Driving for a Paycheck

I’ve finally figured it out! There are two signs on each car I drive seen only by Special Drivers. (Special, of course, meaning unusual, distinct, specific and obviously run-of-the-mill.)

I’m sure the sign on the front bumper says, “Pull immediately in front of me, proceed really, really slowly, and then wash your windshield.” The sign on the rear of the car has got to read, “Please tailgate.”

And don’t get me started on weekend traffic.

I’m not perfect, and I have vowed to change my ways: turning weaknesses into strengths like…say…cussing at, cursing, or calling other drivers dirty names. Currently, my employment involves driving various vehicles. I had almost made my nearly unachievable goal of being cuss-free for an entire week, but then...

Back up the truck to last Monday and find me buckled in, engine running and sitting at a stop light. With my own eyes I witness not one, not two, but three drivers speed past me and through the intersection—through the red light. What? Only one car was hit and it wasn’t mine. (I was happy as h*ll is hot about that.) Before I realized, words escaped over my tongue and between my lips for God and everyone with a window rolled down to hear. I called all three of the Special Drivers the same bad name.

Tuesday, different intersection and one car length ahead of me, a driver decides to change lanes. Oops—doesn’t see the car next to him. “D*mn, that’s gonna hurt.” The word blurted itself out of my mouth as though my voice had a brain of its own.

On Wednesday, I figured saying Sister and Brother to acknowledge the sobs are children of God too would be a good thing. Plus, and this is a big plus, instead of saying naughty words, I substituted good words. For instance, Sister Wad of Dip, Brother Adam Henry, Sister DS, Brother What are You Thinking? Are you thinking? Sister were you born (insert word of choice) or are you practicing for a contest? That kept the cussing away until a semi truck came inches from rear-ending my 2018 automobile.

Honestly, Thursday began with cussing. An oil truck, complete with a dirty, round tank, (one that either delivers clean auto oil or picks up used oil), was eastbound down Mt. Vernon hill. Rear brake (singular) was a-burnin’. I sped past that driver, who reminded me of a supervisor I once had—round and constantly smoking.

On that very Friday I created fictional—sort of—characters from dippy drivers I witnessed behind their wheels. Not one of my creatures received a dirty name! I know, b*tchin’, huh?

But I learned not all idiotic things happen while driving.

There I was delivering paperwork to the Jefferson County Courthouse (not my own). Alas, I was NOT in the now, not focused on the job at hand, head in an imagined book… I lost the one and only key to my employer’s new car. Wait—there’s more. Wearing out my shoes, I repeatedly raced to the parking lot to ensure the car was still there. The last time out, I ran into one of the sheriff’s deputies—he was on duty—Sh*t! Armor is stiff. In my defense, he stood on my side of the walkway.

I’m humbled now and mending my ways. However, I’ve enrolled in Cussing Anonymous because I still drive for a paycheck.

Why is it at least 60% of gray or white vehicles being driven in fog are done so without headlights on?

Why do people signal after they’ve changed lanes? Why do so many new vehicles have broken blinker bulbs? Why do blinkers not shut off after people have turned?

How in the world is it possible to read a Playboy Magazine and drive at the same time? (rhetorical question only)

I find my morning commute to work is indicative of the rest of the day.

When there are three lanes headed in the same direction, why can’t some drivers pick one—just one?

The Subtle Art of Similes and Metaphors

We’ve all read them—those little would-be jewels of description that make us pause, furrow our brow, and say “Huh?” We’ve all been guilty of them, too, especially in the early stages of our writing careers.

They’re bad similes and metaphors, and they stick out from a manuscript like a sore thumb—but it can be difficult to pinpoint why they aren’t working. In this post, let me count the ways in which a well-meaning simile or metaphor can turn ugly. To help you follow along, I’ve taken some cringe-worthy examples from my own first novel (the one that’s been living in a drawer for 10 years—and you’ll see why).

