December 12, 2016

Being a Pitch Wars Mentee--One Month After the Fact


This past couple of months, I was lucky enough to be part of Pitch Wars, a writing contest in which published writers choose a finished manuscript and its unpublished author to mentor. Among difficult odds, I was picked, and it was a fantastic experience. It’s been finished for just over a month now, and I’d wanted to write a long, wise list of things I learned from the experience. Maybe I still will. But for now, here are three:

1. Writing is hard. Revising is hard. Querying is hard. Writers are neurotic and obsessive. I believe this now more than ever. I was so lucky to be in a super talented pool, selected from an even larger pool of talent. They’re awesome people and hard workers, but many of us are still surviving the aftermath. A couple dozen participants found agents from Pitch Wars—the rest of us are still doing the same thing we’ve always done: writing, revising, querying, waiting, worrying, commiserating. I’m starting to believe what I’ve heard about every stage of the publication journey being anxiety inducing and crazy making.

2. There are no magic bullets. Well, sometimes there are, but whether or not you get one depends very little on how hard you work. I thought Pitch Wars would be my magic bullet in getting an agent. Obviously my book was good enough to be picked by someone, right? So, I worked my butt off. I even thought I wouldn’t finish at one point because of devastating personal issues, but I pushed through because I was so SURE this was it. I was going to be one of the writers who signed with an agent that week.

I wasn’t.

A month later, I’m still querying, just like the good ol’ days before Pitch Wars.

At a conference once I heard NYT bestseller James Dashner talk about the success of The Maze Runner. Want to know the secret of his success, according to him? He’d written it two years earlier and it caught the tailwind success of The Hunger Games. He didn’t copy THG. He didn’t know that kids fighting to the death would be a thing. He put in the hard work, he wrote what he loved, and that time he got lucky.

I’ve watched so many talented PW writers that didn’t get a lot of agent attention. I saw a few concepts that I was surprised were so popular and found an agent right away. There are always trends. You can’t predict them or usually even write to them. Just always be working to improve and put out great content. You know what they say: “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.”

3. Find people who believe in you. It’s a fantastic feeling to be chosen—read this awesome post by my mentor JennieNash about getting picked—but it’s even more awesome when you find someone to be in the trenches with you, pulling you up when you’re down, telling you your stuff is great. My mentor told me that my book was going to be a huge commercial success. It probably won’t be, but the fact that she believed that made my head balloon ten sizes bigger, and once it deflated, it helped me get through the depressing times when I felt like it was crap.

The same can be said for my writing partners. I have so many good writing friends. I can’t imagine life without them. Family and regular friends are great, but they don’t understand the ups and downs and ins and outs of the writing process and industry like writing peeps do. Find like-minded people. PW was fantastic for that. I still read the PW mentee celebrations and disappointments and feel like I’m not alone in any of it.

Pitch Wars was a great experience—one that I would highly recommend. It didn’t change my life like I thought it would, but at least I have a much better book and a few new friends because of it. And that makes it a total win.

August 8, 2016

Motivation Monday: Nelson Mandela

 (source

"May your choices reflect your hopes, not your fears."


Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela (July 18, 1918–December 5, 2013) was a politician and revolutionist. He was South Africa's first black president and the first person elected in a fully democratic election. During his term, he tackled institutional racism. He later served prison time for armed rebellion, and he left prison as the pacifist we often think of him as today.

Fun Facts about Nelson Mandela:
  • His pacifism was based on the belief that democracy and dialogue were the way to solve the world's problems.
  • His birth name means "to pull a branch off a tree" and "troublemaker."
  • He was given the name Nelson in school when he was seven years old.
  • His father was a polygamist and had four wives. Nelson had three wives--but not at the same time!
  • He had six children.
So What?
I love Mandela's quote because publishing is a hard profession. I know that after nearly four years of daily writing, five books finished, two books queried, and countless hours spent with critique groups, craft books, investigating agents, and otherwise working toward my dream, I occasionally want to give up. Every rejection, every effort that hasn't ended up where I thought it would, every failure strikes fear and doubt inside me. It makes me wonder if I'm good enough. It builds up and makes it hard to keep going. Maybe it's the same for you.

