Big Mistakes I’ve Made (So Far) Part 1 – 30 Days of Writing and Publishing Tips Day 18

cat mistake

Mistakes were made

I’ve made more than my share of mistakes in the twenty plus years I’ve been writing, but in terms of getting and staying published my biggest mistake in the early years was not working on new projects while trying to get an existing one signed by an agent or sold to an editor.

I put so much effort into my first book – which I’ve since gone on to self-publish after much more revision – that I couldn’t imagine putting any more effort into another book unless I had some indication that I could actually write well enough to get published. I spent five years rewriting and revising that book, sure I was going to hit on the magical right words to get it published. I came close a few times, but never quite hit it, partly because at the time I didn’t know how to write good query letters and I didn’t know enough about storytelling.

It was only when I wrote a different book in a different genre that I got an agent and then a publishing deal. But then I continued on with my mistake. I didn’t write anything new even though there were long stretches of time while the manuscript was with the agent and then with the editor. I should have been writing that whole time.

I would have improved my writing more quickly, I would have had more manuscripts to show the editor (I did get a deal for a second book, which was great, but I had to write it under a tighter deadline because I didn’t start it as early as I could have done.)

I’ve since learned that it’s much better for me and for my publishing future to keep working on new unsold projects in the waiting times for contracted work, even if it’s partial novels or novels that need major revision. It’s helped my writing, because with each story, I run into new problems and I have to consider how to tell a particular story. It’s also made me write faster, because I don’t fall out of practice. When I do school or Skype visits, I tell the students that writing is largely a craft, and talent isn’t the most important part of it. Learning to write well is like learning to play an instrument or a sport or another artistic pursuit. Most people aren’t good at it without practice.

So don’t make my mistakes! Write, write, write.

If you missed my earlier posts on 30 days of writing and publishing tips, post 1 is  here.

And here’s one of my books that I haven’t talked about much in previous posts, my upper Middle grade adventure, WOLF STORM in which young actors filming a movie on location in the mountains find themselves in an all-to-real adventure. (That’s my lovely little cat, Colette, who I miss every day and who was not happy wearing her wolf costume.)

wolfstormcolletteblogsmaller

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30 Days of Writing and Publishing Tips – Day 17 Mentor Movie and the usefulness of prologues (sometimes)

I posted about how valuable mentor texts are for my writing here, and will do more, but I also wanted to post about mentor movies. There are certain movies that have taught me so much about storytelling, and when I’m in a slump, I rewatch one or more of them.

cat mentor movie

Apollo 13 is one of them. The movie is an adaptation from a book by Jim Lovell, one of the astronauts on the mission. William Broyles Jr. and Al Reinert did the screenplay. The film tells the story of the mission that nearly cost the lives of the astronauts, when an explosion onboard depletes the oxygen supply. The mission becomes one to figure out how to get the astronauts back to Earth before their air runs out.

Most of us aren’t going to write stories so dramatic, but there are takeaways from watching it that have helped me in my stories.

First, the opening. I hate to get into debates about prologues, because the people who hate them will not budge, but here’s my view: It depends on the story! I’ve used them in two of my books, and will probably do so again. If you need something that really sets up the tone of the story or foreshadows what is going to happen, prologues are an excellent way to do that.

The opening of Apollo 13 is a prologue, a sequence using actual news footage and images of the horrific fire on Apollo 1 when the astronauts were rehearsing the launch procedures. All three astronauts died. It works in the movie because it immediately reminds viewers of how dangerous it is to be an astronaut, even when they aren’t actually in space. Even if we didn’t already know the plot of the movie, we know something bad is coming, and that in a suspense/thriller story is important. That tiny trickle of dread will only grow stronger as the story progresses.

The next scene is a party at one of the astronaut’s houses where they are all gathered to watch the moon landing of Apollo. This is an inspired bit of storytelling. It shows the astronauts’ ordinary world, making them seem like real people, and manages to impart a lot of information along the way. I suspect there was some debate over putting this scene first. I’m sure there was a push to set it at NASA because that would be the cool setting, but it would have made most readers feel removed from the main characters.

