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Friday, December 4, 2009

Pep Talk, Glee-Style

Lately, I've been down about writing. Between work, my inner editor flaring up, changes in character motivation and my entire cast conspiring against me to keep the plot a secret, I'm a little frustrated. I just want to write and it should be that easy, but it's not.

I have to finishing writing at work everyday in order to try and find five minutes to spend on fiction. It makes the entire process more painstaking. I am thankful that I get to write for a living, but, oh, if I had any other job. The fiction would pour forth so much faster.

And at this point, you're thinking this is a "share my pain" post. Well, it's not. It's a post to share what's been lightening my mood during my period of literary lethargy.

I am not an inherently perky person, but every time this song comes on my iPod it picks me up a little. I feel vicariously perky. But even if it doesn't help you shake the blues, it will leave you wondering "what's wrong with these people?"

The bounce in the step, the color in the cheeks... It's just not natural.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Magazinista's Big News

She's told me that I can shout it from the rooftops, so here it is folks.

My dear friend and critique partner Suzanne Johnson has sold her urban fantsy novels ROYAL STREET and the sequel RIVER ROAD to Tor as part of a two-book deal. ROYAL STREET is scheduled to be published in fall 2011.

Here's what Publisher's Weekly thought when ROYAL STREET was just a wee babe.

"This suspenseful and ticklish tale of a wizard fending off disaster in post-Katrina New Orleans is rich with historical and fantasy-filled fun. Female Wizard sentinel Drusilla Jane Jaco, or D.J. to her friends, finds herself in the eye of a supernatural storm as Hurricane Katrina rips apart the divide between the natural world and the Beyond, allowing lingering ghosts like the pirate Jean Lafitte, Huey Long, and, worst of all, the voodoo god Baron Samedi, to wreck havoc on a devastated Crescent City. ...This playful fantasy novel is grounded by the strong and sympathetic narrator and protagonist, D.J., as she interacts with a cavalcade of diverse supporting characters. In clean and sturdy prose, the author delights in exploring New Orleans' colorful past and employing the jagged backdrop of post-Katrina devastation as a metaphor for the chaos of a world on the brink of madness." -- Reviewed as a quarterfinalist, 2009 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award competition

Check her out at http://www.suzanne-johnson.com/

Monday, November 9, 2009

NaNoWriMo Day 9: Maybe we should just be friends...

Dear NaNoWriMo,
 You have spent the first week of November torturing me. I still have to lead my life, you know. I can't put the world on hold and devote my every waking hour to you. I know that's what you want, but it simply can't be done.

Frankly, you're behaving like a petulant child. When life drags me away from the keyboard, you've taken the opportunity to kick me when I'm down. As if I'm not already frustrated enough by the fact that I am several thousand words behind the curve. You set impossible standards and, barring the elimination of eating and sleeping from my schedule, I'm giving you my all.

What more do you want from me?

No, the pressure of a deadline doesn't bother me. That fact is you're needy and a nag. Knowing those unreasonable expectations you have for me has kept me huffing and puffing and generally overwhelmed. I am requesting that you cease and desist.

I think our relationship should remain strictly professional. That means no more late night phone calls or following me home. I have to admit I've been waiting for the horror movie scene where my laptop powers on by itself at four in the morning and the NaNoWriMo screen comes up.

Please don't be hurt. I know this seems sudden, considering that we share a common purpose. All I've ever wanted to be is a fiction writer. All you want to do is help me become one. It's your unwillingness to compromise that's come between us, so unless you have the means to pay my bills we have to break up.

The word-centric world you create each November lured me in, full of shiny promises. Full of witty words and turns of phrase. You smelled of hope and well-worn pages. Pages I hoped would be mine.

But I don't blame you. It's not your fault that you're attractive and intriguing, or that you can make or break a girl with the click of the "Update" button, which puts our private business of under public scrutiny. I simply can live on your terms.

I do hope we can still be friends. I'll stop in from time to time and let you know how I'm doing. I'll hit that "Update" button and think of you fondly. Hopefully, you'll be supportive. Remember NaNo, it is better to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all.


P.S. - I think I left my dignity at your place, and I'd like it back.

Friday, November 6, 2009

NaNoWriMo Day 6: An H1N1 Interuption

I know what you're thinking and no, I don't have swine flu. I am not stuck at home drinking juice and resting, but some part of me wishes I was.

Okay, I don't really wish I was sick. But if I was quarantined and my butt was firmly planted on the sofa, a whole hell of a lot more would be getting done on this novel. Instead, I am tied to my desk in the office writing about swine flu, school flu closures and vaccine clinics. My cup runneth over.

*sigh* Back to the daily grind....

Words: 3,100-some (I don't know because I'm not allowed to open my file until I write something  for work.)
Mood: Apathetic
Music: Holly Brook - "Like Blood Like Honey"

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

NaNoWriMo Day 4: Groove Thang

Today was encouraging. While I'd like to say that I totally ignored the world and wrote until I could no longer feel my fingers, I didn't. However, I was productive for the roughly three hours that I spent glued to my computer chair.