But, if a creative career is what you really want, then I think it's essential to make choices and goals based on what you hope will happen, rather than the fear of past failures. Personally, I'm looking forward to the challenge.

July 5, 2016

Book Review: DIY MFA: Write with Focus, Read with Purpose, Build Your Community by Gabriela Pereira


I’ve been a fan of the DIY MFA podcast and website for quite a while, so when I had the chance to read the book, I jumped on it. Several reviewers have created fantastic summaries of what’s included in the book, so I’ll focus on why I think it’s an essential read for all writers.

At author readings, panels, and writing conferences, one question that almost always comes up is whether a writer needs a degree. Invariably, it seems like degrees are downplayed and denigrated. I realize that the point is to tell writers that anything is possible for anyone, but it’s frustrating that they don’t focus—like DIY MFA does—on the fact that though degrees/MFAs aren’t essential to becoming a writer, some level of mastery is.  Or at least it should be.

While there are many great writers who don’t have MFAs, there are invaluable college-level skills (not necessarily degrees) that give writers an edge in publication—learning to communicate and collaborate with others, learning to meet deadlines, learning to take feedback, honing grammar, punctuation, and style skills—all of which are part of most MFA programs. Sure, everyone knows someone who’s an exception—either having gone to college and never learned those skills or not going to college and teaching themselves—but the fact remains, for most of us, some basic college-level abilities are essential to refining our craft as authors.

That’s where I think DIY MFA is GENIUS. The philosophy of Pereira is that though MFA programs aren’t essential, “all writers may need some of what the MFA experience offers.” She then breaks down the most powerful skills from her own MFA program into manageable, concise, doable chunks for the rest of us to implement—whether we have degrees or not—to make our own writing, reading, and networking more meaningful.

The book has very specific guidelines, worksheets, ideas, and processes to make effective writing a WAY OF LIFE. An instinctive habit. She helps outline how to develop behaviors that gradually increase our abilities as both readers and writers. Pereira says right from the beginning that all things don’t work for all writers, but she provides dozens of methods for writers to try on their own, and she helps us understand the psychology behind different methods and personal roadblocks.

She talks about how if we want to be writers, we “need to discover a process so that [we] can create dozens or even hundreds of wonderful books,” instead of just one. She talks about creativity as a learnable process with logical, repeatable steps, instead of a crazy muse that comes and goes as it pleases.

One of quotes I love from DIY MFA sums up the book and the program. She says, “…talent is often irrelevant, and what matters is how serious you are about doing the work.” I think that’s true of DIY MFA, of MFA/other degree programs, and any other writing course you can find. DIY MFA helps you know how to do the work to be the kind of author you want to be. It’s another tool—a brilliant one—to help you get where you want to be as a writer. Whether you have a traditional MFA or not, I think this is one book all writers should have on their shelf.

April 18, 2016

Motivation Monday: Ira Glass


“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know it's normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take a while. It’s normal to take a while. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”

April 7, 2016

MFA Programs vs. DIY-ing Your MFA


Last week I blogged about my favorite podcasts, and at the top was DIY MFA. It’s a do-it-yourself approach to an MFA methodology. Recently, they did an episode about the heated debate between MFA lovers and haters, so I thought I’d weigh in!

 First, I don’t have an MFA, but I do have an MA in American Literature and Culture. I don’t know how every school does it, but at the university I attended, the MA and MFA programs were tightly connected. The students from both degree programs interacted daily in classes, as writing teachers, as friends and cohorts, and we were able to choose our coursework from both programs. So, while I wasn’t specifically studying to earn my MFA, I did take a lot of MFA coursework, and some of my favorite professors and learning outcomes came from the MFA track.

Needless to say, I’m pro-MFA. I feel like there are things you can gain from a graduate program that it’s hard to gain any other way. A few of those are:
·      Interactions with brilliant professors with similar interests
·      Constant workshopping of your writing
·      Focused syllabus/learning plan
·      Rigorous and diverse reading lists
·      Opportunities to teach writing courses to college students

Graduate school, for me, was a priceless experience that I wouldn’t trade for anything. I loved it, and I have lifelong friends and career experience because of it. However, I realize it’s not always feasible for a lot of reasons. I had a supportive spouse (financially and emotionally). I had a mother who watched my kids while I was in classes. I had a topnotch university twenty minutes from my home. It was still very challenging--physically, emotionally, financially, and intellectually--but I realize I had luxuries that a lot of people don’t have.

