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First Lines

First impressions are everything. At least, that’s what everyone says. Now, I don’t think that’s entirely true. You can recover from a bad first impression…eventually. But I can’t deny they’re important. Which makes the first line of a novel equally important. Let’s say the first page of a book is like a job interview and the reader is the boss. They’re saying, “All right, here’s your chance. So, entertain me.” That means your first line is like your suit and your smile. Important, right?

In The Breakout Novelist by Donald Maass (intense book, I’m sure I’ll talk about it at some point) he has an exercise for first lines. He says “Try this at your next critique group session or chapter meeting of your writer’s organization: Ask everyone to bring in two opening lines: their favorite of all time, and the first line from their current manuscript. Mix them up in a hat. Read them aloud and ask people to raise their hands if they want to hear the next line. I promise you, you will see the intrigue factor at work again and again – or not!” See, didn’t I say it was a good idea to learn from the masters?

Let’s do that here. I’m going to take the first lines from some of the books in my library and see what it is that makes me want to go on. Normally, I give authors more than just the first line before I’ll put the book down. In fact, I’ll usually read the whole thing telling myself it must get better on the next page. That’s something I need to work on but not today. Today we’re just going to look at the first lines.

“When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton.” The Fellowship of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkein

You know, I respect Tolkein but I don’t think this one works. I recognize he wrote in a different time but this doesn’t make me want to know more (except maybe how he can be that old, but this is fantasy, the genre is full of ancient wizards and wizened dwarves).

“I’d never given much thought to how I would die – though I’d had reason enough in the last few months – but even if I had, I would not have imagined it like this.” Twilight by Stephenie Meyer

I’ll preface this with: I really don’t like Twilight. But I thought it deserved a look since it’s so popular. I have to admit, it’s not a bad first line. Really melodramatic and a little cliché (not to make excuses, but that’s setting the tone for the rest of the book), but I definitely have some questions. Why is she dying? What’s been happening the last few months? And what kind of person doesn’t think about dying, especially if she had “reason enough”? Well, someone who seriously has no imagination.

“When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold.” The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

Another popular one, though it can’t be because of its first line. This gives me no sense of the character, and I think waking up in the morning has to be the least interesting way to start a story. Though, I’ll admit, once I got past the first couple pages, I couldn’t put it down.

“Your grandfather,” said Vanyel’s brawny fifteen-year-old cousin Radevel, “was crazy.” Magic’s Pawn by Mercedes Lackey

This is one of my favorite books but not one of my favorite first lines. This doesn’t tell me anything about the protagonist. I know I’m supposed to be thinking “Why is the grandfather crazy?” but what’s actually going through my head is “Why is the grandfather important?”. And the thing is, he’s not. We learn pretty soon that he’s dead and his craziness only matters right here in the first paragraph. It has nothing to do with the rest of the book. Kind of misleading, if you ask me.

“People…they do the craziest shit.” Nightlife by Rob Thurman

This one just makes me smile. As you read on, you realize this is a perfect introduction to Cal’s character. And it raises questions. Who are the people and what are they doing?

“That fool of a fairy Lucinda did not intend to lay a curse on me.” Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine

Oh, so many questions. And what a great intro to Ella’s voice.

“I am not as I once was.” The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin

What a great promise to start a book with. I know right off the bat that this character is going to grow and change and not necessarily in good ways. The tone of the voice is almost one of regret or forgetfulness, but in just a few words it gives us a sense of Yeine’s character.

“On my seventh birthday, my father swore, for the first of many times, that I would die face down in a cesspool.” Flesh and Spirit by Carol Berg

This is one of my favorites. How could you not keep reading? The language is beautiful, the sentiment is shocking, and I already have so many questions about the character, I’m not sure which one to pose first. Maybe: What is up with his family? That actually turns out to be one of the most compelling things about the book.

So what I’ve learned from this exercise is that I expect the first line of a book to give me a glimpse or a sense of who a character is. I expect questions to be raised, otherwise why would I want to go on? And those first words should set the mood or the tone of the entire book. Something I didn’t realize before I started was how important the promise of the first line is. In the case of Magic’s Pawn, I felt misled. But The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms stayed true to its promise, though not exactly the way I’d imagined. That isn’t something you can tell until you’ve finished the book, but it is definitely something that your readers are going to notice if they go back and read it again. Something we all hope for.

