Saturday, December 17, 2011

Horrible Poetry & Holiday Wishes

'Twas the week before Christmas
when all through the house
Electronics were humming
especially my mouse

The stockings were hung
by the chimney with care
Revisions were flowing
as I typed with flair

Lights were not hung
and cards were not sent
But my muse had returned
from wherever she went

My children, I heard them
and all of their chatter
I stopped my revisions
to show kids they matter

The work will still be here
when school brings displeasure
But holiday memories
are something we treaure

So I'm closing my laptop
and paying attention
To prayers and laughter
and food, might I mention

I wish you an abundance
of holiday cheer
When the new year arrives
I'll see you back here

Writer friends, this was my lame way of letting you know I'll be taking a short blogging break while my kids are home for Christmas vacation.

But I can't let this year end without telling you how thankful I am that we're in each other's lives. You're an amazing group of people, and it's so fun to share this crazy journey together.

I wish each of you a happy holiday season, and I'll see you in the New Year!

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Enthusiasm--Bring It!

First, I want to mention that I guest posted about flawed vs. unlikable characters over at Lisa Green's blog. If you haven't checked it out yet, come on over! Warning: Lisa's blog is highly addictive.

And now, on to enthusiasm!

When we're passionate and enthusiastic about our work, our manuscripts can shine. But if we're mired in a swamp full of rejections, revisions, or plotting obstacles, we writers can become discouraged.

So how can we retain or regain enthusiasm for our work? Here are some ideas:
  • Stay productive. Even when we're in a slump, if we remain productive and write through it, the good stuff will eventually flow.
  • Need a break? Take one. This sometimes contradicts the previous point, but when our creative brains are fried, we might just need a sweaty workout, a good movie, or an unhealthy dose of reality TV. And chocolate.
  • Revel in the success of others. Instead of feeling envious (I know, I've felt that way too) we should rejoice in the success of other writers. Heck, if they can do it, so can we!
  • Run your own race. A companion to the previous point. If we focus on our own road, our own journey, we're less likely to become discouraged. Eye on the prize, writer friends.
  • Consider no-pay/low-pay markets. These markets are hungry for submissions, and are a great opportunity to earn writing credits. Plus, receiving an acceptance from these markets can give writers a much needed boost of confidence. Funds for Writers is a great place to start, and if you write for kids, check out
  • Nurture your talent. When we read craft books, we're planting the seeds for success. Plus, successful authors of these books are quick to offer encouragement. Win/win.
  • Write with all your heart. If we try to fit ourselves into something that isn't a good match, we may lose our passion. But if we write what we love, something we'd like to read, our enthusiasm has a better chance of hanging on.
  • Daydream. Go ahead. It's one of our perks.
  • Remain thankful. Our skills, and the opportunity to improve them, are a gift.
Do you ever lose enthusiasm for your work? If so, how do you get it back? Please share!

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Act Now! Cyber Deals for Writers!

'Tis the holiday season...time for peace, laughter, and shooting pepper spray into a crowd in order to snatch up an XBox. In the spirit of the season, I wanted to share some amazing cyber deals for writers:

Are your first drafts dreary?
Want to morph from Mediocre to Mama Mia?!
Look no further!
Buy our Better First Drafts software for the low price of $399
For an additional $699 you'll receive an upgrade to
Perfect First Drafts
(Perfect first drafts are not typical, and cannot be guaranteed)

Success in a Box!
Need an agent? No problem!
Want a book deal? Whatever!
Spot on the bestseller list? It's yours!
Movie deal? Do we look like amateurs?
All this for the low price of 12 easy payments of $999
Buy Success in a Box today, and your publishing dreams will come true!
(Happiness sold separately)

Anti-Rejection Pixie Dust
Never again cringe when you open an email
Never again hurl your laptop against the wall
Writers, you too could be rejection-free with just one sprinkle of our magic pixie dust
Only $299, plus shipping and handling
But wait, there's more!
Order within the next 15 minutes and receive a free sampling of
Great Grammar Goo
(Pixie dust and Grammar Goo cause damage to keyboards. Use at your own risk)

Feeling Generous?
Sign up your writer buddy for the "Good News of the Month Club"
On the first of each month, your wonderful writing friend can receive an acceptance letter, a call from a literary agent, or a contract from a publishing house!
Don't miss out on this limited offer! Order today!
(All calls are recorded, acceptance letters are fake, and contracts are non-binding)

So what do you say, writers? Are you ready to whip out that credit card and fill it up with these amazing cyber deals? Are there any other writerly wishes on your list? (These deals are not real, although credit card numbers are accepted...just kidding--not really--yes, I am)

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Write With Authenticity

Au-then-tic: not false or copied; genuine

I heard an interview with Taylor Swift, and the questioner asked how she came up with ideas for her songs. Swift said, "I go to high school and write about it." And then she added, "And I try to write with authenticity."

Sounds so simple! Many of her songs chronicle high school angst, yet they resonate with people of all ages. It seems to me we could follow the breadcrumbs of her songs, and see what she was experiencing at the time it was written.

I don't have all the answers, but when I thought about what it meant to write with authenticity, here's what I came up with:

Be true to your writerly self
I'm amazed by the successes of fantasy and dystopian novels, but I doubt I'd ever write one. I marvel at the creativity involved in building a whole new world, and I'm impressed by those of you who write in those genres. I gravitate toward contemporary dramas, and know that that's where my authentic writerly self belongs. Not that I'd shy away from a different genre if I felt compelled to experiment with something new.

Your unique life experiences add value to your stories
I love the idea that only we can tell our stories. In her book Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott tells how she handed out a writing assignment to each student, and even though the topic was the same, she received a different story from each student. We each view life differently and handle situations in ways that no one else can duplicate. I love how this transfers to our writing. No one else can authentically write exactly what we've written.

Tap in to genuine emotions
We've each felt love, fear, shame, happiness, pride, and embarrassment, and sometimes it's easier to bury the bad stuff and only remember the good. But if we dig deep, remember it all, and write about it, our work will shine with authenticity. At least that's what I'm hoping for.