I guess that’s what got me excited about the DIY MFA podcast. At first I thought it would be an MFA-hater program, but it’s based on the same sound techniques that I loved about grad school:
·      Focused Writing
·      Purposeful Reading
·      Community Building (this covers workshopping with CPs, etc. and learning from those with more developed skillsets)

The only thing I valued about my program that this doesn’t entail, really, is teaching to others, but I think that comes naturally as you get better at whatever skill you’re developing.

I especially love Hoffer’s quote listed above because I do believe the learning, the continued progress—either by yourself or within an MFA program—is what makes the learners the ones who will succeed in the writing business. It’s evolving so quickly that even though I 110% endorse MA/MFA programs any chance I get, there’s still a need to learn and grow and change with the industry.

My take on the debate?

Does an MFA matter? Absolutely. It builds a foundation of learning and focus that few people are disciplined enough to attain on their own.

Does that mean a degree is essential? Absolutely not. If you can create the structure and discipline and focus for yourself that these programs construct, then more power to you. Because even after an MFA program is said and done, you’re the one who has to incorporate and maintain the ideas for them to do any good.

As writers, we’re so lucky to have unlimited resources at our fingertips. Tools like social media, web courses, books, conferences, critique groups, and many other valuable assets, just begging for us to use them and succeed.

Degree or no degree, whether or not we succeed as writers depends entirely on us as individuals.  MFAs are just another great tool for learning the necessary skills.

April 4, 2016

Motivation Monday: E.B. White


"Always be on the lookout for 
the presence of wonder."  
Charlotte's Web

E.B. White is most commonly known for his children's books, but he was a prolific writer in a lot of different areas. He inspires me because he dabbled in many different types of craft, and he was both a literary and commercial success by any standards.

Fun Facts about E.B. White:

    • Real name is Elwyn Brooks White
    • Lived 1899-1985, and died at his farm house in Maine that inspired Charlotte's Web
    • Attended Cornell University, where he worked for the school newspaper. Later wrote for The New Yorker.
    • Hey, English majors, remember that pesky Strunk and White book that was the bible for stylistic writing? Our friend E.B. is the White in that equation!
    • He was shy and reclusive
    • His granddaughter, Martha White, compiled a book of his greatest quotes.
      So What?
      I love Charlotte's Web. It inspired my novice love of spiders, which led to my keeping black widows as a teenager. They would hatch lots of babies, cannibalize each other, and be otherwise fascinating and beautiful creatures. But I digress...

      NPR has a fantastic article about White and the real Charlotte and the real barn that inspired the story. It's personal and moving, and you should check it out HERE. But the part I love best is this:

      "One early fall morning in 1949, E.B. White walked into the barn of his farm in Maine and saw a spider web. That in itself was nothing new, but this web, with its elaborate loops and whorls that glistened with early morning dew, caught his attention."

      He simply noticed something different. That's what led to him writing one of the most acclaimed children's books of all time. A lovely, unassuming moment in nature caught his attention.

      I've been thinking a lot lately about refilling our creative wells. Even with unlimited ambition to succeed, sometimes we all burn out. I believe that one of the few things we control as writers--and one of the things that makes us so awesome--is a never-ending curiosity.

      So, my real "so what" is this: go for a walk. Explore an abandoned building. Visit a place you've never been before, even if it's seemingly small or inconsequential (like a barn). Take time to breathe. And above all, "always be on the lookout for the presence of wonder."

      March 31, 2016

      Podcasts for Writerly Types: Take Two

      Several months ago I posted about my favorite podcasts for writerly types. While I still love those, they can't keep up with my voracious appetite for putting in headphones to ignore my kids, er, soaking up knowledge any chance I get, so, I have a new top five list. Counting up to number one, here are my current favorites:


      5. Magic Lessons by Elizabeth Gilbert
      Based on her book Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, Gilbert's podcast talks a lot about pursuing your creative self and moving past the fears of failure, rejection, etc. If you like Elizabeth Gilbert, Big Magic, or this amazing Ted Talk, then this podcast is for you!