Character, tone, questions, promise. That’s a lot to scrunch into one sentence. What do y’all think? Anything you look for in a first line? Did you disagree with any that I talked about? I think these elements are important but writing is still subjective. A line that works for me may not work for you, and vice versa. In the end you need to know what would keep you reading.

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Learning from the Masters

I’ve said before, I don’t have a degree in writing. I took one creative writing class in high school, that’s it. And I’m not really planning on going back to school. Yet I can study under masters of my craft like Mercedes Lackey, Tamora Pierce, Lois McMaster Bujold, and Terry Pratchett without budging from my library. I can improve my writing by reading and studying the authors I admire (not to mention practicing what I’ve learned).

What amazes me is how many people out there think to themselves “Hey, I could write a book” without having read anything but the morning paper over the last five years. Do you think Jacques Cousteau said “Hey, I could be a marine biologist” without ever having been to the beach? Reading familiarizes you with genre requirements, reader expectations, and above all, feeds your imagination. That last sounds cheesy, I know, but think of it like a linebacker. It can’t do its job unless you feed it four course meals full of carbs and protein. Agent Kristin Nelson has said on her blog that she wishes she could demand authors submit a receipt with their manuscripts proving they’ve bought (and hopefully read) a book in the last month.

You can learn directly from your favorite authors. Study their words, their language. Francine Prose calls this “close reading” in her book Reading Like a Writer (though I don’t recommend close reading this book unless you really like literary fiction and classics and/or plan on writing literary fiction).

What books did you absolutely love? What was it about them that made your heart beat faster? Why do you pick that one particular book up over and over again like a favorite blanket? How can you recapture the feeling you get from those pages? Reading isn’t supposed to be a chore but if you keep these thoughts in mind as you read, you’ll start to see the details that slipped by the first time. You’ll notice the mechanics that make the story work this way and not that way.

One of my favorite books is Mercedes Lackey’s Magic’s Pawn. My copy is worn and dog-eared from so many readings. Finally, I decided to figure out what it was that had captured me the first time I read it as an ignorant high schooler and kept drawing me back over and over. It didn’t take long, since I was so familiar with it already (seriously, I read it about once a year). It was the character. Vanyel is strong and appears unapproachable, but as the reader you can see the vulnerabilities that he tries to hide from those in his world. That fragile strength that could break with just one wrong word made Vanyel so real and tangible.

Elizabeth Haydon has written a series that kept me up at night. The Symphony of Ages is a long read, but I found myself losing hours flipping pages. After some study, I figured out that it was one specific plot element that made this such a compelling read. At the very beginning, the two characters cross paths and diverge again, and they go on operating under a false assumption. They believe they’ve lost each other, but the reader knows the truth. Through three fairly hefty books I watched and waited and squirmed, knowing a secret that was killing me. I could not physically tear myself away from them because I had to see when and if they would learn the truth. Oh, such sweet agony.

These authors are obviously doing something right, and I hope that maybe some of that will rub off on me. I try to take what I’ve learned from them and apply it to my own writing. Right now, it’s just baby steps, but maybe one day, someone will be reading my work and thinking “Hey, I could write a book”.

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A Taste of Potatoes

We’re always told that first impressions are the strongest, and it’s true that as writers we need to be aware of what impressions we’re giving the reader in the first pages (I’ll go into this at another time), but as a reader, I’ve noticed that there are lots of places I form opinions about a book. Not just the first pages.

I often have preconceptions about a book before I even crack the cover. Especially if it’s an author I’m familiar with or a subject I feel strongly about. Then, of course, there’s whether or not I want to keep reading after the first couple pages, but this one’s not as important for me as I tend to be a patient reader. I’m willing to give the author the benefit of the doubt (and another twenty pages) so long as I’m not bored out of my mind or absolutely hating the characters. Now if the story is told by a gruesome serial killer, then he’d better save the cat by page five or I’m putting it down.

