Saturday, April 28, 2012

Don't quit--your future readers NEED you!

We all get discouraged. Our first drafts are birdcage-worthy, and rejections pile up. Successes rain down from the sky, and sometimes we feel like we're standing in the only dry spot. It's times like these that cause many writers to quit.

My advice? DON'T QUIT!

In my opinion, the biggest fault with quitting is that you'd be giving up on yourself. We've all heard the quote "the only difference between the published writer and the unpublished writer is perseverance."

You know who else loses if you quit? Your future readers. If they're giving up precious time and money to buy books, don't they deserve the best? Aren't they worth the scrutiny and hard work?

Imagine this:

Picture Book Authors--Your reader grabs your book from the shelf and then settles into her mom's lap. She memorizes your words, and turns the worn pages herself. She learns about friendship, family, and acceptance in a joyful way because you didn't give up.

Middle Grade Authors--Your reader struggles through an awkward time. Her body and her life are changing faster than she can register. She's still wearing braces, and she's taller than the guy she's crushing on. Her hair and clothes aren't like the other girls', and she wants nothing more than to fit in. She clings to your character like a good friend, because you didn't give up.

Young Adult Authors--Your reader stands on the creaky bridge between childhood and adulthood. She's hanging on for dear life, because drama is all around her. Family troubles plague her. At school, she feels like she's "in" one day and "out" the next, and she knows that one wrong move can ruin her reputation. She can be bullied on Facebook, and each text she sends could be forwarded to a wide audience. She'll read your book and know that she's not alone, because you didn't give up.

Adult Authors--Your reader is stressed out and needs escape. Work is crazy. Traffic on the freeway tightens the screws on her neck. Bills to pay, kids to shuttle, house to clean. When she steals a moment away, she'll sink in a bubble bath and wet the pages of your book, lost in thought. She'll drag your book to soccer practice, or listen to it on tape while commuting. Late at night, your book will rest in her lap while she waits for her teen to come home, because you didn't give up.

When times are tough, don't be discouraged, be inspired. And think of your readers. They don't want you to quit. They need you.

Do you ever get discouraged? If so, how do you handle it? And do you imagine your readers, and what they'll think of your book? If you're published, do you imagine who's reading your book, and where they're toting it around to?

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Writing lessons learned from THE FAULT IN OUR STARS

I'm a John Green fan, and THE FAULT IN OUR STARS did not disappoint. Jodi Picoult, another favorite author of mine, blurbed that this book was "Electric...filled with staccato bursts of humor and tragedy." I couldn't have said it better myself. From Goodreads:

"Diagnosed with Stage IV thyroid cancer at 12, Hazel was prepared to die until, at 14, a medical miracle shrunk the tumors in her lungs...for now.

Two years post-miracle, sixteen-year-old Hazel is post-everything else, too...Enter Augustus Waters. A match made at cancer kid support group, Augustus is gorgeous, in remission, and shockingly to her, interested in Hazel. Being with Augustus is both an unexpected destination and a long-needed journey, pushing Hazel to re-examine how sickness and health, life and death, will define her and the legacy that everyone leaves behind."

This story had such an impact on me, I teared up as I typed the above summary. *deep breath* Ok, here are some of the writing lessons I learned from this book:

  • Humor lightens a serious mood--Obvious, I know, but the humor has to be done right. In Green's case, he created smart, funny main characters whose spunky language made me smile despite the sad subject. Hazel and Augustus joked about cancer perks. Hazel called her oxygen tank Phillip. Augustus said funny things like, "You'll find my leg under the table." Humor like this relieved pressure from the heavy story.
  • A small cast of characters increases their importance--I'd guess that about 98% of this story revolved around Hazel and Augustus. It chronicled their survival, and their relationship. It wasn't watered down with multiple story lines and a huge cast. This allowed the reader to become close to the main characters. Hazel and Augustus are still on my mind.
  • Create sympathetic characters with serious obstacles--For Hazel and Augustus, just living is a big deal. Augustus is an amputee. Hazel struggles for each breath, and is forced to lug around an oxygen cart. This alone created problems for them.
  • Catch that phrase-Hazel and Augustus rolled their eyes when their good friend and his main squeeze gushed over each other and kept saying "Always?" "Always." For Hazel and Augustus, their own private phrase became "Okay?" "Okay." I felt like I was a third wheel in every private moment between them.
  • Write a story that's bigger than the characters--This story explored leaving a mark on this world, or in some cases, leaving a scar. It was about "loving deeply and not widely." It left me thinking that one of the greatest gifts someone can give is a kind word. This book resonated.
Bonus thoughts from a teen reader: After finishing this story, my fifteen-year-old son said, "This book reminded me to not worry so much about material things, and other stuff that doesn't matter, and to be thankful for my health."