       
       4. The Creative Penn by Joanna Penn
      This is a podcast geared toward self-publishers, but I think it's fantastic for ALL writers. Penn focuses on marketing, as one would expect, but she's also genius about scheduling your creative life, plotting your book, dictation, writing diversity, and all kinds of other topics perfect for writers of all types. If you can get past the 20 minute long intros, the rest of the podcast is usually pure gold.


      3. Write with Impact by Glenn Leibowitz
      I don't know what it is about Glenn (we're on a first name basis like that), but he has the soothing voice of a therapist and the personality of someone you want as your best friend. He interviews successful authors, journalists, bloggers, and more, diving deep into writing-specific topics. Glenn writes nonfiction, so there's a good blend of awesome fiction and non-fiction authors. You'll love him. Try it out, but remember, I found him first!

       
      2. KidLit Drink Night by Amy Kurtz Skelding
      This podcast is a little hidden gem that I wish more people knew about. I first tried it because my friend is one of the hosts, and I expected to listen to one episode, say my pleasantries, and move on to my usual lineup. I mean, kid books with drunk ladies? What's the draw? But  holy cow, was I wrong! 1) They're not drunk. They just each have unique drinks each time, sometimes smoothies or Pepsi or a dirty martini. It adds a fun flavor to the podcast, but it's not the focus. 2) They have really deep, smart discussions of a huge range of books. The hosts are super intelligent, they're incredibly funny, and it's like listening in on the kind of conversations you wish your boring neighborhood book group would have.

      1. DIY MFA by Gabriela Pereira
      The premise of DIY MFA is basically that it's a do-it-yourself approach to an MFA for those who aren't equipped (for whatever reason) to do a traditional college MFA program. I'm a HUGE proponent of actual grad degrees, but the reason I love this podcast is because it's built on a really smart, solid foundation of writing techniques. The ideas presented are a really good way to learn the discipline and skills presented in MFA writing programs, especially in an internet age where ideas, publishing paths, and life as an author are all evolving so quickly that by the time you finish that traditional MFA, things will have already changed. But the main reason I love it is because, even if you do get an MFA or an MA, this podcast is still worthwhile. It's a great dialogue for keeping your brain sharp and your writing skills honed. I think it's perfect for both camps--the MFA lovers and the haters.

      March 24, 2016

      8 Quotes from the Writing for Charity Conference

      Saturday at 1:30am I got a text from a friend asking if I wanted to go to a writing conference at 9am. It was a 1.5 hour drive each way, I already had plans, and it would take the whole day, so of course I said, sure! Let's do it! I'm so glad I did. It ended up being a fantastic conference, and I can't believe I hadn't gone before. If you're ever in the area, check out Writing for Charity, a conference that donates the proceeds to helping children in low income schools afford books.

      I didn't go to all of the classes (of course), so I'm sure there's a ton of great information I missed, but here are my favorite quotes of the day from the classes I attended.

      1. Shannon Hale gave the keynote on diversity and gender. I wish I could write down the entire talk, because all of it was fantastic. But if I had to pick, here are two I loved. "It's not that hard to write someone outside your experience if you believe they're a human being. Pro tip for you there!" and "Boys are not incapable of empathizing with girls, but we predetermine it for them."

      Okay, one more. "Give your kids books that are different than themselves." She was amazing, and by 10am I'd decided even if Hale was the only person I heard, it was worth the long drive.

      2. Matthew Kirby spoke on creating strong characters. He talked about character biases, scripts, inconsistencies, inhibitions, and fears. He said, "Each of these things form a layer that filters, shapes, distorts, and focuses the unique ways each character sees the world."

      And I loved his reminder that in real life, we don't only like/empathize with people like us. It makes sense that we can identify with characters who are also different from us.

      3. Jennifer Nielsen gave an awesome class on plot twists. Hers was one of my favorites. She gave a lot of information on types of plot twists and how to accomplish them. My favorite advice from her was to find the balance between giving the readers a chance to figure the plot out, then misleading them enough that they can't. Treat the readers fairly--they're smart.