More importantly for me than the beginning is the ending. Was it satisfying? What taste did it leave after it was all over? As a rule, I try not to eat my books, but taste is a pretty good word for the feeling I’m left with on the last page. Am I licking my lips thinking Carol Berg tastes like chocolate mousse, something to take my time with and savor? Or am I gagging because Catcher in the Rye tastes like that little green steroid pill I had to take in the hospital, bitter and best swallowed quickly with lots of jello? Those reactions tend to be the most powerful for me.

However, I’ve noticed those aren’t necessarily my last impressions. Books mellow in my memory. I may put it down thinking it was the best book ever, but over time I’ll remember all the little things that I ignored because I was so caught up in the story. I’m not saying it’s a bad thing to be so sucked in that the imperfect details fade away; in fact, quite the opposite. However, I know I think about a book more objectively after my emotions aren’t so wrapped around a character and their story.

Which of all of these is the truer impression? I don’t know. I thought I’d have an answer by the end of this post, but I don’t. If anything, I think I’m more appreciative of the complexity of the novel and its ability to manipulate me better than Pinocchio’s puppet master. But is that enough to base a blog post on? I like to make some kind of greater point so y’all will come away feeling like you didn’t waste your time. Otherwise it’s jut me muttering to myself. Maybe that is the point. If we’re going to engage in the hugely manipulative art that is novel writing, we should at least be aware of the feelings and impressions we’re trying to make our readers feel with every word we type.

So, I’m curious now, what kind of taste do my posts leave you with? I’m hoping potatoes.

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Clumsy Clichés

It was a dark and stormy night.

“There she blows!”

Captain Amab clicked his spy glass shut and spun on the tip of his wooden leg.

“After that whale, you scurvy sea dogs. That’s the beast that ate me leg.”

The sailors shuffled their feet while the first mate and the bosun looked at each other.

“Is he always like this?” the bosun asked.

“Oh, this is just the calm before the storm,” the first mate said.

“Captain,” the bosun said. “We haven’t seen shore in months.”

“Avast that talk. You’ll not rob me of my revenge.”

The first mate and the bosun exchanged another look that said, “we’re all in the same boat”. Or maybe it was “sink or swim”. They nodded to each other.

They grabbed Captain Amab by the arms and chucked him over the pin rail.

His peg leg disappeared with an unassuming bloop.

“Not so hard after all,” the bosun said. “Turns out he was just a drop in the bucket.”

 

That was written during a writer’s group meeting where we talked about clichés. The general consensus was that they’re bad and no self-respecting writer would ever stoop to using them. However, I disagree. I think there’s a time and a place where clichés can be used effectively. For example, spotlighting the ridiculous, as seen above. Disclaimer: I’m a sailor and I’d have thrown him overboard too. What is a scurvy sea dog anyway?

The thing is, clichés are cliché for a reason, usually because there’s some truth in them. I’m not giving you free rein to go out and use all the same tired phrases and cheesy situations you can think of. I know it’s really easy to fall into the cliché trap when creating your characters. Half the work is already done for you when readers can easily imagine the crusty sailor with a peg leg, or the PI with a smart mouth and a drinking problem, or the romance heroine with a sordid past. But readers can also easily get bored with such tropes. Maybe stop and think about what you want to get across to your readers and figure out how you can use clichés without making them cringe and throw your book at the wall.

I write fairy-tales and what’s more cliché than happily ever after? One of the reasons I love fairy-tales is because they’re so familiar. Everyone knows that Cinderella loses her shoe at a ball. I use the familiar to bring out and highlight the differences in my characters and my stories. My Cinderella doesn’t lose a glass slipper, she loses an ankle-foot orthotic. Still just as unique to her (I mean, Prince Charming still has to be able to pinpoint her, right?), but not nearly as uncomfortable as glass footwear. Or what about a character that twists clichéd metaphors or uses them wrong. A guy says, “I beat that dead fish to death”. Tells you something about the character, doesn’t it?

