droughts" when the pressures of life show themselves? I'd like to know.


Thursday, May 14, 2015

Why You Need Beta Readers (Feat. Women of Cyberpunk)

It’s been a while since I set my high-heeled foot in a college classroom. But from what I remember,  the laws of physics provide boundaries to human capabilities, right? That’s why I was so baffled by Lucy, the film in which Scarlett Johansson's character absorbs a drug that allows her to use a hundred percent of her brain. Without giving too much away, I’ll say this: Lucy has an interesting premise and incredible visual effects, but the science is a hot mess. (If you don’t care about spoilers, read this from Mashable.com).
 
This is one screenplay that needed more beta readers and a thick red pen.
  
Lucy
 
What are beta readers, you ask? Beta readers are volunteer test subjects for your drafts. They find plot holes, suggest changes in the story, point out things you can’t see for yourself, and generally let you know when something doesn’t work (and when it does). They tell the truth about your writing. They see the big picture because, unlike you as the writer, their minds aren’t overflowing with character sketches and plot outlines.
 

Big Hero 6
 
You cannot do this for your own drafts. It doesn’t matter if you’ve read a thousand books in your genre or if you’ve memorized every major style guide in the English language. You’re the writer, NOT THE READER—and these are two very different roles.
 
There was a time when I thought I could edit anything, even my own work. I created my first newsletter at the ripe old age of ten(ish) after a trip to the Fort Worth Japanese Gardens with my grandparents. In high school and college I annoyed my peers by editing the heck out of their articles, and now I do the same thing with novelists as an associate editor for Henery Press.

When I’m in the zone, my eyes catch missing apostrophes, errant quotation marks, word clutter, main character likeability problems, and plot issues like nobody’s business. Words run in my caffeinated blood.
 
Blade Runner

Yep, I’m a trained editor—a professional. But here’s the deal: I STILL CAN’T DO THIS FOR MY OWN WRITING. When it comes to my own stuff, I’m blind. And stubborn. Sometimes, very VERY stubborn. (Should I delete the vague adverb, very? Of course I should. But I’m leaving it there. Twice even. Why? Because I want to. Because I’m the writer, darn it…and you can’t stop me.)
 

Ghost in the Shell

Even after the eighth draft or so, I still hold onto that-which-I-should-delete (backstory, excess character reflection, adverbs) and fail to expound on that-which-I-should-include (worldbuilding, character emotion, descriptions).
 
I do things in my own writing that I tell other writers to avoid, unaware that I’m committing the same literary sin until someone calls me out on it.
 

The Matrix
 
Fortunately, I have some amazing beta readers. These brave souls provide informed ideas to make my imaginary biotech believable, tell me I'm writing like a girl (when it should be a guy's POV), and mediate for characters I'm tempted to kill. (I'm no George R.R. Martin, but I like a high body count. Just sayin'.) A big thank you for my beta readers—I couldn't do it without you!
 
Okay, writers: Go find yourself some beta readers. And bonus points if you decide to watch this short scene from Lucy, which includes—of all things—A RED PEN. No joke.