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Showing posts from September, 2010

Ten Ways to Get the Most from a Writers’ Conference

I recently attended the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers Colorado Gold Conference in Denver, so the benefits are fresh in my mind. In addition to the educational and networking opportunities at these conferences, there are often manuscript critique workshops and appointments to pitch your work to agents and editors. Here are my ten suggestions to get the most from any writers’ conference you attend. 1. Become a member of the organization sponsoring the conference. If that organization has a Yahoo! Group, join it as well. It’s the best way to make contacts before the event and find the volunteer jobs I mention in #3. 2. If you have an area of expertise useful to authors, send a workshop or panel proposal for the conference committee’s consideration. At Colorado Gold, some of the well-attended sessions were presented by unpublished writers or others with knowledge of e-books, e-readers, digital publishing options, police arrest tactics, blogging and social media, and publicity. 3.

Role Play to Better Writing

To become a better writer and student of the craft, many writers take to buying books on character, plot, voice, and setting; take to attending workshops; and take to consulting with writing coaches. None of these things are bad; in fact, I do many of these things, and I also coach writers and write articles to help them in many of the areas regarding writing and publishing. However, there is something that we all can do that doesn’t cost much, if anything, except for our time and will give us opportunity to develop our writing: role play. The connections between role playing and creative writing can be fairly obvious. Both contain the following elements: setting/worldview, conflict(s), characters/players, context, action/enactment, resolution/outcome, and rules. To be a good role player, you have to be able to understand and work within these elements; the same holds true for the creative writer. I’ll talk about each of these elements briefly below. Setting/Worldview In its

Making Bumblebees Buzz

Ghostwriting is all about encouraging people to take what is inside them – their thoughts, ideas, and stories – and get them “out there” so they can enrich or illuminate the lives of others. But many people don’t believe that what’s inside them is worth anything. It is part of my job to convince them that this is not so. We all have something to contribute. I know this is true because my mother showed me it was. When I was about 4 years old, I wrote a poem about a bumblebee that my mother thought was the best poem any child had ever written. She copied it out in her prettiest handwriting, using a pen with thick black ink, and adding many flourishes and curlicues. She used her best white stationary, not the newsprint I originally wrote it on. And then she illustrated it with her own fabulous drawings (I thought they were fabulous because her bumblebees really looked like bees, not dots, and her flower like flowers, not smudges.) She hung this creation inside a real frame, on the livi

Don't Like It? Too (Redacted) Bad

My upcoming novel, The Summer Son , includes approximately 71,900 words. Of those, an even 50 are the F-word, or one of its colorful variations. I know. I just counted. In light of my buddy Jim Thomsen's recent Insta-Poll on this topic, it occurs to me that some readers might find this number a bit distasteful. And with all due respect to individual sensibilities, delicate or otherwise, let me say this: I don't f-ing care. For much of the book, my protagonist, Mitch Quillen, searches his past and present for a way to get close to his father, Jim, an itinerant well digger who put a decades-long breach between father and son in one violence-drenched summer in the late '70s. Most instances of the word in question fall from Jim's mouth, either in present day or in Mitch's memories. As those exercises in expletivity migrated from my fingertips to the page, I had to satisfy just one standard: Did they ring true? The answer, in every case, is yes. F

Frozen In Their Attitudes: How Sh*t Got Vulgar

"In the common words we use every day, souls of past races, the thoughts and feelings of individual men stand around us, not dead, but frozen into their attitudes like the courtiers in the garden of the Sleeping Beauty ." -- Owen Barfield Conquerors write the history books--and determine the language in which they will be written. This is as true today as it was in 1066, when William the Bastard (so called because he was an illegitimate son—a “bastard”—and not because he was a mean, underhanded character) crossed the English Channel and defeated England’s King Harold at the Battle of Hastings to become William the Conqueror. For England’s commoners, the change was profound. Before William, advancing to a job in the castle had always meant learning a skill of some kind--cooking, cleaning, child-minding, or, if one was of a clerkish turn, sums or, in rare instances, reading. After William, advancing required learning not only a skill, but the new language of culture, of sta