It doesn't seem terribly productive by the numbers, but trust me. I now have my wheels on the road and am committed to following it wherever it leads me. As my critique partner the Magazinista told me earlier today, "You have to kick your inner editor out on the front lawn and let her cry." (It's easy to give advice when you've got 10,000 words in the bank.) But that's what I did.

I booted the nagging witch, and I found my groove.

Her backseat driver style won't keep this novel from being written. No amount of weeping will make me let her back in this car. She can wail like a banshee. She's not getting her grubby little paws on my deathless prose, at least not until December 1.

Words: 2,954
Mood: Hopeful
Music: Super Furry Animals - "Hello Sunshine"

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

NaNoWriMo Day 3: Unwanted Words & Conspiracy Theories

I wrote thousands of words today... And not a damn one is NaNo related. It is well after 11 p.m. on the eastern seaboard and this tired reporter has only just gotten home.

Today was ELECTION DAY. If you're a journalist on the first Tuesday in November you can pretty much kiss your life goodbye. The worst part is that it's not over when the polls close and the votes are tallied. Oh no, that's when it begins.

But today couldn't have been just a normal evil election day full of ridiculous political showings, hand-kissing and baby-shaking. (Or is that the other way around?) No. I started my morning with a server outage at work. With the exception of lights and Microsoft Word, I was effectively Amish. Phone, e-mail, internet -- KAPUT!

That lasted until nearly 1 p.m., so, needless to say, I didn't exactly get a jump on things. I crawled along, making do with my cell phone until technology was restored. Then I finished my non-election-related stories in time to serve as Pizza Wench for my office. We always order on election night and the boss pays, so that's a plus.

By then it was nearly 7 p.m., the polls had closed, and we waited anxiously for votes to appear on the State Board of Elections website. If you're thinking, "So you sat in front of the computer clicking refresh every 30 seconds in a futile attempt to make votes appear?" You'd be absolutely correct. Four reporters. Four computers. Four incessantly clicking mouses.

That's because the county I work in is one of the slowest in the Commonwealth of Virginia for tallying votes. Despite the advent of electronic voting machines, I swear this county still counts votes on an abacus. An hour after the polls closed they were still dusting the thing off.

The clicking continued. Random bits of information were shouted across the office. "Chris has 36% in Powhatan." "I think Phil could lose this one." "Still nothing in the school board race."

Finally at 8:45 p.m., with only one precinct outstanding, I ventured out the the winners party to take photos and talk to the happy crowd. They were mostly gone when I arrived, but I snapped a few shots, grabbed a few quotes and was on the run again. Back to the office with 30 minutes to write a story before the guys on press start to get antsy.

Long story short, today was anti-NaNo. The world conspires against you sometimes and, on this particular Tuesday, it went over and above to make sure I didn't so much as open the file containing my novel.

Thanks for that World. You've really out-done yourself.

Words: 1,765
Mood: Exhausted
Music: Lily Frost - "Enchantment"

Monday, November 2, 2009

NaNoWriMo Day 2: Hymn for the Downtrodden

That's right kids. I've only been at it two days, and I'm already suffering under the weight of NaNoWriMo. It's been a sloooow start. The Word document is open, I'm highly caffeinated, and I just... can't... get... writing.

So what's my problem? I haven't the foggiest. I can tell my story over and over again. I can describe each scene in detail. I can't put pen to paper. The car's in gear, but the parking brake is still on.

Yes, I've been able to eek out words. They're good words. Some might be great. But this, my friends, is NaNo and quantity is an issue. If there were ever a time when size matters, it's now.

Participants, also known as WriMos, who take the plunge as supposed to fly free. They take to the keyboard with wild abandon and write. Judgement be damned. Give your inner editor 30 days off. You write whatever gobbledygook comes to mind. Sure, it's no Shakespeare, but revision can work miracles.

Not me. When I told my inner editor to shove off, she choked up on the keyboard and threatened to do bodily harm. Needless to say, she's running the show right now. I have to shake her or this novel is DOA.

Words: 1,588
Mood: Indignant
Music: Ian Broudie - Song for No One

Saturday, October 31, 2009

NaNoWriMo 2009: The Road to a Nervous Breakdown

What is NaNoWriMo, you ask? It's thirty days and nights of literary abandon accompanied by paralyzing fear and an overwhelming urge to give up writing all together. Before you even get started....

Nauseating feelings and gut-wrenching anxiety aside, NaNoWriMo is actually the ultimate writer's challenge.

THE GOAL: Write a novel in a month.

A successful attempt is 50,000 words, which breaks down to 1,667 words per day. That's 69.5 words per hour or roughly one word per minute. Easy, right? Wrong, unless you're a recluse that shuns all creature comforts and human contact. 

THE SACRIFICE: Most anything that's not an absolute necessity in your life.

Movies, shopping, outings with friends, and even those Starbucks macchiatos you love so dearly are out of the question. After all, that's 15 minutes you could spend writing. Favorite TV shows, leisurely reading, and mid-afternoon naps. You can kiss those goodbye too.