David Morrell said, "You have to follow your own voice. You have to be yourself when you write. In effect, you have to announce, 'This is me, this is what I stand for, this is what you get when you read me. I'm doing the best I can--buy me or not--but this is who I am as a writer.'"

Tell me, what does writing with authenticity mean to you? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

3 Tips for Curing "Someday Syndrome"

Have you ever suffered from Someday Syndrome? It's a pesky condition that can attack writers who haven't built up immunity. We may say to ourselves...

Someday I'll perfect my skills
Someday I'll finish a project
Someday I'll submit my work

When I was younger (ahem), I used to say Some day I'll go on a fancy vacation and Some day I'll take my writing seriously. The fancy vacation part hasn't happened yet, but circumstances changed and I had the opportunity and determination to attack my writing goals with gusto. My Someday had arrived.

Oftentimes "someday" seems more reasonable, as if things will get easier in the future. The kids will be grown, we'll have more time, or we'll strike it rich and be able to write while lounging on a Caribbean beach.

But unless we take action, "Someday Syndrome" will weaken us, and leave behind a trail of regret. Our "someday" is now, and here are three ways to put Someday Syndrome in its place:
  1. Surround yourself with writers who are just as, or more, motivated than you are. My writing buddies *waves to Lisa Green and Leslie Rose* are super motivated, and we challenge each other and help push each other toward our goals. If not for these two lovely ladies, I might be cowering under my kitchen table, afraid to chase the dream.
  2. Embrace mistakes. With each project I start, I keep thinking "this will be the one where I stop making mistakes." (Stop laughing! I seriously think this) Sure, I'm making less mistakes, but I've learned to embrace these errors, knowing they can be fixed. Fear of mistakes cannot hold us back.
  3. Dive in and just do it! Having a "what's the worst that can happen?" attitude helps because really, what's the worst that can happen? If a piece is horrible, and we can't salvage it, we can consider it a learning experience. Not bad for a worst case scenario.
Are you still thinking "someday," or have you kicked Someday Syndrome to the curb? Do you have a cure you'd like to add to the list?

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Writing lessons learned from TENDING TO GRACE

I recently finished TENDING TO GRACE, by Kimberly Newton Fusco. Here's a brief summary from Amazon:

Lenore is Cornelia's mother--and Cornelia's fix-up project. What does it matter that Cornelia won't talk to anyone and is always stuck in the easiest English class at school, even though she's read more books than anyone else? She feels strong in the fixing. She cooks vegetable soup so Lenore will eat something other than Ring Dings; she lures her out of bed with strong coffee and waffles. She looks after the house when Lenore won't get out of bed at all.

So when Lenore and her boyfriend take off for Vegas leaving Cornelia behind with eccentric Aunt Agatha, all Cornelia can do is wait for her to come back. Aunt Agatha sure doesn't want any fixing.

Here are some writing lessons I learned from this poignant book:
  • Create a sympathetic narrator. I know, I know. Obvious, right? But it bears repeating. Cornelia has a speech impediment, and right away the reader feels her shame. She's smart, but only the reader knows that, and we root for her from page one.
  • Create a quirky sidekick. In some scenes Aunt Agatha could be labeled the opposition. Her goals conflict with Cornelia's goals, but she does it with flair and good humor. She wears a giant purple hat and moccasins, no matter what the season. She eats fiddleheads, munches on sugar cubes, and drinks sassafras. You can't help but love her, even when she's not being nice to Cornelia.
  • Bind the two main characters together. Cornelia's mom has dumped her off with Aunt Agatha, and she has no choice but to live in a dusty old house with no bathroom. She struggles to speak, but is an avid reader. Aunt Agatha is strong-willed, but illiterate. They're bound together by circumstances, yet they find a way to help each other.
  • Postcards can add backstory. Cornelia's mom sends postcards from Vegas. Even though her messages are short, the reader understands that mom is a flake, she makes terrible choices, and Cornelia pays the cost.
  • Less = More. With her sparse style, the author created chapters that were sometimes only half a page long. One and a half pages at the most. But each small chapter is packed with voice and character. It made me wonder how much fluff was left on the cutting room floor.
Have you read this book? And what's a writing lesson you recently learned from a great book?

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Writers--How to Entertain Your Future Self

Reading through a first draft can sometimes be painful. I mean, some of it's ok, but some of it So I've made a habit of doing something to entertain my future self. Maybe you'd like to give it a try!

I've mentioned before that I'll leave reminders to myself to (research) something later, so I don't slow my momentum. But I'll also leave snarky comments to myself, just for fun. Some examples?

(seriously? that's the best you can do?)
(lame. rephrase)
(boring! Ambien alert!)
(too vanilla. add sprinkles)
(show, don't tell. Doh!)
(clunky sentence)
(what were you thinking?)

My goal is to have fun with it, and try not to take myself too seriously. When I go through it the second time, I'll at least have a good laugh while I'm trying to clean up the mess.

Have you ever done anything like this? How do you soften the sting of a read-through?

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

4 Reasons for writers to be thankful

At this time of year, a lot of people reflect on what they're thankful for. As a writer, I'm thankful I have a certain amount of skills. That alone is worth being thankful for. But these days there are other reasons why writers can be thankful.
  1. More opportunities. The publishing world is shifting every day, and it's tough to keep track of what's up and what's down. But all this change is good for us. Writers have more opportunities than ever before. If Plan A doesn't work, try Plan B. If plan B doesn't work, come up with a Plan C. We have choices, and that's something to be thankful for.
  2. Mountains of information. If our hearts are open to learning, there's an abundance of teaching material available to us--most of it for free. Authors' blogs, ebooks and paper books about craft, and links via Twitter. Sure, the amount of information out there can be intimidating, but if we sift through it all and find what works for us, we're connected with unlimited learning potential. Great places to start are The Bookshelf Muse and Writer's Knowledge Base.
  3. Readers. If you're published, you already have them. If you're pre-published, those readers are out there, waiting for your work. Let's give them our best!
  4. Each other. Writers are generous, friendly, and supportive. Being a part of this community is priceless. Feeling down? Need encouragement? Need advice? Throw your (edited) thoughts out there, and fellow writers are sure to offer just what you need. There will be days when you can return the favor.
What else can writers be thankful for? Feel free to add anything that I've missed.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

