Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Review: The Writer's Data-Book by Amber Florenza

The other day, I was browsing Amazon, looking for interesting writing stuff, and I came across The Writer's Data-Book by Amber Florenza. It costs just under $7 and I was curious, so I bought a copy.

Writers who like to plan your books meticulously will find a lot a lot to love in this book. Even if you only sketch out a few characteristics and useful facts, the worksheets Florenza provides will be useful.

The worksheets focus mainly on characters, although there are pages to help you put together an overview of your book and even draft the dreaded synopsis. Mainly, though, the worksheets give you a place to fill out information about your main characters and the "secondary characters  who matter" and "secondary characters who exist," as the book calls them.

Among the more interesting pages, useful even for pantsers, are worksheets that help you keep track of a character's family and pages where you can sketch out the floor plan of a character's house or other important places.

Many of the left-hand pages throughout the book are lined for notes, and there are blank pages at the back of the book where you can draw or mind-map or whatever it is you like to do.

One interesting element I don't remember seeing before is the concept of flavors for your story. There are a few worksheets where these flavors are included.

The book is clearly a Print-On-Demand book. Mine is dated the day I ordered it. It is available in several colors so you can choose your favorite, or even color-code your projects. The author has also generously provided instructions for printing additional pages that are easy to locate online. In fact, I suppose if you really wanted to, you could print pages without buying the book, but that's cheating. The author deserves something for the work she put into planning her worksheets. Nowhere does she ask you not to do that, but the workbook is reasonably priced and includes those extra spaces for notes and sketches, as well as some pages that are not available for download.

Although the book is a plotter's dream--or could be, if it included more worksheets for scenes and other plot elements beyond the basic book summaries--I think pantsers can also use it for ideas or to track certain details. There's no rule that says you have to fill out every line, but we all need to keep track of stuff. It's a good deal at $6.75, especially since we can print more pages. Even if you use something like Scrivener to keep similar notes, sometimes there are advantages to the old analog way of doing things, especially if you want to make sketches on note paper.

If you're looking for something to help you plan your next story or make notes about your current work in progress--especially information about characters--give this workbook a try.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Feeling Positive About Long Odds

In an interview on the Agent Hunter blog, Gemma Cooper of the Bent Agency was asked:

How many submissions do you see annually? And how many of those submissions will end up on your list?

Her answer:

"I see around 6000 submissions annually, and take on about 2-3 new clients a year."

Based on other things I've read, I'd say this might not be a typical answer. Many agents take on fewer new clients each year and receive more queries.

Let's break down those numbers, shall we?

I don't have exact stats, obviously, but I'm betting at least half, maybe even 3/4 or more of those submissions can be immediately eliminated from competition, either because the author queried too soon with a manuscript that is not yet ready or because the author failed to do the requisite homework and queried an agent who does not rep that kind of story. None of us wants to believe we're one of those writers, but if we're not, chances are good we have been.

If we've sufficiently polished our manuscript and done our homework, this means our odds are improved from impossible to merely astronomical.

In a typically perverse writerly kind of way, this gives me some positive feels.

Another reason this makes me feel better is that it means when an agent says my story does not connect with her the way a story needs to if she's going to rep it with the required enthusiasm, it might not just be a line. Agents may indeed be superwomen and supermen, but even super heroes have limited time. Well, usually. Unless their super powers include manipulating time, a power I'll bet most agents would love to have but, sadly, just don't.

It's not like the agent is accepting everybody else's manuscript and declining mine. Better books than mine are likely being rejected on that same day.

I've had other writers tell me they love my story, people who didn't have to tell me anything at all. This means there might still be that one agent out there who doesn't automatically push my query into the pile of 5,998 that will not make it. 

There are a lot of agents out there. If they all choose one or two, or even three, new writers, that's still a lot of new writers. Maybe I'll be one of them. Maybe you will.

And if not, we'll keep chugging along because we believe in our stories, but mostly because we just love writing them.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

What About That Whole "Rejection" Thing, Anyway?