      4. Jessica Day George talked about writing fantasy with hook. She's funny and successful and hates fantasy gibberish names and words as much as I do! She recapped Heinlein's Rules for Writing, and said: Don't get caught up in descriptions--everything should mean something to the plot, otherwise cut it. If it's not vital to the story, it doesn't belong.

      5. Lindsey Leavitt's class was on writing humor. Not surprisingly, it was hilarious. What was refreshing though, was she didn't just try to be funny, she had a lot of practical, applicable, measurable advice for adding humor to your writing.

      She said all writing should have some level of humor. Humor has the ability to soften and enhance your writing, it bonds you to the reader, it lessens tension, and gives a breather in stressful situations. She also talked about the value of writing humor--that a lot of people, kids especially, have a lot of darkness in their lives. Funny writing gives them bursts of sunshine, as well as tools for coping with hardships in their own lives.

      6.  J. Scott Savage talked about tension--when it works, when it's too much, and how to use it to your advantage in writing. When I think of tension, I always think of it as a positive thing, but Savage talked about how you shouldn't sustain tension. It's about knowing how to use it to engage readers, evoke emotion, and get them to turn pages.

      My favorite takeaway from his class was that tension is not about what is happening in your story now, it's the anticipation of what may happen. What are the consequence of the character's actions? If there are no consequences, there is no tension.

      7. Jennifer Johnson-Blalock is a literary agent with Liza Dawson, and she gave a lot of good information for people who are new to the querying process. One thing she said that I'd never thought of before: "At the query stage, agents are working for free." It helps put all those form rejections and no responses into perspective!

      8. Tricia Lawrence is a literary agent with Erin Murphy. She talked about leaving the need for perfectionism behind and focusing on the things you can control. Publishing moves slow. It happens when it happens, but your writing, your inspiration, your determination are all within your control.

      Lawrence's final quote was one from Audrey Hepburn, and it sums up the feeling I always have when I leave a great conference. Hepburn said:

      "Nothing is impossible; the word itself says I'm possible."

      March 21, 2016

      Motivation Monday: Shannon Hale

      (source)
      "If we're not reading diversely and broadly outside of our experience, then we're going to write that way."

      I attended a conference this weekend where Shannon Hale was the keynote speaker, and she had a lot to say about gender and diversity in books. On Twitter she's a champion for diversity, and it was interesting to hear her thoughts in person. She's articulate and funny, and if you ever get a chance to listen to her speak, you definitely should!

      Fun Facts about Shannon Hale:
      • She's been on the NYT bestseller list multiple times, and she's a Newbery Honor winner. 
      • She's written books for adults, YA books, books for kids, graphic novels, and probably anything else you can think of!
      • Her book, Austenland, was made into a film in 2013. It's hilarious and romantic and involves big butts.
      • She has four kids, a husband who she often collaborates with, and apparently, a pet plastic pig (because who doesn't love alliteration?).

      So What?
      Everyone who has followed the industry for any amount of time has heard of the "we need diverse books" movement. I like how Hale took it beyond the movement to say it shouldn't be hard to write people outside of your experience, if you believe they're, you know, PEOPLE.

      It's proven that reading novels improves empathy. It makes sense that reading widely makes you a better person. But it also makes you a better writer. It makes you more empathetic. More perceptive. More able to see in the heads of others who aren't exactly like you. And that should be one of the goals of writing--to create a shared experience for your readers and allow them to connect with those who are like them, just as much as they should be able to connect with those who are not.

      March 10, 2016

      Five Ways to Treat Writing As a Profession--Before It's Your Profession

      I hear a lot about writing for the love of writing. I completely agree, and if you always want it to be a hobby, then 100% yes, do it for the joy of writing. But I also think if you want to make it a career, you should think of it as a career. There are pieces you can work on at any point in your writing journey. So here are five ways that you can start now to treat writing like a profession, even before you're published or succeeding professionally. 

      1. Do the job consistently--I can't tell you how much difference it has made for me just to go from the mindset of writing when I feel like it to writing on a predetermined schedule. I write every day but Sunday, and it gets me in a mode where it's easier to start each time, the ideas come more freely because my book is always percolating in the back of my mind, and even if it's only a tiny bit each day, it adds up quickly to make me feel like I've accomplished something substantial. 