Saturday, November 19, 2011

String Bridge--A Book Review

I recently finished "String Bridge," which was written by our fellow blogging buddy, Jessica Bell. The beautiful story, with all it's twists and turns, is still on my mind. Here's a brief description from Amazon:

Greek cuisine, smog, and domestic drudgery was not the life Australian musician, Melody, was expecting when she married a Greek music promoter and settled in Athens, Greece. Keen to play in her new shoes, though, Melody trades her guitar for a 'proper' career and her music for motherhood. That is, until she can bear it no longer and plots a return to the stage--and the person she used to be. However, the obstacles she faces along the way are nothing compared to the tragedy that awaits.

What I loved most about this book was how textured and real these characters were. Melody, Alex, and Tessa became real people to me, and I cared about what happened to them. Tessa, Melody's daughter, was a spirited little girl who added comic relief to the serious story, and provided a compelling reason for Melody to stay in her current life. Alex was the hubby I wanted to smack across the head while at the same time make him a sandwich. Their family life was complex, and there were no easy answers to their problems.

Most women can probably relate to Melody's feelings of love, loss, and regret. She compared the life she thought she'd live vs. reality, and experienced days when she didn't quite measure up. The author captured these emotions beautifully, and without giving anything away, she also did an amazing job of throwing in some wild twists. Like the ending...I didn't see it coming, and I absolutely loved being surprised.

Have you read Jessica's book? If so, what did you think? And if you haven't read it yet, here's where you can get a copy:

The soundtrack is on iTunes and Amazon

Jessica can also be found on Facebook and Twitter


Jessica Bell is a literary women's fiction author, poet and singer/songwriter who grew up in Melbourne, Australia, to two gothic rock musicians who had successful independent careers during the 80's and early 90's.

She spent much of her childhood traveling to and from Australia to Europe, experiencing two entirely different worlds, yet feeling equally home in both environments. She currently lives in Athens, Greece and works as a freelance writer/editor for English Language Teaching publishers worldwide, such as HarperCollins, Pearson Education and Macmillan Education.

In addition to String Bridge, Jessica has published a book of poetry called Twisted Velvet Chains. A full list of poems and short stories published in various anthologies and literary magazines can be found under Published Works & Awards on her website.

From September 2012 Jessica will be hosting the Homeric Writers' Retreat & Workshop on the Green island of Ithaca, home of Odysseus.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Writing lessons learned from HATE LIST

I recently finished "Hate List" by Jennifer Brown, and I have one word for Here's a brief description:

Five months ago, Valerie Leftman's boyfriend, Nick, opened fire on their school cafeteria. Shot trying to stop him, Valerie inadvertently saved the life of a classmate, but was implicated in the shootings because of the list she helped create. A list of people and things she and Nick hated. The list he used to pick his targets.

Now, after a summer of seclusion, Val is forced to confront her guilt as she returns to school to complete her senior year. Haunted by the memory of the boyfriend she still loves and navigating rocky relationships with her family, former friends, and the girl whose life she saved, Val must come to grips with the tragedy that took place and her role in it, in order to make amends and move on with her life.

I learned several writing lessons from this amazing book, and here's a sampling:
  • Create a sympathetic villain: this is possibly the best example I've ever read. Nick brought a gun to school and shot other students in cold blood. Students who begged for their lives. He was a monster...we should hate him. But this author did an amazing job of showing Nick's pain, and how bullying transformed his life.
  • Use newspaper articles to provide plot and character details. Sprinkled between the chapters were newspaper accounts of the shooting. It was a clever way to add details without an info dump, and without taking away from the story. And each of the shooting victims was memorialized in the local paper, familiarizing the reader with the teachers and students that lost their lives on that fateful day.
  • Use old emails instead of flashbacks. During the police investigation, Valerie was forced to defend the email exchanges she'd shared with her boyfriend. They told the emotional story of frustration, bitterness, and hate without boring the reader with long, detailed flashbacks.
  • Mixed-up timelines can keep readers guessing. Sometimes I'm frustrated by a mixed-up timeline, but in this book, it kept me interested. It doesn't open with the shooting--it opens on Valerie's first day back to school. But little by little the author deftly went back to the day of the shooting, then back to the present. I was hooked.
  • Introduce characters, clues, and details slowly. A lot of victims. A lot of survivors. A lot of clues and details. None of this was dumped on me as I read the story. It drip, drip, dripped in, and I was able to absorb it all as the threads came together.
If you read YA, and you like contemporary stories, I highly recommend this book. Although it involved a school shooting, it was mostly a character story, and the author handled the violence well.

If you've read this book, what was your opinion? And if you've learned any writing lessons from a great book, please share!

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Patience--A Writer's Elusive Virtue

Are you out of the closet as a writer? And if so, are there days when you wish you could jump back in the closet and board the door up from the inside?

Some days I feel like that. Why? Because now that people know I'm a writer, they expect certain things. Like, a published book. Well-meaning people often ask me, "So how's it going with the book? Is it published yet? Where can I buy it? And don't real writers have books out already?" (Ok, I made up that last part)

Times like this can be tough for writers, but it's also an opportunity to don our wrinkled, dusty "patience" hats. Here's three things we can remember to do:

Be patient with others
Most people who ask about our writing progress are showing genuine interest and are being kind. People that aren't a part of the publishing world don't usually understand how s-l-o-w it is. Just like I don't know how engineering or manufacturing works, most people outside the bookish loop don't know how publishing works, or the arduous steps we must take to reach our goals.