 

It’s clichéd. This goes without saying, but it’s so common in similes and metaphors that I had to mention it. Resist the urge to take this easy, and often eye-roll-inducing, route.

Example: The creature’s face was like something out of a nightmare.

Not only is this a cliché, it doesn’t tell the reader anything new. It suggests the creature is scary-looking, but it doesn’t provide any specifics to help the reader envision it.

 

It’s unnecessary. If the action it’s describing is straightforward, the comparison may not enhance the reader’s understanding. Adding a simile or metaphor where it isn’t needed takes up valuable word space and makes the writing feel like it’s trying too hard.

Example: Her mouth fell open like a trapdoor.

This simile doesn’t work for a number of reasons, but really, do we need a simile at all? We all know what someone looks like when their mouth falls open in surprise; adding a comparison doesn’t enhance the story in any way.

 

The items being compared are too similar. Using a simile or metaphor to compare two nearly identical items doesn’t enhance the reader’s understanding, and ends up feeling redundant rather than illuminating.

Example: He swung his fist like an enormous club.

Our forearms are shaped like clubs, and in hand-to-hand combat, we use them essentially like clubs. Thus, this simile is almost as useless as “He swung his arm like an enormous…arm.”

 

The items being compared are too different. Although the two parts of a comparison must be fundamentally different in order to enhance the reader’s understanding, they must also be similar enough for the reader’s mind to connect them smoothly. If they’re too different, the reader will be left slack-jawed and confused.

Example: The melody floated through the air like a great butterfly.

Butterflies don’t make noise, and we generally associate them with visual rather than auditory beauty. Melody engages our sense of hearing while butterfly engages our sense of sight, causing this off-key insect to crash and burn.

 

It doesn’t suit the tone or voice. Even the best similes and metaphors can pull readers out of the story if they don’t mesh with their surroundings. If you’re writing a scene with a spooky, dark tone, you don’t want a simile that feels too lighthearted or comical. Similarly, if your protagonist has no sense of humor, a funny simile won’t feel authentic to his voice.

 

It’s crowded by other similes and metaphors. I once read a manuscript where the writer incorporated several similes per page; some paragraphs even had one per sentence. My brain felt like it might short-circuit trying to envision one comparison after another, with no breaks in between. Plus, the narrative dragged because I kept having to pause and think about the next simile.

Example: Her eyes shone in the moonlight like glass marbles. He stretched his two fingers and pulled her eyelids gently down over them, like shades drawn one last time over two windows on the world.

This one kills multiple birds with one stone. Besides having two similes in as many sentences, it compares eyes to windows on the world, which is a cliché. Plus, the comparison to something as mundane as window blinds doesn’t fit with the tone of this scene, in which a main character has died.

 

It’s too difficult to convey. Say you get a great idea for a simile or metaphor. The comparison is spot-on! The imagery is stunning! It’s rich with thematic symbolism! But if you can’t find the right words to convey it to the reader, it won’t work.

Example: Their faces were like something carved out of molten lava, similar to those of men but warped, misshapen, with eyes like burning embers and gaping black holes for mouths.

There’s a lot to digest in this one sentence—molten lava faces, burning ember eyes, black hole mouths—making it too convoluted for easy reading. In many cases, it’s just a matter of trimming the fat and rearranging the words until it works. But if you can’t get the idea across without a run-on sentence, multiple clauses, and a pair of parentheses, don’t force it. Keep brainstorming until you find a comparison that’s more conducive to the written word.

 

These are some of the most common pitfalls when it comes to crafting similes and metaphors. Avoid them, and you’ll be well on your way to similes that sparkle and metaphors that mesmerize.

Why I Belong

Belonging has always been hard for me. I’m not a team player. In high school, when phys-ed was a team sport like softball, I asked to run the track instead. Yes, I was happier running laps alone for 50 minutes than playing with a group. My best sport was, unsurprisingly, track and field. Sprints. I was on the relay teams only because I had to be (but I didn’t like it).

