Lessons from Chickens #3

As my husband and I were climbing into bed, we heard screams of sheer terror coming from the chicken coop. The chickens have freaked out at night before, when strong winds blew off their nest box door. At the time, I thought that was the worst sound I’d ever heard. And it was, until now. These screams were different. Primal. There was no question that something was attacking our chickens.

It was a possum. The girls are all okay, other than being terrified. We think the possum was looking for eggs, but he could have injured or killed my hens. Luckily, they called for help.

Lessons from chickens #3: If you need help, ask for it. Whether a possum is in your bed, or you need to brainstorm a writing project, or you are having thoughts of harming yourself. No matter what you need help with, ask. You don’t have to work through problems alone.

If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

“Sometimes in life, you fall down holes you can’t climb out of by yourself. That’s what friends and family are for-to help. They can’t help, however, unless you let them know you’re down there.”

–Meg Cabot

Missing the Obvious

A few days ago, I noticed a woman giving me strange looks. After she stole several glances in my direction, I whispered in my husband’s ear, “Why is that lady staring at me?” His answer was immediate: “Because your hair is purple.”

Ah.

My hair has been various shades of purple off-and-on for a couple of years, so I don’t even notice it. It feels natural to me. That would not have been the case a few years ago, when I was still practicing law and going to court several days a week. I’m reminded of a time that I had to cover a court appearance for another attorney without notice. I didn’t have a jacket. Going to court with my arms exposed–and, therefore, my tattoos–made me feel like a spotlight was pointed my direction. Looking back, I would have felt the same way about going to court with purple hair. My perspective has changed.

Which brings me to my point: missing the obvious. I think this can be a useful tool in creating realistic characters and conflict. In real life, we often miss the obvious, which can cause feelings of confusion, bewilderment, sadness, anger, etc. (i.e., conflict). The same should be true of characters in books, right? Sometimes, my characters have a tendency to be too self aware, to the point of stretching credulity. It’s far more interesting to have a character who doesn’t know quite so much. Who misses something that is obvious to the reader (and perhaps the love interest or a secondary character).

Is anything going over your main character’s head? What might he/she be missing? How does this create conflict in your story?

ashley profile pic  My purple hair.

Openings #1 (MG)

Openings are my favorite part a story to write. So, occasionally I may share one here. I’d really like to finish Rowena’s story someday, even though it’ll mean subjecting her to the hellscape of junior high.

Three periods into seventh grade, and I’m looking for an escape hatch. A quick glance around the cafeteria tells me there’s no hope. Kids are streaming in one door, waiting for their turn in the slop line. Lunch monitors stand guard at the other door.

I’m trapped.

I have two choices: a) continue to stand here with my tray on my hip, looking like a friendless loser, or b) find a place to sit. When Macey and I were BFFs, this was never a problem. I scan the room until I find her, which takes about a nanosecond. She’s sitting in the middle of the room with her new friends–the popular girls, the pretty girls, with their yardstick legs and flat stomachs. They whisper to each other behind purple fingernails, looking around the cafeteria with narrowed eyes, zeroing in on the zeroes.

The outfit I spent days putting together suddenly feels too bright, too tight, and much too in sight. I start walking, hoping to find a table far away from Macey. Unfortunately, everyone else seems to have had the same idea. All the tables in the back of the lunchroom are full.

I spin in a circle, frantic now. There has to be somewhere to sit. Somewhere I can blend in. I spot Macey again, laughing at something Chandra, her new best friend, has said. They’re looking in my direction.

“Rowena! Sit over here,” Macey calls. Chandra grins and waves me over.

I look around the room for someone to save me, but it’s clear everyone else is happy to feed me to the sharks. If I’m the victim, they won’t be.

Chandra moves over to make room for me, and pats the bench beside her. I sit down and quickly assess the group: Chandra, Paige, and Macey–the Holy Trinity of Junior High, looking as though they walked straight off the pages of Seventeen–and the cutest boy I’ve ever seen. I’m in the shark tank, with no cage to protect me.

Bad Writing Advice

An overwhelmed new writer recently asked me for advice on writing a book. Since “One word at a time, until you reach the end” wasn’t particularly helpful–though 100% true–I thought a few blog posts on the topic may be helpful.

There are countless resources out there, from craft books to websites to podcasts, but there’s also a ton of bad advice floating around. So, we’ll start there.

BAD ADVICE: 

On Writing:

  1. You have to/can’t start with a bang.
  2. You have to/can’t have a prologue.
  3. You have to/can’t write in 1st person, 3rd person, present tense, past tense, etc.
  4. You can not use contractions.
  5. No incomplete sentences.
  6. Never use the word “was.”
  7. Never use the word “that.”
  8. Never use an adverb.
  9. Always show, never tell.
  10. Use unique dialogue tags instead of “said.”
  11. Write what you know (everyone knows only vampires can write about vampires!).
  12. Never work on more than one project at a time.