Be patient with the publishing industry
Agents, editors, and interns are hard-working folks, just like you and me. Reading through queries and manuscripts takes a long time. Heck, we know how long it takes to revise our own manuscripts, and these people do it all day every day. We don't want them to rush past our manuscript as if it doesn't matter. If they're taking their time with other manuscripts, hopefully they'll take their time with ours.

Be patient with ourselves
If we're constantly focused on all that we're not, we're ignoring what we are and what we've accomplished so far. Learning a craft and working hard to improve it takes a lot of time. Like, months and years, not days. So even though the process is maddeningly slow, and being patient is sometimes difficult, it's a good virtue to strive for.

Do you find yourself becoming impatient with non-writers, the writing industry, and yourself? If so, how do you handle it? And if you're already published, did you have your own moments of impatience?

And on a kind of/sort of similar subject, you might want to check out this post at Write It Sideways: Can You Really Call Yourself a Writer?

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

A Love Affair...With Index Cards

Writers love office supplies, right? We geek out at rows of bright highlighters, colorful pens, and blank paper. One of my favorite supplies costs less than $1.

It's another old school tool that I use with each project--index cards. You know, the kind you buy for $.50 at Wal Mart. James Scott Bell talks about them in Plot & Structure. I've become an index card disciple, and here's why:
  1. They point to what's missing in my plot. Bell suggests that we write the following plot points on index cards: opening scene, doorway #1, doorway #2, climax scene. Spread them out on a table in this manner: opening, then a little bit of space, doorway #1, then lots of empty space, doorway #2, a little space, and then the climax scene. Doing this low tech visual trick showed me where I needed to insert scenes.
  2. They're flexible. Want to move doorway #1 closer to the opening? No problem. Want to switch scenes around in the middle so that you're ratcheting up the tension? No problem. Want to add a scene? No problem. Using index cards makes switching up scenes an easy task.
  3. They store valuable information. I not only add a one line description of the scene, but I'll also add the setting, conflict, emotion, and scene purpose. This reminds me what I need to accomplish with each scene.
  4. They help with pacing. When I'd completed my cards and spread them out, I noticed I had too many scenes before doorway #1. This is only one pacing problem I encountered, and I'm sure there's plenty more, but visualizing each card as a scene reminded me that I need to get to the guts of the story quicker.
  5. They travel well. I don't have to worry about WiFi or battery power with my index cards. I store them in a baggie and carry them with me while I'm in the plotting stage.
Those are my geekiest reasons for why I love index cards. If you use OneNote or Scrivener, you're probably laughing right now. I know, I know, it's so old school!

What's your favorite office supply? Have you ever used index cards? If not, what do you use to help you plot? And if you're a pantser, how in the world do you organize all that information in your head? Inquiring minds want to know!

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Not Easy...But Possible

My family recently watched Soul Surfer. Based on a true story, this inspirational movie is about Bethany Hamilton, a young surfer girl whose arm was bitten off by a shark.

Bethany fought insurmountable odds, but battled her way back into the sport she loved and became a pro surfer.

Bethany spoke a line in the movie that resonated with me:

"I don't need easy. I just need possible."

It reminded me that we writers have chosen a goal that isn't easy. Our goal involves a tough industry that's constantly changing. It's based on the subjective opinions of other people. Are we crazy or something?

We're no more crazy than the people who thought we could walk on the moon. Putting books in the hands of eager readers is a bold and vital goal. It can be exciting, but it's also frustratingly hard.

But writer friends, we don't need easy. We just need possible. After all, if Bethany could surf with only one arm, surely we can handle a mountain of rejection letters.

Have you seen this movie? If so, what was your opinion? And do you ever feel like this business is just too darn difficult? If so, maybe these quotes will help:

"The trouble with doing something right the first time is that nobody appreciates how difficult it was." --Walt West

"Man needs his difficulties because they are necessary to enjoy success." --Abdul Kalam

"Where there is no difficulty, there is no praise." --Samuel Johnson

"Storms make the oak grow deeper roots." --George Herbert

"Difficulties are things that show a person what they are." --Epictetus

photo credit

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

A Writer's Notebook Trap

I love to peek at the creative process of other writers, and I've even incorporated some techniques this way. I thought I'd give you a glimpse into something that I rely writing notebook.

I put one together with each project. It's old school, unlike Scrivener, but I prefer something I can hold on to. I buy a simple 1" three-ring binder, and dividers. I take notes on a spiral notebook, the kind with the tear out sheets, and then sort those notes within the three-ring binder. It keeps me organized, even when my thoughts are all over the place. No idea can escape the notebook trap.

Here are some samples of divider tabs:
  1. Characters--this is where character worksheets, character quirks, and character notes belong. If I forget what eye color my main character has, this is what I refer to. The name, age, and physical description of each character goes here, and keeps confusion to a minimum.
  2. Plot/Scene Ideas--when these ideas pop into my head, I jot them down. I may never use them, but at least I've recorded them for future use. As I'm plotting, I pluck my favorite ideas out and expand on them.
  3. Plotting Notes--each time I plot a new project, I refer to James Scott Bell's Plot & Structure. Inevitably I end up taking notes, and this is where I keep those scribbles. These are free-form notes, but I want to keep them in a safe place for future reference.
  4. Clues--ah, this is a biggie for me. With each story, as I plant clues, I keep a running list in this section. Same with story threads. As I near the end of the first draft, or as I work through the second draft, I make sure to refer to this list, so that clues and story threads don't get lost in the shuffle.
  5. Research--notes from books, or printouts from web sites, go here. Easy peasy.
  6. Sample Lines--if an opening line comes to me, I'll jot it down here. Same with my sample log lines. It's helpful to see the sample openings or log lines morph from one version to another, tightening up along the way.
  7. Agents--before I signed with my agent, I kept a section in my notebook for a list of agents. As I heard about agents that might be interested in my type of book, I jotted down their name, agency, and web site. When it was time to query my manuscript, this narrowed down my research phase.
So that's my notebook. What do you think? Not organized enough? Way too organized? Too low tech? Can you share a nugget or your process with us? It's fun to compare, or to borrow/steal ideas!