And if you manage to avoid all of the extras life and put 25K down, things will become more difficult. Somewhere amidst the madness the big ticket items will become negotiable. Fire sale. Everything must go. This means personal hygiene, valuable hours of sleep, every personal relationship you've ever had, and, of course, your sanity.

But it's worth it right?

THE PEP SQUAD: Well, it's about as useless as cheerleaders for the chess team.

Writing buddies. Don't get me wrong, I appreciate the gesture and the sentiment behind it. I friend all of these other people who are attempting to write a literary masterpiece of their own in 30 days. (Good luck with that by the way. I'll be happy if I can read what I wrote without a translator when this is over.)

Then my "buddies," who I may or may not actually know, write and their word count appears in on my NaNo account site, thus producing Word Count Envy. Great. Thanks. I needed an inferiority complex as I'm tackling the impossible.

THE PAYOFF: Empty hands and a warmed heart.
That's right. There's no prize counter, nowhere to cash in your words. Your 50K won't so much as buy you a teddy bear to cry with after the carnage comes to an end. Instead you get pride, a sense of accomplishment, and, oh yeah, a completed novel. (If it makes any sense by the time you're done with it.)

I say, what the hell? I'm doing it. Bring the pain.

To find out more about NaNoWriMo, visit http://www.nanowrimo.org/.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Wednesday Whimsy: Pong Shots for Papa

I had the realization yesterday that all skills, no matter how seemingly irrelevant to the world around us, should be appreciated. That is why today we pay homage to a talented group participating in an oft overlooked activity, one that tends to go hand in hand with drunken revelry. But I beg of you - Please reconsider.

The artistry, the athletic prowess.... Okay, so it's not exactly a sport, but it's damn entertaining.

Even if it revolves entirely around drinking it's not without merit. As Papa Hemingway said, "An intelligent man is sometimes forced to be drunk to spend time with his fools."

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Experience. Write. Repeat.

“Breathe in experience, breathe out poetry.” ~ Muriel Rukeyser

There is no statement I feel is truer about a writer’s job. It sums up not only the process but the passion. It speaks to not only what we do, but how we do it.

It’s the nuances of an experience that are lost on most people. In the moment, they experience everything, but when it’s over the bigger picture is all that sticks with them.
A writer experiences the world differently.

We see colors and textures and record mental movie clips to be played back later on the walls of our minds. We think in simile and muse in metaphor. With every sound we see the onomatopoeia. (Holy Onomatopeia, Batman!)

If you’ll forgive the expression, we see the world through rose colored glasses.

By that I don’t mean that everything appears wonderful to a writer. It doesn’t. There is sadness and cruelty in the world, and there isn’t a light at the end of every tunnel. But writers know this and we find perfection even in these imperfect moments. We appreciate them for what they are, and not what they might have been.

That ability to hone in on a moment in time, capture it and distill it down into a few sentences or sometimes just a few words is a writer’s gift. It is the power to turn the mundane into the magnificent. It may be as simple as turning a phrase, describing something in a way that is entirely unexpected. It could be seeing an ordinary object and, with thoughts run-a-muck, turning it into something extraordinary. Either way, without it we’d be nothing.

Lewis Carroll made an unremarkable rabbit hole the portal to fantastical world. J.K. Rowling recognized sports as an important part of culture and gave us the high-flying action-packed game of Quidditch. They and countless other authors have taken note of things often overlooked and, with a healthy dose of creativity, made us think again. They show us possibilities, possibilities that amaze us.

They spin hay into gold, and that’s what every writer hopes to do.

Current Music: Dar Williams - Mercy of the Fallen

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Wednesday Whimsy: What's in a name?

as thinking about this clip earlier today and couldn't resist, so this is a little bit of an homage to the master. I mean, if George Carlin said it then it must be true, right?

Well, in this case, I feel like he hit the nail on the head. Names say a lot about a person and they'll say a lot about your characters.

I was having this discussion with colleagues in my office the other day. We sat around discussing what names have connotations for us. It's utterly unexplainable, but when someone gives you their name you have an instant reaction. Who knows why or what you're basing it on. It simply is. (Little "Princess Bride" love in the picture.)

Here's what my co-workers and I discovered.

We've never met a Jeff we liked. The name says jerk. Jessica, in 90% of cases, is a witch. Dawn and Mandy... They're usually kind of skanky.

Then there are names that walk the line. The perfect example is Kimberly. Girls who choose to be Kimberly tend to be snooty and high-maintenance, but Kims are laid back and level-headed. I've never met a Kim I didn't like.

This is why I defer to George Carlin. He calls names like he sees them. It's a test a feel like more writers should run when naming there characters. Ask yourself, would George Carlin approve of this name?

It's not a hard and fast rule by any means, but I think it's an easy call to make. If your characters name is a stumbling block or you fear it will get stuck in a reader's teeth because of the apostrophe then there's a problem.

I'm not saying don't use futuristic, apostrophed or soft-sounding names. Not at all. The long and short of it is that the name needs to fit the character. And if your main character is a pansy who gets his butt-kicked often then the name Kyle isn't inappropriate.

WARNING: This video contains foul language.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

If everyone has an inner amazing... Where's mine?

This week is about renewal.

