To the Poets! by Catherine Foster

 

It’s April! What does that mean to the writing community the world over? Unfortunately, not necessarily a warming trend in the weather (I speak for the Midwest region of the United States in particular, which is encased in ice at present), but something far more important: an annual celebration of poets and poetry! That’s right: April is known as APAD (April Poem A Day), APAD (A Poem A Day) or even the impressive NaGloPoWriMo (National/Global Poetry Writing Month), but whatever you choose to call it, the idea behind the titles are all the same. We’re coming together to support the sometimes overlooked cornerstones of our writing community and give them the attention they so richly deserve.

You might be thinking that I chose a strange metaphor. How can a cornerstone be overlooked? How are poets cornerstones at all? They are usually characterized as whimsical, artistic and freethinking. This may the case, but true poets have an understanding of diction and syntax that allows them to play with language in a way that other writers can’t. Prose writers are restricted by rules of grammar, while poets are able to create sounds and even language to suit their purpose. Edgar Allan Poe and Dr. Seuss made new words that eventually became an enduring part of our lexicon even today.  However, gifted poets are not without their own limitations. They must understand the rules, particularly if they are constructing a delicate verse such as a haiku or a highly refined ghazal. To walk within the strictest boundaries of language to create an excess of emotion in the reader is a talent that takes a lifetime to cultivate. To be a successful poet takes diligence, patience, education, talent and creativity. These are the qualities of accomplished writers, as well, but because a poem is emotion pared to its finest element and every word must earn its way, the poet is the cornerstone of excellent literature. They inspire and they show us how language can be devastating or beautiful, by turns.  The pursuit of such a gift in these talented populations is what we celebrate each April. To all poets and their accomplishments out there, we at The LetterWorks salute you!

There are some places that have an organized an effort to lead an APAD participation group. Here are a links to a few of the more notable ones with rules and subcategories:

Writer’s Digest, April Poem-A-Day Challenge:

http://www.writersdigest.com/writing-articles/by-writing-genre/poetry/poem-a-day

 

The Writer’s Dig:

http://www.writersdigest.com/online-editor/april-is-poetry-month-ready-for-our-poem-a-day-challenge

 

Poetic Asides:

http://www.writersdigest.com/editor-blogs/poetic-asides/2012-april-pad-challenge-guidelines

 

A poem a day in April:

http://april-is.tumblr.com/tagged/signup

 

The Poetry Foundation:

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/podcasts/76608/april

 

Whether you participate formally by joining a group in the style of NaNoWriMo or if you just increase your awareness and appreciation for the form by reading a poem in April, it’s a matter of celebrating this art form. There are so many styles of poems out there to suit every reader. Some of us have been conditioned by our years in school to consider poetry a stuffy and boring relic of the past. That can be true—for some. In my personal experience, I had a comprehensive education of the Fireside poets (Longfellow, Cullen Bryant, Emerson, etc.), which ignited my interest but may have dulled someone else’s. For every Emily Dickinson, there’s a Maya Angelou. For every Robert Frost, there’s an Ntozake Shange. For every Shakespeare, there’s a Shel Silverstein. This is a time of renewed vigor for so many new poets; it’s a revolution. You don’t have to be educated in this form to appreciate it, so don’t be intimidated! The great beauty of poetry is that it just has to make you feel; a successful poet will touch your soul with a few well-written verses. This April, come join us in celebrating by writing or reading a new or favorite poem today!

Testing Your Novel’s Heart: Boulter’s ECG by T.N. Rosema

Back in December, we posted about Harmon’s Embryo, which checks the strength of your plot. This blog talks about Boulter’s ECG, which checks the emotional pace or “heart” of your novel.

The Echocardiogram (ECG for short) is a technique from Writing Fiction by Amanda Boulter, senior lecturer for creative writing at the University of Winchester. The ECG is best applied to longer works such as novels.

If we accept that a story is about change, then:

  • What changes are triggered by the events within it?
  • How do our characters deal with these changes?
  • How does the reader experience these changes?

 

The answers to these questions form the emotional pace of your story. To visually chart this, we can create an ECG in three steps.

1) Assign each scene in your novel a score out of 20.

Boulter suggests this framework:

1-5 points: scenes of “deliberation / recovery”

6-10 points: scenes of “intrigue / emotion”

11-15 points: scenes of emotional conflict or physical action

16-20 points: the vital scenes of “crisis and climax”.

 

2) Plot all your scenes on graph paper.

3) Join the dots.

Here’s an ECG for a novel with 40 scenes:

 

 

So how can the ECG help us to strengthen our novel’s emotional pacing?

  1. Avoid extended flatlines. Extended flatlines at any point will kill your novel. Too many contemplative navel-gazing scenes in a row, and the reader yawns. Too many blistering action scenes in a row, and the reader has nowhere to catch their breath. (“Oh…another murder?”)
  2. Aim for peaks and troughs. The goal is to change it up, so that readers progress through a series of tension-contemplation cycles. If your novel follows a conventional structure, these cycles will rise to a climax. For example, ECGs for novels based on the popular three-act structure will show a left peak, rising peaks (or crises) in the middle, and the largest peak to the right.

 

Boulter’s ECG is a fun technique that shows the reader’s emotional journey through your novel at a glance. Use it to manage your story’s pulse and guard the reader against heart attacks!

 

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REFERENCES

 

Boulter, Amanda (2007) Writing Fiction: Creative and Critical Approaches. Palgrave Macmillan.