What do you think about the above points? Have you read this book? If so, what was your opinion?

photo credit

Saturday, April 21, 2012

A "No Reply Blogger" Fix & a few words about "Writing Lessons Learned"

A couple of housekeeping issues to take care of: 1) "No Reply Blogger," and 2) "Writing Lessons Learned."

No Reply Blogger

So, I'm going to seem like the goofiest blogger around, but I only recently learned that if you reply to a "no reply blogger" email address, your reply doesn't make it through. Stop laughing. I know. *hangs head in shame*

You see, I reply to every comment on my blog via email, and to be honest, I never look at the actual email addresses. I just click "reply," type in my comment, and assume that if the email message isn't returned, that it went through. Thankfully, some wise bloggers set me straight.

If you're a "no reply blogger," I want you to know that there are replies to your comments floating out in cyber space! And probably not just from me :)

I was quite flustered by this, so I searched for a fix. If you'd like to receive email replies to your blog comments, there's a way. I'll summarize Utterly Chaotic's great tutorial:
  1. Go to Dashboard
  2. Go to Edit Profile
  3. Look in Privacy section
  4. Check the box that says "show my email address"
  5. Go to Identity section, and enter an email address
  6. Click Save Profile
Some people may not want to show their personal email address, and I totally understand. If you have a separate email address for Blogger, you could enter that. Then you could forward your Blogger emails to your personal email address. That's what I do.

If you're unsure whether or not you're a no reply blogger, you can leave a comment, and then email me directly at julie (at) juliemusil (dot) com. I'll let you know how it looks on this end.

Writing Lessons Learned

I read most books based on recommendations, so I usually like what I read. Usually. And I learn lessons from each book, whether it's a favorite or not. And I share those lessons here on my blog.

But I wanted to make it clear that I'm not necessarily recommending each of these books. We all love different genres, but the writing techniques can be universal. I'm focusing on the positive lessons I learn, and sharing them with all of you. Hopefully these observations help other writers as much as they help me. I just wanted to point this out, because I don't want to mislead anyone!

Ok, housekeeping done.

Tell me, are you a no reply blogger? Or do you even know? Leave a comment, and we can figure it out! It's so much more fun when we can chat back and forth :D

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

How to pick a lock--tips for your characters

My husband has all sorts of unique skills, including lock picking. When my main character needed to escape from a tricky place, I turned to my better half to teach me how to get her out. There are all kinds of ways to pick a lock, but today I'll focus on how to do it with bobby pins, a lock pick set, and a bump key.

If a pesky lock is in your character's way, here are some tricks she can try:

Bobby Pins

According to my law-abiding husband, bobby pins work best on old locks. He taught me how to pick an old, rusty Master lock. And it worked! Here's an overview of the process:

Use two bobby pins, or break one in half. The character strips off the rubber ends with her teeth. Stick one pin in on the fat side of the lock, and bend it down. Stick the other pin in next to it and "rake the tumblers." Tumblers are spring loaded, so she needs to apply pressure here to press them down. Rock back and forth with one pin, jiggle the other pin and turn clockwise. Voila! A picked lock.

Additional tip: early in the story, I established that my main character wore bobby pins in her hair. I also included a brief, drive-by lock picking lesson.

Lock Pick Set

This wouldn't have worked in my story, because the main character didn't have access to a tool like this. But if yours does, here's the skinny:

Lock pick sets include several shapes and sizes, so your lock picker will choose what works best for her. But she'll need two pieces: 1) The "raker," which is a thin, flat piece of metal with a nub at the end; and 2) The "prying tool," which is a flat, L-shaped piece of metal.

She'll insert the prying tool, the L, into the fat side of the lock. Then she'll insert the raking tool next to it. Apply slight pressure to the L tool, while at the same time raking the tumblers with the raker until the lock gives way.

Bump Key

A bump key looks like a regular key, but its teeth are ground down in such a way that makes it universal for most locks, including dead bolts. (scary, right?) Youtube has all kinds of videos for making and using a bump key, but here's the one I watched.

Your character should insert the bump key all the way, and then pull back slightly. She'll apply tension in the direction in which the lock normally unlocks.

Then, using a tool with substance, like a hammer or a screwdriver, she'll "bump" the end of the key. She'll feel the the tumblers click down, and then she can continue turning the lock.

So there you have it. Tips from my law-abiding husband (can I say that enough?) for picking locks.

Have your characters ever needed to pick a lock to get out of a pickle? Have you ever picked a lock? If so, is there something we missed in this overview? And are you as alarmed as I was that a bump key can open most deadbolts? Yikes!

