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

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

I’m Not Ashamed

I attended a workshop recently that was open to writers of all categories and genres. At the start of the day, we were asked to introduce ourselves and say what we’re writing. A man seated near me said, “I write fantasy…but at least I don’t write romance!” When it was my turn, I resisted the urge to glare at Mr. Fantasy as I said, “Hi, I’m Ash. I’m writing a romance novel.”

My annoyance with him quickly turned to pity. He was attempting to make a joke because he was uncomfortable about writing fantasy. That’s sad. No one should be ashamed of what they choose to write. Or read.

Romance writers and readers are frequently looked down upon. We’re told that our books are easy to write (they’ve never written one), that they’re formulaic and predictable (they’ve never read one). They say we shouldn’t waste our talent on genre fiction and think they’re complimenting us when they say this.

Over half of all mass market paperbacks published are romance novels. That’s a lot of books, y’all. A lot of writers. And even more readers. And that’s not even taking into account the huge romance e-book market. Romance novels are awesome, but I’ll write about that another time. It’s not what this blog entry is about.

All I want to say now is this: no one should be ashamed of the books they love. You hear me, Mr. Fantasy? Hold your head high. And knock it off with the romance bashing.

If you don’t like to read, you haven’t found the right book.  — J.K. Rowling

I’m a Writer

Writers have to write. Those are four words that we hear again and again, on blogs, in tweets, at conferences. And sure, it’s true, if there’s more to the sentence. Writers have to write in order to finish a book. Writers have to write if they want their stories read. Writers have to write if they want to get paid. 

But more often than not, that’s not what the speaker means. They mean that writers have to write, as if their fingertips are possessed by the ghosts of authors past. William Carlos Williams said, “I think all writing is a disease. You can’t stop it.” I’m sure that for some, writing is a compulsion; they have to write. But for most of us, I don’t think that’s the case.

It’s certainly not true of me.

Writing is hard. Most days, I’d rather read a book, or watch a movie, or take a nap, or stare at the sun until my retinas burn out.

I write because I enjoy it (sometimes). I write because I feel like I’m pretty good at it (sometimes). I write because finding the right word is more satisfying than finding a huge chunk of chocolate in a pint of Graeter’s Double Chocolate Chip (and let’s be honest, very few things are better than chocolate).

I write because I’m a writer. And I have stories I want to tell.

“I hate writing. I love having written.” — Dorothy Parker

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