You might be a writer if…

You know you’re a writer if:
You regularly include your tweets as part of your word count.
You spend more time staring at your blinking cursor than actually moving it.
You are afraid the FBI will investigate you based on your search history.
Friends and family have come to understand that anything they say or do can end up immortalized in print.
You have a clearly designated idea notebook into which you tape the napkins and bill envelopes you actually write your story ideas and notes on.
You consider staring into space to be a form of writing.
If you have ever finished a draft and then just deleted it.
If you have changed a major character’s name more than halfway through a story.
If you write poetry and hate always having to explain why some poems don’t rhyme.
 
If you have ever been looking through an old hard drive, CD, or notebook and found a story you once wrote that is actually pretty good!
If you have ever been looking through an old hard drive, CD, or notebook and found something you once wrote that is absolutely terrible and unsalvageable.
If someone asks what your story is about and you mumble something incoherent about three other stories that have tiny pieces of similarities to yours.
You have ever been *this* close to finishing a story only to have your brain insist that this other idea is too important not to write *right now*.
If you have ever delighted in fictionally destroying a person who was cruel to you in real life.
If you have ever used the same cup for coffee and wine in the same day.
If sending your novel out to it’s first beta reader is like sending your kid off on his first sleepover.
If the string of letters, “NaNoWriMo”, makes your heart start to race.
If you have ever cried for your own main character’s pain.
If you try to write off lattes at a coffee shop as a work expense.
Have one to add? Send us a comment!

Reader Request: What Do Editors Write? By Catherine Foster

Reader Request: What Do Editors Write? By Catherine Foster

A reader of ours reached out and requested a blog article devoted to shining the spotlight on what is on our editors’ private writing dockets. This seemed like an idea for an interesting topic, but also an excellent time to demystify some myths associated with editors. While it is true we wield the dreaded red pen, we are just as often the subject of one ourselves. Many—I daresay most—editors begin as authors themselves, and a great number of them continue to write and submit their works as they support their clients, as well. So it may surprise you to learn that we are all in this thing together! Editors often pass work along to each other for a simple “brushing up” or for someone to “glance over”—as professionals, we understand the necessity of having a fellow editor check our work, but I’ll admit that it takes a lot of years before it gets easier to accept constructive criticism and learn to make necessary changes to our beloved writing! With time, we come to anticipate and expect the work that comes after the joy of writing, but even seasoned authors’ hearts sink a little when we open a document and see nothing but slashes through paragraphs, big sections omitted and huge notations in the margin for our perusal. I share this with you so that you know that we have the expertise as editors but also the humanity; we have walked in your shoes but are most likely walking with you even now as we share the process from the same side. Editing requires precision but also gentleness, and anyone who has been writing and submitting for some time has been shaped by experience enough to have both. Here is a list of what is inspiring and humbling us into the best editors we are at the moment:

Josh Smith: Josh has recognized that he is a much stronger editor than he is a writer, and as such has been spending most of his creative energies on projects of that nature, the most exciting of which is the first book release by Bedlam Publishing, where he is Editor-in-Chief. The seeds for “All of Yesterday’s Tomorrows: collected poems” by Ramez Qureshi were planted by Ali Eteraz four years ago, and fluctuated between various states of production until last year when all the pieces really started coming together. It will be out in hardcover and eBook editions this spring, and is Qureshi’s posthumous debut. Once the book hits the print shop, Josh will begin work on the next edition of Bedlam’s annual art & lit magazine, Loud Zoo. He is also editing pieces for a prospective collection by The LetterWorks’ very first client, Brett Petersen!

His only current project that doesn’t involve editorial work is something of a musical experiment. A passable percussionist and frequent found-object musician, he inherited a bass and has been attempting to incorporate it into his sonic palette. With a stack of lyrics already written and more coming all the time, he’s trying to figure out how to play the music that’s rattling around them in his head, and then he’s sure to bother anyone within earshot with … whatever it is he thinks he’s doing.

Amanda Wayne: Amanda is currently researching the effect of brevity on connotation and denotation and the way in which readers react to word choice. (Read: spends too much time on Twitter.) She is also doing a study on how repetitive iterations of children’s literature forces parents to reassess the importance of literacy. (If she has to read SkippyJon Jones one more time, Mama Junebug is going to be mourning the loss of her kittyboy.) Occasionally, she manages to jot down an idea for a story. These notes, when later fished out of the toy box and read, appear to be written in crayon and are actually sketches for inventions to get toddler pee out of battery powered toy trucks or prosthetic arms so that a mom can hold a baby and also make herself a sandwich.

Melissa Heiselt: Melissa doesn’t have any focused work in progress, but she’s always tucking away ideas and developments for a couple of larger fantasy pieces that will likely be marinating for years yet. She feels as if she has some foundational gaps that she needs to work through before she spend too much time writing a monstrosity (or two) that would need a massive overhaul. [ed. note: this is a completely unfounded sentiment] She’d rather have the bones laid straight from the start. She occasionally writes poetry. Since discovering Deep Magic, her new goal is to flesh out some short stories to submit to that E-zine. She preaches all the time about making regular time to write because she knows all too well what happens when you don’t! It’s a struggle to regain those writing muscles that have atrophied, and it’s a vicious cycle that makes you not want to write because your work just isn’t up to your own standards anymore, but the only solution is to keep writing more things!

TN Rosema: TN is an accomplished poet, author and editor who helms a longstanding writer’s group. Their interests are pre-writing and manuscript revision.

Catherine Foster: Catherine began publishing poetry at age ten and has been writing and submitting ever since. She moved on to short stories and recently counted her number of published titles in the seventies. She’s written and had moderate success with everything ranging from poetry to short stories to memoirs and even dabbled in writing scripts. Writing has always been a part of her life, but over the past few years she’s slowly evolved into editing more and more. At the moment, she spends her time writing to penpals in prison, which takes up quite a bit of the time that she used to devote to creative writing, but she feels it is a more worthy endeavor at this stage in her life. It is fair to say that she is retired from writing and submitting at this time and focusing solely on the business of editing and writing for volunteer purposes.