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Facing Our Fears

The view from our airplane

My three sons are working toward earning their aviation merit badges with Boy Scouts. Last weekend we went to a tiny air park and each boy got to ride in a small propeller plane. The pilots let each boy take control of the airplane during their flight--an amazing opportunity.

One of my sons was nervous and wanted to back out. I gave the usual mommy speeches. It'll be fun. You have nothing to be afraid of. If you don't go for it, you'll regret it later.

Imagine my horror when he asked if I'd go with him. *gulp* I'm terrified of heights--I hate flying in big jet planes, and even face the door when I ride in a glass elevator. I couldn't figure out how to say no to my son, because I'd been cheering him on and urging him to conquer his fear.

I reluctantly agreed and sat in that small propeller plane behind my 11-year-old son. Once we were up in the air, I heard the pilot's terrifying words, "Garrett, you have the airplane." My son squealed with excitement as he took control. He did a great job, had the time of his life, and was so glad he went. As for me, I hope to never again fly in a small propeller plane for the rest of my life.

But I faced a fear head on, and that was no easy task (amazing what we'll do for our children, huh?). It reminded me how we writers face fears every day. Fear we're not good enough, fear of rejection, fear of ridicule, fear of stepping outside our comfort zones. But we do it, even though it isn't easy. No regrets, writer friends. No regrets.

If you're like me, and facing fears, here are some quotes that may help:

"You block your dream when you allow your fear to grow bigger than your faith" -- Mary Manin Morrissey

"Fear is a darkroom where negatives develop." --Usman B. Asif

"There are very few monsters who warrant the fear we have of them." --Andre Gide

"To fear is one thing. To let fear grab you by the tail and swing you around is another." --Katherine Paterson

"I have learned over the years that when one's mind is made up, this diminishes fear." --Rosa Parks

Whether it's writing related or not, what's your biggest fear? If you've faced your fears, how did you overcome them?

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

8 Tips for Slicing Through the Research Jungle

When you begin researching a project, do you ever feel like you're lost in a thick jungle and can't slice your way out? Me too. I actually love doing research, and have a habit of clicking from one subject to another, learning fun new facts. I have to be careful not to spend all my writing time doing research, because otherwise I'd never finish a project.

How can we avoid getting lost in the research jungle? Here are some tips that work for me:
  1. Research as much as we can before writing the first draft. Not only does this arm us with important facts, but this research will likely spark new ideas to deepen our plot and character.
  2. When writing the first draft, unless it's vital to the plot, do not slow down to do research. One trick is to type in (research) and follow up later. This prevents us from getting sidetracked during this phase and slowing down our momentum. Once the first draft is complete, we can find (research) and fill in the missing information.
  3. Check multiple sources. One place to start is Wikipedia, although this cannot be cited as a reputable source. But at the bottom of the Wikipedia page there's a list of links and books that will lead us in the right direction.
  4. Keep track of our sources. We can jot down book publisher information and page numbers on paper, and store them in a notebook. And we can create a new research file on our computer for each project and bookmark relevant websites.
  5. Ask an expert. Most experts are willing to spend time speaking about their specialty. I wrote and sold an article based on the Sentinels who guard the Tomb of the Unknowns. Although I had done extensive research, the article truly came to life once I spoke with an actual guard.
  6. Do a Google search for organizations that specialize in our subject. Often they'll have web sites with FAQ's sections, books on the subject, pertinent links on the sidebar, or discussion boards.
  7. Search for personal blogs. If our research involves a human condition, it's possible there's a personal blog out there on the subject. I once found an online diary which provided all kinds of fascinating insight.
  8. Enjoy! There's so much amazing information out there, and we're the lucky writers who get to gobble it all up.
Have you ever done research for a project? I'd love to hear what worked for you and what didn't.

Congratulations to our blogging buddy, Vicki Tremper, for winning our signed copy of Beauty Queens. Lisa Green, Leslie Rose, and I hope you love it!

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Would you rather...

Recently I watched Romancing the Stone for the umpteenth time. It's a story about a romance writer who lives alone with cats crawling all over her house.

When she finishes a manuscript she pops open a bottle of champagne and shares it with her feline family. Soon the writer is launched into an adventure of her own, and falls in love with the rugged hero--someone who resembles the hunks of burning love she creates. *sigh*

Same with Nim's Island, where a panicky author is thrust into a crazy adventure to help find and save an 11-year-old fan and her (hunky) scientist father. *sigh again*

If I were dropped into a story, I'd want it to be in The Proposal. You know, the chick flick with Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds. Not that I'm obsessed with Ryan or anything, because my husband is awesome. OMG RYAN REYNOLDS!!!

I'd love to be the main character in that movie for a few reasons. She wears amazing clothes, carries swoon-worthy bags, and best of all...she's a book editor! Yep, she has the power, people. She reads books and decides what is or isn't published. I'm sure that's a heck of stressful job, but wow, what a feeling. Plus, Ryan Reynolds is her assistant! But remember, I'm not obsessing.

So writers, let's have some fun. Would you rather be dropped in your own story as one of your characters, or into someone else's creation? Which character would you choose, and why?

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Beauty Queens Extravaganza!

My critique partners and I thoroughly enjoyed Beauty Queens, by Libba Bray, and have joined together to do a Beauty Queens extravaganza! Be sure to stop by Lisa Green's and Leslie Rose's blogs for fun facts about them, and for another chance to win a signed copy of this awesome book.

First, the writing lessons I learned from Beauty Queens (I had total writer envy while reading this book, but that's a subject for another post--or a therapist):
  • Brilliant covers help sell books. Seriously, look at that cover. A bathing suit criss-crossed with a sash and a lipstick bandolier? Totally awesome.
  • Crazy, seemingly unrelated storylines intersect to create a unique and clever plot. Beauty queens crash land on a deserted island. Pirates arrive. The girls uncover a conspiracy involving an Elvis-loving dictator. Bray's mind must be a fun, scary, brilliant, intimidating place to visit.
  • Fun footnotes are a cool diversion. John Green did it in An Abundance of Katherines, and Bray did it with Beauty Queens. For me, the footnotes didn't slow down the story. They added more hilarity, and again I marveled at the author's cleverness.
  • Campy, fun books can have teeth. Sure, this book might seem like it's only about self-centered beauty queens, but it carried strong messages about self-esteem, tolerance, and inner beauty.
Throughout the book, readers were treated to the contestants' Miss Teen Dream Fun Facts Pages. In an effort to either entertain you or embarrass ourselves, Lisa, Leslie and I are sharing our own fun facts pages. Here we go!