I also write about disabilities. Just like everything else there are clichés associated with the handicapped, and like I said, they’re clichés because they’re at least a little bit true. My characters have the expected feelings of anger, bitterness, and uselessness because I had to go through those myself. But I try to write beyond them as well. There are deeper reasons behind the emotions that are far more interesting to read about than just “she’s angry because she can’t walk”. We’re capable of feeling so much; can you really justify assigning just one emotion to a character? My Maid Marion is angry, yes, but it’s a mask to hide her self-loathing and protect her from pity. She hates the people around her for not understanding her and then hates herself for hating them. So I’ve explained the cliché and moved past it, creating a deeper character we can understand and relate to.

So before you ax everything that sounds even remotely familiar, consider how clichés could actually help your writing.

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Breaking the Block

Today was supposed to be the review of Darby Karchut’s Griffin Rising and Griffin’s Fire, something I’ve been looking forward to writing for a while. But I really wanted to take my time with it, and between the dog going lame (he’s fine, he’s just copying me) and my house being on sale, time became that mythical creature you glimpse between the tree trunks before realizing you just ate some bad fruit. So instead I’ll talk about writing some more. Y’all will just have to wait with bated breath for the other.

 

There’s a disease all writers get from time to time. There is no vaccine; there aren’t any pills to take. Symptoms include fixation on a blank page, finger paralysis and that nagging feeling that you can’t possibly be a writer if you can’t think of what to write. If you experience any of these conditions, calm down and take a deep breath. Writer’s Block isn’t fatal, although it may feel like it, especially if you’re depending on your manuscript to bring in the next paycheck. Of course, if you’re getting paid to write, you’ve probably already conquered The Block, so this isn’t really for you. But for those of you still staring at the keyboard wondering why your fingers won’t move, here are a few treatments you can try.

Take a break. This may seem counter-intuitive – I thought I had to write to be a writer – but seriously, getting away from your work can give you a fresh perspective. Staring at the page is obviously not helping, so go do something else. I do some of my best thinking in the shower. Or if it’s the middle of the day, I take the dog out and mull over a problem while he chases the frisbee. Writing is work, give yourself time to rest and recoup your losses. But after your break, be sure to go back to the keyboard. Don’t let your frisbee time turn into a sabbatical. You’ve all heard my ‘just write‘ rant. Take all that fresh perspective and turn it into words.

Prompts anyone? Sure. Why not? Try exercises for writers, if you’re into that kind of thing. I thought I wasn’t, but turns out they’re kind of fun. Maybe take your character out of your book and put them in another. See what they do, how they react. Can you use that?

Try writing by hand. Or if you’re already old fashioned, try a keyboard or a typewriter. Changing mediums resets your brain and could jump start something on the page too. I write all my blog posts by hand first. For some reason, it feels less permanent that way. I can just jot down ideas without worrying whether they’re really going to work or not. I know that’s completely opposite of real life but shh my brain hasn’t figured it out yet.

I’ve heard change locales. Normally work at home? Try setting up in a coffee shop. Or vice versa. Go people watching in a park with just a notepad and a pen. Personally, this doesn’t work for me because I get super distracted. I swear I’m writing until all of a sudden, I realize I’ve been staring at that dog for five minutes wondering if it’s owner knows it looks like a pig. But writing someplace else might work great for you.

Outline your characters. Maybe one of the reasons you’re stuck is because you don’t know your characters well enough to write how they’d react to a situation. Take a moment to figure out what makes them tick. This is probably a good thing to do in general but I try to save it for moments I’m stuck. Digging deep into a character’s past and motivations really helps get the ball rolling, Indiana Jones style.

When all else fails, type harder. Yeah, tap the keys so you can hear them click. Don’t look at me like I’m insane. This is my default Block Buster. When I’m distracted or feeling like I’m not getting stuff on the page the way I want, I arch my fingers and tap the keys harder, more deliberately. I like how it sounds. It sounds productive. It’s soothing and makes me want to write more. Seriously, stop looking at me like that.

There are millions of ways to break The Block and everyone has their own tried and true method. These are just a few that I jotted down one day. Feel free to develop your own. How about it? What do you do to break your Block?