So that is our team! We all come from different backgrounds and are at varying stages in our careers. We have a wealth of knowledge and continue to evolve. The important thing to know is that we are editors and writers because we cherish the craft and respect the language, and we entered this field because we have a passion for helping others succeed. If you have any questions or if we can help you, please let us know in the comment section or email me directly at catherine@theletterworks.com. Until next time, happy writing!

 

 

Author Spotlight: Jeff Wheeler by Amanda Wayne

Jeff Wheeler is a Wall Street Journal bestselling author of several fantasy novels. Among them are the Kingfountain and Muirwood series. His books are a blend of legend, history, and theology. He worked for many years at Intel before deciding to pursue his writing career fulltime. After dozens of rejections from traditional publishing houses, he opted to self-publish his books. This captured the attention of 47North, an Amazon publishing house. Four years after his early retirement from the IT world, Jeff Wheeler is quickly becoming a force in the literary world. He revived Deep Magic, a clean fantasy e-zine, to give writers in the subgenre a place to submit their works. Jeff’s unorthodox rise from rejection to success is an example to writers of how to overcome adversity and forging their own path to become a bestselling author. He is a devoted husband and father and a devout member of his LDS congregation. Jeff was kind enough to answer some questions for us today! (No spoilers!)

 

TLW: One of the many things I admire about your fantasy novels is the way in which you portray women. Your ladies are more Buffy than the “damsel in distress” trope. You take care to avoid writing female characters as powerless victims in a largely patriarchal society. Even your female villains are strong and powerful. What made you decide to go this much more female empowering route?

JW: It probably started with Princess Leia. I was in elementary school when the first Star Wars film came out; I still remember seeing it in the theater, and it made a huge impression on me. I grew up with mostly brothers, but then my mom had two girls and both were powerful (they needed to be when so outnumbered by us!) I’ve never liked writing stereotypes, so I’m not deliberately trying to make one sex stronger or weaker than the other. What I want is for my characters to feel realistic and human. I married a very strong woman, and she’s been an inspiration to me since we knew each other as teenagers. When I create characters, I want them to feel like real people. Many of them are actually inspired by real people—especially the girls.

 

You manage to marry historical fiction, Arthurian legend, and an undercurrent of theology into a fantasy series. This is quite an accomplishment. What made you think that a recreation of Richard III’s timeline into your fantasy world could work? How did you meld the genres so seamlessly?

I’ve always had a love of history and a love of fantasy, and it’s very natural for me to blend them together. I did my master’s thesis on an aspect of Richard III and have read many books and documents about that era. It’s part of my personal history, too—one of my ancestors died fighting in the same battle that killed Richard III. Like so many creative people, I often get my inspiration by mashing together ideas to form something new. I know a lot about the War of the Roses and thought that the setting would be an interesting era to write in. I mixed in some Arthurian legends and a trip to Yosemite, and voilà!

 

 

On the subject of theology, the Fountain magic has been compared to The Force. The Virtus concept is Roman based, but also carries some connotations of the Jedi code of honor. Your protagonists are self-sacrificing and honorable almost to a fault. In order to create tension, their adherence to their faith and their sense of nobility is constantly being tested. Were you ever tempted to have one of them fail their oaths and be destroyed by it?

Most people are inspired by inspiring stories. It sells a lot of Chicken Soup for the Soul books! There are so many examples in the world today of people who let others down or about those who are driven by greed and self-interest. I’m not interested in telling those kinds of stories. What I’ve always loved are those examples of people who gave it all for a higher cause. Those are the people I admire. Will I ever write a story about someone who doesn’t live up to that ideal? You never know. I like to surprise my readers.

 

One of the most poignant themes in your novels is that of the choice between free will and destiny. Did you find, in your research, that stories in our own history seem to repeat? Are we doomed to relive them until we learn from our mistakes?

It’s amazing to me how much history repeats itself. Take the Oath Maidens, for example, from the second half of the Kingfountain series. After coming up with that idea, I began to look for examples of more ‘Shield Maidens of Rohan’ (a nod to Tolkien) in history. I found so many. Yes, sometimes I think we are doomed to repeat mistakes if we don’t learn from them, but I also believe that every individual is capable of getting out of their cycle and doing better. History proves that is possible, too. But it’s always hard and many don’t try.

 

Your novels are in the subgenre of clean fantasy. The violence, while overt and necessary, is much more muted than in other literature. The human interactions are sweet and chaste. While there are some hints in your books of people engaging in activities that are unbecoming, your main characters are never put in positions that are untoward. Is it difficult to write in this genre and not fall into the modern trend of gory, explicit violence and oversexualization?

Let me put it this way: I think it is more difficult to write without those things than it is to include them. It’s easy to rely on the sensational or the sordid for its shock value. For years I worried that the audience for “clean fantasy” was shrinking and that no one would want to read the kind of stories I was interested in telling. But I made a commitment to myself and my family and God that I would write counter to the trend because I believe in it so strongly. It’s what motivated me to love the genre to begin with. When I started having success with my Muirwood books, it proved to myself (and my publisher) that the market for cleaner fare was ready for a change. It’s not a small niche, either. As a result of the success of my books, I re-started my old e-zine, Deep Magic, to encourage and provide a venue for other authors who share similar values and a market for readers who want more. I think the pendulum swung too far toward the darker fare. It’s gratifying seeing more and more family friendly fantasy in the market these days.

