Tag Archives: writing

Looking forward to 2011… and beyond

I’m probably not the only person who has been reflecting on the past year and looking forward to the next one. As I’ve thought about and planned my writing goals for the next year, I’ve been trying to put them in a more big-picture context of a writing career.

My first goal is to finish Doubting River. I should have finished it this year, but I completely overwhelmed myself in the latter half of the year. I backburnered it for a while, and then had trouble getting back on track.


I know I’m busy, so I’m going to be realistic. Desired word count per day: 500 words. Absolute minimum, must-accomplish-or-else: 250 words. If I do more than 500 words, that’s gravy.

Second goal is to update this blog twice a week. Sunday and Thursday, I think. I’ve been thinking about how to focus the blog in a way that will satisfy my current readership and, hopefully, increase it. The feedback I’ve gotten is that people seem to like the writing-related posts, which is good, because there aren’t enough dog- or farm-related events to warrant regular updates.

My plan, then, is to continue to blog about my novel and the industry, but to focus the bulk of the posts on “A Plotter’s Guide to Novel Writing.” I am a plotter to the extreme, and because I first wrote screenplays, I’m passionate about structure. Those “Just write and see where it takes you!” pantser types will no doubt feel ill at the thought of putting so much planning into your first draft. Keep an open mind though. You might find something helpful for your editing rounds!

Those of you who want to read more about River, Pax, Pflouff, and the rest of the critters, don’t worry! I haven’t forgotten you. I’ve needed more photos and videos on the site. So I think I’ll make a goal of including a dog pic (or video) with each post, plus a short anecdote or update. If you think about it, you’re probably going to get more content than if I targeted the blog around the dogs!

My remaining writing-related goals are dependent upon the completion of goal number one:

Goal #3: Get an agent. I want to attend at least one conference this year — preferably two — and I want to get another partial critique from an agent during Brenda Novak’s charity auction in May. I did that last year, and the agent has requested the full. I will definitely send it to her as soon as it’s complete.

And finally…

Goal #4: Start a new book! I already have the premise. I’ve been anxious to write it for a long time, but I refuse to do so until Doubting River is out on submission.

I’m really looking forward to 2011! What about you? What are your goals?

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Query mistakes

Author JM Tohline wrote a fantastic blog post today on the biggest mistakes writers make when querying agents. This isn’t information he pulled from writers forums or the Web. Instead, he went to the source: agents. He e-mailed 100 agents and asked them for their personal lists of biggest query mistakes. Fifty responded.

Check out his fantastic post here:


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It’s all about the stakes!

The most influential writing teacher I ever had was a former TV writer named Larry Brody. He is the owner of TVwriter.com, a Web site dedicated to teaching writers the skills for and business realities of writing for Hollywood.

My first love was screenwriting. When I was in high school, I wrote scripts for my favorite TV shows, and I dreamed of being a working screenwriter in Hollywood. Alas, it was a road not taken, and after setting my dreams aside for college, it took me nearly fifteen years to give it another try.

By that time, though my love of screenwriting hadn’t changed, my priorities and lifestyle had. To become a working screenwriter, you live in LA, and you start as a production assistant — bottom of the barrel — and work your way up by cultivating contacts. I was in my early 30s (old by Hollywood standards), married, and settled with a good income. I wasn’t going to relocate and start over.

That reality, of course, didn’t stop me from writing a couple of feature-length screenplays. (Doubting River, the novel I’m writing, is based off the second one.) Brody mentored me through the writing process of the first script, and in doing so, he taught me some fundamental lessons about *story* that transcend medium. These lessons are so important that I list them at the top of every page of notes and let them guide me as I develop my story:

  • The conflict must be life or death.
  • There have to be serious consequences for failure.
  • The characters must have a lot to gain and even more to lose — all of the characters.
  • Emotion… deep emotion.
  • Dig deep to the real story and real issues.
  • It’s the emotional underpinning that makes a reader get into the story and root for success.

