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.

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?

 

10 Tips for Working with a Critique Group

Critique groups and beta readers are wonderful for growing your craft, whipping your book into shape before submission, and networking with other writers. But there are a few things to keep in mind:

  1. Take what makes sense to you–leave the rest. Don’t edit your book to suit someone’s opinion if you don’t share their opinion. It’s YOUR book.
  2. Not all critiques are created equal. For example, the advice of someone who reads widely in your genre may be better than the advice of someone who doesn’t.
  3. Not everyone will like you–or your writing. Taste is subjective. If the criticism is constructive and helpful in some way, fantastic. If not, don’t give it another thought. There are people who think John Green is long-winded, Stephen King is boring, and J.K. Rowling is unimaginative. TLDR: People be crazy.
  4. If you have more than one critique partner, you’ll receive conflicting advice. See #1. However, if more than one person shares the same opinion, listen up! You can still reject their advice if you disagree with it, but don’t disregard it without considering it.
  5. Don’t take it personally. It’s hard to see your work torn apart, but even the harshest criticism is rarely intended to hurt you.
  6. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Never argue with a critique partner or try to change their opinion, but if something is confusing–or you need suggestions for how to fix the issue–ask.
  7. Choose a group that suits your needs. Maybe you need accountability, and sharing one chapter at a time as it’s written will work best for you. Or perhaps you’re not ready to share your work until the book is finished. Your needs may even require more than one group. I have a critique group for children’s books and another for romance.
  8.  It’s okay to walk away. If a critique group isn’t working for you, leave (politely, of course). Find the people who motivate and encourage you.
  9. Don’t discount online groups or forums. My critique group for children’s books is comprised of writers I know in real life, but my romance group is made up of women I haven’t met in person–yet. Note: Inked Voices is a great resource for critique groups that “meet” online.
  10. Reciprocate. Users are losers.

“Don’t take criticism personally; take from it what’s useful. Apply it and move on to something better.” — Catherine Tate

October Mood

October is the best, isn’t it? The temperatures drop, the leaves start to change, the air smells like a pumpkin spice latte. And, of course, Halloween! It’s my favorite holiday, by far. I love the costumes, though I’ll confess I look for reasons to dress up the rest of the year too (I’ll totally be rocking a Hufflepuff uniform to every Fantastic Beasts movie, for example). And I live for the spooky films, haunted houses, and creepy stories — but only this time of year. Don’t try to get me to go to a scary movie in April. It ain’t happening.

Last year, I even took a stab at writing horror. YARN (the Young Adult Review Network) had a contest around Halloween. My story At the End of the World received an honorable mention and was chosen for publication.

This story is very different from my usual writing style. It’s a different genre (horror), category (YA), tense (present), and point of view (first person). It was an exercise in writing something outside my comfort zone. I may never write anything like it again, but I’m proud of it.

If you’re in an October mood, check it out.

Image may contain: Ashley Shouse Storm

“I’m so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers.”
― L. M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables

Flash Fiction #1

I occasionally play around with different writing techniques. I find these exercises useful in honing my narrative voice. So, when the mood strikes to try something new, I usually do so in the form of flash fiction (stories under 1,000 words). My flash fiction is often weird and quite different from my typical writing style, but I’ll post them here every now and then.

Trigger warning: drunk driving, death.

College Application Essay #1

Name: Amy Sanderson

Question 1. If you could meet with any person, alive or dead, who would you choose? What would you say to them?

Any person? That’s easy. My brother. Jake.

He’s dead, but I’d prefer to speak to him alive, since you’re giving me the choice. And a person can’t speak to a dead guy anyway, no matter what my crazy mother thinks. Every day, rain or shine, she visits a little white cross beside the highway, just before the county line. It marks the place Jake stopped being Jake, a constant reminder that drunk driving kills. She sometimes asks me to go with her. I tell her no. When she’s sober enough to care, she gets angry. I try to walk away, but she always follows, yelling that I’m ugly and hateful and she can’t believe I don’t want to feel the presence of my brother in the place where his soul crossed over. I ask if his soul crossed over where they found his body or where they found his head. She pops another pill and becomes a K-pin zombie again.

If I could talk to my brother, I’d tell him he has a stupid roadside memorial but Jess doesn’t. She died in the crash, too, but her parents think it’s gross to memorialize the spot where they died, same as me. They went to court to try to get Jake’s cross removed. They said it was an illegal taking of public space for personal use and a distraction to drivers. They even made a Constitutional argument, something about church and state. They lost the case and left town. I wish they had appealed.