It’s about getting back on track. It’s about reinvigoration. It’s about prioritizing and not letting opportunity pass me by.

I’ve been in such a rut lately that I feel like I’m productive if I get out of bed in the morning. I’m tired of hearing about people who are upbeat and incredible all the time. You know the type.

Not the go-getters. Those folks I can handle, with their endlessly positive attitudes, and I can do it without breaking my cynical stride. The ones I’m talking about are overachievers who don’t know they’re achieving in excess. They’re up at dawn, domestic goddess, amazing under pressure, do the impossible and save the world in my spare time kind of people.

Their productivity isn’t what bothers me. It’s the fact that they make it look easy. People with highly orchestrated but seemingly effortless lives make me feel like a colossal failure who can’t even cope with daily life. How can I possibly take on more?

I already spend 40-plus hours a week working in a high-stress job and the rest of my time is devoted to my house, my family, and my friends. Like everyone else my day flies by, and I feel like I don’t have a minute to spare. I’ve always made time and gotten things done, but I can’t tell you that I’ve been happy. Even with so many plates spinning above my head I had to add more.

So over the last several months, I’ve taken on numerous extracurricular activities and find myself overwhelmed but with a renewed sense of self. How can that be? It’s because the new additions are passions that I’ve neglected over the last few years. Picking them up again has made me remember parts of myself that I put away after college to become a jaded overworked adult.

That’s what you’re supposed to do, right? Find some happy medium between passion and survival. Well I refuse to do that anymore.

A few months ago I was inspired to change my life, to reshape it as the one I’d always hoped to be living one day. The foundation has been laid. I’ve started leaving work at the door when I walk out of the office. I don’t check my e-mail from home nearly as much and I’m learning not to panic ever time something falls through. Stress will not make me its bitch.

I finally started writing my novel. I created a personal blog and started a project blog with The Magazinista. I also befriended a rag-tag band of writers who’ve since come together to form a critique group with strict weekly deadlines. (Which, while appreciated, can make a girl lose sleep.)

The problem is time management. Twenty-four hours never seems like enough, and I still have to fit in eating and sleeping. Donna Reed could do it all and still have time to make dessert. Why can't I?

I’ll be the first to admit that sometimes I don’t make the most of my day. I do my best to accomplish as much as I can, but with life running interference it’s difficult.

I sleep in occasionally and I dawdle, wasting precious time. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t know there were better things I could do with those hours. Hell, even with 15 minutes.

I have to keep reminding myself that I am the master of my own destiny. Hours in my day are going unused and it’s up to me to take corrective action, so I spent the weekend getting my ducks in a row.

I’ve been getting my house in order because one of my critique partners, known as Paris because she recently adopted a rat dog, is coming to visit in a few weeks. We’ll be meeting for the first time and she needs a place to sleep. In addition to not disgusting my houseguest, the thorough cleaning will help me to focus on writing instead of household chores. I’ve also been trying to devote some time each day to writing in hopes of staying ahead of the novel critique group. (First chapter is due in about 18 hours.)

But squeezing all of my responsibilities and hobbies into my current schedule isn’t feasible. I need to make adjustments. This week I’ll be getting up earlier and making better use of the hours in my day. I’m going to plan, prepare and be effective in everything I do.

The music’s on, the TV’s off and I’m committed to changing my routine. Maybe one day I’ll sicken people with my productivity….

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Critique Partners II: A saint, a sinner and a whole lot of snark...

Apologies for being late on this post. My vacation became a cluster toward the end and culminated in the worst day of travel I think I've ever had.

We’re all familiar with the platitudes that get spouted when a date or relationship goes down the toilet.

“He/she wasn’t right for you anyway.” “There are plenty of fish in the sea.” “When you fall off the horse you have to get right back on.”

And while I would I normally make a cynical comment, huff, and walked away, I didn’t. I wanted a critique partner, so I got right back up on that horse, baited my line and waited for another fish to swim past.

My first bite after the Great Dairy Product Fall-out of 2009 came in the form of a surprisingly pleasant letter. She seemed friendly, funny, and, most importantly, serious about writing. That e-mail and one conversation with her told me a lot.

Genre: Urban Fantasy
Writing Exp: Extensive
Strengths: Copy editing, incredible listening skills and an unmatched ability to cut the BS
Pet Peeves: High Fantasy and apostrophed funny-sounding names

We knew instantly that we would work. We shared similar backgrounds, loved all things supernatural, and had a standing Sunday date with Ice Road Truckers. Hazaa! I had my critter – The Magazinista.

But in the infancy of our love there came another e-mail. An e-mail that came from a person I believed at the time to be a forum hobbyist, an optimistic joiner, and frankly someone whose opinion I didn’t take very seriously, mostly because of the following bit of his message.

“I would suggest posting something for others to go on. If you're looking for a more intimate bond with your crit partner, something I can appreciate, you need to provide folks with an avenue to understand you and your writing better before they consider jumping into a crit commitment. Then again, the net being what it is, I suppose they could always just ignore you later on or vise versa . . . but that wouldn't be so nice.”