Miss Teen Dream Fun Facts Page

Name: Julie Musil (although if you visited my home, you'd think it's "Mom, do you know where my ___ is?")
State: California, where you're never too rich or too thin, and everyone has an agent or sells real estate.
Age: Are you trying to be funny? Is The Corporation selling anti-aging pills or something? I should totally sue them. *checks wrinkles in mirror*
Height: I haven't grown an inch since middle school. What does that tell ya?
Weight: See answer to "age". *checks rear view in mirror*
Hair: Are we talking roots? Or after I've seen the colorist? Just checking.
Eyes: Fine--like Elizabeth Bennett's (Mr. Darcy, call me!)
Best Feature: It depends on the day--either my positive attitude or my well-shaped feet.

Fun Facts About Me
  1. At a whopping 5' 1", I'm the tallest female in my family. Seriously. One sister is 4' 9", another is 4' 11", and our mom is just under 5' 1". At least we never had to worry about wearing high heels around guys (Sorry, Nicole Kidman. That had to be rough)
  2. I won't eat meat off the bone, and won't touch any seafood. Like, never. I'm actually squirming right now just thinking about it.
  3. I forget serious, important information, and yet I remember useless stuff. Like Seinfeld-isms (yada yada yada, soup nazi, close talker), the Gilligan's Island theme song (Just sit right back and you'll hear a tale...), and commercials (Remember this chant? Big Mac, filet-of-fish, quarter pounder, french fries. Icy Cokes, thick shakes, sundaes, and apple pies).
Ok guys, it's your turn. We're giving away a SIGNED copy of Beauty Queens! Please tell us at least one fun fact about yourself in order to be entered into our book giveaway. U.S. addresses only, and the deadline is Monday, October 24th, at midnight EST. Good luck!

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Writing lessons learned from "The Rifle"

Our sons are reading The Rifle, by Gary Paulsen, in class. Out of curiosity, my husband and I read it together in about two hours. Here's a quick summary:

A priceless, handcrafted rifle, fired throughout the American Revolution, is passed down through the years until it fires on a fateful Christmas Eve of 1994.

This was a cool, quick read, and here are a few writing lessons I learned from this book:
  • Multi-published, award-winning authors can get away with what most of us can't. If a newbie writer wrote a manuscript that devoted several opening pages to how a gun was crafted, I wonder if it would make it past the gatekeepers. Just curious. My husband was fascinated by this part of the book, but I was tempted to skip it and get to the conflict.
  • Consider a unique point of view. This book doesn't follow a specific human character. It follows the rifle from the time it was crafted during the Revolutionary War to 1994, when it's involved in a tragic accident. I thought that was a cool spin on point of view.
  • Weave historical details into a story. I applaud historical fiction writers. We all know how much research is involved in these types of novels, and now more than ever I appreciate the way an author deftly adds historical nuggets without slowing down the story. It's a good reminder for me to add research details without making my manuscript feel like a textbook.
  • The power of pacing. Without giving too much away, one of the final scenes involves the rifle being shot. The entire scene took two to three pages to describe in painstaking, anxious detail, but the actual time span of the event took less than 1.5 seconds. I held my breath during this scene, which is usually a good indicator that the author did a nice job of pacing.
I'm glad I read this book, knowing it's another opportunity to discuss this subject with our sons. Plus I thought it ended up being an interesting read.

Have you or your kids read this book? If so, what was your opinion? And if you're a teacher, do you assign this book to your students?

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Doctor's Lady--Interview with Author, Jody Hedlund, and a Book Giveaway!

Today it's my honor to host Jody Hedlund on her blog tour for her fabulous new release, The Doctor's Lady. The Doctor's Lady is a beautiful tale about love, tenacity, and selflessness. The main characters, Eli and Priscilla, are people I wish I'd known, and their journey west captivated me.

Here's a brief summary of the book:

Priscilla White bears the painful knowledge that she'll never be able to be a mother. Having felt God's call to missionary work, she determines to remain single, put her pain behind her, and answer God's call.

Dr. Eli Ernest wants to start a medical clinic and mission in unsettled Oregon Country. He's not interested in taking a wife because of the dangers of life in the west and the fact that no white woman has ever attempted the overland crossing.

But then Priscilla and Eli both receive news from the mission board: No longer will they send unmarried men and women into the field. Left scrambling for options, the two realize the other might be the answer to their needs.

Priscilla and Eli agree to a partnership, a marriage in name only that will allow them to follow God's leading into the mission field. But as they journey west, this decision will be tested by the hardships of the trip and by the unexpected turnings of their hearts.

I always like to share what I learned from each book I read, and in this case, I learned a great deal about scenes. Jody didn't give us unnecessary details about the main characters' adventures along the Oregon Trail. She jumped ahead to the scenes that mattered, and quickly summarized what had taken place before that time. She did this with such style and made it look easy, but we all know it's not.

Before we dive in to Jody's interview, I'd like point out what many of you already know--that her blog is the go-to place for writing advice that's humble, personal, and practical.

And now some Q&A with award-winning author, Jody Hedlund:

Jody, what was the inspiration behind The Doctor's Lady?

This book is inspired by the true life story of Narcissa Whitman, the first white woman to brave the dangers of overland trail and travel west. In 1836, she married Dr. Whitman, and then the next day left her childhood home and would never return for the purpose of starting a mission among the Nez Perce natives.