It took time, a lot of frustrating feedback, and a lot of digging and rewriting and struggling through several stories to really understand these rules and why they’re so critical. I balked initially. The rules sounded hokey and melodramatic. Life or death? Seriously?

Seriously. What I came to understand is that “life or death” doesn’t necessarily mean physical life or death — though it often does. What it means is that the story goal is figuratively life or death for that character at that time. It’s not enough for the character to want to accomplish something just for the sake of wanting it. The accomplishment has to MATTER.

For example, in real life, I want to finish my novel before the end of the year. What’s at stake if I fail? Not a damn thing (which is good, because there’s not a snowflake’s chance in Hell that it will happen). I could potentially lose my shot at the agents I pitched earlier this year, but there are other agents out there — lots of them.

If I were writing a novel about someone trying to finish a novel by a certain date, there would have be STAKES. There would have to be a serious, compelling reason for finishing with consequences for failure and a lot to gain if the character succeeds. “Because he wants to” is not a good enough reason for the character to undertake the challenge, even though that’s precisely the motivation for most people in reality.

Maybe the character in this example is writing a memior about her mother’s experiences, and her mother has only a few months to live. The goal, then, is to finish the memior before her mother dies.

But we haven’t gone deep enough. Why would it be critical to finish the novel by then? What consequences would their be for not finishing the book? That her mother would die with the book unfinished or without reading it is not enough — because, really, SO WHAT? Maybe, though, there was something her mother left unfinished, something she regrets but has given up on. Now it’s not just finishing the book, but solving the mystery and giving her mother closure, so she can rest in peace.

That’s still not enough. This has to affect the main character — the writer. So we set up the book that there’s something parallel happening in the main character’s life. Resolving this for her mother will resolve something for her as well, thus heading off some potential terrible thing and resulting in peace and a previously unknown positive path for the rest of her life.

Okay, that’s terribly non-specific. But see what I mean? With each layer, the stakes get higher and more personal. Failure *means* something. Success *means* something. The events in the book are pivotal, impacting the rest of the character’s life.

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The Professional Writer: Mastering Your Tools

Thanks to Lynn Price at Behler Publications for inspiring today’s post!

The standard word processing software in the publishing world — and in most of the American corporate world — is Microsoft Word. Whether you love it or hate it, it behooves someone who wants to make a living as a writer to learn to use the tool.

Nothing annoys me more than reading (or worse, cleaning up) a document that looks like it was put together by a one-fingered luddite. Now imagine how an agent or editor feels! Following the suggestions below will make both you and your manuscript appear more professional.

  • It should go without saying, but set up the paragraphs within your manuscript as double-spaced, no space above or below. Do not hit <Enter> at the end of individual lines like you would on a typewriter. A single return at the end of the paragraph is sufficient.
  • Use an automatic indent instead of a manual tab at the beginning of each paragraph. It’s cleaner, and it saves time.
  • Create and use styles instead of manually formatting paragraphs. Major time saver, and it ensures consistency throughout the manuscript. You can, for example, create a style for a chapter break that automatically inserts a page break and puts the required amount of space above the chapter heading, so the first page of each chapter looks the same.
  • Insert a page break instead of hitting <Enter> to move to a new page at the end of a chapter. That will ensure the page break remains consistent, even if you add or remove material.
  • Set up recurring headers using the header feature, and use automatic page numbering.

Before submitting the manuscript to agents or editors, do some final cleanup:

  • If you use the track changes feature, accept all changes. Otherwise, when the agent or editor opens your file, he will see all of your changes — even if you were viewing the doc without the markup.
  • Search for two spaces and replace all occurrences with a single space. Repeat until no more occurrences of two spaces are found. (No, you should not have two spaces after a period.)
  • If you were viewing paragraph formatting marks, turn them off.
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So you want to write a novel

This has been making the rounds of the writing-related blogs. I finally made time to watch it and practically laughed myself silly.

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