      In any other career, you're exposed to your profession regularly (usually five days per week), so why should writing be any different?

      2. Schedule your time--this goes with the first one, but I've found that when I decide to do writing after everything else that has to be done, it never happens. That doesn't mean neglect your housework or your kids or your full-time job, but it does mean to make the shift in mindset that writing is your profession, and that means it's a top priority. Schedule time to read. Schedule time to write. Make those firm, like you would any other meeting. Missing a day here or there is fine, but waiting until the day when life will settle down and you can BE a writer isn't going to happen. 

      You're selling yourself short not to schedule it in now. Even for five or ten or twenty minutes at a time.

      3. Grow professionally--the focus of this blog is crafting and I obviously love books about writing craft, so that's a part of growing professionally. This also means going to writing conferences. It means networking on social media. It means studying and honing your craft in whatever way works for you. There are hundreds of online writing courses, free or paid, about any topic you can think of. Don't try to tackle it all at once--that's way too overwhelming--but if you do a tiny piece, a day at a time, you'll be surprised how much you can accomplish in a month or a year. If you're in this for the long haul, it will make all the difference! 

      Besides, what I think makes writers the best kind of people is the never-ending curiosity and desire to learn more about the world around us.

      4. Present yourself professionally--you hear all the time about "building an author platform" even before you're published. I think that's important, of course, but even more important are: being nice to other people; saying things on social media that won't come back to haunt you when you're rich and famous; not submitting crappy, unpolished writing to contests, agents, or editors. 

      You know, in general, be the professional you expect those around you to be.

      5. Don't take shortcuts--this one's hard. I think I've mentioned that this is my third year of hard core, every day "professional" writing. I meet with two writing groups nearly every single week. I push myself harder each year, hoping if I just do more/work faster/think better, something will work out. I've had some heart-breakingly close calls with agents and publishers. It's times like these that I have to face the hard reality that I'm just not quite there yet. That doesn't mean I can skip steps because I'm not seeing the results I want. 

      I firmly believe that anyone who puts in the time and effort, who keeps plugging along, who adapts as the industry continues to evolve, will be successful. Writing ability increases with time. We don't lose physical prowess with age like athletes or dancers. We don't have to be young and beautiful in front of a screen. We can keep working hard until it happens for us. That doesn't mean we'll all be J.K. Rowling or Stephen King someday, but it's not over till it's over. And for most of us, we have a lot of time left and a lot of potential still to achieve. 

      Be a professional along the way, and chances are, someday you'll get to try it on officially.

      What kinds of things do you do to make creative pursuits part of your professional goals?

      March 7, 2016

      Motivation Monday: J.K. Rowling

      (source)
      “Be ruthless about protecting your writing days.”

      As if Ms. Joanne Rowling needs any introduction! She's the brilliant author of the Harry Potter series and the more recent author of adult crime novels, under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith.  

      Fun Facts about J.K. Rowling:
      • Lives in Edinburgh, Scotland with her husband and three kids
      • Wrote her first story at age six
      • The K in J.K. is for her grandmother, Kathleen
      • Wrote the first draft of Harry Potter on an old manual typewriter she found at a thrift shop
      • She's very vocal on Twitter about feminism, politics, and equality
      So What?
      Rowling has a million great quotes, but this one stood out to me today because I think protecting your writing time is one of the biggest challenges authors face. It's like authors are some weird, mythical beasts that create books by magic, not blood, sweat, tears, and time. SO MUCH TIME. Even people who support your decision to write, still often think it's unimportant against everything else in life. It makes me feel some solidarity with Rowling that this is a battle she still fights, despite how successful she's been. 

      So take it from the brilliant Ms. Rowling--be your own advocate. Protect your own time. Choose writing as a priority, even when nobody else thinks it should be.  

      Have a great writing week!

      XOXO

      February 11, 2016

      An Article a Day--Keep the Conversations Going

      Recently, I read this great post about how academics should read an article a day and write down their thoughts about it. The author argues that when you do this on a regular basis, it helps you develop your own voice and keeps you engaged with the world of scholarship.