Who was this guy? I thought to myself, “Apparently he thinks he’s the Dr. Phil of writing relationships.” To me, it sounded like he was suggesting we all sit in a circle while I put my writing on the block, then we could all make s’mores and talk about our feelings. Not really my gig. I wanted to do my dating in private.

I wrote the know-it-all jerk off, after e-mailing him to say thanks, but no thanks buddy. Well… That’s a lie. I couldn’t let his message go. Something about it rubbed me the wrong way and I had to find out who this mythical guru was. (After all, the forum was thick with rumors about him.)

I sent him an instant message and we got into a debate about why I was unwilling to share my writing and why that was wrong. To this day, he thinks that I came to him as a wide-eyed babe with my first chapter in hand. My recollection is that we bickered back and forth for a long while before I caved and said, “Well, do you want to read it (if you’re so amazing)?” Recently, we came to an agreement on how we ultimately argued ourselves into a critter love affair.

Attila: I was like "would you just shut up and listen to me."
Me: Yeah. Cocky jerk. Check.
Attila: And you were like, "Uh, no, you're wrong and you're stupid, and you're an arse, and . . . . "
Me: Yeah. Elitist witch. Check.
Me: How do I have this wrong again?

He earned the name Attila because of the bloody critique he gave me on that chapter. A river of red ran down the margin and I could hear the ghosts of screams when I opened the file. Now, I know that’s just his way. Survive trial by fire and he eases up.

In spite of the vastly different ways in which I found them, they are exactly what I set out to find. I wanted people who would do more than help me with grammar, voice and pacing. I wanted them to know me and my characters intimately and to be able to tell me when things in my story had gone amiss. I needed to know that when they got a frantic message because I was screaming at my computer screen and didn’t know what was wrong and needed them to help me fix it that they’d even speak to me.

Amazingly, they continue to do so.

They pull me up every time I feel like I've hit bottom. They read, shatter me with their critiques, tell me to shut up and take it when I complain, and then help me put the puzzle back together. And it's always better. I couldn't have found better people. People more devoted to the craft of writing, who believe that writing is creative catharsis and who can't be themselves without the expression.

Age, genre, writing level and understanding of the business are all important in their own right, but they aren’t number one in my mind. The best advice I can give to anyone looking for a critique partner is to find someone whose company you enjoy and to make a commitment. If the two of you mesh, the rest will fall into place. The more intimately they know your work the better it will become.

I think that critiquing is quite possibly the only area in which it helps to know your attacker. I’ll confess that I’m naturally defensive. I hate criticism and will argue all day long, but that’s changed since I got critique partners. I feel like it’s easier to take criticism if you aren’t unfamiliar or intimidated by the people doing the criticizing. You respect their opinion and are less inclined to whine.

There are a multitude of good places to look for critique partners on the internet if you can’t snag a live one, which is difficult to do for more reasons than one. Social networking searches, surfing blogs and reading forums are all good places to start your search. Here are a few more targeted resources.

Critters – An online writing workshop brimming with thousands of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror writers looking to critique and be critiqued. It’s a great resource and you can make great connections there, but it is highly organized and may not be for the faint-hearted or the on-again off-again critter.

Matchwriters – Matchmaker, matchmaker, make me a match. This site has a good bit of information on writing and giving and receiving feedback. It’s also a good place to post a personal if you’re looking to find that special someone. There’s even a writer search for the assertive seeker.

Critter Love Connection – Courtesy of YA author Maggie Stiefvater and her fan site, this message board is dedicated to matching up writers looking for like minds. Post a little about yourself and your work in progress, connect with others, and wait to feel the romance. (You do have to create an account to access the message board.)

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Critique Partners: The American Cheese Incident

NOTE: Okay, so originally this post was supposed to cover the good, the bad and the "what the hell" of critique partners, but the "what the hell" stole the show and I’ll have to tell you the rest tomorrow. I promise there’s a “they all lived happily ever after” at the end. And on to the blog….

Earlier this summer, I set out into the great, wide, virtual yonder to find a critique partner to help me as I write and polish my first novel. I’d heard how incredibly valuable they could be as readers and as sounding walls, and I wanted one.

I didn’t have a completed manuscript. I hadn’t been part of a writing group in about 10 years. I had no idea if I was good a critiquing others’ work or if what I said would be the least bit helpful to them.
But did I think about that? NO. I wanted a critique partner.

I spent days obsessively Googling “critique partner,” “critique partner fiction,” “critiquing fiction,” “fiction writers group,” and every other term I could think of. I think I even tried some things I’m embarrassed to type, like “finding a writing partner.” On second thought, I don’t know why I was embarrassed to type that. I was one step away from posting a personal ad.

SUFW (Single Urban Fantasy Writer) desperately seeking a SSFFW (Single Sci-Fi Fantasy Writer) or DSFFW (the divorced version of the former.) Must love all things strange and fantastical, neurosis and poring through pages of deathless prose. Knowledge of the English language preferred but not required.

The ad never made it to the internet, at least in that form. What I ended up resorting to was far more shameful. I began hunting for forums. The kind of overly optimistic, upbeat, “We’re all winners,” fluffy bunny forums that I normally wouldn’t touch with a 10-foot pole, even a virtual one. I ended up on the bastard child of forums – Yahoo Groups.