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Writeful Blogging

I may not be a published author but I consider myself a writer. I’ve worked at my craft hard enough and long enough that I think I can claim the title “writer”. I have several complete manuscripts ranging from first drafts to final drafts (final until I decide to tweak it again) and I try to write every day in order to get better. If someone else has a different idea of what it means to be a writer, I’d like to hear it. So what I’m saying is I’d consider myself pretty far along that subjective scale, but I’m still learning. I read a lot, go to workshops and follow blogs that have some great advice for writers. Books and workshops are great but a lot of times you have to pay for them (unless you utilize your library and your local writers group) but blogs are free. At the most you might have to ignore some ads. So I thought I might spotlight a few of my favorites.

My Name is Not Bob

Robert Lee Brewer is a father, a poet and one of the editors at Writer’s Digest. His blog is chock full of advice for writers trying to navigate the digital world. In April he did a whole month of posts about how to build an online platform. Take a stroll through his archives and you’ll find help with things like time management skills, wading through social media like Facebook and Twitter, and what you really need to know about SEO (search engine optimization). Robert’s posts were invaluable to me while I was setting up my blog. They really helped me get a handle on what I needed to concentrate on and what I could ignore. I even participated in his April Platform Challenge. I’ve only noticed a slight increase in my site traffic so far, but I feel so much more confident about my efforts on the web now, and to me, that’s worth it.

Writing While the Rice Boils

Debbie Maxwell Allen is a homeschool mom, a writer, and a blogger. Her blog is a treasured resource for people like me who have a hard time finding things on the internet. I don’t know what my problem is, but I can never find what I’m looking for. Some people can’t whistle. I can’t Google. But Debbie makes it easier by finding new, interesting, and above all, helpful tools for writers on the web. Each post focuses on a different topic with several links to great articles that flesh out the idea and really give it some meat. It’s like a best of the web for writers. She’s also been doing it for a while so you can find just about anything you might need in her archives. As a bonus, I’ve met Debbie and she’s just as sweet and encouraging as she seems online.

The Other Side of the Story

Janice Hardy is a blogger and the author of The Healing Wars trilogy. I like to follow the blogs of my favorite authors and while I was reading The Shifter I looked Janice up. Little did I know that instead of just a well-kept author’s blog, I would find an Aladdin’s cave for writers. Janice has been blogging about writing almost every day for three years now and you can see her expertise and her passion in every post. She takes submissions from unpublished writers and breads down her critique of their work. She has guest posts by published authors who talk about how they write and manage their careers. Not to mention endless posts that teach the craft of writing to any level of aspiring writer. The amount of information on her blog is a little overwhelming at first (I gave up on trying to read everything and settled on searching for the most relevant posts) but it’s worth having bookmarked as a reference.

Just as every writer should have reference books on their desks, I think they should also have a Google Reader full of writerly blogs.

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Lucky 7 Meme Challenge

My critique partner, Becca, tagged me in the Lucky 7 Meme Challenge. It looks like a lot of fun so here it goes.

Here are the rules as I’ve heard them:
1. Go to page 77 of your current WIP
2. Go to line 7
3. Copy down the next 7 lines – sentences or paragraphs – and post them as they’re written. No cheating!
4. Tag 7 authors
5. Let each and every one of them know

I’m working on final edits for my young adult fantasy, By Wingéd Chair. It’s about Merry, a teen struggling to make sense of her disability when the local lord tries to kill her father, drawing her into a plot that encompasses family betrayal and otherworldly magic. In order to save the day, she must team up with an irritating outlaw who she doesn’t know if she wants to kiss or run him over with her wheelchair, all the while learning to accept her limitations and embrace her strengths.

“I can understand that.” And I did. So often it felt like I hated the world, and I had to defend myself against everyone in it. But I hated myself more. I hated the person I’d become.

“I thought you might like to know it’s not you, and I’m going to try harder not to be so…”

“Asinine?” I said sweetly.

“I was going to say surly.” He gave me a sheepish smile before returning his gaze to the surrounding woods.

The light-hearted moment was gone, and I glanced up to the wagon bed and swallowed. Papa looked too much like a corpse in the darkness.

There’s a brief snippet. I got lucky and hit a good excerpt. Let me know what you think. Hm, I guess I’ll have to come up with seven more friends to tag.

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What Now?

Rejection lettersSo agents and editors have the notorious slush pile while writers have the drawer or shoe box full of rejections. Actually mine are in a folder; the hard copies, that is. There are plenty more that are archived in my email, and it’s hard to collect the ringing silences that are most rejections today.

