Monday, June 27, 2011

Ally McBeal, Fireworks, and Self-Esteem

Ally McBeal is my all-time favorite TV show of all-time. Did I say all-time? Its characters were quirky, exaggerated, and tossed political correctness out the window. I hate political correctness - one reason I left the teaching field (What do you mean we can't say "Merry Christmas" anymore?). I think the only comparable show on TV nowadays would be Glee.

If you remember Ally McBeal, then you'll remember John Cage. He was one of the partners who'd summon up a Barry White song in his head whenever he needed to find courage.

John Cage Barry White Dance

And although I'm going off on a tangent here, the unisex bathroom was just too funny. I seriously, SERIOUSLY couldn't imagine one at my workplace.

Unisex Bathroom

But back to John and the Barry White theme song. As of Friday, I've joined the ranks of odd little men dancing in bathrooms. Ha! Not exactly, but do I have my own theme song now! It's funny because I'm famous for hearing songs over and over again, even singing along, but never "listening" to them. Friday, I was in a cleaning frenzy in preparation for my son's birthday party the next day. To help motivate me I turned on the radio LOUD. I tell you if you ever don't want to clean, turn on some upbeat music really loud and soon you'll be a groovin' Cinderella! Anyway, Katy Perry's song, Firework, came on. I've heard this a thousand times, but unfortunately for me, I'd never paid attention to what she was actually singing. By the song's close I had to swallow the lump in my throat. You see, unlike John Cage, it's not courage I need, but to love and believe in myself. I struggle with this on a daily basis. After listening to that song (and watching the cool video below), I felt like my self-esteem got a little kickstart. I almost wish I could upload that song into my head and every time a spark of doubt or low self-worth pops into my mind, the song would blare, extinguishing it.

I think as writers we all have self-doubt to a degree. So I'm officially nominating Firework as our general theme song!

Firework by Katy Perry

Do you have a song that pumps you up or fills you with hope? Or even a mantra that helps you? I'd love to hear!

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Negative Feedback is Actually Good For You!

"Take a teaspoon of criticism and call me next year. Your writing will be healthier for it." Wouldn't it be nice if agents just outright told you this in their rejection letters? I think when we receive rejections, we take them the wrong way. We personalize them and throw up our defenses. "What do you mean my characters are flat? I think they're so three dimensional they're jumping off the page!" But if we looked at rejections and feedback differently, our writing could dramatically improve. Let me hit you with another analogy. One that shows how positive feedback is actually not so good.

Positive feedback is like the sun. You look outside on a beautiful day and feel a sense of worth, a sense of purpose. You can't wait to get outside and bask in the sunlight. Without a cloud in the sky, you run out the door and spend hours in nothing but brilliant sunshine. As the sweat drips off you, you grow warm and tired, then become lazy and unmotivated. The heat of the sun slows down your momentum.

Like the sun, a positive review on the surface is exciting. It rejuvinates you and gives you that sense of validation we all crave. But that's where it should stop. A quick bout in the sunshine, then back inside again. If you bask in that positive review too long, you become complacent. "Well, this person says my writing is awesome! Why should I change anything about it then?" The truth is we're constantly learning and growing. Even the most seasoned writers improve the more they work at their craft. Don't get me wrong, positive reviews are great in small doses, but it's really the negative ones that make us better writers.

I think about where I'd be if it weren't for the many critiques I've gotten over the past two years. Let's see, I'd still be starting my first chapters with my MC waking up, and she'd definitely be looking in the mirror and describing what she saw. (Hey, I thought I was quite clever to have thought of that!) I'd also have a bunch of talking heads and everything would be "told" to the reader. Just imagine if someone had said right off the bat that my writing was freakin' awesome. To not change a thing! I'm glad that didn't happen. In fact, my very first beta read the first three chapters of my manuscript and refused to read any further. She said very truthfully, "Listen. I love the premise for this book. But I just can't continue reading because it's lacking in so many areas. It's supposed to be a romance but I'm 50 pages into the book and you haven't introduced the hero yet! All I can think about is what I would do with the story if I was writing it." Now that was a splash of cold water in the face. And you bet your fanny I stared at the email with my jaw dropped in complete and utter disbelief. But guess what? The first thing I did the next day was bring in the hero in chapter one.

Critiques may sting, but they're the best possible thing in improving your writing. So go take your medicine and get out of that blazing sun already!

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Puzzle Pieces

WARNING: I'm feeling philosophical today.

Ever since I read Animal Farm in 9th grade I've been a lover of analogies. The idea of having a story within a story is both abstract and efficient. I often find myself creating analogies for tough situations in my life or for life in general. I think it's my brain's way to cope with difficulty, to try to make sense of something non-sensical. I have a favorite analogy I'll share with you. (Okay, so I just made it up this morning while drying my hair, but it has quickly become a favorite.)