 

On the subject of writing as a craft, you managed to write three whole novels in six months. NaNoWriMo is considered an extreme, even insane, challenge for authors. Writing and editing three books in such a short time is incredible! You quit a successful IT career to become a fulltime author, but how did you stay motivated? What helped you keep writing?

I have the best job in the world—for me. Even when I was in school, I dreamed of being a fulltime author someday. I’m also grateful that I was given the chance to do what I love. Like with any job, it takes a certain amount of self-discipline not to be distracted by social media, cat videos, or the like and to knuckle down and get to work. But I love what I do and it’s not hard to stay motivated. I have a wife and five kids to support, after all! While I don’t miss the cubicle life, I’m grateful for all that I learned working for Intel. Some of it has even inspired my writing.

 

Do you have any advice for authors who are still trying to get a foot in the door?

Persistence and practice. I’ve studied the lives of successful people from all disciplines and the one thing they all have in common in uncommon persistence. That’s especially true in a field where there is so much rejection. I had 42 agents tell me no. I still don’t have an agent. But I refused to quit. What I didn’t realize was that my publisher hadn’t even been born yet. Timing is everything. And about practice, I heard from Terry Brooks (the man who inspired me to write), who attributed the quote to Stephen King, that after you’ve written your first million words, then you’re ready to start being an author. A million of anything is a lot. So practice. And keep practicing.

 

You have nothing but praise for your developmental editor. Many authors don’t know what developmental editors are or how they can help. Why did you decide that the Whispers of Mirrowen books needed a structural edit? What have you learned about the process that you can share with our readers?

I didn’t even realize that developmental editors existed until I landed my first publishing deal. My publisher, 47North, assigned a dev editor to work with me on the Mirrowen series. They didn’t do that with Muirwood because it was already on the market and already doing quite well with readers! So they re-packaged it, did some general grammatical fixing, and then recorded the audio and boom, it was ready. But I’ve found having a dev editor to be an incredibly beneficial part of my writing process. If I had known what they were and what they did, I would have used them back when I started. Even when I self-publish books, I use my team. Their input is incredibly valuable to me.

 

You went from a dedicated cubicle professional to a WSJ bestseller in just a few short years. How does it feel to be such a successful author and do you have any words of wisdom to pass along to writers hoping for success like yours?

Sometimes I do pinch myself to make sure it’s not all a dream. But to be honest, it feels very normal now. I try to foster an attitude of gratitude and appreciation every single day. It is an enormous blessing to do for a living what you love, and I certainly haven’t gotten tired of it at all. It’s a privilege having fans, impacting them in some small way, and an honor hearing from them. I try to be responsive because I remember what it felt like to hear back from authors I admired. Back in the day  you had to mail them letters! That’s one of the reasons I said yes to this interview.

 

You just revealed that you are halfway through writing a new series. What can we expect from this new series? Can you give us any hints?

I never do spoilers! The pre-order page is live along with the stunning cover art for STORM GLASS. This series will be longer than my normal ones (5 books instead of the usual 3) and will feature two main characters who see the world and the plot from very different points of view. Both characters are fun to write and sometimes I struggle as to which POV I want to focus on next. The setting will be sort of Dickensian. That’s it. No more teasers!

When Less is Really More by Catherine Foster

Did the Edmund Dantes, the Count of Monte Cristo, have an accent? What color was the dress Emma Bovary wore when she swallowed the vial of arsenic? When Van Helsing hunted Dracula, did he wear his brown boots or his black ones? Did Odysseus wax poetic upon the length of Circe’s hair before she turned his crew into swine? Was Lancelot born with blue eyes or brown?

You probably never thought to ask these questions because they aren’t that germane to the story or even that interesting to ponder. Some details of stories are important to note. For instance, it is a key plot point that Harry Potter bore a lightning-bolt-shaped-scar on his forehead. It is less important for us to know that Hermione has buckteeth and frizzy hair. It might be crucial to the fairytale Cinderella to mention that there is a slipper, but it is not pivotal to reveal that the shoe is made of glass. How can we know which things are necessary to include in our writing and which ones we should leave out?

This is a question, of course, of personal preference. There is no central rule that applies, and this article can only serve to illustrate one viewpoint, which is to champion the cause of minimalism. In the course of my career as an editor, I have seen many mistakes the authors make, and one that touches my heart most is when the frank earnestness of well-intentioned authors causes a mess of florid prose to pile up on the page. We often enter this craft because we have a love of words. Many of us have had a calling to write or have been writing stories since we were children. Some of us have vivid worlds and characters inside our heads that are fairly bursting out onto the page. It may seems counter-intuitive or even close to impossible to pull back on description. And why should we?

The answer is simple: when you include extraneous detail, you rob the reader of the experience of their own imagination. What color is the little mermaid’s hair? For those of you who have seen the popular cartoon, it is a memory that is now branded foremost in your mind. But in the original tale by Hans Christian Andersen, it merely says, by turns, “flowing” “long” “thick” “waving” and “beautiful.” Never, at any time, does he describe a color. This leaves you free to imagine a mermaid and her beautiful hair any way you see fit—until, of course, you watch a Disney version.