I’m a big fan of chapters starting in the character’s ordinary world, and then using some event to let the reader know something big is going to happen soon. This happens in Apollo 13 when we see Marilyn Lovell, Jim’s wife, talks about how nervous Neil Armstrong’s wife must be. There is also a mention that of the astronauts’ main concern – they are afraid future missions will be cancelled due to budget cuts before they get to go. This is a useful technique of dramatic irony. The viewer (or reader) knows something much worse than this is going to happen. It’s like you wish you could get into the story and warn the character.

I could go on and on about some of the latter parts of the movie and what works so well, but I think I’ll save that for a later post. I encourage everyone to take a look at this movie-I didn’t even realize exactly how broad of an appeal it had was until the time my daughter came into the room when I was watching it-she must have been about ten and not really interested in many adult movies-and she sat down and watched it all the way through, enthralled.

Happy watching !

 

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30 Days of Writing and Publishing Tips – Day 16 The best advice I ever got

 

cat fireworks

I was lucky to have Barbara Lalicki at HarperCollins as my first editor. She had edited Beverly Cleary’s books as well as many other established authors so I was very intimidated to open my first edits from her. Barbara was meticulous. She even called me one Saturday after we’d already finished the page passes of WILDFIRE RUN to discuss one word (!) she wasn’t sure fit well.

I learned so much about writing from her. The absolute best advice she ever gave was the little comments on the first couple of edits of the book. I’d see this penciled in (she edited by hand) “Make it bigger” at various scenes throughout the book.

“Make it bigger” meant more dramatic or more interesting or both. I whisper that to myself now as I’m editing a draft, considering whether I’ve developed each scene to its maximum potential. Most times I haven’t, because like many writers, I push to get a draft done, sometimes taking the easy way out and writing scenes that are too standard, too expected, and too undeveloped.

I found this in my sci fi trilogy – I had a short outline necessary to sell the trilogy, but once I started writing it, what seemed fine in the outline turned out to be flat in storytelling terms. I went through the whole book and made scenes bigger. I also did this with my YA historical coming out next year, GONE BY NIGHTFALL. It’s set during the Russian revolution so lots of drama is happening all around the characters, but the main character was on the sidelines too much and the middle was dragging. I added in one scene which changed the whole feeling of the middle, but I didn’t figure this out until four drafts in.

I guess the moral of this story is ‘don’t take the easy way out’ and once a draft is finished, you often can still find ways to push the story further to make it better.

Write on!

Here’s the cover of GONE BY NIGHTFALL, coming out January 21st, 2020. (I love this cover!)

GoneByNightfall

If you are interested in my other writing and publishing tips posts, post 1 is here.

 

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30 Days of Writing and Publishing Tips – Day 15 Be Brutally Honest with Yourself

In trying to get published, it’s important to be honest with yourself about your writing ability. Yes, you need self-confidence to keep going in the face of years of rejection, but you also always need to keep a check on the ego and realize what ways you can improve. Many times a rejection is because a story just wasn’t right for an agent or editor, but other times it’s because the writing actually needs work.

cat looking in mirror

The way I motivate myself to work on my writing is by reading my mentor texts. I couldn’t write publishable books without them to inspire me. Even now, nine years since my first book was published, I go back to certain books and authors to reread their work to know how I should push myself to be a better writer. I admire several different writers, all for different aspects of writing technique.

This post is about my mentor texts for setting and description. Description is one of my two areas of writing I need the most work on and that I struggle with in each book.

The books I go back to when I’m feeling particularly frustrated or when I want to give examples of great description in a writing talk are the first three books in Mary Stewart’s Arthurian saga, THE CRYSTAL CAVE, THE HOLLOW HILLS, and THE LAST ENCHANTMENT. I don’t write fantasy, at least not yet, but the genre doesn’t really matter in this type of mentor text. Here are two paragraphs from the prologue of THE CRYSTAL CAVE:

It was dark, and the place was cold, but he had lit a small fire of wood, which smoked sullenly but gave a little warmth. It had been raining all day, and from the branches near the mouth of the cave water still dripped, and a steady trickle over flowed the lip of the well, soaking the ground below. Several times, restless, he had left the cave, and now he walked out below the cliff to the grove where his horse stood tethered.