Saturday, April 14, 2012

5 Benefits of Doing Nothing

This past week was spring break for my kids, and there was one day when they each had something going on with other friends. The weather was bad, hubby was at work, and I had the day to myself. Did I clean the house? Organize our office? Revise my manuscript? Nope. I did absolutely nothing.

I'm used to filling every moment of my days with writing tasks or family business. At first I felt guilty about wasting a day. I kept thinking of all the productive things I should be doing. But then I gave in to the joy of taking a day and doing nothing at all. The down side? Nothing got done. The up side? Well, I've justified it with these side benefits:
  1. Let go and relax. How often do we really do this? I don't know about you, but I'm usually multi-tasking. There are rare moments when at least two things aren't being done at the same time. Our minds and bodies require relaxation or else we'll combust. Yes? Yes.
  2. Enjoy the drama. My sister loaned me her DVDs of season two of Downton Abbey. Are any of you as hooked as I am? It was fun to just let my mind turn to mush as I watched episode after episode of this fun show. (I <3 Matthew)
  3. Relax some over-used muscles. When I've worked on my manuscript for long periods of time, my right shoulder hurts. After a day of not using it at all, my shoulder felt much better.
  4. Wasted time isn't always a waste. Face it, even when we aren't writing, our writer brains are still on alert. Even on my do nothing day, when I wasn't planning on soaking up lessons, I still learned. Downton Abbey is full of all kinds of juicy nuggets about characterization and plotting. I swear.
  5. Gear up for the crazy days. After my useless day, I felt rejuvenated, relaxed, and ready to jump back into revisions. And believe it or not, my manuscript did not fall apart after one day of neglect. As for the craziness of school, carpools, and sports? Well, that resumed today with a track meet in Huntington Beach. I'm thankful I enjoyed the peace while I could!
For most of us, lazy days are few and far between. It's nice to occasionally set aside all that we should accomplish, and do absolutely nothing.

Do you ever have lazy days like this? If so, do you feel guilty about it? And...very important question...are you a fan of Downton Abbey?

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Writing lessons learned from SHATTER ME

Shatter Me, by Tahereh Mafi, surprised me. I normally don't read dystopian, and I have to admit, at first I had a hard time with the scratch-through text. But...once I got into this story, I loved it.

From Goodreads:

Juliette hasn't touched anyone in exactly 264 days.

The last time she did, it was an accident, but The Reestablishment locked her up for murder. No one knows why Juliette's touch is fatal. As long as she doesn't hurt anyone else, no one really cares. The world is too busy crumbling to pieces to pay attention to a 17-year-old girl. Diseases are destroying the population, food is hard to find, birds don't fly anymore, and the clouds are the wrong color.

Maybe Juliette is more than a tortured soul stuffed into a poisonous body. Maybe she's exactly what The Reestablishment needs right now. Juliette has to make a choice: Be a weapon. Or be a warrior.

Here are a few of the writing lessons I learned from this book:
  • Style and voice stand out--This book has style up the wazoo. Unique scratch-through text. Lack of punctuation where you'd expect it. Rule-breaking numbers written as numbers instead of spelled out. Some cases where there's a series of one word lines. And the voice totally separates this book from others. So internal, and bursting with passion and emotion.
  • Create an uncomfortable bind between protagonist and antagonist--The villain, Warner, represents the bigger villain, The Reestablishment. He points out something to Juliette that's disturbing: they both gain power from killing other people. She gains physical power when she touches someone, and Warner gains social power when he kills others. People fear them and think they're both monsters. This complexity adds to Juliette's doubt and confusion.
  • Teens girls still love a swoon-worth guy--Confession: I swooned over Adam (in a non-cougar way, of course). Not all girl teen readers like this, I know, but a lot of them do. As a teen, I loved a hunky guy thrown into the mix, and that hasn't changed. But he can't just be a hunk for hunk's sake. He should be conflicted and flawed. There should be a logical reason why he only has eyes for the female protagonist. In this case, Adam and Juliette share a forgotten past and similar feelings of neglect. I thought the romance angle of this story was beautifully done.
  • Add a unique symbol of hope--Juliette hopes and dreams that one day she'll see a "white bird with streaks of gold like a crown atop its head." She's seen this in her dreams. And later, when she sees this tattoo on another character, she feels hope. That one day she will see this bird fly again.
  • Unpredictable plot turns rule--I play a strange game when I'm reading a book: Guess The Plot Turn. But in this book, there wasn't a single plot turn that I saw coming. I eagerly turned the pages, wondering what would happen next. Mafi did a great job of sending me on an unpredictable journey.
  • Sprinkle backstory, don't dump--We've heard this tip so often, but this story was another great reminder. There were all kinds details that remained a mystery until later in the story. But I loved that. Even now, there are things about the character and world that I don't know yet. And that's ok. The author told me what she needed me to know at that point, and left just enough out to keep me curious. I'm ready for book #2.
Have you read Shatter Me yet? If so, what were your thoughts? And if you've learned a writing lesson from a great book, we'd all love to hear it!