I've seen talented writers give up after a couple rejections. Rejection is a part of professional freelance writing, no matter how good you are.
In many cases, rejection means you tried too soon. It's tempting after typing "the end" to immediately start querying, but you have to revise. Not only that, but it takes time to learn the craft. You're not likely to be a virtuoso the first time you sit down to a piano or pick up a guitar. It takes practice. Writing is the same way. You have to practice and pay your dues.
Even after you've worked a long time at getting good, you're probably still going to be rejected. There are so many reasons that have little to do with the quality of your writing:
  • The publication (or agent) recently published something similar.
  • Something about the query didn't grab the editor.
  • The piece isn't quite what the publication is looking for.
  • It doesn't fit upcoming themes.
  • The editor didn't feel a personal connection to the story.
  • The editor was in a bad mood that day.
  • Other writers sent in stories that are more timely or interest the editor more.
There are many more.
One way my career has helped my personal writing is that I can look at my writing like a project and create a little distance between me and the writing. I can accept editorial feedback without taking it personally. And I can understand that not every piece is right for every publication, even if the publication seems like a good fit.
I've received a lot of rejections, including two in the past week. My policy is to react to each rejection by sending two more queries. I still have to send one today to meet the two-per-rejection goal. 
Some rejections sting more than others, like when you get a positive response, such as a request for the full manuscript, and then get rejected. But a professional realizes it's part of the game.
It's like baseball. (Life's little secret: everything is like baseball.) A successful batter gets out a little less than three times for every hit. Great hitters still get out more than twice as often as they hit successfully. Over the course of a season, even the best hitters have many games where they fail to get on base.
As Ted Williams, maybe the best hitter in history, said, "Baseball is the only field of endeavor where a man can succeed three times out of ten and be considered a good performer."
But Williams was wrong. Most writers, especially when they are starting out, face even bigger odds.
The thing about writing is, there's more competition than ever. It's always been a competitive field, but now, thanks largely to computers, everybody thinks they can be a writer. A lot of people think it's easy money.
It's not. It's hard.
No matter how good you are, your piece is likely one of hundreds competing for a few spots in a publication. It can be an incredible article or story, and still not quite be what a publication or publisher wants.
Like the great hitter who strikes out with the go-ahead runs on base, you've got to take the disappointment and turn it into resolve to make up for it next time, knowing full well that the odds are you won't succeed next time either.
Or you can take your ball and go home. There's no career after that decision. 
To paraphrase a baseball quote from Tommy Lasorda: There are three types of writers: Those who make it happen, those who watch it happen, and those who wonder what happens.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Give your muse wings

Even an apprentice muse (think of Clarence in It's A Wonderful Life) can help you find the creative impulse in yourself. Remember, writing is like playing an instrument. You're not going to be a brilliant guitarist the first time you pick up a guitar, no matter how good the instrument is. When you're starting out as any kind of a writer, you have to give yourself permission to suck. Badly.

One thing I've learned about writers is that even the best think they've completely lost the ability to write while trying to finish a book. Steinbeck wrote in his Grapes of Wrath journals that he had completely lost the ability to write and that the book wasn't good enough to keep working on it. Twain put Huckleberry Finn aside for years before giving it a try again. Douglas Adams was a notorious procrastinator who suffered from crippling writer's block and had to be locked up in a hotel room with somebody who made sure he'd write.

None of us is Steinbeck or Twain or Adams, especially when we first pick up our instrument. But if they can have those doubts and that loss of confidence, it's OK if we do too. We just have to follow their example and keep plugging away anyway. It comes together eventually. Few writers publish their first complete works, or even the first three. The actual number depends on the writer. The only way to learn to write is to write, so those first efforts are going to be bad, maybe embarrassingly bad.

If you're writing, even badly, you're a writer. Fortunately, if you're writing, you'll get better (at your own speed, of course). Allow yourself to be A Writer. Make a deal with an apprentice muse that if she'll help you, you'll give her something back. If you need to create a ritual sacrifice to your muse, go ahead. Offer her a drop of your of your favorite drink if she'll help you get through an hour of writing, even if it's not very good. Or whatever works for you.

Every time a writer writes "the end," a muse gets her wings.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Ditch the chapters--for now

Many of us think and write in chapters. There's nothing wrong with that. It's a common way to think about your story. What's more, if we're in a critique group, our chapters have a habit of being about the same length as the number of pages we read at each crit session.

I'm guessing many of you can't easily imagine writing a book without doing it a chapter at a time. Today, I'd like to present an option that I've found freeing in my own writing:

Ditch the chapters. For now, anyway.

The basic building block of any story is the scene. According to many writing teachers and books about writing, a story is a string of scenes joined by sequels. You most likely know this, and you might use a certain number of scenes in each chapter.

But what if you don't worry about chapters while drafting your masterpiece? What do you gain?

Freedom. Freedom to end your chapters where they make the most sense later. Freedom to skip a difficult scene and move on to the next one. Freedom to concentrate on your scenes and worry about the bigger structural pieces later.

We've all rearranged the order of our chapters at some point in our writing. If you concentrate on chapters, this can give you a plot where the chapters make sense, but some of the scenes seem wrong. It's much easier to move scenes around than chapters. You probably do that anyway, which makes it so you have to redo several chapter endings.

You might insert new chapters, and have to renumber everything.

If you're having trouble with a chapter, you might skip it and move to another chapter. If you think in scenes, you can skip to a new scene.

If you think about scenes rather than chapters, if you keep each scene in a Scrivener file instead of a chapter, you can concentrate more on that basic building block, and you free yourself to reorganize and rearrange in smaller bits. You start to think more about your scenes and sequels and make sure they work, rather than thinking about your chapters.

Writing scenes and ignoring chapters can also help you plow through the story while keeping your inner critic in check. If you tell your story without structuring it like a book, you free yourself to write that crappy first draft without the additional mental pressure that comes with writing a "book." You're just writing. A story or a project or whatever is much easier to grasp than that monumental book concept. Just get it down and structure it later. Let it be messy. It might even be helpful to use a simple editor that discourages you from thinking about your formatting, like some of the distraction-free writing programs that are growing in popularity.

