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!