My friend Debbie posted on her blog on Monday, “How do you react when you hear ‘no’? Have you heard it yet? Is it time to start accumulating some rejections?” Well, this question seemed very timely for me, so here’s your answer, Debbie.

I first started trying to get my books published when I was nineteen, many years ago now, so I’m pretty familiar with rejections. I had no idea what I was doing, and I made lots of rookie mistakes. I just wanted to get the novel that I’d slaved over for five years out into the world. It’s like launching a ship. You smash that bottle over the prow and let it slide down into the water, hoping and praying that it will float, that it will glide majestically out of the harbor on its maiden voyage.

Let’s just say, my ship sprung a leak. It’s lying on the bottom of the harbor, making a nice home for fish. But that first rejection was like a badge of honor. I was a writer. I had a letter from a publisher that said so. Actually, it said, “Thank you for your submission. We do not feel it is right for us at this time,” but same thing, right?

Now that I’ve been doing this for years, it gets harder and harder to hear ‘no’. I feel like my work is the best it’s ever been, and if that’s not enough, then maybe I’m just not cut out for this business. I know that’s not true, but it’s so easy to believe the lie.

After months (years if you count writing the book) of preparation, I sent Kristin Nelson my first thirty pages. A week ago, I got her reply. Since this is a post about rejections, you’ve probably already guessed she said ‘no’. It wasn’t devastating, but there was that flash of disappointment and descent into self-doubt. This was my best work and she said ‘no’. What now?

Sending your work out into the world is scary, whether it’s to a publisher, an agent, or even just a critique partner. As writers, we wear our hearts on our sleeves. We bare our deepest selves right there on the page. With experience we develop a thick skin, a coat of armor.

It's just a flesh wound

But every rejection, every ‘no’ tries to poke a hole in it. When my first ‘no’ came back, it stung, but I shook it off, saying that wasn’t so bad. But then one ‘no’ becomes ten, and then fifty, and then I realize I’ve exhausted my whole list of possible agents and editors. What now? How long can I keep doing this before my armor is so riddled with holes, it falls apart? When do I give up on my dream and decide to self-publish?

It’s at this point that I have to step back and remember why I write. Yes, my dream is to one day see my name on a book cover. Yes, I want my stories to touch people’s lives and change them for the better. I know I’m not the only one who feels these things, but the world isn’t going to notice if my book never appears on a shelf in Barnes and Noble. I didn’t start writing because I had narcissistic desire to see my name in print or because I had a message to get across. I started writing because I had stories in my head. I kept writing because I realized I loved it. I can’t stop putting words on a page anymore than I can stop reading (it’s been tried, the result was fugly). If someone was to say, “I can see the future, and you will never be published”, would I stop writing? Hell, no.

So I guess that’s my answer. What now? I’ll keep writing. I’ll keep putting words on the page, keep telling my stories if only to myself (and my sisters who never get tired of hearing them). When I’ve exhausted my list of agents and editors, I’ll send out the next book. I’ll keep working, keep making them better. And I’ll keep collecting the rejections. Maybe I’ll make a collage.

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Honing Craft at a Conference

The problem with having set the standard with well thought out, well edited and well written blog posts is that you have to continue with the well thought out, well edited and well written posts, even when you’re tired and the well is dry and the dog is groaning at your feet because he wants to play frisbee. (Y’all might not think this blog is all that, but I do, and you’re still reading, so there) But I had a heck of a weekend and the rest of the week stretches out before me like a giraffe trying to reach that last branch, so I’m going to cut myself some slack just this once and talk about one of the reasons why I feel like the antagonist from Zombieland.

This last weekend was the Pikes Peak Writers Conference down in Colorado Springs. My very first writing conference. I felt very official. I had business cards. They said “Kendra Merritt: Novelist” so I guess that makes me a professional, right? No? Well, I’ll keep trying then. PPWC is considered one of the friendliest conferences in the country, and it really is. I swear every staff member knew my name by the end of the weekend and every published author I talked to was really excited about my pitch and wanted to hear about how it went. For the first time since PT school, I felt like I was part of a professional community. I belonged there. When I tell people that I’m a writer, I get a variety of responses, but the inevitable “Are you published” always sinks my boat. At PPWC it didn’t matter that I wasn’t published yet. I was still respected for pursuing my writing goals and honing my craft.