Why is this important? Because Mr. Andersen undoubtedly had an idea in his own mind about what constituted beauty. We might surmise that, as a person of Danish ancestry, he might find the standard of beauty to include traditional blondes with fine features. This is conjecture, of course, but whatever Mr. Andersen considered beautiful, he did not impose his own ideas into the story. As an author, he must have had an active imagination, and he must have had a firm idea in his head of what his little mermaid looked like, but by not imposing those ideas on us, the audience, we are each free to imagine her as a blonde, a brunette, a redhead, even Chinese or African. He gifted us a blank slate and said “beautiful”—this allows each of us to imagine her in our own mind. As standards of beauty change throughout the decades, the little mermaid stays fresh and relevant. Her hair color isn’t important. The author’s idea of beauty isn’t important. Each person’s unique vision remains a gift through each retelling.

Many authors want to fight for the right to hold onto their vision of their story. That is understandable, but is it more important than the right of each reader to discover the magic of their own imagination? If it is a crucial detail, then by all means, include that detail. But if you include a detail that is for your own purpose, just to communicate your own vision, you are robbing people of a reading experience for no purpose than your own ego. It is similar to watching the movie before reading the book—which do you prefer? Which makes a more lasting impact? Explaining details instead of allowing for imagination, even on a small scale, makes for one less bit of interest they will have in your story and your vision. The more you explain to someone, the less they are invested and the less they care. If they imagine for themselves, they will come to love your tale more. You will gain more in the end with restraint.

Antoine de Saint-Exupery, the author of The Little Prince, said, “Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” This is something I urge every author to take to heart. It should be the guiding principle not of writing, but of editing. Trust yourself, but also trust your readers. They will thank you for it in the end, and you will see your fans multiply!

How to Brainstorm Your Next Bestseller by T.N. Rosema

Writing advice often talks about how to organize ideas into a coherent form: plot, scenes, timeline. But how do we come up with these story ideas in the first place? How, exactly, does one brainstorm?

At its heart, brainstorming has three steps:

  1. Generate
  2. Evaluate
  3. Reiterate!

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STEP 1: Idea Generation, or Problem Solving

Creativity flourishes within limits. I posit that, for successful brainstorming, we need to assign:

  • one or more specific questions, and
  • a numerical limit.

 

An idea is the answer to a question, stated or implied. It is the solution to a problem. The broader (or more unlimited) the question, the vaguer the result. For example, “What is my hero like?” might yield vague answers. More specific questions could be:

What does my hero want the most?

Why does she want this?

What happens if he doesn’t get it?

How can her story-desire be expressed in a scene?

How could he react in a compelling way?

The limit can be quantity (10 ideas, one paragraph, etc) and/or time (5 minutes to an hour).

Do not judge or criticize any ideas generated in Step 1. This step is all about quantity over quality; focus on producing ideas, however weak or “impossible” they seem.

Number your ideas; it helps during Step 2.

All writers (and projects) are different, so there are myriad ways to generate ideas. Popular methods include freewriting, listing, and mindmapping or clustering. Below is an example of a mindmap.

Time limit: 10 minutes.

Question 1: How are these characters connected?

Question 2: What is their nationality or ethnic background?

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STEP 2: Evaluation, or Quality Control

Time to engage the critical brain. For every idea generated in the last step:

List its advantages (pros).

 List its disadvantages (cons).

 How might you convert these cons into pros?

E.g. X is from Country Y.

(1) More diversity in the cast.

(2) Do I know enough about this region to draw a representative and respectful portrait?

(3) Cultural research might enrich / modernize the story.

 

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STEP 3: Repeat

Repeat Steps 1 and 2 as necessary.

========================================

Creative brainstorming is a three-step process that we can do at any time; there’s no need to depend on eureka moments in the shower! If you keep a writer’s notebook, I highly recommend creating a page for Problems to Solve.

Remember —

If instinct tells you to keep a “crazy” idea: figure out why and how.

If there are significant disadvantages to an idea: feel free to discard it. Better ones will come.

If you aren’t coming up with any ideas that you like: rephrase your original questions, or change them altogether.

Good luck, and happy brainstorming ~

 

In Bed with Jill Hamilton by Amanda Wayne

When I started researching Jill Hamilton for this interview, I ran into a rather unique problem. Every site I visited had her essays and tips. I kept getting sucked into them and forgetting that I was there to do actual work. I wasn’t there to learn about the weirdest sex inventions, seminars for vagina meditation, or octopus fetishes. I just wanted to find out about her degree from the University of Michigan and any random tidbits on her personal life that I could. I used every millennial surfing trick I possessed. I was all over social media, scouring website “about me” blurbs, and lurking on professional networking sites. I was this close to paying one of those stalker sites to get some good info on her. I knew super intimate details about her, but not the boring surface stuff that I knew about my neighbor’s sister. Jill manages to make it feel perfectly ordinary to read about things I only talk about with my best friend after we split one of the really big bottles of cheap wine.  It turns out that reading all of Jill’s entire anthology of essays was all the research I needed on this enigmatic lady. Jill has written for major magazines such as Rolling Stone and Cosmo and Entertainment Weekly. Her blog, www.inbedwithmarriedwomen.com, is hilarious and full of useful information. She agreed to answer a few questions for me and it was every bit as entertaining as I had hoped.

You have built this persona as a sexpert, writing for Cosmo, Salon, Alternet, Jezebel and many others. How did you fall into this crazy line of work where you make money talking about sex? 

My first Cosmo story was about 10 Weirdest Sex Devices or something like that. One of the things was a 70s-era bra with built-in nipples. The joke was about would happen if your actual nipples decided to make an appearance.  That is, 2 nipples = sexy, yet 4 nipples = not so much.

It mutated into me doing a stint as a sexual guinea pig, testing out Ye Olde Cosmo Tips–Use a scrunchie during a BJ! Smear food all over yourselves!  I have literally taken money for having sex (with my husband, for a Cosmo story, but still.) Whorish? Best job ever? Answer unclear.

What was the first big break you got as a writer?