Our life is one giant puzzle that we build piece by piece. You're given just a couple puzzle pieces at birth - your family members. They are the corners that act as a base for what will eventually become a beautiful portrait of your life. As you grow older, form relationships, and start careers, you obtain more puzzle pieces. Some will fit perfectly like your childhood best friend who can finish your sentences for you. Others may seem like they fit but when you take a closer look, the end is just a tad smaller than the hole. This is akin to the friend who talks behind your back or a job that doesn't turn out the way you'd thought it would. You then discard the puzzle piece and try another.

Then there's the torn puzzle pieces. They fit in the spot perfectly and you only have one of them but they don't look too pretty. This could be the black sheep in your family or a child with a disability. In my life, my oldest son is my torn puzzle piece. He has ADHD with emotional issues. It's not like I could say "Sorry, we want to give him back and get a newer piece." You only get one and you have to deal with it. But as you gaze at your puzzle, you begin to get used to the torn piece. You notice the beauty in its uniqueness and how it stands out from the rest of the pieces. It makes your puzzle authentic and real. Without it, you realize, it would be almost too perfect. Life is never perfect.

There's also the puzzle pieces that don't fit right on the first try like a rocky marriage or a writing dream. It looks like it should fit, but it doesn't. Instead of discarding the piece completely and throwing your dreams of happiness out the window, you can try rotating it, or trying something different.

And of course, as always happens with puzzles, the kids may get into it and take it apart or someone could bump the table, sending the pieces clattering to the floor. This is equivalent to tragic life events - illness, divorce, job loss, death. In these crises, you feel like your world has crumbled. Hopelessness sets in and you're overwhelmed, just as if the puzzle you'd spent a week working on lies in pieces on the floor. The only thing to do is to pick up the pieces one by one as you get your life back in order. Now when you hear someone's "picking up the pieces" you can visualize it literally!

If you could imagine the puzzle that is your life, how do you think it would look right now? Have you taken advantage of every opportunity and relationship brought to you to help build your puzzle? Have you rotated your pieces before discarding them? And do you have any torn pieces that you've discovered the beauty in? :)

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Writing on the Go (a.k.a. The Pocketbook Post)

You know how when you go to a craft show you tend to buy things you wouldn't normally buy? The item just seems to stand out amongst the rest of the booths and you just HAVE to have it? This happened to me last summer and I begged my mom to buy it for me. (Yes, I still mooch off my mother.) The item was a $35 pocketbook. Now, I know pocketbooks can go for like $300 and some of you may buy them at that price. Me though? I usually buy $15 pocketbooks from Wal-Mart. So I left the craft fair with this purchase I just had to have and it's sat in my closet for an entire year. It seemed to lose it's glimmer and glow when I got it home. Hey, it happens.

Yesterday, the pocketbook made it's the hospital. My husband went in for knee surgery and I had all that waiting time I didn't want to waste when I could be writing. I looked at my netbook and I had a hunch. Would it fit in my had-to-have pocketbook?

Yes, that is an actual pair of jeans shaped into a pocketbook. And what do you know, it fit like perfectly!

And what was even cooler was when I set up my netbook on my lap, the pocketbook base offered a backrest of sorts so it didn't slip down.

If you're interested in getting your own netbook pocketbook, I've included a picture of the tag below. I know she does a lot of sports themed ones, and I think you can special order too. I assure you, with this dangling from your arm, you are bound to get a lot of doubletakes. ;)


Monday, June 6, 2011

My Writing Cheat Sheet

I’m moving through an important phase in my writing right now. I’m attempting to morph from a good writer into a great writer. Ha! Aren’t we all? Historically, the feedback I’ve received was that I could write, but it just wasn’t there yet. I’d heard this from betas and agents alike. Of course, how helpful is that? Not very. But then I met an awesome writer, Michelle Davidson Argyle. She not only gave me a detailed critique on what I was missing, but how I could actually fix it with solid, concrete examples! I think I understand now what separates good writers from great writers. And being the very organized person that I am, I’ve created a cheat sheet I can refer to while writing. The first 4 on the list are no-brainers. These qualities can make up a story just fine. However, if you want to be a great writer and draw your reader into your characters and the world you’ve created, you need to move on to the remaining 5.

Have I included what my MC is:
1. Seeing? (description)
2. Saying? (dialogue)
3. Doing? (action)
4. Thinking? (internal thought)
5. Smelling? (4 other senses)
6. Tasting?
7. Touching?
8. Hearing?
9. Remembering! (back story)

Why did I put an explanation point on Remembering? Because this was probably the most lacking part of my writing. I was so freaking afraid of back story dumps that I relied solely on dialogue to bring out the past. But what I’ve learned recently is that memories can be your friend. Memories can help the reader connect to your character; to understand them better and have compassion for them. Here’s an example:

“Ooh, ooh, guess what?” asked Jenna, bouncing in her seat. “I found the perfect flower for the bouquets. Hydrangeas!”