I don’t do group aerobics because I don’t do groups.

I’ve never put the words “enjoy working with internal teams” on a resume because, honestly, I’m happier knowing if something is screwed up it’s my fault and no one else’s.

I am a planner, and I’ve found that people generally don’t like being planned. My kids and husband occasionally put up with it or pretend to, but still, think they should have some say in said plan.  Although they are happy that when attending “spontaneous” events, all required condiments, chairs, fire starting materials, and other needful things are there when needed. (We need not discuss the hours of pre-spontaneous effort this requires because it’s not germane to this blog - Corinne O’Flynn may relate to this.)

But when I get together with RMFW-ish people, it’s like sinking into that really squishy, comfortable chair that everyone keeps trying to throw away. I know I belong in RMFW. I know RMFW members accept me. I know I’m really one of them. I don’t have to plan where anyone’s writing is going, except mine – and that’s subject to sudden “U” turns if I decide I want to.

I also know that if I need writing advice, have a question, don’t know where to look or who to ask, someone at RMFW will help me. Someone will know someone, or has done something, or been where I am and got through it. Or they just see me looking like I’m lost or uncertain, and they ask me what I need.

That's me, third one down on the right, kinda behind all those other guys or, um, gals?

I’m a dedicated introvert, like most writers. But when I’m immersed in this group, I see all of us managing to step just a bit out of our usual space and allow ourselves to belong, to befriend, and to be writers. (No, I’m not going to launch into another To Be or Not To Be thing, although it was tempting.)

So that’s why I belong. That, and I always wanted to be part of a seahorse herd, at least ever since I heard Susan Spann’s great speech. For those of you who are members, I’m so glad you belong, too. And for those of you who aren’t yet, think about it. And to everyone, Write On!

I could hardly breathe, listening to Yunike’s story.

Our kids were playing marbles in the dirt road outside of her Borneo home. The electricity had been off in my friend’s neighborhood for hours. The stifling air added to her story, the heaviness of the moment turning into sweat running down my face. Yunike Hermanus, my Indonesian friend, was telling a part in her life story I’d never before heard.

She was dying on that day almost 20 years ago, in a remote Borneo village where she and her husband worked, unconscious from her sickness. Someone took her on a boat to a village with a dirt airstrip that villagers had carved out of the jungle by hand years beforehand. A small Cessna 185 plane picked her up and took her to a hospital—where she spent three months recovering.

“I don’t know if I’d be alive today if that airplane hadn’t taken me,” she said, then leaned closer to me, studying my face. “I told you all this before, right?”

I shook my head. I’d heard other stories from her life since I’d moved to this Indonesian town with my relief pilot husband, Brad, whose job it is to fly those little planes in the remote jungle villages like hers. Yunike had told me the one about how her daughter was born two months early—in that same village—and how she’d kept her frail body warm by heating up water and pouring it into plastic bottles that flanked her daughter. And then there was the one about losing her husband. She moved afterward, as a widow with young kids, to this town where we both live, making a life for herself there.

But she hadn’t yet told me this one—this long-ago trauma that was still so impactful that she was weeping with the telling of it.

I’ve lived in two different Indonesian towns for 12 years now. I’ve listened to many stories of life in the midst of some difficult circumstances. This is due, in part, to a culture rich in story-telling. Stories of war and love are told by dancers with glorious feathers on their heads, or by musicians with instruments made of bamboo, or by my neighbors in words over cups of hot tea—the ticking clock of time going disregarded.  Sometimes I watch painful stories unfold with my own eyes, like the sick baby girl my husband flew in from a remote village, who only ended up dying soon after in the hospital.

Many of the stories haunt me. I can picture the pain, the violence, and the desperation late into the night.

I started writing novels right after the death of a close, young Indonesian friend. I was pregnant with my first child when her accident happened. I turned on the computer and wrote the first two scenes for my fictional characters—one of a child’s birth and one of a funeral. I had so many questions. I needed to figure it all out.