It was my hope in this story to bring Narcissa Whitman to life. This heroic woman has often been ignored and at times even disparaged. In reality, she exuded incredible courage to attempt a trip many proclaimed foolishly dangerous. It was called an "unheard-of-journey for females." Because of her willingness to brave the unknown, she led the way for the many women who would follow in her footsteps in what would later become known as the Oregon Trail.

What do you like most about writing and being a published author?

As a writer, I love telling stories. I especially like the feeling that comes as I near the end of the book when everything looks hopeless, the characters are in big trouble, and somehow I'm able to wrap up the book in a satisfying way. I call it the first-draft love affair! I fall absolutely and madly in love with the story and think it's the best thing I've ever written.

As a published author, I love hearing from readers. I'm always thrilled to get emails or hand-written notes from readers telling me how much my story touched them.

What do you like least?

I struggle the most during the editing phase of each of my books. The love affair that started during the first draft comes to an end. I fall out of love with my books. By the last edit--called the Galley Review--I finally reach a point where I loathe the book, think it's the worst thing I've ever written, and wish I could just throw it away. During the Galley stage, I'm fraught with insecurity and fear. My agent did a great job of talking me off the cliff during my fears with The Doctor's Lady. She encouraged and inspired me to keep going no matter what happens.

As a homeschooling mom of five children, how do you manage to find time to write?

It's definitely not easy. I feel like I have two very full time jobs! But like any other writer trying to balance dual careers or multiple responsibilities, I've had to look for ways to make it work. I've scaled-back on outside commitments and simplified home life as much as possible. I also stick to a very strict writing schedule when I'm in first draft mode. I block out writing time and don't let myself go to bed at night unless I get in my daily word count.

What advice do you have for anyone interested in writing and pursuing publication?

Write a couple of books first and unleash your creativity. Then start reading books that explain how to write. Study techniques, practice them, and keep writing. When you begin reaching a level in your writing where you think you're ready to start querying, get a critique partner to read your work, vamp up your online presence, and immerse yourself in the writing industry.

Jody, thanks so much for stopping by my blog and giving us a peek into your creative process!

Friends, one lucky commenter will receive a copy of The Doctor's Lady (US residents only). Please comment by midnight EST on Friday, October 14 for your chance to win this inspirational book.

Update: I've heard that Blogger isn't allowing some people to leave a comment. If this happens to you, and you'd like to be entered in the book giveaway, please email me at julie (at) juliemusil (dot) com and I'll enter you. So sorry!

Do you love historical fiction? What's your favorite historical novel, or your favorite historical figure? I'd love to hear your thoughts!

Jody Hedlund is an award-winning historical romance novelist and author of the best-selling book, The Preacher's Bride. She received a bachelor's degree from Taylor University and a master's from the University of Wisconsin, both in Social Work. Currently she makes her home in Michigan with her husband and five busy children. Her second book, The Doctor's Lady released in September 2011.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Writers, what will be your legacy?

We're Apple junkies in my home and, like the rest of the world, we mourn the loss of Steve Jobs. I wish I had even a small portion of his fearlessness. He was a visionary and a titan of business, and his legacy, to me, is immeasurable.

Here's a sampling of his inspirational quotes:

"Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma--which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of other's opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary."

"We don't get a chance to do that many things, and every one should be really excellent. Because this is our life. Life is brief, and then you die, you know? And we've all chosen to do this with our lives. So it better be damn good. It better be worth it."

"Almost everything--all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure--these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart."

These quotes remind me not to fritter away time, and to worry less about pride, embarrassment, or fear of failure. We're writers who are following our hearts, and that's something we can be proud of.

My amazing children are my legacy, but so is my writing. Whether we're published or not, our written words will remain long after we're gone. Articles, poetry, short stories, or novels will make some sort of dent in the world, even if it's small. That's a pretty cool legacy, don't you think?

If you own any Apple products, how have they changed your life? And what do you hope your legacy will be?

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Creating Heroes We Care About

Today I welcome Veronika Walker to my blog! Veronika is a writing consultant and freelance editor, and can be found at her website, Inkwork Literary Services, on Twitter, and on Facebook.

Veronika's here to share some tips on how to create heroes we care about. Take it away, Veronika!

Some people call it the "pet-the-dog" scene. Whatever you call it, your story has to have it or your MC will be pretty shallow and forgettable.

It's the scene that makes your MC a hero, a pure, unadulterated hero that your readers will fall in love with in that instant. This is the scene that makes an assassin a man with a heart, a scarred man not a monster, a convict a guy you actually want to escape from Alcatraz.

It's the moment that shows the "nice-guy" side of your character.

How, exactly, do you succeed in doing this with your main character? I have one simple bullet point:
  • It's in the little things.
Honestly, it's that simple.

Why do we really like Rocky? It's not just because he's a down-and-out boxer with an unattainable goal; it's because he protects Adrienne and cares for her more than anything. Why do we root for Robert Stroud in "Birdman of Alcatraz" even though he's a two-time murderer? It's because he holds that little wet sparrow in his brusk and deadly hands so, so gently.

The reason we like them is simple: they show their nice-guy side. Readers want to see your main character's softer, caring side - even if only for a moment - because it makes them more human, more realistic.

Here are some ideas for "nice-guy" moments you can apply to your draft now. Have your MC:
  • Not just help a homeless person, but bond with them by giving them his/her own bed, taking them to the hospital if they're hurt, or sharing a quiet, personal moment about a traumatic experience.
  • Tell the antagonist or obstacle character that they forgive them.
  • Cry when they think about having to kill the bad guy and/or when they actually do.
  • Remember a special moment where their abusive parent took them out for ice cream and a movie, or held them during a frightening thunder storm.
  • Share a personal story with their lover or close friend/work partner/teammate that they've never told anyone before.
  • "Stop and smell the roses," perhaps literally. Find something in nature or some work of art that takes his breath away and makes him feel alive and full of purpose.
  • In taking care of a sick member of the family, feel the angst of not being able to take away their pain.
And there are plenty of other options, but the point is to make your MC fully human by not just showing off what makes him big and bad and extraordinary...but what makes him a feeling person, what makes tears come to his eyes, what makes him stop and stare and say, "That's beautiful."