      I love the idea behind it, because it's something I try to do--both as a former academic and a current genre-fiction writer. Monday I quoted Chercover about how writing is much more than studying craft. I believe that. BUT, I also believe that reading a blog post a day by an agent or published author, or reading a chapter in a book on craft, or an interview about the publishing industry can go a long way in helping you be more engaged in the writing community.

      I also think as novelists, we should read a lot of novels. Hey, it's part of the job! All those novels, articles, chapters, and blog posts add up to a whole slew of new ideas and thoughts that over time, will make all of us better thinkers, writers, business people, and humans.  

      Writing and thinking, whether it's in academics or genre fiction or whatever else you're interested in, are all about putting yourself in conversation with other thinkers, writers, and human beings. So try it:

      1. Read one blog post, chapter, or article each day. 
      2. Take a few notes on why it's relevant to you or ideas you've been considering.
      3. Blog about it, talk to a friend about it, tweet about it. Keep the conversation going.

      As long as you're engaging with new ideas, it will help your own writing be more relevant, relatable, and layered.

      What do you think? Is reading an article a day asking too much, on top of everything else you're trying to do?

      February 8, 2016

      Motivation Monday: Sean Chercover

      (click for source)
      “Don’t confuse reading books on the craft of writing with the act of writing. You must write. And while it’s essential to learn the craft, in the end you must write your own story in your own voice.”
      Sean Chercover is a Canadian-American author who has written books like The Devil’s Game, The Trinity Game, and Trigger City.

      Fun Facts about Sean Chercover: 
      • He was formerly a private detective! 
      • He was also a scuba diver, nightclub magician, encyclopedia salesman, and truck driver. No wonder he has so many great stories up his sleeve! 
      • Seems like a really nice guy. Check out his website, especially his FAQ to see how supportive he sounds to new and aspiring authors. In fact, his bio is where I found today’s quote! He also has a great list of his favorite books on writing craft. 
      So What?
      I’m absolutely addicted to books on writing craft—heck, it’s the entire premise of this blog—but I love Chercover’s quote because often I think I’d rather read about becoming a great writer than actually putting in the blood, sweat and tears to become a great writer. This quote is a reminder that if you want to be a published author, nothing takes the place of putting in the time and effort of just writing.

      January 28, 2016

      Six Tips for Creating Villains That Drive Better Stories

      There’s nothing like a good villain. There’s nothing that drives a plot or builds great protagonists like a bad guy that we love to hate. Think of your favorite characters in any book or film, and more than likely, they have an equally awesome antagonist working against them. The heroes become better heroes because of great villains.

      A writing book I enjoy is Bullies, Bastards, and Bitches: How to Write the Bad Guys of Fiction by Jessica Morrell. I like her take on bad guys because she stresses the importance of them being realistic and complex, while still instilling fear. I think you can have villains in many contexts that don’t invoke fear, but I love the idea of the bad guys instilling some sort of visceral reaction in readers. Think Amy Dunne from Gone Girl who is clearly a sociopath, but we kind of root for her because, duh, cheating husband. President Snow from Hunger Games who instills dread. Think Narnia’s White Witch who killed Christmas. Or Misery’s Annie Wilke’s whose fangirling turns creepily obsessive. Heck, even Miss Trunchbull who makes us laugh, feel sorry for her, and hate her because she targets Matilda. 

      Morrell, says: “It cannot be said too often: Antagonists—and Villains, in particular—are complicated, three-dimensional, and robustly knowable people. After all, it is the process of learning about fascinating characters in terrible difficulties that draws readers in. Readers especially want to learn about what makes a bad ass tick” (197).

      As I’m thinking through my own villain lately—a person who isn’t bad, just opposite of my MC—I thought I’d share a few thoughts on what makes a great antagonist that we’re dying to read more about.

      First, I’m using bad guy, villain, and antagonist interchangeably, but that’s not always the case. Which brings me to point one:

           1. An antagonist doesn’t have to be evil—they’re just what’s standing between the protagonist attaining his/her goal.  Batman wants order; Joker wants chaos. The Martian’s Mark Watney wants to go home; Mars wants to be Mars and suck the life out of all things. The joker’s goals are opposite of Batman’s. Mars’ entire makeup is fundamentally opposed to what Watney, our hero, wants. Neither is inherently bad for the sake of being bad.