With the coming of dusk the rain had stopped, but a mist had risen, creeping knee-high through the trees so that they stood like ghosts, and the grazing horse floated like a swan. It was a grey, and more than ever ghostly because it grazed so quietly; he had torn up a scarf and wound fragments of cloth round the bit so that no jingle should betray him. The bit was gilded, and the torn strips were of silk, for he was a king’s son. If they had caught him, they would have killed him. He was just eighteen.

I think this is just brilliant. I can imagine the scene perfectly and feel the damp atmosphere, and the fire ‘which smoked sullenly.’ Stewart is particularly good at evoking sound in her descriptions: water dripping, and even though the bit is not jingling, describing the muffling of it makes us hear what it might have sounded like unmuffled.

The other brilliant part of her descriptive ability is to impart information about the character and the plot in unusual ways: The bit was gilded, and the torn strips were of silk, for he was a king’s son. If they had caught him, they would have killed him. These two sentences are full of both information and tension, and just amazing.

If I seem to be gushing, it’s because I am gushing. Stewart was one of the first writers I really studied when I was trying to figure out how to write. If you aren’t familiar with her books ( they were published in the 1970s) they are in most libraries and still in print to purchase. Be forewarned, some of the later editions have really cheesy covers. Don’t let that turn you off! The ones in the picture below are fine but I’ve got some editions with covers that make me cringe.

mary steward trilogy

If you missed my earlier writing and publishing tips posts, post 1 is here.

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30 Days of Writing and Publishing Tips – Day 14 Don’t let these types of characters sneak into your story

Sometimes when a writer is so focused on developing their main characters, keeping the plot going and polishing the writing, they slip up and don’t spend enough time on making their secondary characters memorable enough, so that those characters end up as cardboard stereotypes. Writers often don’t even realize they’ve fallen into that trap, because the characters are so much a part of popular culture that they seem to fit the story. But fitting into expectations leads to average, and in today’s competitive publishing world, writing an average story is going to lessen your chances of getting published.

(I couldn’t think of the right kind of cat picture to go with this post, so a cat hunting out something to get rid of (a stereotype!) is as close as I could get.)

cat hunting

When I read one of those stereotypical characters, they really lessen the story for me. For example, I can’t stand when the mean girl in a high school setting is the beautiful blond cheerleader with a ponytail. I want a better villain than that. Granted, there is a reason those types show up in stories, because too many authors either remember those girls from high school or have seen too many tv shows and movies that also rely on the stereotype.

If it’s a high school villain who must be a popular cheerleader, make her a little quirky in her own way. Maybe she helps her father do taxidermy or she is a genius at math, anything that will surprise a reader. Quirky villains are more memorable and seem more real.

Another example that makes me groan is the computer nerd stereotype, either a skinny guy with ugly glasses or a heavy-set guy who also wears ugly glasses. For example, Jurassic Park does so many things so well in the storytelling, but I hate that they made the bad guy a nerdy slob who won’t stop eating. Again, there are people in the real world who fit the stereotype, but there are plenty of other real people who don’t.

And we can’t forget the jock who is a handsome jerk. If you’ve got one of these characters, you have to work harder to round them out so the reader will be able to remember long after they’ve finished the book.

I don’t have a handsome jock in my sci fi trilogy but I do have a character that somewhat fits that category. Quinn is the main character and Decker is his nemesis at the beginning of the story. Decker is bigger, stronger and older and likes to order Quinn around. The quirk that saves Decker from being a stereotype is that he is a musician, and wears a tiny musical instrument on a cord around his neck all the time, something like an ocarina. I also made the character not be a jerk around children, so that Quinn’s younger sister likes Decker.