Carol BergThursday was filled with an entire day’s worth of Young Adult workshops. I spent hours immersed in the world of writing and marketing for teens. I met Bob Spiller, author of cozy mysteries who made me laugh so hard I had to excuse myself from his workshop on humor to go pee. And one of our speakers, Darby Karchut, has inspired me to try my hand at books for boys (I don’t usually write boy books, but I want to be Darby when I grow up, so I’m darn well going to try). Friday, Saturday and Sunday were other various workshops on writing and publishing. I can’t list them all, but I will mention that if you ever get a chance to listen to Carol Berg teach, don’t miss it. Or Donald Maass. Dear God. You’ll leave with your brain coming out your ears, but it will be well worth the cost of paper towels.

One of the things that makes a conference worth every penny is the opportunity to rub elbows with the giants (and the up and coming) of publishing. And one advantage of being in a wheelchair is that I got into the banquet hall early for every meal, meaning I got to scope out and pick the best seats (hey, I’m not above taking advantage of the disability when I can, I think I’ve earned it). I sat next to Debra Dixon, who runs her own publishing house, Amanda Luedeke, another agent I’m considering, and Lou Anders from Pyr Books, who kept Josh and I entertained with Star Trek stories all through the banquet.

My pitch appointment was scheduled for Saturday morning, around ten. Perfect for me. Not first thing in the morning, but before lunch so I could actually eat without feeling nauseous. During the first workshop of the day I was actually really nervous. I looked down at my watch and had that moment of panic when I realized I was pitching in less than an hour. This was my big chance, I’d been preparing for months. What if I blew it? So after the workshop, instead of going to another panel until my appointment, I went and sat in the lobby to calm down. Darby Karchut was sitting nearby and I had her book in my bag, so I zipped over to ask her to sign it for me (as distractions go, books are always my go to). She managed to wheedle my pitch out of me (confession: it didn’t take much wheedling) and got so excited when she heard about my novel that I forgot to be nervous. I had a great idea that I could articulate and who wouldn’t want to get on this train as it leaves the station.

By the time I got up to the room where all the pitches were held, I was still confident (thanks, Darby). As I rolled out of the elevator the coordinator met me and told me she was moving my appointment up to … right then! So I didn’t have time to sit and stew in my own juices, and now that I think about it, it was a very good thing I was right on time.

Kristin was very good about putting people at ease and leading with easy questions. She asked how my conference was going, and we gushed about how much we love Carol Berg. And then I gave her my pitch. For those of you that are interested, my first logline was “By Wingéd Chair is a young adult fantasy that is a retelling of Robin Hood where Maid Marion kicks butt from a wheelchair.” Scripted, “Ah”, and my second logline was “It’s about a teen struggling to make sense of her disability when the local lord tries to kill her father, drawing her into a plot that encompasses family betrayal and otherworldly magic. In order to save the day, she has to team up with an irritating outlaw who she doesn’t know if she wants to kiss or run him over with her wheelchair, and along the way she must learn to accept her limitations and embrace her strengths.” I’ve thought of some improvements I could make to it but it’s too late now. And she said she wants to see it so it must have been all right to begin with.
Success Story
So as soon as I got back from the conference, I went back to work on the first thirty pages of my manuscript, implementing all the things Carol Berg emphasized in her workshop on revision and wrote my query letter, keeping Weronika Janczuk’s tips in mind. It’s done, it’s sent, now all I can do is sit back and twiddle my thumbs and hope that the writing is as good as my beta readers have said (I can’t tell anymore, I’ve seen it so many times it all looks inane to me). Whatever the result, I am one step further than ever, so I’ll take that as a win.

I try to have a take home message for each of my posts, but I didn’t write this with one in mind. I guess what I learned this weekend was that if you’re passionate about something, you’re never done learning about it. You should keep getting better, keep honing your craft, and most of all never give up. As Susan Wiggs said at the farewell lunch, “the only sure way to fail is to quit”.