Quinn gulped and forced a smile. Hydrangeas were her mother’s favorite flower. She thought of her mother bent over her garden, wearing a large sun hat, her hands covered in dirt. Quinn had planted hydrangeas at her grave just last week. She could still feel the cool earth shifting beneath her fingers. Her throat tightened as the hurt returned like a reopened wound. She stood up, the chair legs squeaking against the floor. “Where’s the restroom?”

By bringing in her memories, not only has it explained her odd behavior, but it has let the reader into her mind, and also added much needed back story that her mother is dead and she’s still hurting from it.

Another good use of the cheat sheet above is to get past writer’s block. So many times I’ve gone out on a limb and had my character see or hear something and it’s taken me on a completely different path (hopefully better!) than where I was originally heading. A good example of this is in my MG where Migizi is lying on the couch with the cat curled up on his lap and the silence of the night is shattered by glass breaking. From there, my story just flew from not knowing what the heck I was going to say next to vandalism and a rebellious band targeting his grandfather. All because in my MC’s head I “heard” glass shattering. So the next time you’re unsure of which direction to take, run through the 9 rules of my cheat sheet and see where it takes you!

Do you have any tricks you use when writing to make sure you’re drawing in the reader? Is there anything you would add to my cheat sheet?

Friday, June 3, 2011

The Challenge with Critiques

Yesterday, I started the tedious task of revisiting my first completed manuscript, an adult paranormal romance. After rewriting the first 4 pages (and spending 15 mins. alone on the first paragraph!) I realized this is going to call for a complete rewrite. I’m not talking words here and there, rounding out characters, or plugging up plot holes. I’m talking about major changes. It was amazing to see how my writing has improved over the past 2 years, and as a friend pointed out, the fact that I can see it. I can’t take all the credit though. I truly believe my improvement has come from co-writing, beta reading, and just reading in general. I’m very excited to sink my teeth into this manuscript, rip it to shreds, and put it back together again piece by piece. Although I’m a little scared too.

Now, along with rewrites, come critiques. One of my writing friends says she likes a “cheerleader” during first drafts. Just someone to keep her motivated and fuel her excitement in her project. I’m not sure if that works for me in this instance, just because it is a rewrite. I may need someone to be honest with me and outright tell me if it’s not working for them. This is always hard to hear, but unfortunately, necessary. One person I can always count on to do this is my mother. Ah, my mother. A woman who doesn’t need to say a word and you can read what she’s thinking all over her face. She makes what I call a “stinkface” when she doesn’t like something. It’s where she wrinkles her nose and scrunches up her face as if she’s just smelled something putrid. A beautiful sight I assure you.

Last night, I got the stinkface. Mind you, I don’t, I mean DON’T, let her read my stuff just for that reason alone. One look at that wrinkled up face and my confidence sinks into the floor. But when she came back from tutoring my son, I was in the middle of sending off the first 4 pages to my critique partner. And she saw it.

“You’re working on that one again, huh?” she says.

*Internally groaning* “Yes.”

Her eyes pass over the first paragraph at lightning speed and she says, “Why is the bar so packed? I’ve gone to lots of bars where it’s quiet and a couple people are just shooting darts.”

My heart accelerates. She couldn’t even get past the first paragraph!

“Is there a band? Bands usually pack bars with people.”

A band? No, there’s no freakin’ band in my story. “No, Mom, there’s no band.” I minimize my email before she does any more “damage” to my beloved words. Then grudgingly, I realize she has a point. Why was it so packed? And on a Wednesday, no less. I store the issue in the back of my mind to reflect on later.

This morning, as I was blow drying my hair (when I get lots of my inspiration), it hit me. A band! Yes! I could totally have a band, and not only that, but the hero could be the lead singer! I’m practically jumping up and down at this point. Because you see, I’ve always thought my plot was a little weak. Hero and heroine (Best Man and Maid of Honor) have to plan a Jack and Jill bridal shower when they can’t stand each other. But what if it’s not planning a bridal shower, but singing the song for the first dance at the wedding? Talk about conflict. Who can sing a love song with someone they hate? And the practices? Can’t you just imagine the tension I could create?

This isn’t the first time my mom has led me into other directions with my work. The last time all she did was watch my book trailer and I got the stinkface. The story involved a poor family, trying to survive after the father dies.

“They collect cans to make money? That’s silly,” she says. “Don’t you remember Katie who lived up the street from us in the trailer?”

I nodded, slightly remembering the waif thin blonde who could be a little annoying at times.

“She used to go door to door, asking to do yard work. She’d rake leaves for money. You should have your character do that instead.”

My guard instantly went up and I was like, I don’t want to change it! But after she left I realized she was right. Collecting cans alone was a little silly. So the yard work was added.

Do you have a beta in your life who just always seems to be right even though it stings at first? How do you sort through critiques and determine what’s a keeper and what’s a dumper?