Publishing is so competitive that anything you can do to make your stories more memorable will help, so look over your secondary characters and see how you can make them stand out.

Here’s my sci fi trilogy that started this series of posts. If you haven’t read any of the earlier ones on writing and publishing tips, Post 1 is here.

torch world with lights

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30 Days of Writing and Publishing Tips Day 13: What about Backstory? Too much too early will stop a reader, agent, editor….

Short post but important to getting an agent or an editor to say yes to a story: Backstory is the description of your character’s background and ordinary world, what you think the reader needs to know to understand the character and the story. Many inexperienced writers include too much backstory right away, bogging down the plot and often making the reader put down the manuscript, or worse, fall asleep reading it!

kitten sleeping on book

It’s hard to know the right amount and where to put it, so I’ve found it’s best to just go ahead and right it in up front in the first three chapters, and then in the revising stage, figure out what doesn’t need to be there, what can be told in a different way, or what can be moved to another place.

A reader is willing to be carried along in the story without knowing the whole history. Think of THE HUNGER GAMES. Much of the details about Panem, its history, and the games themselves are only revealed slowly as the story goes on, and some is never revealed at all.

You, as the writer, need to know the backstory, but you’ll discover the reader does not need to know as much as you. This is why after you’ve written the story and revised it, leaving in only what you think it necessary, get someone else to read it and ask them to tell you when they hit a confusing part. This is usually a sign you may have cut too much backstory.

Read some books that are similar to what you are trying to write, and as you read, jot down what you learn about the character and the setting, chapter by chapter. It’s a fascinating exercise. I’ve done it myself and have been surprised at the results.

I had to figure out how much backstory to include at what stage in my science fiction trilogy. Did I get the right amount at the right time? Hard to tell. The other thing about backstory is reader preference. Some want more upfront so they can better understand the story. Some want less so they can puzzle it out along the way. You can’t please all readers all the time.

torch world with lights

If you missed my earlier writing and publishing tips posts, you can start reading them here.

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30 Days of Writing and Publishing Tips – Day 12: Six Strategies for Procrastinators

cat typing

If you have trouble actually starting to write, here are a few different strategies I’ve used to begin to get words on paper. Believe me, I never want to actually start writing. It’s a real effort to force myself. I’d happily just think about my stories forever without bothering to type in a word if that was an option.

  1. Write mostly dialogue at first. I use this strategy most often. It’s easier for me to envision people talking, and then if necessary, I throw in a descriptive sentence to help the dialogue make sense. I don’t worry about writing pretty sentences at this point. I’m basically laying down a framework. This also have the benefit of keeping the plot moving. I like to write fast-paced stories and this way I don’t get too bogged down in extra description in a place where dialogue could have been used instead.
  2. Write any scene that inspires you. You don’t have to write in order. I wrote most of GONE BY NIGHTFALL in pieces because I couldn’t decide on the order I wanted events to happen. I used Scrivener for some of it. Scrivener, if you aren’t familiar with it, is a writing software that helps keep track of different scenes and different characters. You can get it for a free trial and it’s worth checking out to see if it helps your particular writing method.
  3. If writing dialogue doesn’t work, describe the setting of each scene first. Sometimes having a clear picture of the characters’ surroundings makes the dialogue flow better and you can figure out how they are interacting both with each other and with the surroundings in the scene.
  4. Tell yourself you only have to write 100 words and they don’t have to be good ones. 100 words is manageable, and you might find once you have those down, you can write more. If you can’t, walk away and come back later to write another 100 words.
  5. Record yourself telling what happens in scene as if you were describing it to a friend, then play it back and see what you can use to actually put into words.
  6. Keep expanding out from your outline, sentence by sentence until you’ve built a scene. Check out the Snowflake Method by Randy Ingermanson. He describes a step-by-step process that many use, if not to write a whole book, to at least get part of it done.

If you’ve missed my other writing tip posts, check out post 1 here.

And here are the books in my sci fi Torch World series, for which I used all these strategies to actually finish:

torch world with lights

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