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Brave the Blank Page

Blank pageFor a while I’ve felt that I should write about writing: the writing process, writing tips, the dreaded rewrite. I’m hardly an expert. I don’t have a degree in writing (just a BS in biology). But I have been doing this awhile, and along the way I’ve come up with some things that have worked for me. W. Somerset Maugham said “There are three rules for writing. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.” Following that sage advice, I’m not going to try to come up with rules or even guidelines. I’m just going to talk about the things I’ve learned and you get to listen (lucky you).

The first thing I learned about writing while writing is probably the simplest concept, but it also seems to be the hardest to implement at times. The most important thing to do to improve your writing is….write. Just write. Put words on a page. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? And yet this is what trips most people up. I hear, “I want to write a book, but I don’t know where to start” or “I want to finish my book, but I have writer’s block.”

One of the hardest things about writing is putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) when all you want to do is prance around the room in your granny panties because that’s easier than staring at a blank page. Yeah, I know all about that. I’ve been there. Wait, you don’t do that? Maybe it’s just me. Regardless of how you deal with writerly insanity, blank pages are scary things. I mean, it’s just sitting there waiting for you to fill it. Who wants that kind of responsibility? Well, if you call yourself a writer, then you’ve volunteered for it. So writers, what do we do with a blank page? Anyone? Bueller…Bueller? Well, we fill it with lovely words: poetry that captures the feel of a winter evening, fiction that takes us to new worlds, essays that teach and inspire. What do you want to add to the realm of literature?

“But I don’t know where to start,” you say. Don’t worry. No one else does either. Start with a sentence. I’m serious. At the top of that terrifyingly blank page, write one sentence.

The dog runs.

Look at that. There are words on that page. You’ve started. What next? How about another sentence?

The dog runs. But the dinosaur runs faster.

I don’t know about you, but that looks like the start of a story to me.

Pantsers (people who write by the seat of their pants) probably have less trouble with this step than planners (people who plan everything before they write). I’m a tried and true pantser. I only outline if I figure out what happens next faster than I can get it on paper. But it’s easy to get stuck no matter what your method. I know planners who get bogged down in the outline, wanting to plan out every detail. And they never write a word of the actual novel. Pantsers have problems too. I’ll get halfway through a first draft and realize I have no clue what comes next. Or there are people like my sister, Arielle, who get words on the page, even a whole chapter, but they won’t move on until what they’ve written is perfect.

My advice to all of them is to just write. Planners, if it never makes it onto a page, then it’s never actually a novel. It’s just an idea. Pantsers, do what you do best and just see what happens. Add an agoraphobic assassin, sink the pirate’s ship. Run with it. Arielles of the world, write the next part. One chapter of a novel will never be perfect, only incomplete.

Once you’re past that first hurdle – when the first sentence is written, and the second sentence, a whole page, a chapter, a book – you’re still not done. Yes, there should be editing and revising, but I’m not going to talk about those here. What I mean is that you should still be writing. Hey, don’t complain to me, you were the one who wanted to be a writer.

I finished my first novel when I was nineteen. 200,000 words (yikes), and I was so proud of my first draft, I packed it up and sent it to an editor. Here’s a healthy tip: don’t do this… ever. I also didn’t write much for a while after that. Don’t do this either. Remember when your piano teacher told you practice makes perfect? Same thing. The only way to get better at writing is to keep writing. So write. All the time. Every day if you can. Need help fitting it into a busy schedule? There are plenty of books to help. Writer Mama by Christina Katz and Pen on fire by Barbara DeMarco-Barrett are two I’m going to look up myself. A friend of mine writes a blog Writing While the Rice Boils. Trouble finding ideas? Use prompts and exercises (Writer’s Digest has lots). Do research. Write another novel. Make it better. One of my critique partners likes to say, you can’t edit what doesn’t exist. I’ve written five novels over twelve years and all of them have taught me something. Things like don’t send a first draft to an editor, aMy story starts herend sinking the pirate ship can actually work out. Another big one was trust your readers (little sisters played a part in this one). So brave the blank page. Set off into the unknown armed with only your pen. Almost everyone wants to write a book, but only you writers will actually do it.

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