I didn’t. Not all of it.

Instead, created characters who were on the same quest as I was, who made it all less lonely. And also, I discovered something that felt powerful—with the good kind of power. I started to learn how to shape a story in a world that seems, at times, to run amuck against our wishes.

On that recent hot Borneo day, I drove home, mulling over the parts of my friend’s stories in which bad things that shouldn’t happen to anyone had happened to her. And then I remembered all the other stories Yunike had told me…the ones in which she happened to her stories. Her ingenuity saved her daughter’s life. Her courage helped her heal from her sicknesses. Her friendship with me connects me, the foreigner, in a deep way to this community. And her generosity in giving me permission to share her story here broadens its impact.

I see the power of her trauma. But I see the resilience from her courage. I’ve got my own struggles I’m working through right now. But I’m finding my own courage. And we connect through our stories—through the choices we make, the redemption for which we pray and the good that somehow emerges from the worst of circumstances.

Today I’m partway through a several-month visit to the States after three-and-a-half years of being away in Indonesia since my last visit (and a total of 12 year of living abroad). But I have to admit, I was nervous about returning to the States at the time that it struggles with racial tensions, refugee needs, political division.

America’s story has some difficult pieces right now. It has had hard chapters at different times in the past. The future will, inevitably, contain pain, too.

I wish it wasn’t that way. I wish everything was going well and nothing was wrong and evil didn’t exist.

But I’m doing what I’ve always done when it all disorients me and I start to lose hope. I lean into the stories. I listen to people I meet at the pond share their own stories of courage and redemption while our kids, oblivious, chase after the ducks. I go to concerts and close my eyes and let the crescendos expand over me until they end on a satisfying note.  I go on hikes through the mountains with my husband and I talk and he talks and we listen and keep going and sweat and enjoy the vistas and look back and see how far we’ve come.

And I write.

“It’s a gorgeous cycle,” K.M. Weiland writes in a blog post, How to Benefit from the Biggest Reason for Storytelling, on her site www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com . “We use our art to interpret life, but, as artists ourselves, we also get to use our art to create and expand upon life.” (link https://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/benefit-biggest-reason-storytelling/ )

Weiland next quotes author Caryl Phillips: “A writer begins by breathing life into its characters. But if you are very lucky, they breathe life into you.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Rebecca Hopkins writes young adult novels while living in a world of ancient jungle tribes, sea-dwelling gypsies and isolated Balinese hand signing villages. It’s a world she’s trying to make her own—Indonesia. She’s lived in Indonesia with her relief pilot husband and three kids for twelve years. Read more about her writing and life in Indonesia at www.rebeccahopkins.org .

Finding the Courage to Walk Away

"Sometimes, the thing you most wish for is not to be touched." 

The quote above comes from the musical Into the Woods and offers a caution that doesn't apply only to fairy tales . . . it's important advice for publishing too.

It took me ten years, and five full-length manuscripts, to find an agent (and get my first publishing deal). During that time, I received a great deal of important advice and information and learned as much as I could about writing, the publishing industry, and the various choices available to me as an author. I wrote, I read, and I dreamed . . . and I hoped, above all, that one day those dreams would become a reality, in the form of published books with my name on the cover.

That dream had been with me since childhood. It burned in my heart like nothing else and remains a burning drive to this day. I love to tell stories. I love writing books. It's who I am at my core - and that means it also makes me vulnerable.

If you're reading this, you're probably vulnerable that way, too.

I often start my workshops on the legal aspects of the publishing industry by saying "charlatans and scammers flourish at the intersection of art and dreams" - and that statement is true. However, something else flourishes at that intersection too ...

... bad deals, inappropriate deals, and deals that an author will later regret.

In some ways, these are even more dangerous than the charlatans, because sometimes there's nothing obviously wrong with the deal . . . it's just not right for the author (or the work) at the time.

Writing is a critical skill for anyone who wants to be an author, as is good business sense, but the third thing an author needs to succeed in the publishing world is the ability to say NO when the deal isn't right.