I’d yell at him for driving drunk and leaving me behind and making Mom a junkie. I’d beg him to tell me he died instantly, with no pain, like the coroner said. I’d ask if we really have souls, and whether Mom was right about his crossing over. Or was death just the end? Finito? Jake no more?

I’d tell him he’s become a cautionary tale, a name invoked by parents and teachers to scare kids straight. Jake Sanderson was going places, they say. He’d have won a soccer scholarship, or an academic scholarship, or been given an honorary doctorate without ever attending a class. Because he was that great. But he threw it all away for a case of beer. Don’t be like Jake.

I’d remind him of the family selfie we took the day before he died. Back when Jake and Mom and I called ourselves the Sanderson team and thought nothing could touch us. The three of us were all squished together on a porch swing for two, laughing our heads off. A few seconds after the picture was taken, the swing fell and we landed in a heap on the ground. We laughed even harder, until I was gasping for air and Jake and Mom were clutching their sides. It was the last time I heard Jake laugh. The last time I heard Mom laugh, too. I printed a copy and asked the funeral director to put it in the pocket of Jake’s blue suit – the one he hated but was forced to wear to Aunt Jackie’s wedding and then for eternity. Is it still in his pocket?

I’d ask him why he was heading out of town in the first place. Where was he going? Would he have come back? I’m going to leave and never come back. I’d tell him that. I want to go to college where it snows more than anywhere else in the country. Maybe there I’ll be able to associate the color white with something other than his little white cross and Mom’s little white pills. Maybe there I can blame the numbness on the cold.

I’d show him my college application and ask for advice on this essay. The school counselor, Mrs. Adams, said we should answer the questions truthfully and from the heart (and don’t forget to proofread for spelling and grammar!). Jake would say Mrs. Adams is a moron and I should have written about meeting with someone famous or influential. Someone like Amelia Earhart. I could ask her if she was running away too.

But she’s dead and my brother’s dead and the dead don’t speak.

Lessons from Chickens #1

If you had told me a few years ago that I would have chickens in my backyard, I’d have laughed in your face. I was a busy trial attorney who barely had time for a cat. I certainly wouldn’t have farm animals.

But here we are. I love having chickens. I have four laying hens and each have their own personalities. One is bossy, one is lazy, one is sassy, and one is really, really dumb. But I love the little dinosaurs — and not just because they each lay an egg a day; that’s just a bonus!

It’s amazing how much I learn by watching the silly creatures. So, I’ve decided to have a regular blog topic called Lessons from Chickens.

(Seriously, if twenty-something Ash traveled to the future and saw me (us?) now, she’d think I (we?) had been abducted by aliens.)

One of my hens is broody. She wants to sit on her clutch of eggs until they hatch. Unfortunately, she doesn’t realize how babies are made. No rooster, no babies. Every day I take her out of the nest box and remove the eggs. Still, she won’t give up. She’s the Scarlett O’Hara of chickens. There will be more eggs to sit on tomorrow.

Lesson #1: Give it your best shot, but if/when it doesn’t happen, move on. Know when to walk away. As a writer, that may mean admitting that the opening to your novel just isn’t working. Perhaps it’s time to scrap a secondary character that you absolutely love but isn’t doing anything to further the story. It may even mean shelving your book entirely. Maybe you’ll come back to it in the future. Maybe not.

So, what do you think, friends? Is it time for you to let something go?

“Do not count your chickens before they are hatched.” Aesop

Sweet or Spicy?

My husband and I had Thai food today at one of our favorite lunch spots. When asked, “How spicy? 0 to 5,” my answer is an emphatic 2. Anything less is bland; anything more is too hot.

As it happens, that’s also how spicy I like my romance novels — the ones I read, and the ones I write. The books that fall in this range are often called “sweet romances”. A sweet romance can be just as sensual, and just as sexy, but they don’t include graphic sex scenes. The sex is off the page, so to speak. The focus is more on the emotions involved, and less on all the sizzling-hot sex the characters are having.

I have a fabulous critique group that meets online at Inked Voices. My critique partners are all talented writers and I wouldn’t trade any of them for the world. But guess what? We all have different spice preferences. One writes Amish romance. Another writes super steamy romances with scenes that make HBO seem prudish.

Fortunately, there are lots of great romance books to choose from, regardless of whether you’re a 2-star girl like me, or whether you like it hot, hot, hot!

So, what’s your spice preference?

“Variety’s the very spice of life, That gives it all its flavour.” — William Cowper