Friday, May 31, 2013

Growth Through Experimentation

I recently came across an interesting quote by singer Tom Waits, who was talking about his 1983 album, a departure from his previous work on which he played mostly piano and guitar.

"Your hands are like dogs, going to the same places they've been. You have to be careful when playing is no longer in the mind but in the fingers, going to happy places. You have to break them of their habits or you don't explore; you only play what is confident and pleasing. I'm learning to break those habits by playing instruments I know absolutely nothing about, like a bassoon or a waterphone."

I think we need to take the same approach with our writing, exercising our minds by trying new things. Maybe our experiments aren't meant for any eyes but our own, but by moving away from the familiar, we prevent our writing from becoming too comfortable, from always "going to the same places."

Try writing a few paragraphs in a totally new style. Maybe write a make-believe long lost page or story by a favorite author whose writing is nothing like yours. If a certain style of writing makes you uncomfortable when you read it, try writing it. Write something that makes no sense but exercises your mind by exploring new directions. Play with words. Write a poem. Write something you wouldn't want your religious leaders to discover, even if you destroy it immediately afterward. Something from a point of view opposite of your own. Anything that gets you out of your usual patterns, no matter how difficult it is or how bad it turns out will help you grow.

If you remember those years when most of your physical growth took place, you'll probably remember them as uncomfortable. Your joints hurt. You were gangly and awkward and looked a little silly. Your clothes never fit right because you outgrew them somewhere between the cash register and the store exit. To grow artistically, you need to go through the same discomfort.

Even if the work you want to publish is firmly within a single genre or style, you want to improve, to grow as an artist and storyteller. If you play around in the bogs of discomfort, even if only in short practice pieces, you will keep your writing sharp and fresh, and avoid getting into the rut of formulaic predictability.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The Essence of Writing: Saying What You Mean

by Deren Hansen

In Fowler's Modern English Usage, (H. W. Fowler, Second Edition, Oxford University Press, 1965) he explains that ambiguity "... misleads the reader only momentarily, if at all, but makes him think the writer a fool for not being able to say what he means." Fowler goes on to say, "... the purpose of this dictionary is to help writers to express themselves clearly and accurately ..."

Organizing ideas is the essence of writing, but when we talk about writing, our discussions usually focus on the how: rules, conventions, and techniques. We rarely pay attention to the what: having something to say that's worth saying so you can deploy all the rhetorical tools in the how toolbox to say it clearly.

Why do we avoid giving advice about the substance of someone's writing?

The practical answer is that the what of writing is really an editorial concern. Most of us who give writing advice usually have neither the time nor the expertise to critique a piece on its merits. And of course when we're talking about fiction we're picking our way through the swamp of subjectivity.

The tension between form and substance is an ancient one that likely goes back much further than Socrates' famous complaint about the schools of rhetoric that taught students how to win arguments without regard to the merits of the case. But form and substance are really two aspects of the same thing: if you have nothing to say or if you say it poorly it will mean nothing to your readers. Good writing begins with a clear understanding of what you mean to convey, and is demonstrated through your ability to say what you mean.

Deren Hansen is the author of the Dunlith Hill Writers Guides. Learn more at

Monday, May 27, 2013

Series or Stand-alone?

by Julie Daines

I feel like books series are reaching epidemic proportions. It's hard to find a book that's NOT part of a series.

From a marketing standpoint, I can clearly see the advantages. Hook the reader and sell three books instead of one. More book sales equals more money. The author creates a name and a brand for themselves, and everyone's happy.

Or are they?

From a reader's standpoint, I'm not sure I'm sold on the series approach. Don't get me wrong, some series are amazing.

But in writing a series there are some inherent problems, and unless the writer is unusually skilled, these problems can lead to very disappointing books.

Here are the two issues that concern me the most:

Problem 1- Once the first book is complete, if the author has done their job well, so is the character arc. The character arc is one of the main story elements that keeps a reader hooked and reading to the end. Consequently, the next few books in the series often fall flat. How many times have you LOVED the first book in a series and the rest were only okay?

