Archive for the 'Writing Advice' Category

Good Question!

A blog reader wrote, “I saw your post about the worth of a literary agent. And, I agree. However, I can’t get an agent to even accept a sample of my novel. No one will give me a chance, so I am stuck. I know I need an agent to move forward yet I can’t get one! Any advice?”

After overcoming the shock that someone actually read my blog, I decided I would do a post responding to this excellent question.

If you’re having trouble landing an agent, here are a few things you might consider….

1. Is my writing strong enough? If you’re as impatient as I am, you want to get this publication ball rolling! But patience pays off. Make sure that your work is as strong as possible before you ask a professional to represent you. How do you make your work stronger? I’d suggest joining a critique group or signing up for a writing class (in person or online). And when people are kind enough to give you honest feedback, listen to them! I almost never agree to read anyone else’s WIP…first and foremost because I just don’t have the time. And second because I find that most people don’t want honest criticism. Most just want to be told how talented they are. I actually had an aspiring writer I’d never met hang up on me as I was going over his manuscript with him over the phone. He was a friend of a friend and I’d read his book as a favor to said mutual friend. What a waste of everyone’s time. If someone reads your book, listen with an open mind to what he/she has to say. Continue reading ‘Good Question!’

Why I’m Not Especially Crazy about Book Signings

When I published my first novel in 2009, my publisher set up several book signings for me at a chain of bookstores. At the first one, in my hometown, maybe 50 or 60 people showed up. All people I knew. And that my parents knew. Most all of them bought books, and I signed them. It was kind of fun. Well, sort of.

The whole evening, I kept having this nagging feeling that the folks who’d been kind enough to show up did so only because they felt obligated. “It’s Lois’s daughter; we have to go,” I could hear someone saying to a grumbling husband in the car. I ended up feeling almost guilty about the whole thing, even though, technically, the signing was a success and the bookseller was pleased.

When I went to some of the other stores on the list, in towns where I had no friends, it was pretty much an exercise in humility. Maybe one or two people would stop at my table, out of sheer pity, but to be honest, I hadn’t felt that shunned since I was in college and a department store hired me to spray perfume on people walking in. I learned quickly that most people do NOT want a stranger to spray them with perfume. Or sign a book for them. Unless you’re a “name” author, maybe it’s just not worth it.

The same night I sat at my signing table like the lonely Maytag repair man, the book store was giving out numbers for a signing the next day. Giving out NUMBERS. For the NEXT DAY. The authors of the book in question were a married couple who hosted a cooking show on network television. People felt like they knew them. They’d spent time with them in their living rooms, in a manner of speaking. They wanted to say hi in person to someone they felt was a friend.

I accepted the reality that there are TV people with cookbooks and there are obscure people with novels.

And probably only one of those two groups should worry about book signings.

What do you think?

Why a Good Agent Is Worth Every Penny

This is my agency. They rock!

A new writer friend of mine asked me recently if I thought it might be a good idea to try to publish a book without the help of an agent because, after all, an agent will take 15% of your money. Here’s a brief summary of my response to her question: NO.

As I told my friend, a good agent is worth every penny, and here’s why:

1. They’re your first line of defense. If you plan to be in this business for any length of time, you’re going to come up with a lot of ideas. And guess what? Not all of them will be good ones. If you have an agent, you can run the ideas by him/her before you go to the trouble of writing an entire manuscript, only to have publishers tell you no thanks. I usually run my new ideas past my agent before I start writing. If she thinks an idea is interesting, I write 10,000 words. Then I send the partial manuscript to her and we see if it’s working. If it’s not, I don’t throw good words after bad; I move on to something else. Continue reading ‘Why a Good Agent Is Worth Every Penny’

Is Life Experience Overrated?

When I was a young college student in creative writing classes, I thought, “Wow, my professors have so much life experience! They are so interesting!” I had no idea that they were probably looking at all of us and thinking, “Oh, to be young again!”

“Write what you know” is a common phrase tossed about in writing courses. And I’m sure there’s something to it. But now that I’m older and have plenty of life experiences (some I wish I could erase), I find it sort of funny that my latest book series (the third book comes out tomorrow!) is based on a story I wrote when I was 12 years old. In fact, I often find myself trying to get back into my 12-year-old frame of mind so that I can have a better sense of what will be entertaining to my readers.

All of this leads me to the question, Is Life Experience Overrated?

All I know is that I’ve got no shortage of hard-won wisdom, yet I’m still writing about pantsing the school principal, so you tell me….

There’s a Marsupial in My Manuscript!

A little writing hack that might save you some time:

When you get to a stopping point for the day, or when you get to a part of your manuscript that isn’t working, insert a marsupial.

By this I mean actually type in the word MARSUPIAL–or some other word you’re not likely to use in your book–in all caps. (If you’re writing a book about marsupials, definitely find another word.) Later, when you come back to your book to write some more, you can do a quick search for your unusual word and save yourself the time of having to scroll through to find your last stopping point.

Just a little something that has saved me some time over the years. Anyone else have a writing hack to share?


A Temptation Writers Must Avoid

Sometimes when you’re working on a new book, you get so excited that you’re just dying to talk about it. Especially if you come up with a character based on someone you know. The temptation is strong to tell that person, “Guess what? I’m basing a character on you!” Well, let me give you some advice: DON’T.

A while back, a friend of mine shared an anecdote about his life. It was a really charming story about how a failure had taught him an important lesson. I was impressed because said friend is extremely smart and multi-talented, and I was a little surprised to hear that he’d ever failed at anything. And I was even more impressed that he had the humility to share it. So I couldn’t help but open my big mouth and tell him how I was creating a character in my WIP based on him and his story. Big mistake.