When people find out you're an author, everyone from your mother to your plumber will be glad to tell you exactly how to run your publishing career. Advice is everywhere, some of it even worth remembering. The problem is, only you can decide when an offer is worth accepting--and you have the right to accept or refuse any offer, even if people around you--including people you trust--think you should make a different decision.

But how do you recognize a deal you should refuse?

The honest answer is a lot like the famous Supreme Court definition of obscenity: you know it when you see it.

On a slightly more practical level, here are some situations when authors should seriously consider walking away from a publishing deal:

1. The deal is really a scam. Do not fall for publishing scams. Learn to avoid them and walk away.

2. The publisher isn't offering industry-standard terms. Traditional publishing and self/author/indie publishing both have standards--the usual, expected terms and conditions authors have a right to expect. If anyone offers you less, remind yourself that you and your work deserve the industry standards at a minimum, and be willing to walk away.

3. The publisher acts like a bully even before you sign the deal. This happens. For real. In business, as on the playground, you have the right to a life free from bullying. If someone tries to make you feel badly about yourself or your work, walk away and hold out for someone who treats you right.

4. The deal doesn't fit your plans (for the work or for your career). Many authors seem to believe that they have to compromise "to get started" or "to get a foot in the door." NOPE. It helps to be realistic. For example, most first-time authors don't get million dollar deals (though it does happen occasionally). That said, if you're willing to write as many books as it takes and you want to hold out for the giant advance, you have the right to do that, and you should never let anyone tell you otherwise, if that's your vision.

5. You don't want to sign. Listen to your instincts. They are generally wise. If something feels "wrong" about a deal--whether it's with an agent, a publishing house, or the printer you want to hire to print your author-published books--have the courage to think the matter through carefully, evaluate the facts, and walk away if you still think the deal is wrong for you.

6. Any other reason you want to say no. It's important for authors to remember: you, and only you, are in control of your publishing career. No matter what you hear, read, or are told by others, at the end of the day, your books and your publishing career belong to you. You get to make the decisions (and live with the consequences). YOU get to say yes or no.

Walking away from a publishing deal may be the hardest thing you ever do in your publishing career. But if the deal isn't right for you, or your work, it's also the best and the wisest thing you can do. The tricky part is: only you can make the decision whether to sign or to walk away, and you'll have to make those decisions one at a time, as the deals come.

Never forget: it's better to have no deal at all than to have a deal you regret, and today's hard "No" leaves you and your work available for tomorrow's better opportunity.

WANT vs NEED

Last month we took a step back from Boy meets Girl to focus on some preliminary work. Although you can certainly throw your Hero and Heroine together on the first page, it may be better to show them apart first.

Then, when Boy Meets Girl, you’ll have the opportunity for SOMETHING to catch your characters attention - and that SOMETHING will directly relate to what is missing in that characters life. Just be careful not to be TOO obvious about it.

Remember, your hero and heroine go into this story ready for love. Even if they don’t know it. Love is what they NEED, not necessarily what they want. If you asked the hero and heroine on page one if they’re looking for love, they would categorically deny it. Might even say HECK NO! I never want to love again. (Oooh, backstory.)

But in that first meeting, you can give the reader a glimpse into why these two are perfect for each other. Which means you have to know all that before you start writing.

If you look at the beat sheet I introduced last month (http://jamigold.com/2012/11/write-romance-get-your-beat-sheet-here/) you’ll see that the very first thing listed is the “Opening Image/Hook: Opening scene or sequence of story; create empathy with characters by showing they lack for something.”

Now this lack that you introduce in the first scenes will be made up of things the character thinks he or she NEEDS. To save the ranch. To get that promotion. To fix a relationship. To attend a crucial event. You get the picture. (Quick assignment - go pick up a handful of romances on your shelf - read the first few pages and jot down the initial WANT for those characters.)