Problem 2- The first book leaves you hanging because the character arc is incomplete and the conclusion unsatisfying. This is a very popular writing trick to get readers to buy the next book. But whenever I read a story like this, I have to ask myself if the author considers me a reader or a number. Are they writing to perfect the craft or to make a sale.

This is where the tricky part comes in, because perfecting the craft and selling books are both important. It's a fine and difficult line to walk. As an author, I can relate. We all want to write the best story we can, but unless that story sells, we're just people sitting in our sweatpants at a computer all day.

Do authors who write series sell more books? It's very possible that they do.

Do authors who write stand-alone books win more awards? It seems to me they do--although I haven't done official research.

What are your thoughts? Do you prefer a series or stand-alone?

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Book or movie?

Which is better? Audiences often are disappointed in the movie adaptation of a book. For the maker, the question has a different connotation. Which is better to create, a written piece or a video?

I am finishing a video project with students at school and besides the time it takes from my writing time, it’s a structure I’m not at ease with. They both have similarities. The difference is matter of presentation, the kind of format the story is presented in.

Each have a creative, inventive phase. It starts with a vision for an idea and then you work to develop it. It simmers and stews as your subconscious mulls it over while you sleep or mow the lawn or whatever. Then you write the rough draft. In the case of video-production, you go about planning the scenes and what the actors are to say and do. Video is a visual thing so you have to think in terms of what the camera sees. Both mediums have a creative, rough draft stage where you put ideas out there.

Then comes the revision. Once the idea is roughed out, you revise to clarify, simplify, and smooth out the edges. Revision cleans up the garbage. Editing is to video what revising is to story. You take raw footage and edit out the parts you don’t want.

They differ in the revision. Writing is a solo chore and critique groups help find areas that don’t work. Video production is more of a group effort. There is no established method of critique. More people are involved in the development, but there is less opportunity to have unbiased outside opinion.

The purpose of each is to entertain or to inform. My preferred style is written novel mode. I know it; I’m comfortable there. 

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Traditional Publishers are Actually Trade Publishers

by Deren Hansen

Whether we call the new mode of publishing self-, indie, or artisan, the most consistently used label for the formerly dominant publishing model is, “traditional.”

As people who work with words, we understand how important it is to use the right ones. There are, for example, some circles where traditional means, “time-tested values,” not, “hopelessly stuck in the past.” But the real problem with the label, “traditional,” isn’t whether it implies the business model is good or bad but that it doesn’t accurately describe the business model.

Major commercial publishers are, “trade publishers,” because they published to the book trade. They sell their wares to booksellers, not readers.

“But,” you may object, “readers are still the ones buying the books, so what’s the big deal?”

Consider the problem of children’s books: children don’t buy books. Thanks to the inconvenient fact that very few children have disposable income, essentially all children’s books are purchased by well-meaning adults. This means that the book must appeal not only to the child for whom it’s intended but also to someone in the circle of adults with an interest in supplying that child with reading material. It’s not uncommon for the two constituencies (children and adults) to have very different reasons for choosing a book.

Booksellers, of course, want to sell books. The ideal book for a bookseller is one that every reader will want. Readers want to buy books that will entertain, educate, or provide an experience. The ideal book for a reader is one that speaks to his or her specific needs and desires. Absent that ideal book, readers choose the ones that seem to best suit their needs from what’s available. It’s not uncommon for the two constituencies (booksellers and readers) to have very different reasons for choosing a book.

Booksellers order the products they resell from trade publishers. Trade publishers don’t deal directly with readers. That means trade publishers are primarily in the business of convincing booksellers to offer their wares to the reading public. Convincing readers to read their books is at best a secondary concern for trade publishers.

Deren Hansen is the author of the Dunlith Hill Writers Guides. Learn more at

Sunday, May 19, 2013

For Young Readers

Not to harp about it, but WIFYR is just around the corner. There are still few spots available. You can sign up here.