I joined a fantasy writers group and posted a message entitled “In search of a good critique partner.” It was the Reader’s Digest version of what I was working on and looking for in a critter. Within 48 hours I had a handful of responses.

That's when things started to go horribly wrong.

A few were the equivalent of “Dude! I’ll be your critique partner!” They were easily dismissed. One guy wished me luck, but told me that he was too busy to critique anything of mine. I wondered why he e-mailed me at all.

But one did stand out. She said she had been writing for years, was working on her first YA science fiction novel, and looking for feedback. We got in touch on IM, chatted for several hours and found we liked the same genres, same books, same authors and it seemed like chubby little cherubs had brought us together on that fateful Monday night, until we exchanged writing samples.

Her’s was good. It was a little Deep Space 9 meets Oliver Twist for my taste, but it was well written. I could have cared less about the sample subject matter. It was a random scene, out of context. Really, all I wanted was to see if she could write a complete sentence. I was satisfied that we might work, that this was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Oh how wrong I would be.

At the same time, she was reading a sample passage from my WIP. I thought it was fairly straightforward. Below is part of the passage I sent. (The names are omitted because I’m a hoarder. MINE!)

J--- opted for a rib eye sandwich and fries and B--- ordered something that looked like the kitchen had exploded on his plate. There were hot peppers, onions, American or maybe cheddar cheese oozed from one side, a piece of tomato peaked out from the chili that had been ladled over it all and somewhere underneath the whole mess there was a hamburger. J--- had seen B--- eat before. This sort of sewage wasn’t unusual.

Now, here’s how the conversation went.

Girl: Wow. I like your writing style a lot. I can’t wait o read more.
Me: Thanks! I’m not very far into things, but I have high hopes for this story.
Girl: I do have one question.
Me: Shoot.
Girl: Is it set on earth in the future?
Me: *thinking about the elements of the passage – diner, teenagers, food – nothing that said future* Umm, no. What made you think that?
Girl: Oh. Well, you specifically mentioned American cheese.

That’s right. You read that correctly. She thought American cheese was futuristic. I thought absolutely nothing of it while I was writing it. American cheese, cheddar, Gouda, provolone… Just types of cheese. To her it said “Beam me up, Scotty.” Then again, I suppose if any cheese was to survive it would be Velveeta, but that’s not the point.

I was reeling like someone has smacked me. Flabbergasted. Dumbfounded. I had no words, so I had no control over the fact that I became monosyllabic. We spoke one more time on chat, but there was a palpable lack of interest and we haven’t spoken since.

American cheese ended what I think we both thought would be a beautiful relationship.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Critiques: Why Grandma shouldn't be your critter...

So you’ve finished writing something – a short story, novel, memoir, or even a technical manual. The what doesn’t really matter. You’ve written for countless hours, had more than one false start, changed your entire plot at least once, labored over seemingly frivolous changes and finally you feel like it’s polished enough to see the light of day.

Now, you need someone to read it, but who do you go to?

In childhood you ran to your parents or grandparents when you finished a drawing or wrote a story. With a big smile, any one of them would take the barely legible story or the strange, slightly disturbing drawing and thank you profusely. They look it over with what you now know was confusion and amusement while you waited anxiously.

The final judgment was invariably the same. “It’s beautiful, sweetheart.” After all, what self-respecting person would tell a four-year old that they’re never going to make it in the biz then drop their creation into the shredder? No, your masterpiece always ended up on the fridge. (I’ll be sure to add one of the masterpieces of my youth as soon as I get home from vacation.)

But is unconditional love what you want for the novel you hope to publish?

Hopefully it isn’t. Unconditional love didn’t paint the Mona Lisa or build the pyramids, and it won’t do your WIP any good. What all writers or artists of any type need are objective opinions and discerning eyes. You can’t usually get that from family or even close friends.

They want the best for you. They want you to live your dreams and be successful and they certainly don’t want to tell you that your story is flawed, your characters are flat and your dialog is stilted. No, they read out of obligation and they gush.

The sad fact is that it’s impossible for anyone who isn’t a writer to understand one. I talk about my characters like they are real people. I imagine how they would talk to me. I even had the realization the other day that my main character doesn’t like to be touched.

You’re probably thinking, “What’s wrong with that? That’s totally normal for a writer.” If you were the one listening to me, watching me go through my processes, you’d be whistling a different tune. The flummoxed stare on your face would read, “Where can I find a straight jacket on short notice?”

It doesn’t even faze my critique partners. We all do it. They listen to me rattle on about my characters problems and how they’re doing things I didn’t expect they to do and messing up an entire scene because of it. They invite me in on the laughs they have with their characters and turn to me when they need to get their imaginary friends of a jam.

Family and friends sometimes don’t get your dreams. They can be as loving and supportive as the day is long, but they don’t always understand you or what you want. One of my critters, The Magazinista, recently had an experience that goes to the heart of this problem.