Because here’s what happened: My editors convinced me that this character would be a lot more entertaining if I made him quirkier. As in “extremely socially awkward” quirkier. “Unattractive to most people” quirkier. My editors, as usual, were right–it did make the character more interesting. But imagine my embarrassment when I had to tell my friend that the character was like him ONLY IN THE GOOD WAYS. He seemed skeptical, and I couldn’t blame him. I ended up feeling terrible about the whole thing because the seed of inspiration was that this talented person had such humility, and now I’d come up with a character who was very different than what I’d first envisioned.

My character Kyra in Tig Ripley was a similar circumstance. I started thinking of how cool it would be if some middle school girls had their own rock band, and even cooler if two of them were cousins since my cousin and I have been best friends since I was 14. So Kyra was originally supposed to be this great confidante for my heroine, but it turned out, that didn’t give the story enough conflict. So Kyra ended up being obsessed with popularity and pretty whiny and annoying, completely unlike my BFF cousin. I had to make sure all my cousins knew that I was not Tig and they were not Kyra. Otherwise, family reunions could have gotten pretty awkward.

A word to the wise: wait until the manuscript is complete and the last round of edits are in before you tell someone you’ve based a character on him/her.

Your Orthodontist (or Insurance Agent) Wants You to Write a Book

Because orthodontists support the arts, that’s why.

In publishing, there’s a handy thing called a “book bible.” Some wonderful copy editor reads your entire book manuscript with exceedingly careful attention and makes an index of…well, everything.

You think you know your characters, your setting, and every detail of your book. But you’d actually be surprised how easy it is to forget so much of it. Book bibles help make sure there are no contradictions in the manuscript. For example, maybe in chapter two you said your protagonist has math during second period. But by chapter fifteen, you’ve forgotten that minor detail, and now she’s at lunch, stressing over her big math test next period. Whoops. A good copy editor catches this, notes it in the book bible, and keeps you from looking like a real doofus.

I don’t make my own book bible per se, but I will share with you one handy trick my now-agent taught me years ago: make a calendar. Write down what happens each day of your book on that calendar. It can even be an out-of-date one (reuse, recycle!) because the actual dates may not matter so much as how much time passes between, say, a protagonist puking on her love interest and the day he asks her to prom. (Yeah, that happens all the time.) Oddly enough, many orthodontists, insurance agents, and Realtors give calendars away all the time. I think it’s probably because, deep down, they know you are writing a book and they want to do their part to help.

It takes a little extra time but it has really helped me keep a timeline straight. Maybe it will help you, too.

Why Your Mean English Teacher Made You Learn Sentence Types

When I was a “mean, old English teacher,” I was young!

Today’s topic is sentence variety.

As you may remember from middle school, there are different types of sentences: simple, compound, complex, and compound/complex. You probably had to take a test on them at some point. It may have been one of those, “When will we ever need to know this in real life?” moments for you. And you were right. But also wrong.

Chances are, outside of a test, no one will ever expect you to label a sentence by type (or at all). So why did you learn it?

Because language is music.

Take a moment and sing “Jingle Bells” to yourself. Or out loud, if you want to annoy someone. But just keep on singing the words “jingle bells.” Don’t change the words or the musical notes you’re singing. Do NOT, under any circumstances, jingle all the way.

How long before you drove yourself–or those in earshot–mad?

My point is that “jingle bells” is fine for a few bars, but for the love of humanity, enough is enough.

And so it is with your sentences. We vary the types of sentences to make the words pleasant to the ear, even if the “ear” is in your own mind while you read to yourself.

Some writers can instinctively employ sentence variety, but others may need to break it down. One good trick for teachers is to have students write a paragraph or two and then highlight the different sentence types in different colors. If everything on your page is, say, blue, then chances are you need more sentence variety. Unless you happen to be Ernest Hemingway. Then you could do whatever you want.


No, I Don’t Want to Read Your Book Manuscript

About once a week, I get a request from someone to read his/her book manuscript. I almost always say no. Here’s why.

I really do work for a living. Between writing my own books and magazine articles, I don’t have a lot of free time. Oh, and did I mention I’m also bringing up three children and a puppy? Asking someone to devote hours to your WIP (work in progress) is asking a lot. Before you do it, you should ask yourself some questions:

1. How close are we? And by close, I mean, have I ever donated a major organ to this person, bailed him/her out of jail, or had a chair broken across my back for him/her during a bar fight? If you can’t answer yes to any of those, you may be asking too much. People have lives, and frankly, time is money.

2. Did I offer to pay this person or do I just expect him/her to be delighted to do my bidding free of charge? (See above “time is money” comment.) Continue reading ‘No, I Don’t Want to Read Your Book Manuscript’

How Columbus, Mississippi, Wound up in a Children’s Book Set in Texas

I’ve started thinking that the job of writers is to take pieces from real life, put them in one of those silver cocktail cup thingies, and shake shake shake and see what emerges. At least, that is apparently what I do.

When I was a teenager, I spent a lot of time—as much as possible, in fact—hanging out with my cousin and our friends in Columbus, Mississippi. I loved it there, probably because I had such a cool cousin and friends, but also because it’s just a pretty neat place. Columbus was and is a charming small town, and if you were underage like I was, there was pretty much only one place to go on the weekends: a little joint called Bob’s. I’m told they served food there, but I think I went inside only once. Most of the time we just hung out in the parking lot, which doesn’t sound like much fun and excitement, but trust me when I tell you it was the best. (The owners must have been overjoyed by our failure to support the local economy, but they kindly tolerated us anyway.) Continue reading ‘How Columbus, Mississippi, Wound up in a Children’s Book Set in Texas’