On Publishing:

  1. Query publishers and agents before writing even one sentence of the book; that way you’ll know if there’s interest. (Yeah, no. Don’t do that.)
  2. You have to have an MFA to get published. (I don’t even know where this idea comes from. The vast majority of writers do not have an MFA. If you want to go to school, go to school. I’m sure MFA programs are useful, but a degree is definitely not a requirement for selling a book–nor is it a guarantee that you’ll ever be traditionally published).
  3. Self-publishing is easier and you’ll make more money. (Most writers who self-publish make no money at all. Some make a great deal of money–but they put in a ton of time and work (and money up front). It’s not easy).
  4. Quit your day job; you’re a writer now! (Absolutely don’t quit your job unless you have another source of income first. Publishing is a slow business and it’s rare to make a living from writing alone, especially in the beginning of your career).
  5. Cold call agents and publishers. (This will never lead to a sale. Ever. Follow the rules like everyone else).
  6. If you’re writing a novel, you shouldn’t be reading books. (Writers read. The good ones do, anyway).
  7. Avoid friendships with other writers; they’re your competition! (No. Just…no. There are enough readers to go around).
  8. Don’t bother editing; that’s the editor’s job. (Good luck selling a book full of lazy errors…).
  9. You have to pay for an editor before querying agents or publishers. (No, you don’t. Critique partners and beta readers can be a great help when self-editing your book. If you want an editor to review your novel–and you have the money for it–there are certainly good freelance editors willing to do the job. But it’s not a requirement).
  10. New writers have to pay to have their books published. (Absolutely not true. Steer clear of publishers or agents who require a fee. See Absolute Write’s Bewares, Recommendations, and Background Check forum and Writer Beware).

The gist? Write the best book you can, do your research, follow the guidelines.

So, help me out, fellow writers! What would you add?

 

The Courage to Hit Send

As a writer, the scariest thing in the world is probably the act of putting your work out there for others to see. What if they hate it? What if they hate me? For a long time, I didn’t submit anything at all. This year, I’ve made an effort to do better. My bravery has paid off: a publisher has requested the full of my romance novel (I’m revising one more time before sending it!) and I’ve been contracted to write two books for an educational publisher (children’s nonfiction).

For me, it helped to start small. This blog, for example, is a pressure-free way to put my writing out there for others to see. Over time, it’s become easier for me to submit my work. My goal for next year is to always have something on submission–a novel or a short story. I want to build a writing career. To do that, I have to sell books!

So, how do I work up the courage to hit send? I follow a 10-step submission process:

  1. Read, read, read.
  2. Write, write, write.
  3. Workshop with critique group.
  4. Tweak until it’s as good as you can make it.
  5. Eat a pint of ice cream (you can try to just eat a scoop, but I recommend the pint).
  6. Snuggle the cats.
  7. Take a deep breath.
  8. Hit send.
  9. Congratulate yourself for your bravery with a glass of wine (or more ice cream).
  10. Get back to work.

“All our dreams can come true, if we have the courage to pursue them.” – Walt Disney

Lessons from Chickens #2

A few years ago, on a gorgeous fall afternoon, I came home to a horrific sight: a yard full of chicken feathers. So. Many. Feathers. I feared the worst: that one–or both–of my chickens had been attacked and killed by a predator. In a panic, I ran around the house to search for my girls. When I found them, they were happily scratching the ground, without a care in the world.

My panic didn’t end, though. Oh, no. One of the hens looked dreadful. Once a beautiful bird with shiny black feathers that shimmered in the sunlight, she was now nearly bald. I sent pictures to a chicken group on Facebook, begging for help in diagnosing the horrific disease that had befallen my cherished chicken. Needless to say, I was mocked mercilessly. I didn’t mind, though, because my chicken was fine. She was merely molting, a totally natural process. Shedding old feathers to make room for new ones.

We now have four hens in our flock. Two of them are currently molting. Black and red feathers are scattered among the fallen autumn leaves. The poor girls look pathetic, like zombie chickens that have clawed their way back from the grave. But I no longer panic at the sight of them. Before long, they’ll have beautiful new feathers, and no one will know how terrible they looked before.

Lessons from Chickens #2:

I struggle with first drafts. It’s hard for me not to edit each scene before writing the next. I want things to be perfect and hate myself when they’re not. I’ve been told countless times to just write the darn thing and clean it up later. Don’t get it right, get it written. You can’t edit a blank page. I’ve heard all the adages, but it was only a few days ago that I really got it. By watching my zombie chickens in the yard.

First drafts are like a molting chicken. Rough. Pathetic. Bald in spots. But the next draft? Okay, so it may still be pretty rough, like a chicken that’s mid-molt. But eventually I’ll reach the stage where my manuscript gleams like a full-feathered chicken–and no one will ever know how rough it was before.

“The first draft of anything is shit.” Ernest Hemingway

 

 

NaNoWriMo

November 1st is almost here…and that means National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo)! The goal is to write 50,000 words in one month. For a category romance writer or a children’s book writer, you may end up with the first draft of your whole novel. For everyone else, you’ll have 50,000 words at the end of the month.  So, if you’ve ever wanted to write a book, or you’re a writer who needs a kick in the pants to get more words on the page, this is the month to do it!

If you’re thinking, “A novel in one month?! That’s impossible!,” just look to the thousands of past “winners” for encouragement (there’s no prize at the end, but the writers who complete the challenge are winners!). If they can do it, so can you! I have a friend who is a 5th grade teacher and her students win NaNoWriMo every year. So, my personal goal this year is to write with the reckless abandon of a child–turn off my inner editor and get words slung onto the page. You can’t revise what you haven’t written!

I’m moving on to a new project for NaNoWriMo and will be writing a young adult romance. I think I’m going to also switch it up a bit and write in first person present tense. I’ll be writing without a plot; I only know the two main characters at this point. It’s going to be a challenge, but NaNoWriMo is the time to experiment and try new things.

So, join me! Start writing. You can do it!

“Just try new things. Don’t be afraid. Step out of your comfort zones and soar, all right?” — Michelle Obama