She has been a writer for years, but now she’s trying to break into the fiction business. After watching a news report a few nights ago about a 40-something woman who’d recently started a fiction-writing career with great success, her mother had precisely the right thing to say.

“Of course she writes things people want to read, not weird things no one can understand.”
The Magazinista replied, “It's because they aren't smart enough to understand it.”

And that’s why relatives aren’t good critters. There’s really not any more to say.

Tune in tomorrow to learn my thoughts on finding the right critter for you and read about how the dating process went horribly wrong for me.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Editing: The Death of the Red Pen

Red doesn’t have the best reputation. It doesn’t have pleasant connotations. It means anger and broken hearts and blood. For a writer, it means editing carnage.

In the olden days of hard copy edits, it meant that someone had pulled out their trusty red pen and done battle with your words. Words you agonized over for hours, painstakingly perfecting each phrase. Yet with that Red Pen of Doom they crushed your writer’s high effortlessly and left you feeling like a rewrite was simply impossibly because, between all the strike-throughs, insertions, and spelling corrections, there were only articles left. How can you possibly rebuild?

Thankfully, the red pen is becoming an endangered species that’s seen less and less in the wild. I for one am extremely happy to see it falling into extinction. The slow death of this ancient torture device has and will continue to benefit many writers. I know it’s done wonders for me.

In high school and even college, getting back a paper covered in technical red markings caused a pit of worry in my stomach. Sometimes it made me such a nervous wreck that I became nauseous. Those red marks, many of which I didn’t understand, seemed insurmountable.

I would stare at the paper, look of horror on my face, like I was holding a dying comrade in my arms. I’m a writer, not a medic. I had no idea where to start. I didn’t even know how to find the wound amidst the bloody mess.

I had one journalism professor who deliberately avoided red pen as his editing tool of choice. Instead, he used green. He always said he thought it was less intimidating. Not to me it wasn’t. A stand in for an executioner is still an executioner. And alien blood aside, my pages were still bleeding.

The technological slaying of the red pen (and the multitude of colorful well-intended alternatives) is my savior. Now that I’ve started writing fiction again, it’s the only thing that’s kept me from a critique-induced coronary. I’m actually verging on the Dance of Joy as I type these words.

In the virtual world, there are no confusing little marks, pen scratches or illegible comments scrawled between lines. Instead, there are prettily packaged thought bubbles left by your critique partners. To learn more about these helpful little things you can turn to my critter, affectionately known as Attila because, as he says, he “can squeeze blood from a stone.” He recently posted a technical opus on tools for critiquing in the digital age at Divining the Words.

The benefits of this tech savvy method of critiquing are endless. The changes made by your critic are tracked and can be accepted or denied. Line-by-line critiquing is made easy with the comment function. But the biggest perk is the simplest.


That’s the number one advantage. Being able to read and understand the comments and suggestions in your critiques is essential. It removes the confusion created by handwritten edits. You never have to sit and wonder, “What does that even mean?” The time you’d normally spend deciphering all those red pen scribbles can been used for edits and polishing.

Coherently arranged bubbles in the margin full of easily comprehended suggestions aren’t nearly as intimidating as ancient editing glyphs you need a decoder ring to decipher. (I haven’t eaten nearly enough boxes of cereal.)

Maybe it’s the organization. The fact the carnage is neatly arranged at the side of the page as opposed to smeared bloody across it. Serial murder versus random homicide. It’s still gruesome, but at least you know what to expect.

I’m sure right now you’re thinking I’m just another fluffy bunny who can’t take a hit. One who wants all her critiques to say “You are such an amazing writer. I mean out of this world. I can’t believe you aren’t published!” But that’s not true.

I’m against needless bloodshed. I’m all for brutal honesty. The catch is that the criticism has to be constructive and senseless violence is anything but.

Yes, I want my critique partners to rip my work apart. I invite them to reach into the belly of my baby and play with its viscera, to rearrange its organs. That’s the way it should be with a WIP, but, when they’re done, I want them to help me put my baby back together.

War-torn baby that it is it looks better without blood all over it.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Thursday Tangent: High school still sucks.

Today’s Lesson: Going back to high school, even when it's fictitious, isn’t easy.

Like everyone else on earth who wasn’t the star quarterback or part of the prom court, I ran from high school after the graduation caps hit the ground. In fact, there’s very little evidence that I was ever in high school at all.

Unlike the popular crowd, I don’t remember the four years I spent in a campus-style hell staring out windows and willing days to pass fondly. I don’t sit around and reminisce or wish I’d been more of a joiner. With the help of some other disaffected youths I survived and that was all that mattered.

So who knew that less than 12 months away from my 10-year reunion I’d be wishing I’d paid more attention? Certainly not me.

Time was finally erasing all thoughts of those unhallowed halls but then I decided to start writing a book. It seemed like a brilliant plan before I realized that I would have to dredge up memories of classes and teachers and cliques and skuzzy lunch lines. I wanted nothing to do with it when I was there, but I forced myself to go back.

I found a happy safe place in my office then, as some sort of odd self-therapy session, I immersed myself in high school. Sights, smells, and sounds came flooding back to me and with each one I grimaced, not wanting to relive the period in my life where I was bitter and resentful, but too quiet and easily hurt to actually have an opinion.