In these first scenes, you want to “introduce protagonists, hook the reader, and setup the romance conflict (foreshadowing, establishing stakes).” Does that sound daunting? It can be. But that’s why we read a lot of romance - to analyze and absorb how that’s done. And that’s why we do all that preliminary character work.

In these initial pages, you want your characters to come across as likable and to have wants that the reader can identify with. To do that, you have to know your characters. REALLY know your characters.

Why does she NEED to save the ranch? What’s in it for her. What’s behind that need/want? If you don’t allow your reader in to see the why then you won’t keep them reading, you won’t keep them caring. Most people never have a NEED to “save the ranch” - but most all of us can identify with keeping memories alive or fulfilling a responsibility that we’ve carried for a long time, or simply the need to make a living.

Are you confused by my interchangeable use of WANT and NEED? Remember, rarely does a character go into his/her story knowing what he truly needs. He knows what he thinks he needs. But that’s what the character arc is all about. The missing link in the hero’s life will be in the possession or person of the heroine and vice versa.
You’ve heard the phrase “he completes me.” Well, there it is.

A hero or heroine will likely go into the story not even guessing that there’s a huge hole in their life. One that only the “other half” will fill. That’s what the story is all about. That’s what the character arc is all about.

So, make sure you know what the true need is. But you don’t have to play that card yet. Please don’t. Simply open the H/H’s story with their normal world - skipping happily through life oblivious to what’s coming.

Make sense?

And if you’re still not sure how it’s done - keep reading great romance novels - the ones on the keeper shelf. Read them. Analyze them. Go through with the beat sheet in hand and figure out how that author did it. And don’t forget to WRITE.

Until next month - BiC HoK - Butt in Chair - Hands on Keyboard.

Marketing Physics

Back in the dark ages when I took physics, I learned about the six simple machines. When dealing with marketing, I find the lever makes a good analogy. It increases the force applied by a given amount of effort. Rephrased: You don't have to work as hard to get the same result.

Call me lazy, but any time I can get the same result with less effort - especially in marketing - I'm all over it.

The concept is simple. In marketing, we need to apply effort to gain purchase - literal as well as figurative. The more leverage we have, the less effort needed.

Marketing isn't the lever. It's the fulcrum. It's base you need in order to focus the application of effort. The fulcrum needs to be solid enough to take the load of both the effort and the output. If it's too squishy, applying effort will crush it. It can't really be too strong, but there's no need to make one stronger than you need. A fulcrum that can support ten tons doesn't actually give you any advantage when you're only trying to move a ten pound load.

In this context, marketing is not what you do. It's the way you've decided to do it.

I write SF/F novels. I self-publish them. I use social media as my primary communication channels. I follow the "Big Frog, Small Pond" and "1000 True Fans" strategies. Those were my decisions regarding marketing. That's my foundation, my fulcrum.

Effort is the sum of all the forces applied to the lever. For authors, that can be time spent at conventions, on social media, or writing blog posts. It can be cash spent on ad buys and market research. It can be anything the author does to promote the works. It's built from all the decisions an author makes about strategy and model. What do you have to offer? Where do you offer it? How do you choose to make people aware of your product?

The output load in this case is the number of purchases or - perhaps more accurately - profit. After all, it does little good to spend $10 for every $1 in revenue. It might be advantageous to achieve some short-term goal, but it's a bankrupt model in the long run. Literally.

The lever is the key. The lever is what multiplies the effort and provides the applied force to the output. For authors, that's the backlist. If you only have one book to sell, then the lever is short. You have to apply a lot of effort to get a unit of output. If you have two books to sell, then you get a multiplier. Perhaps people who buy the first will buy the second. You have more visibility - a bigger footprint - which makes your lever longer but also stronger. Add a third and a fourth and a fifth and you begin to build a machine where only the lightest touch of effort can give you a huge amount of purchase.

It's just simple physics.