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Publication & "Being Enough"

I read Anne Lamott's awesome book, Bird by Bird, and was impressed by her wisdom. One of the subjects she wrote about was the expectations of publication, and the pitfalls. How one minute the published author is on top of the world, and the next minute that same author is back to feeling doubtful and insecure.

Anne Lamott wrote this:

"All that I know about the relationship between publication and mental health was summed up in one line of the movie Cool Runnings, which is about the first Jamaican bobsled team. The coach is a four-hundred-pound man who had won a gold in Olympic bobsledding twenty years before but has been a complete loser ever since. The men on his team are desperate to win an Olympic medal, just as half the people in my classes are desperate to get published. But the coach says, 'If you're not enough before the gold medal, you won't be enough with it.' You may want to tape this to the wall near your desk."

She goes on to say that "Being enough was going to have to be an inside job."

I love that. Too often we think this thing or that accomplishment will make us happy, or make us somebody. In my opinion, being published can't make us happy, or make us somebody--it can only add to who we already are.

I don't have experience with a published book, but I've experienced magazine publication. It was such a thrill, to be sure, but it wasn't a requirement for my happiness. I felt excited, validated, and ready to move on to the next thing.

Lamott tells the story of how she'd sought advice from her son's preschool teacher. She was lost and trying to find "some elusive sense of serenity." The young teacher told her, "The world can't give us peace. We can only find it in our hearts." She said, "I hate that." And he replied, "I know. But the good news is that by the same token, the world can't take it away."

Brilliant, right? If you haven't read Bird by Bird yet, I highly recommend it. This book is packed with wit, wisdom, sadness, and encouragement. We writers can be a hopeful, worried, confident, doubtful bunch, and it helps to know that we're not alone.

What are your thoughts on Lamott's words about publication? Did the light click on in your head and you thought YES! And if you're published, how did that milestone change your life?

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Wise Agent Advice: More Fleas, Please

My wonderful agent, Karen Grencik, taught me a valuable lesson. Well, she's taught me many, but for the sake of this post, we'll focus on fleas.

Fleas, you ask? Yes, fleas.

Have you ever heard the term "Add more fleas?" Until I signed with Karen, I had never heard this term. After all, fleas are scratchy, annoying little pests who burrow themselves into our pets' fur and won't let go. How in the world can this apply to writing?

The unofficial definition: "Add more fleas" means to sprinkle in details that ground the reader in the scene.

Fleas aren't dumped in one clump. Fleas do not show up alone. Fleas demand attention.

My wise agent had noticed several places in my manuscript that needed more details. That's a tough balance, right? We don't want to bore readers with too much, but we need vivid, well-placed details to make them feel there.

When I came to an "add more fleas" section, I followed some basic rules. Here are three things we can try:

1. Play a movie in s-l-o-w motion

Lean your head back, close your eyes, and visualize the scene in slow motion. Pretend it's a movie playing out on the big screen. Pay attention to everything. What does your character see? Hear? Smell? Taste? Touch?

Which brings me to the next point...

2. Choose sensory details wisely

We need to pick and choose details that matter. And like fleas, these should be sprinkled in, and not clumped in one space.

Sensory details set the mood and/or add tension--A breeze whispering through a canyon. A dripping faucet in a rusty sink. A fly buzzing at the screen door. The scent of motor oil on hot asphalt. The lemony scent of furniture polish. The clip clop of horses hooves.

Sensory details also let us know what type of character we're dealing with--Fuzz balls on an over-washed sweater. Greasy hair. Manolo Blahnik pumps. Manicured nails. The scent of clean laundry.

3. Manuscript Vacay

When we let our manuscripts rest, we come back to them with fresh eyes. If we were too heavy-handed with sensory details, we can delete. If we're confused about scene details, we can add or replace some.

When we return to the scene, are we grounded in the place and time? If not, we should add more fleas. A couple up front, and the rest can be sprinkled throughout.

If an agent or editor asks you to "add more fleas," fear not. We aren't expected to chase our dogs or cats with double-stick tape. We just need to add vivid sensory details, which will ground our readers in the scene.

Have you ever heard this term before? Do you tend to over write or under write sensory details? If you have a tip you'd like to share, please do!