However, because I avoided the entire experience as much as possible my reference library on the subject is sorely lacking. Even electro-shock couldn’t jumpstart this girl’s memory on this particular topic. So, in my infinite wisdom, where did I turn for inspiration?

Veronica Mars.

I’m not ashamed to say that I loved this show when it was on TV. It’s full of angst and quips and is thick with the high school atmosphere. It even has yellow lockers, and a handful of you out there know that the ones in my high school, in my head, were supposed to be red, but they’re not. They’re yellow. It had nothing to do with the show. The damned things just wanted to be yellow.

My stubborn lockers aside, what I’m saying is that I have such intentional limited recollection of my high school career that I’m looking to Veronica in an effort to create one for my characters. That’s because I spent the majority high school making case studies out of dumb jocks, emo kids, sorostitutes in training and the rest of the masses. Even then I was a reporter embedded, observing and categorizing, but always objective.

I never realized how emotionally removed I was from the experience until I had to write about it.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Anxiety: Combating the Keyboard

Every time I sit down in front of a keyboard I freeze. My entire body tenses and I find myself in a Mexican standoff with the tiny blinking cursor on my screen.

Small and unassuming as that cursor might be, it usually wins the initial staring contest. My eyes fall to the familiar rows of keys. I tap my fingers atop them lightly; never hard enough to make a letter, much less a word, appear on the blank page before me.

It’s always the same. Work or home, it doesn’t matter. I sit there swiveling in my chair, futzing with things on my desk, reading e-mail or finding some other menial task to bide my time until I get up the gumption to face that cursor.

The panic that comes over me when I sit down in front of my computer has nothing to do with writing. Writing is something I do well. It would make sense if it were fear of the act of writing. Fear of being made vulnerable by offering your words to the world. Fear of feeling ill-equipped to put those words on the page. But that’s not what it is at all.

I write daily. My articles are torn apart by questioning editors. Sometimes they get approved to go to press and other times I labor over a rewrite. Rewriting is never as hard as starting from scratch.

That’s the origin of the fear. Starting something new is terrifying. Sure, it sends a little thrill up your spine that makes you shiver with anticipation. You think of all the things the infant project you’re just beginning could become. Minutes, hours, days are wasted planning its path; its future. Alas, ambition without action is procrastination.

Ghosts of failures past are always lurking, poised to remind you that the threat of failure remains. Suddenly you realize that your bright idea could meet with rejection. It could fail.

Questions bubble up to the surface. Why are you writing this? Is it a good story? Has it been done before? If it has, what’s your fresh new take? What’s the hook? Two dozen or more questions into your internal interrogation and you start to wonder if you even know what you’re writing about anymore.

In spite of all that, I keep writing. I find if I tap those keys long enough and don’t let the fear of striking the wrong one overwhelm me that the words always find their way out. They trickle slowly like water from an ancient spigot. Each word builds confidence. Each phrase erases self-doubt.

Perseverance is the key. Inspiration isn’t automatic.

The cursor would blink all day if I let it. It’s up to me to commit, press a key and take control of the situation. The product may turn out to be craptastic, and the delete key and I will probably become very close over the next few thousand words, but in typing I conquer my keyboard anxiety.

It’s a vicious circle I struggle with everyday, through every article or chapter. I think every writer struggles with some form of keyboard anxiety, where it stems from really doesn’t matter. What’s important is that you don’t wait on inspiration. You keep your butt in the chair and your fingers on the keys and drag inspiration to you kicking and screaming.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Who are you Sadie Thomas?

Do you ever wonder what happens to your characters when you leave them alone at night?

Do they just power down or fall into stand-by mode until tomorrow or whenever you return to them? Maybe it’s more like when the director calls off the action on a movie set. They drop their character personas and demand a bottle of Evian as they wait for the next take. I’m not really sure. All I know is that they haunt me like some weird form of schizophrenia.

Every one but my leading lady… I need a Behind the Scenes pass into her life because she’s not speaking to me yet.

I have to think that means I don’t like her. She doesn’t stick with me when I leave the keyboard. Sure, she pops into my brain in concert with others, as part of a scene or when I know I need her for something, but she’s just taking up space. Unlike the rest of them, I don’t see her or things she would do in my daily life and she certainly doesn’t whisper to me or invade my dreams.

I want her to be a well-rounded person. Really, I do. I just don’t know what she needs. Do I need a better picture of her in my head? Does she need more personality? Perhaps she’s fine and her time simply hasn’t come yet. In other words, the story hasn’t progressed enough for her to be mature.

I know she’s the right girl for the job. She has been from the start, but she’s really got me perplexed. She’s like the mystery guest on a game show who’s still only a silhouette behind a screen. The figure is opaque and the details haven’t emerged.

The worst part is that it has spurred a nagging feeling in my stomach. It’s made me feel like a neglectful parent, one that would rather have an affair with another book at night then get to know her own faceless introverted daughter. That’s because I’ve known my other characters intimately since we all began this journey together, even before they had names.

Why don’t I know who Sadie Thomas is yet?