Cussing tips

I can give cussing tips because early experience made me somewhat of an expert. When I was young my sister and I were allowed to walk the block to our elementary school to play on the outdoor equipment. My favorite set of monkey bars stood beside a court where older boys played basketball. I’d scramble up as high as I could then perch there to watch. And listen. And learn. After warming up the boys would remove their shirts. Around each neck the sun glinted off a gold crucifix pointing downward toward the slight swale between their adolescent pectorals. Their mouths loosened up with their muscles and my vocabulary lesson began—effing this and sh*tting that. Sometimes they dribbled the words effortlessly; sometimes they shot them with force. But for me this was also a lesson in characterization: Catholic boys cuss. Eventually I learned we all cuss in one way or another. From Dennis the Menace’s “Creepers, Mr. Wilson” to characters that roll about in a virtual verbal manure pile,

Bad Words in Books: A Different Perspective

Today, vulgarities abound. There’s no longer a distinct “polite society” where certain words are never spoken in public. To use a couple of clichés, we live in a world of “no holds barred” and “anything goes.” During my lifetime, I have watched a new-fangled invention called television (with very few channels) go from I Love Lucy in which no one was allowed to use the word “pregnant” to a multi-channel medium that entertains viewers with exactly how she got that way and which may be presented in the most vulgar, demeaning terms. We all know that profanity exists, sex exists, horrific violence exists. But must we wear that knowledge like a badge to show the world we’re privy to it? Or does it make more sense to aspire in our works to something different? I’m not suggesting a “Pollyanna” approach to writing; we don’t live in a “Pollyanna” world. The books I write allude to sex, profanity, and extreme violence. They’re realistic but not overly graphic, and they do not include vulgaritie

To What Extent Do You Tolerate The "F-Word" in Fiction?

I asked this question of my Facebook friends a few weeks ago, and a surprisingly lively conversation thread broke out — aided and abetted in no small part by my author friend Mary Guterson , who jumped in unexpectedly and got everybody's blood pressure rising. Mary's two novels, We Are All Fine Here and Gone To The Dogs , feature generally intelligent, well-educated women who drop f-bombs like kids drop candy wrappers. But overall, in 46 responses, opinion was fairly split down the middle. Which just goes to show, I think, that there's no one right answer. Either your personal aesthetic and the perceived aesthetic of your target audience demands that you keep such language out — or that you keep it in. A sampling of responses: • Christy K., a 37-year-old Seattle author: "Any word repeated too often gets boring, especially if it seems forced or unnatural. It's not a moral thing. But if it's in character, let it fly." • Jessica R., a Florida resident

Potty Mouth?

  The first mystery I wrote, Doubletake, was a collaboration with a woman who was … how can I put this delicately…very hard around the edges. Margaret had been around the block more than a few times and could hold her own with any sailor or truck driver when it came to colorful language. At that time, I was a mother of young children who had worked hard to never say anything harsher than "hell" lest my little darlings hear things they shouldn’t. The way Margaret and I worked on the book was to each write a chapter and then get together to trade pages and  add our touch to what the other had written. Margaret looked over my first attempt to write something from the killer’s point of view and said, “Maryann. A deranged killer is not going to say, ‘Gosh, golly, gee.’ He’s more apt to say, #(#*#*&,  @)*$&$,   #*@&#.” “But I can’t write those words. I’ve never even said them.”  Margaret grabbed me by the hand and took me out behind her barn where she made me rep

Need Help? Get Help

A couple of days ago, I visited a creative-writing class at Montana State University Billings , invited by an instructor who is kind of enough to have me come up once a semester to meet with her students. The instructor, Sue Hart (so complete a repository of knowledge about literature of the West that she ought to be a national treasure), told me that this class, in particular, was lively and engaged on the topic of writing. She wasn't kidding. In a rollicking 90 minutes, we covered a huge range of subjects related to writing and publishing. Of those, two stood out as particularly salient in this time when those who aim for traditional publishing are facing intense competition and those who lean toward independent publishing confront a huge marketing challenge. To protect the innocent, I'll identify the question and not the questioner: Since a publisher provides editors, how much do I have to worry about grammar and punctuation? An honest question deserves an honest answ

Creating Compelling Characters

“The first thing that makes a reader read a book is the characters.” – John Gardner Your novel can have a great premise and riveting plot, but if your characters are weak, boring, or undeveloped, your book will be quickly rejected by agents and acquisition editors. As Elizabeth Lyon points out, “Characterization is the bedrock of fiction and the reason most people read it. What endures in our hearts and minds over time is the heroes, heroines, and villains. Less often do we recall their plots. ” (A Writer’s Guide to Fiction) Unpublished authors very often have written a good story, but have neglected to develop their characters sufficiently. Your protagonist needs to be likable, charismatic, and complex enough to be interesting. He needs emotional depth and a few flaws and insecurities. And he needs to be able to draw on inner strengths and resources to take on adversity and overcome odds. If your character is annoying, boring, too perfect, or a wimp, you’re dead in the water. And