Later, when you revise (I recommend waiting until a draft near the final one), you can put in your chapter breaks. You might discover that you can come up with more effective chapter breaks if you wait. Like cliffhangers? Break your chapter mid-scene, or between the scene and the sequel.

Try this approach, especially if you struggle with structure or plot. Enjoy the freedom it gives you.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Rest Well, Rick Walton

Rick Walton's funeral is Saturday.

Those words were not easy to type.

I've wanted to write about Rick for a while, but I found it too difficult. Writing about him now means acknowledging something I don't want to acknowledge. Rick Walton is really gone.

Few people would argue that there has ever been anybody more important to the Utah children's writing community than Rick. He was a teacher, a mentor, a cheerleader. A friend.

A friend, even if he'd never met you personally.

There are so many people who know Rick better than I do. (Even now, I can't stay in past tense.) I got to know him a little bit online, exchanging word play in the Yahoo group he led, which may have been the first real online gathering place for Utah kidlit writers. I met Rick in person, finally, at a conference. Wherever writers for young people gathered in Utah, Rick was there. He didn't necessarily insert himself everywhere or dominate, but he was there, like the Professor Emeritus overseeing everything, just by his presence. I was even taught by Rick in one conference session.

Rick was just as open to chatting with and encouraging people who were just starting to explore writing for kids as he was people who had published multiple books.

As I said, many people have closer personal ties to Rick. He enhanced the lives of hundreds, maybe thousands. And that doesn't include the countless people he touched with his books. I was recently on a BART train heading into San Francisco, and saw a woman several seats in front of me sharing Rick's Frankenstein with a child. I'm glad I was able to tell him about that.

I didn't see him in person for a few years, although we continued to share interesting or funny words with each other online once in a while. I don't even know if Rick knew who I was, really, at that point. Then, one day, he put out a call for people to help him with several projects he had in the works. I volunteered to help him with what was at that time still a pretty vague concept for a project exploring interesting roots of words. He picked me to help him. Next thing I knew I was at his house, talking words, exploring the thing we both loved so much. I hadn't seen him in a while, so the obvious effects of Parkinson's Disease, a cruel illness I've observed too closely in my family, took me by surprise.

But he was still sharp. Still creative. Still working on more projects than any mere mortal could handle. I feel bad that I have such a hard time juggling three or four projects. Rick had so many pots on the fire. (Rick would excuse the cliche. In fact, he'd probably tell me where it came from, then he'd flip it on its head and turn it into something funny.) Over the next few weeks, as the project started to take shape and gain momentum, we emailed each other almost daily, sharing our etymological discoveries.

The prospective publisher ended up pulling the plug on this project, and our collaboration was over. But I enjoyed that short period in his circle, and learned a lot from him. He didn't actually teach me anything. He didn't have to actually teach. You couldn't be around him long without learning, and without feeling like you had somebody in your corner.

Not too long after our momentary collaboration, Rick's brain tumor was discovered, and he moved into a care center near my home. I visited him whenever I could, which was not nearly often enough. At first, I went a couple times a week, but when I went back to school, my time was suddenly eaten up and I went when I could.

I wish I had been able to go more.

He loved visitors. He loved to hear how our writing projects were going, who we were submitting our work to, what projects we had in the works. Even as it became harder for him to make himself understood when speaking, he'd ask questions and give encouragement. For a while, a few of us would visit once a week to write with him. But that soon became difficult for him, leaving him visibly exhausted and frustrated.

I wish so many things. I wish I had visited more often. I wish I could have helped him more and helped him better when he asked for assistance. I wish I had known him better before he got sick. I wish I had been able to complete our collaboration.

Most of all, I wish he were still here.

See, even when he was sick, even when he was nearing the end of his far-too-short life and was clearly frustrated and depressed about not being able to develop all of those ideas that constantly exploded from the brain that was working against him, he encouraged and coached and led our writing community. He was losing the energy that was so much a part of who he was, but he still shared what he could, and absorbed what he could from his visitors. By just being here, just being on the planet, he made us better writers. Even when his own physical abilities failed him.

It's tempting, when somebody dies, to talk about the hole their passing left. But Rick gave so much, put so much out there, that he left a mountain behind.

Rick Walton forever changed the Utah writing community. He's gone now, but his influence will live on. Even when there's nobody left who remembers him personally, there will be people taught by the people he taught. There will be books by the people he encouraged and coached, and by the people they encouraged and coached. And, of course, there will be his books, somewhere around 100 of them, although an actual count is complicated because he did so many different things.

There will never be another Rick Walton. So many people were inspired by him. More importantly, so many people loved him. I hope he knew that. I hope he really understood that.

Goodbye, my friend. It really was a pleasure to know you. Most of all, thank you. Thank you for being there, and for letting me and so many others into your huge circle, and for giving us so much of yourself.

If anybody deserves a good rest, it's you. But I don't suppose you're resting. There are too many stories left to tell.