I found out (long story) that there was a concert at a local nudist park in Michigan featuring Foreigner, Eric Burdon and others of that ilk. I sent a query to the delightful Jancee Dunn at Rolling Stone and she sent me to cover it. In case you were wondering, no one in Foreigner got naked, but everyone around me–who were exactly the age and demographic you could expect of older, not especially-toned nudists in Michigan– were butt naked, but for, incongruously, shoes and socks.

At what point did you decide to just embrace the baser side of humanity and write about the kinds of things people read in an incognito window?

Short answer:  Why bother with anything else?

Longer answer: I was sitting at the friggin’ Chuck E. Cheese with my friend, and we were discussing our moribund sex lives. What were the other preschool mothers doing about this? Was that one lady who looked like a grandma still banging her grandpa-looking husband? Were people having affairs? Did people just let their sex lives die, chalking it up to “maturity” and focusing really really hard on something like scrap booking?

I decided to start a blog In Bed With Married Women to ask people just this. (I am alarmingly nosy.) The idea was going to be a sociology study, with women just telling their stories. Like Studs Terkel but with more nudity.  The thing was, stories about marital sex are about as interesting as actual marital sex.

About the same time I saw an ad for something called Anal Ring Toss and I kind of veered in a whole different direction. This is still the central tension in the blog today–between a serious look at sex and what the hell it even is vs. the immature joy of finding a Japanese sex spray that smells like “secretary.”

What advice do you have for moms trying to live both lives?

My kids are kind of like Stepford children and are bizarrely good and smart. Advice for others:  just do the parts you want. Like I don’t really fold clothes as much as bend them into smaller shapes.

Do you ever have trouble making those pieces work together? “Lift your left leg on to your partner’s right shoulder and- Hey! Don’t eat with scissors!”

I actually have said “Don’t eat with scissors.”  They were safety scissors, but still.  My kids are older now and they know way too much about what I do. I think it’s good though. Knowledge is power and all that. My sixteen-year-old, Maddie, is cheeky as hell and makes up fake positions that I should be sending to Cosmo.  I think the most recent one was the New Year’s themed “The Ball Drop” for the older gentleman.

What advice would you give to someone trying to get their first set of words in print? 

Write something. If you don’t, maybe you aren’t actually a writer. Maybe you’re a chef or something.

Do you ever get tired of writing about sex? 

Positions, yes. So yes. But sex, not yet.

Does anyone ever recognize you and ask for sex advice?

People ask me about sex toys. If you’re asking, I am currently going steady with an iRock by Doc Johnson.

You have a very intimate writing style. It is unapologetically frank and quite charismatic. Did this come naturally to you or did you develop it over time?

This sounds so ick and pretentious, but if you’re not talking about something real, what’s the point?

You seem to go to a lot of sex seminars and workshops, is it usually a sausage fest? Or are the sexes equally represented?

Both; people are generally earnest.  They want to be decent lovers, have good sex lives and are open to learning something new.

In the 60s, America had a sexual revolution and women came out of the kitchen burning bras and marching for rights. Women have started to march again. What do you think the future generations will have to say about what women accomplished now?

I think they will think it’s ridiculous that we were so backwards.

Do you think we have gone too far? America’s modern mother is a bread winner, bacon cooker, house maid, PTA president, soccer mom, 5k runner who also is forward thinking enough to want to be on top when the lights go down. Is this equality?

Equality is when we all can feel comfortable and able to be whoever we are. Men women, black, white, whatever.

If you could have a one minute Superbowl ad to impart your wisdom to the masses of men and women in America, what would you say?

Science is real, you fucking morons.  Hmmm, maybe should tone that down a little. (Nah!)

You interact with your readers a lot. Are you ever afraid an overzealous fan will use internet skills to find you and show up at your door? 

Eighty-five percent of my readers are exactly who I hoped–super smart, funny and curious. I adore them. The weirdest people were a group of Nazis on Twitter who got all roused/riled up by a piece on pegging I did. They were super furious, yet oddly obsessed. They were like “Are you a Jew? Cause you write like one.” I said “No, but thank you!” and they got even madder.

What’s next for Jill Hamilton? Your own sex toy line? Lingerie? A book? Directing female friendly adult films? Parenting books? Cooking show?

I’m eternally working on a book, though by “working” I mean thinking about it, then playing Words With Friends.

The Big Book Proposal Post (part 3) by Catherine Foster

Welcome to the final edition of the Book Proposal post. In part one, we defined a book proposal and clarified the differences between a proposal and a summary of your book. In part two, we broke down the first ten headers that a successful proposal might include and discussed them in detail. In this post, we’ll tackle the remaining twelve sections that comprise a thorough proposal. Let’s get started!

Competing Books/Competitive Title Analysis
It may seem counterintuitive to list your competition, but it would be a mistake to omit this category. A common refrain from a new author is “There’s nothing like my book out there! This is the only thing out there of its kind!” First of all, that is simply not true. There are more books in print now than are able to be read by a person in their lifetime, even if they spent every moment doing nothing except reading. You are now trying to add to that enormous stack of published works. Given that fact, agents have seen, read and have been exposed to an astonishing variety of ideas. This need not distress you, however; the savvy author should view this as an opportunity. Your agent needs assurance that there is a market for your book. If your book is, indeed, so niche that there is truly “nothing else like it” out there, then agents typically have no interest in pursuing it. As an author, you are conditioned to think of originality as something positive, but agents/publishers tend to shy away from the unproven and untested ideas. It would be better to come forward with a list of competitors in your field and show how you can improve on what they have done, list how you differ, or point out in what ways you are better. The key is to angle yourself into a trend that will be a safe bet for your agent, but to also show how your book differs from what is currently available on the market. You do not want to skimp on this research; a list of five to ten titles would be necessary to establish a strong foothold in your genre. In each case, list your competitors’ title, subtitle, author, publisher, year of publication, page count, price, format, and the ISBN. Then take the time to write a 100-200 summary of their book and how yours differs, fills a gap, offers more, etc. It is imperative that 1) you remain respectful of their work and resist the urge to criticize it and 2) always have in mind the need to reveal that evidence of need we first discussed in section one. This is critical for the success of your acceptance, and if you can prove that your book provides a need for readers or society, it will make it easier and easier for your agent to say yes to you. Every opportunity you have to provide evidence of need is valuable, and this section is one of the most important ones to help your case.