Now, there's a trick to this. If you overlook it, these small, comfy scenes won't work at all. In fact, they'll make you look like you're trying too hard to make readers like the MC, and you don't want them to figure that out for sure.

The major trick is to take this small scene or scenes and make them drive the character. Let me show you how I did it in one of my short stories recently.

Cal's little sister is sick. He can't do anything to stop her disease from spreading or make her feel any better. His big brother protective beast is coming out...and it's the main trait that develops throughout the story. When Cal gets into a fight with the bully that's been tormenting him all year, he's not fighting because he hates the bully; he's fighting because he's angry about feeling powerless to help his little sister, and the bully just happened to get in the way and must now suffer all the anger built up in Cal's big brother heart. Later Cal gets infuriated at his parents for not doing something more to help his sister, even though he knows it's not really their fault; still, he has too much anger over his sister's pain to think rationally.

This one little scene, where Cal tucks his little sister in bed and does his best to be brave for her, is a window into Cal's soul, into what is actually making him tick as a human being.

And that is what makes him a hero that we care about.

Thanks, Veronika! Writers, have you created a hero? Can you share your tips with the rest of us?

And please feel free to visit Veronika's blog today, where I guest posted about Applying Writing Lessons Learned. Stop by and share how you put into practice what you've learned from craft books.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

STOP! Don't Make These Writing Mistakes

We've all done it. We've made a mistake that's horribly embarrassing. Maybe nobody else saw it, or maybe only our critique partners saw it. Or maybe we sent that mistake out into the big, wide publishing world.

Let's have a therapy session, shall we?

Last February we helped each other by adding tips to the post Writers: take a tip, leave a tip (if you haven't visited that post yet, read the comments for some brilliant tips from fellow writers). What do you say we list some of our biggest blunders, hoping other writers will avoid the same mistakes?

I'll start with two of my biggest boo-boos:
  1. I wrote a middle grade novel that included an adult's point of view. Yeah, don't do that. That book had many faults, but that was the biggest. Really, when you were a middle grader, did you care about the adult's point of view? Me neither. *hangs head in shame*
  2. That same middle grade book started out okay in the first chapter, but the second and third chapters were exposition and backstory. Yep, as each character was introduced, I went on and on and on about who they were and what their home life was like. *snore*
Hey, that's what practice books are for, right? At least that's what I tell myself! Needless to say, that book will collect virtual dust on my hard drive forever. But I learned from those blunders, so that book was not a waste of time and effort.

Ok, your turn. What's the biggest writing mistake you've made, and how can the rest of us learn from your faux pas? Don't be afraid...we've all made some doozies!

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Writers, are you running in circles?

Do you ever feel like you're running in circles? Like you're stopping at the same Gatorade stations and passing the same landmarks without gaining any traction? Well, me too.

Maybe it's because we're so focused on what's in front of us--the current rewrite, the plotting snag, or runaway characters. Or maybe it's because something happens that makes us feel as if we're back at the starting line. Whatever the reason, here's what I try to do when I feel like I'm running in circles:

When we slow down or stop, we're able to see that these landmarks aren't the same after all. Our battle with exposition or telling aren't what they used to be. Our character development is no longer flat and uninspiring. Our skills are improved. Not perfect, but better. With each rotation we're widening our circle and gaining knowledge.

We need to remember where we were last week, or last month, or last year. What's happened since then? How have we improved in that short time frame? We may not think it's a lot, but it is. Even if we're still frustrated by lack of polish, representation, or a contract, it's important that we pat ourselves on the back for all that we've accomplished.

Start running again
Once we appreciate our growth, hopefully it'll give us the extra boost we need to keep racing toward that finish line. We can't win if we don't play, so we must guzzle the Gatorade, shake the sweat off our limbs, and run another lap.

Encourage fellow runners
How many times did you feel like quitting until someone shouted at you from the sidelines? That's what we can do for each other. Each runner shares the same worthy goal, and it's fun to cheer each other on as we race forward.

It's easy (and I think normal) for us to get caught up with frustration and worry. But in my opinion, we need to remember that life is short, and to be thankful we're in the race.

Do you ever feel like you're running in circles? And if so, how do you handle it? We could all use some tips!

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Writer Rewind--Remembering Friday Night Lights

I had the pleasure of hearing Libba Bray speak at a local conference. One of the many wise things she said still stands out in my mind--when writng for teens, it's important to remember. Remember how we felt as we navigated those tricky social waters. The fears, the angst, and the drama. And remember the good times, too.

Some of my favorite memories of high school are the Friday night football games. Now that my son plays on the high school JV team, I get to take a walk down memory lane each Friday night.

Kenny Chesney's song "Boys of Fall" opens with these words: "When I feel that chill and smell that fresh cut grass, I'm back in my helmet, cleats, and shoulder pads." For me, that sums up autumns during my high school years. Not because I played football, but because um, I was a cheerleader (no hating, please).

Here are some of my vivid Friday night memories:
  • Doing an offense cheer when we didn't have the ball. #fail. Sorry to say, I still don't understand the game completely. You could explain it until you're blue in the face and my eyes would still glaze over. But the atmosphere is fun!
  • My boyfriend (now husband) argued with players from the opposing team and got kicked out of the game. Hey, those players ran through our players' banner at half time, and that is a hangable offense in high school.
  • Fellow students talking trash about our team, no matter how well our guys played.
  • The marching band and drill team performing at half time.
  • Students hanging out beneath the bleachers doing who-knows-what (well, I know, but I don't really want to know).
  • Piling into the local pizza place after a home game.
  • The rides home from an away game were rowdy when our team won, and somber when they lost.
One of my characters is on the football team, and I hope I successfully infused some of my fond memories of Friday night lights. But no matter what, it sure is fun to remember those days, and to watch my son experience it for himself.

What's one of your best high school memories? And if you're still in high school, do you enjoy going to the football games?