I am an assistant this year and am excited to be working with Ann Cannon. She is a regular at the conference and I try to attend her afternoon sessions when I can. Ann writes at many levels in children’s literature. She’s done PB to YA. You can read her each Saturday in the Salt Lake Tribune and thus knows how to entertain adult readers as well.

Carol Williams, again, has assembled a host of talented speakers and faculty. Cheri Pray Earl, Sharlee Glenn, Steve Bjorkman, J Scott Savage, Kris Chandler, Martine Leavitt, Matt Kirby, and Mette Ivie Harrison all join Ann and Carol in running workshops. Something new this year, there are mini-workshops that participants can sign up for. Each morning focuses on a different theme, from blogging to screen writing and short stories to rhythm, rhyme, and riddle. Elana Johnson, Alison Randall, Krysten Crow, and Marty Nabhan are running these sessions.

Also in attendance will be an editor and two agents. Carol has pulled in Alyson Heller from Aladdin Books. The agents include Ammi-Joan Paquette of the Erin Murphy Literary Agency and Steven Fraser from the Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency.

The Utah State Poet Laureate, Lance Larson will be the keynote speaker in Thursday afternoon.

The conference is a great place to grow your craft. I have yet to do a LTUE and have heard high praise for LDStorymakers, but the For Young Readers conference is refreshing. Any effort to cultivate your writing skill is satisfying. Carol’s conference is the place to do it.

Do Not Let Personal Struggles Stop Your Dreams with Author Sarah E. Sauer

When I was little, I wanted to be a veterinarian because I have always loved animals. My dream was to own horses and be a vet at a zoo. But that all changed suddenly when I diagnosed with brain cancer. 

The surgery, chemo and radiation treatment were awful. For eight weeks after my surgery, I could not walk, talk, move my hands, eat, and had to have everything done for me. It was a very frightening time for me. It was my animals that helped me get through my illness and treatment. In fact, my parents promised me an animal after every treatment cycle to get me to co-operate. Animals helped me in ways that no person ever could. When I was able to return to school, it was difficult. 

My classmates treated me differently. I felt like they treated me like a glass doll and no one would come close to me for fear I would break. I could no longer do the things with my friends that I used to do before I got sick. I could not walk, let alone run and play tag with my friends without falling. My voice sounded funny because my vocal cords were affected. I had to wear a hat because I had no hair. My hands were weak and I had trouble writing and doing things. I used to have so many friends and could do so many things. It was my animals that helped me get through these difficult times. They do not care if you do not have any hair, or can't walk well, they just loved you unconditionally and not for your appearance or abilities.

Despite all that happened to me, I was a fighter. I was not going to let the cancer or the limitations it left me with win. I knew I could not pursue becoming a vet so I volunteered at a local zoo and worked with the zookeepers. I loved volunteering and helping them care for the different animals. However, I soon realized that I did not have the strength or endurance or even the height to do the work of an animal keeper. I am only 4'8 because of the radiation to my spine and will not grow any taller. Even though I am 19 years old, people mistake me for being only 10 yrs old. I kept searching for how could I fulfill my dream to work with animals. 

I have always loved taking photos of animals. When I was little, my parents would give me and my sisters a disposable camera whenever we went on vacation. They encouraged us to take pictures of our vacation. Well when we got our film developed, my photos were all of the dogs that I saw! So when I had the opportunity to take a digital photography class my senior year of high school, I did. My teacher early on told me that she saw potential in my photography skills. 

She said I could tell stories through my photos. Of course, the majority of my photos were of animals. It was when I was in my first college class that I realized how I could use my love and passion for animals. I was given an assignment to put together a project that showed what my career goals were. 

I had been volunteering with foster children and preschoolers at St. Joseph Children's Home and Child Development Center and  decided that I would share my love of animals with young children and help them learn to see the beauty and detail of all animals using my photographs and creating a children's photo book. And so with the wonderful guidance of Lisa Umina at Halo Publishing, I have published my work, "What Do You See When You Look at Me?'. 