The Sacred Work of Storytelling

Nearly two weeks ago, the sun disappeared (at least if you were in the direct path of the eclipse). For a few minutes, the air grew cooler and the birds grew quiet. I couldn’t help but think about how ancient people must have viewed an eclipse. They may have wondered if the sun would come back. Their worry may have made them anxious enough that they came up with elaborate rituals to appease the Sun and make sure he (or she) didn’t abandon them altogether.

But who came up with the rituals, the story, the cosmography, that explained why the sun disappeared and what must be done to ensure it always returned? Priests, you say? Priests may have performed the rituals, but the person who created the myth the rituals were built around was undoubtedly the tribe’s bard or storyteller. She or he might not have had the position officially, but they were the members of the tribe with the imagination and the gift with words to explain the phenomenon.

The word religion comes from a Latin word that means"to tie or bind". And that’s what religions do—they tie the events of the world together and make sense of them. They also bind people together in a shared experience, even if that experience is a re-enactment or ritual connected with the story created by the storyteller. Storytellers make sense of the world. And that’s why I believe we will always have need of them, not matter how sophisticated the world is.

Just look at the rabid following of The Game of Thrones series. It keeps gaining momentum and attracting more viewers (and readers). We dissect and analyze the episodes and return to them over and over, trying to figure out this world George R.R. Martin has created. We want to know the "why" for all the details in this world and we want to make sense of the events that take place. Martin, the storyteller, has created a grand myth, an imaginary world that people discuss as if it were totally real.

That’s what writers do, and that’s why storytelling is so important. The worlds we create as writers connect people. In making sense of imaginary worlds, we help people make sense of the real world. (Which at times is proving to be just as horrific and terrifying as anything Martin has created.)

Despite the multitude of fans, there are plenty of people who consider TGOT escapist fiction and therefore, silly and unimportant. But I would argue the series isn’t trivial or a waste of time because it binds us together and gives us a story that we share. As we reflect on the meanings of the myth, we reflect on our own values and what is important to us. We are forced to confront questions of good and evil and what is involved in making those distinctions.

A recent study showed that reading fiction tends to make people more empathetic in their choices. Experiencing things from the viewpoint of a fictional character teaches us to get outside our own world viewpoint and look at things in a new and more empathetic way. Maybe storytelling can’t change our turbulent, chaotic and violent world, but it can help us make sense of it and connect us in meaningful ways.

Storytelling is ancient and at the heart of the very essence of what it means to be human. So next time you get totally discouraged and want to give up writing, remember that the work we’re doing as writers is sacred and essential.

My #1 Way to Make the Most Out of Conference

This September will be my third time attending the Colorado Gold, and my sixth conference overall. In those last five conferences, I’ve made friends with other writers, found critique partners and beta readers, gotten requests from agents, met famous people (squee!), and learned a lot about writing craft. I’ve also gained confidence; over the course of several conferences, I’ve gone from hardly being able to make eye contact to striking up a conversation in the lunch line.

What’s my secret for maximizing the conference experience? What’s my #1 piece of advice?

Be brave.

I go into every conference knowing that I’ll get out of it what I put in. I challenge myself to do something that scares me, whether it’s reading my work aloud, approaching an agent at the bar or just saying hi to the attendee in the seat next to me. Because I’ve realized, after many conference experiences, that I can’t afford to leave any opportunity on the table just because I’m nervous.

Before my first-ever conference, I agonized over whether to sign up for an agent critique roundtable. My inner pessimist whispered, What if everyone hates my work? What if I can’t handle the criticism? My writing couldn’t possibly be as good as these other people’s; I’m not ready to do a critique session.

But somehow, I tuned that voice out long enough to press the “register” button anyway. And guess what? The critique session was wonderful. I enjoyed every minute. I got some great feedback, and I met another middle-grade writer whom I’ve been close friends with ever since.