Proposed Back Cover Copy
Your imagination gets a workout in this section as you get to visualize the ideal back cover for your book. What is the layout that showcases your book to its best advantage? This can vary quite a bit from genre to genre: nonfiction covers may ask a few questions and follow up with a list of bullet-points that are covered inside. This style breaks up some heavier topics that will snag the reader’s interest without bogging them down in technicalities. Short fiction or anthologies may provide a list of titles on the back. Novels might prefer to summarize the plot with a blurb. This is a chance to have fun and be creative. The more you take interest in your own book and every part of it, the less the agent will have to do. They will see you as an active participant in your own product, and they will want to have you for a client.

Marketing and Promotion
Perhaps the most crucial section of the entire proposal, this relies on your careful preparation of facts and figures. Your agent/publisher is going to be looking for you to provide a history of connections. It is imperative that you do not use words like “hope”, “would like to” or “goal” here. Your agent is seeking someone who is strong, confident and determined—a person who is going to follow through on their plans, with or without [an agent’s] help. They are not only looking for sings that you have what it takes, without hesitation, but that you have a history of this kind of behavior. You are going to need to provide clear statements here, such as:

-I have blogged every week for the past year, and every post receives [insert page views]. I have current invitations to guest blog [here] and [here], and those sites each reach [give stats].

-Do not say: I plan to reach out to different sites and try to guest blog in the future.

-Say: Within six months of launch, my website reaches [insert statistic].

-Do not say: I am going to try to register for a website and start blogging soon to increase hits.

The more concrete evidence you can give that you are reaching an established audience and that you bring fans with you that are eager to read your work, the easier it will be for your agent to say yes. If you sound unsure, unmotivated and uneducated, they will pass. Fast. Do your research beforehand and make it impossible for them to say no. Now is the time to bring it all home and provide that evidence that you have connections and readers that are ready and waiting for this book. All this agent has to do is sign on the line and it’s a go. Make it sound so easy. Now is the section to persuade them that you have done all the work, there is a readership waiting … just sign it into being. Provide the facts, and it will happen.

Potential Endorsers
Not a strictly necessary section, it is just an extra. It helps to have a list of important, relevant or famous people who are willing to vouch for you. Of course, not everyone has a list of celebrities who are willing to sign for them, and that’s all right. If you are writing a book about gynecology, and you have a colleague or two who is willing to put their name and credentials in, it helps to lend legitimacy to your material. If you don’t have an endorser, though—and many of us don’t—it is perfectly fine to skip this section. If you add it in, just list your names in any order you feel shows to your best advantage. It is usually best to include how they are relevant in parentheses or with a comma after their name. This list may be as long or as short as you like.

Other Details
This includes miscellanea such as the format (hard or soft cover, dustjacket or none), the wordcount, page count and deadline. You may choose to include some or all of these details—or perhaps none—depending on how close you are to completion of the book. This is optional, of course, and merely a guideline.

About the Author
Somewhat self explanatory, you can make this section as long or short and as personal as is your preference.

Sales History of Previously Published Books By Author
If you have a great track record, now’s the time to shine. Show ’em off here!!!

Proposed Outline
Break it all down here. You have some leeway—you can propose the number of pages you want to spend. Dedication: 1 page. Acknowledgements: 1 page, Title page: 1 page. Table of Contents: 2 pages, Introduction: 9 pages. Etc. You can also give a more in-depth summary of your book here. It would be appropriate for the agent to finally get to the meat of what they are trying to say “yes” to: here is where that starts to happen.

Table of Contents
If you are including a Table of Contents in your book, you may choose to list that here.

List of Chapters/Chapter-by-Chapter Summary
If you have chapters in your book, particularly if they have names, you may want to give a list of those and include the number of pages within each chapter. I would be a good idea to give a brief thirty-fifty word description of each individual chapter.

Sample Chapters
Choose one or two sample chapters to copy here, or include a portion of your book. Make sure you note for the agent which chapters or sections your are attaching. Make it your best work! This is what your agent is going to be judging you on, so be sure to select carefully.

It is important to remember that this is merely a template for a book proposal. You may want to select different sections that meet your individual needs. Of course, you may highlight, add, rearrange or completely omit sections that do not work for your needs. The most important aspect to remember is to elevate the evidence of need for your manuscript when you are crafting your proposal; there are many ways to do that. Agents and publishers are difficult to secure, but they are not above wanting to profit. If you can successfully highlight evidence of need, you are sure to be in print someday. It may not be the first or the second proposal you submit, but someone will be able to see the worth, and you will be a (monetarily) successful author before you know it. But this post shows that this is a side to writing that may not appeal to everyone, and if you find that dealing with proposals and agents and writing business plans is crushing your creative spirit, that’s important to recognize, too. Whatever path you choose as an author, I wish you much luck and success. If you have any questions or concerns, I’m here to help! Please e-mail me at catherine@theletterworks.com. Happy writing!