With my book I hope to not only help young children learn to appreciate animals and the world we live in but to inspire others, like many of the foster kids, who have had bad things happen to them. I am using proceeds from my book to give back to the different groups who have not only helped me in my journey but believed in me and gave me chance. When these people looked at me, they did not see what the cancer did to me but they saw potential and good. I want people to realize that when you reach out and encourage someone, you really do make a difference in their life. And most of all I want people to know that no matter what happens to you in life, you can always choose to take something bad that happens and turn it into something good, just have faith in God.

About the Author: 
Sarah E. Sauer is a childhood brain cancer survivor. She is also an animal lover. Sarah’s love of animals was something she drew on for strength throughout her illness. In her first children’s book, Sarah shares her love and respect for wildlife animals through her photos she took for her high school digital photography class. Sarah is currently studying early childhood education and hopes to share her love and knowledge of animals to promote and develop an appreciation of wildlife in young children. She currently lives in Corydon, IN with her family and her horses, llamas, donkey, cats and dogs.

Publisher website

Find out more about Sarah E. Sauer and her book at the World of Ink Author/Book Tour, visit

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

What Matters Most: Readers

by Deren Hansen

The notion that the national book culture we once enjoyed—a consensus about the books everyone who considers themselves literate should have read—is withering under the assault of disruptive businesses and technologies isn’t simply an exercise in good–old–days revisionism: it’s actually one of the last gasps of the cultural monopolies created by trade publishers during the last half–century.

Through a complex web of bestseller lists, influential reviewers, English professors, and book clubs, trade publishers have attempted to create the commercial equivalent of a required reading list. The publishing ecosystem expends a great deal of energy trying to create a sense of urgency by making readers feel they are behind or missing out on the literary cutting edge.

While it is true that shared references are a cornerstone of culture, the idea that a book’s importance is best measured by the number of concurrent readers is one that benefits principally trade publishers and booksellers.

Tracy Hickman has been telling conference audiences for several years, “It doesn't matter if you're published. Being published is nothing. It is everything to be read.”

In the past, writers had to play the commercial lottery of getting published because it was the only game in town. Unfortunately, that system fostered an all–or–nothing mentality: your book was a failure if it wasn’t the talk of the nation.

Rejecting a manuscript because it wasn’t, “sufficiently commercial,” meant the trade publisher believed the book wouldn’t sell in the volume they needed to turn a profit. But that judgment took none of the needs of readers or writers into account.

An author needs readers, but he or she doesn’t need every reader. In fact, it is not possible to write one book that will appeal to every single reader. What is possible, thanks to the recent explosion in publishing opportunities, is to write things that will be read because the distance between writer and reader is now much smaller.

Deren Hansen is the author of the Dunlith Hill Writers Guides. Learn more at

Monday, May 13, 2013

The Secret to Getting Published

By Julie Daines.

I just finished up three days at the Storymakers 2013 conference! It was a great event with some wonderful agents and editors, and lots of amazing authors and aspiring authors. I attended some very helpful classes--some of them taught by agents and editors.

When the agents/editors open the floor to questions, inevitably the writers start asking things like:

"What are the upcoming trends in the market?"
"What should I put in my query letter to make it stand out?"
"What genres are you looking for?"
"When is the best time of year to query?"

The agents and editors do their best to answer these questions, but they struggle. Sometimes the writers get bugged. "Why can't they just tell us what they're looking for."  Even though these are all different questions, they all boil down to the same thing:

"What is that one magical thing I need to do to get published?"

The bottom line is that there is no one secret, magical, just-out-of-reach trick. They can guide you and offer suggestions on what NOT to do, but none of this is a shoo in.

The only trick that really works is to write a great story. I think is was Victoria Curran who said, after everyone kept asking for the magical secret, "Write what's in your heart, and write to the heart."

A good query is important. Not writing to the trends is important. Choosing the right agent for your genre is important. But the only sure thing that can sell your story is your story.

Write what's in your heart.
Create something that speaks to the heart of the reader.
Write it well.
When the time is right, your story will find a home. No magical tricks involved.