Another Point of View

Patricia Stoltey recently discussed various points-of-view (you can read the post by clicking here ), and today we welcome Susan Wittig Albert to discuss an unusual and little-used narrative POV she employs in her Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter series. Welcome, Susan, on this tour stop for the seventh book in the series, The Tale of Oat Cake Crag , and thank you for sharing your insights with us. ~~~~~~ The Narrator and the Reviewer In Mystery News a couple of years ago, Diana Vickery wrote a review of The Tale of Hawthorn House that made me smile. “Much of the book’s appeal,” she wrote, “was its twinkly third-person narrator. I could imagine her speaking voice—sweet, breathy but firm—and her personality traits: finely honed sense of both propriety and humor. And when she speaks directly to readers, they sit up and take notice.” Hey, I thought. This reviewer really got it. Because this is very close to the image I have in my own mind of the narrator of these family-friendly myster

Word Play Tuesday Is Here

It's the second Tuesday of the month, time for Word Play! I'll pick words that sound alike, but don't look alike. You can use them in phrases, sentences, or more. The trick is to include as many of them as you can and still make sense, or be silly if you wish. Playing with words instead of worrying about how or where to use them is a great way to wake up a sluggish imagination. Here's the first batch: Would - A conditional verb form - Would you care to donate? Wood - A noun - His head is like a block of wood. And More: Weigh - Verb - I won't weigh myself today, maybe not tomorrow either. Way - Noun - Show me the way to go home. And Lastly: Write - Verb - Tell me, why do I write? Right - Noun first, adjective second here - It's my right to be right. Okay, now go ahead and play in the comment section below. -------------------------------------------------------------- Morgan Mandel

The First Page

Back in the day (and by "in the day" I mean a few years ago), many books on writing pitched the idea of having a killer first chapter. Now, people want greatness quicker, right this instant, NOW. Screw the first chapter, we want to be hooked on the first page, the first paragraph, even first sentence. Well, how do you do that, you might be asking. A big chunk of it comes from your literary brilliance, obviously. However, another chunk comes from where you decide to begin your story. Many people think to start their stories from the very "beginning" of everything and follow a logical, chronological flow. Now, that's fine if that's the best way to tell your story, but if you're looking for a way to begin your story that will create the biggest punch for the reader earlier on, then consider thinking about all that goes on in your story and selecting a scene that creates that punch and pulls the reader into your story. What this mean is you will probably

Pet Peeves

I assume anyone taking time to read this blog has some sort of vested interest in language. We write, teach, or edit. For that reason, I also assume we each probably have our personal grammatical pet peeves. You know what I mean, those words or phrases that, when used incorrectly, run chills up your spine. We get our peeves from different places. Some of our peeves we inherit. My mother was always annoyed when anyone used the word ‘podium’ when they meant ‘lectern.’ She always said, “One stands on a podium, one stands behind a lectern.” So, of course, I don’t care that Merriam Webster and Random House dictionaries both say the words are interchangeable. In memory of my mother, I still roll my eyes me when people use ‘podium’ for anything other than the raised stage on which a speaker stands. Some of our linguistic pet peeves were instilled in us by teachers. ‘Can vs. may’ is traditionally a favorite of first and second grade teachers and often sticks with kids into adulthood. And som

Stretch Your Body To Revive Your Writer Mind

I’ll say this as nicely as I can: writing is not a physically strenuous profession. You know it, I know it, and most others know it. That notwithstanding, writing can take a major toll on your body, thanks to sitting at a desk or balancing a laptop on your legs for hours on end. Here’s were the relief part comes in: do yoga. Yep, yoga – the twisting, leaning, stretching stuff. At first glance, you may think that yoga has nothing to do with writing. How about a second look: most seated postures are awful for the body, putting strain on sensitive joints and cramping major muscle groups. Yoga helps you get up & moving, strengthening and releasing those muscles tendons, and joints. Anyone can do yoga, and I mean anyone. No matter your age, sex, weight, religion, or overall physical condition. Here are a few yoga poses especially for us writers, tested on many occasions by yours truly. Give yourself a 5-minute break that you most certainly deserve and try them out – no equipment nee