Five Writing Rules You Should Break by Amanda Wayne

There are hard and fast rules of the writing industry. A story must… a poem must.. We are fortunate enough to live in a time when many of those rules can and perhaps even must be broken. Sure, you still have to follow basic grammar and spelling structures. An “i” must always precede an “e” (except for those twenty or so times when it doesn’t). A story must have a beginning, middle, and end. It must have characters. It must have a plot. Flash fiction defies most of these. A single fragment of a sentence about unworn baby shoes can convey an entire story. Poems once needed to rhyme in order to be considered poetry. Should you break the rules? It is a calculated risk. Breaking the rules merely for the sake of breaking them achieves little. Breaking the rules in order to showcase facets of your story is far more rewarding. Language isn’t permanent. It changes and bends. So which rules should be broken?

Ending a Sentence in a Preposition, are you going to?

I’m from the Midwest. We drop prepositions at the end of virtually every sentence. They are often entirely superfluous. Otherwise, they require a sentence structure that is entirely too formal. It isn’t that we don’t know this rule, its just a regional vernacular pattern. We also say, “Do what?” which means “Huh?” and drop our g’s like we’re sellin’ em.

“Where are you going to?” (Where are you going?)

“What did you talk about?” (About which topics did you converse?)

and my favorite, “Whadjuh do that for?” (Why did you do that? or For what reason did you do that?)

Now, I’m not advocating that your prose be full of sentences that end in prepositions. That would be tiresome. Instead, embrace your character’s vernacular. If your protagonist isn’t an old school grammarian, they probably don’t speak like one. If your prose does occasionally end in a preposition and the alternative is too weighty or formal, just run with it. Your personal writing style can be looser than your professors taught you.

And Beginning a sentence with a Conjunction or Additive

Thou shalt not begin a sentence with “because”. Why? “Because I said so.” It isn’t often appropriate to begin a sentence with an additive or conjunction. The definition of these terms almost precludes you from doing so. An additive is also known as a copulative conjunction, which sounds sexier than it is! The function of a conjunction is to add together words and clauses and phrases. This usage seems to insist that something came before it. It can be a powerful stylistic move to break this rule. Using it yanks your reader’s attention. It is unusual. It stands out. Use it sparingly and wisely. It is especially effective in a climactic moment. Breaking this rule feels delicious. It’s a flagrant word foul and my seventh grade English teacher would be appalled. It isn’t wrong, just frowned upon.

The will they/won’t they couple finally gets together? “And then she kissed him.” The use of the copulative conjunction here connects it not directly to the sentence before it, but to everything that came before it. All of the tension and angst builds to this powerful little additive.  “Or she would have if not for…” The oppositional conjunction here set us up against what came before it. Its use can pull a reader out of a character’s fantasy or daydream and back into the real action. Other good additives to begin with are “moreover” and “plus.” These are easier to pop into dialogue than into your prose.

Use Small Words (not Infinitesimal Language Constructions)

Don’t say saffron if you mean yellow. Don’t say ambulatory if you mean walking. This rule can easily be broken. Be wary of breaking it too much. I like some descriptive language as much as the next person, but overly poetic sentences that run on are pretty much guaranteed to annoy the reader. A man doesn’t always walk, sometimes he struts, slinks, or creeps. A woman sometimes puts on lavender eyeshadow with teal eyeliner. Use those bigger, more descriptive words to draw attention to where you want your reader to focus. A cream colored horse in a herd of white ones draws a picture in the reader’s mind. If every horse is described in great detail, nothing sticks out. Try to keep the landscape in your mind. What features do you most want to highlight? Place your descriptors there and leave the rest in plainer language. Finding that exact word that precisely captures what you were looking for can be exhilarating. So, if your character is obsequious and that’s exactly right, let them be. Just make sure they aren’t an obsequious boniface enjoying vespertine recumbence. No one likes garrulous loquacity.

Middle, End, Beginning

A story has a beginning, middle, and an end. True. Does it also follow that you must read them in that order? Some of my favorite books have teased the end first and made me work to find out how we get there. Sometimes the prologue is the last page of the book. I read a popular very long series where the last sentence was the same as the first. It was intensely disappointing and satisfying at the same time. I know a woman who always reads the last few pages before she begins a book. It saves her getting immersed in a story that won’t pan out. Flashbacks are also a great way to jump around in the timeline of a story and reveal bits and pieces that become important later. The beginning of the story doesn’t always begin on the first page. Often, the beginning of the story happened before the novel even begins and the reader has to catch up to where you are in the action. There are lots of constructions to make this really work for you. Remember, though, that just because they aren’t in order doesn’t mean you don’t need all the pieces.

Show, Don’t Tell

Of all the rules, this one is the big one. Don’t say that the man is compulsive, show it in his actions. Don’t say that it was an important day, make it obvious. That’s all well and good, but sometimes it is necessary to just tell your reader something and move on. I’m not advocating the detested “info dump.” However, it can be better to add a line or two that answers some questions than to write a whole page showing it. Not every small fact about your fantasy world must be fleshed out in agonizing detail. There is a fine line between showing and swimming in verbosity. Again, this is a violation of the rules that you want to do judiciously.

Most rules of language can be broken if you break them wisely and with purpose. To break a rule just for the sake of breaking it may be satisfying to you as an author, but if you alienate your reader it achieves little. Overusing adverbs is as bad as using none. Writing a cliché metaphor is bad, but creating a new metaphor that makes no sense is worse. For every writing rule, there is an author who broke it well and beautifully. You can be that author so long as you approach it with caution and determination.