           2. Create a visceral reaction. Brandon Sanderson says to set up our bad guys early by doing something simple, like kicking a puppy. Nobody likes the guy who kicks the puppy.  Darth Vader's character debut is him entering the scene in a cloud of smoke, walking through a pile of dead bodies. Give your villain a scene that causes a physical or emotional response in readers, and build on her/him from there.

           3. Give them believable motives. Our villain needs a motive or goal, just like our main character. Professor Snape hated Harry because of his past with Harry’s parents. He was bullied. He felt wronged. Occasionally, we catch glimpses of his actions being justifiable. We feel for him and understand why he would hate Harry. He’s such a great character because we find ourselves wanting to give him the benefit of the doubt, even while hating him for how he treats our beloved protagonist.

      4. Make them relatable. Villains are so much stronger when we understand why they’re doing what they’re doing, even if we can’t like them. One of my very favorites is Cersei Lannister from the Game of Thrones series. I love her because she’s kind of a horrible person, but she’s a good mother. She’s loyal and defends her kids at any cost. She’s also a woman who is smart and capable, but the men around her always put her in her place. She’s sold off for marriages. She’s ridiculed. No matter how hard she works to get ahead, it never quite works out for her. I can relate to her feelings, if not the way she acts on them.

           5. Villains can be internal or external. Sometimes the scariest stories are about fighting against our own inner demons. Think Rapunzel from Tangled and all the time she spends arguing with herself about whether she should or should not be obeying Mother Gothel. She continually has to fight against doubting herself and her choices, before she realizes who the real bad guy is. Often having an internal and external antagonist can make for a more layered story.

           6. Villains don’t have to be people. Think Mars in The Martian. Triss or Katniss against the establishment. Jaws, where the villains are sharks.  In Everest or The Perfect Storm, the antagonists are nature. Here’s a great post about different types of conflicts that don’t necessarily involve a person as the evil villain.

      Multi-dimensional villains are just as important as any other aspect of our stories, otherwise all we have are flat, fairy-tale archetypes of black and white, good and evil. If villains lack depth, we take away the emotional impact they might have on readers. We make them caricatures instead of interesting and believable themes.

      By creating a smart, believable, occasionally sympathetic antagonist, we create more compassion for our MC.  We force them to be a better “hero” in order to beat the forces against them. A great antagonist will up the game of our entire story.

      Though there are many different types of antagonists, the good ones succeed because they create a physical or emotional response and we understand what drives them.

      In the words of the great L.M. Montgomery's Anne of the Island:

      If I had to have villains at all, I'd give them a chance, Anne—I'd give them a chance. There are some terrible bad men in the world, I suppose, but you'd have to go a long piece to find them... most of us have got a little decency somewhere in us.

      What are ways you create great villains? Can you think of any that stand out as favorites?

      January 25, 2016

      Motivation Monday: Maya Angelou


      Source
       "You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated."

      Maya Angelou was a writer, poet, and activist for both black and women's rights. Though known primarily for her writing, she also performed in theater and was nominated for an Emmy for her appearance in Roots.

      Fun Facts about Maya Angelou:
      • As a civil rights activist, she worked with both Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on her 40th birthday.
      • Was friends with Oprah Winfrey. 
      • Never earned a college degree, but her work is a staple of colleges around the world.
      • Had an interesting writing ritual:

        She would wake early and check into a hotel. She would write on legal pads while lying on the bed, with only a bottle of sherry, a deck of cards, a thesaurus, and the Bible. She would leave in the afternoon and edit the pages that evening. 

        Angelou said she played solitaire in order to get to that place of enchantment where she could access her memories more effectively. (Maya Angelou: A Critical Companion by Mary Jane Lupton).
      So What?
      Maya Angelou's life epitomizes falling and getting back up. Her works are beautiful because they come from an understanding of both failures and successes. Most writers will never accomplish half what she did, but her reminder is a great one. We'll all be defeated at various points in the writing journey, but that doesn't mean the journey as a whole is a failure. Keep working. Keep hoping. Keep enjoying the successes that come.