At my most recent conference, they offered a first-page agent critique for free with your registration. Cool! Then I read the fine print: I’d be in a room with an agent and a dozen other writers, and I’d have to stand up in front of everyone and read my first page aloud. My inner pessimist recoiled. I’ve never read anything for an audience before. What if I have a panic attack? What if I faint? What if I throw up in the agent’s lap?!

I only signed up at the urging of my writing mentor, who said it was a great opportunity to get my work in front of an agent. Yeah right, muttered my inner pessimist, like anyone would be interested in my book based on one lousy page. And when my 8:00 a.m. session rolled around, I almost didn’t go. I remember walking down the hall toward the room and pausing, swaying on my feet, listening to that nagging inner pessimist. I don’t need this stress. I should go to another session, a lecture, where I can just sit and listen—where I don’t have to be brave.

Then my close writing friend (the one I met at that critique roundtable) caught me in the hallway. Turns out she was signed up for the same first-page critique session. I sucked it up and walked into the room with her, and guess what? It was a great experience. I got helpful feedback and some practice reading my work aloud, which wasn’t nearly as painful as I’d expected. And the agent liked my first page so much, she sought me out later to request the manuscript.

At the Colorado Gold last year, I participated in the Friday night book signing with the other Found anthology contributors. It was my first book signing, and it wasn’t quite as glamorous as I’d expected—probably because I had zero clues what I was doing. I found myself at a loss for what to write with my signature, I addressed it to the wrong name at least once, and I had major impostor syndrome. Why am I here? niggled my inner pessimist. What am I doing in a room full of other authors—real authors—when all I have to my name is a couple of short stories? Their signatures are so squiggly—mine isn’t nearly squiggly enough!

I walked away from that signing feeling like a klutzy, insecure fish out of water. But I’m still glad I did it. I made friends with the other contributors, I learned a lot about how book signings work, and I got my first-time jitters out of my system—so my next book signing will be easier.

My point is: Hiding from our fears doesn’t do us any good. We have to face them, and we have to give ourselves permission to fail the first time (or two, or ten), knowing that it will help us in the long run. So if you’re going to Colorado Gold next month, be brave. Challenge yourself, try something new, set lofty goals. I guarantee you’ll be glad you did.

The Tales of Benson the Bard

To write: perchance to edit: ay, there's the rub; for in editing to death, what epiphanies may come…

Okay, so I’m not the Bard. What I am, is sitting in a hotel room editing the night before I give a workshop on research.

Maybe what I should be doing is reviewing critique roundtable submissions for Gold? Or typing up my notes from the Writer’s Police Academy? Or sleeping, after a whirlwind 10 days driving to Wisconsin and back? What are my priorities?

In the end, edits won. At least until I started this blog. I was going to write about how amazing and informative a conference like the Writer’s Police Academy can be – but Chris Goff beat me to it.

Instead, I decided to share some of my writing practices and pet peeves. Now, I don’t claim these are “best practices”, and probably not even really good ones, but they’re mine.

  • I write best under pressure, even if it’s made up pressure because if I have all the time in the world I can find something else to do in a heartbeat
  • I like to write when I’m alone, but always turn on a movie I’ve seen at least three times for background noise
  • I write in a recliner or on a bed with my laptop, never in a proper chair at a desk
  • I can write eight hours in a stretch if I’m in the zone, which generally results in ordering pizza for dinner to prevent divorce
  • I can tell when I’m not in the zone because I’ll have started the laundry, done the dishes, and wandered outside to pull weeds
  • I like to have junk food handy when writing - Dark Chocolate Kisses being my favs, and a gin and tonic is a close second, but not until at least….um, 5 o’clock?
  • When it’s cold I have a pair of plush Tigger slippers I wear when I’m writing, and my granddaughter is convinced I have tigers living under my bed in the summer
  • I hate texting because my kids don’t want to read more than 3 words from me and think punctuation is a waste of time

Ok, so some of this doesn’t have anything to do with writing, but it kept me from having to edit for a while (bad Bard, bad, bad!)

What are your writing-related practices? What puts you in your writer’s groove (or takes you out)?