Thursday, October 27, 2011

Blogging is not a waste of time

I do worry sometimes that my time online is not productive.

I think we should be wise how much time we spend online, especially if it has the potential to interrupt real-world relationships.

And for fiction writers, I think we should write first and blog later.

But in the end, blogging gives back more in fun, inspiration, help, camaraderie, and motivation than it takes in terms of time.

Without an online community of writers, I wouldn't have found out about NaNoWriMo a few years ago. I've never seen it mentioned yet off-line, even though it's huge, with hundreds of thousands of people participating.

I've read (and applied) more helpful advice from blogs of writing professionals and amateurs in a year than I got from reading paper publications-that-shall-not-be named for many, many years. Primarily because you can immediately respond and get responses; it's not a one-way street. That makes it more meaningful, more valuable. Not sure exactly about the economics behind that, but I believe its true.

Other bloggers share their creativity and it is so cool how it sparks creativity in me, too. How we all bounce ideas and tips and blogfests and good reads and our bad days and good days around and off each other and it ends up being more than the sum of its parts.

Thank you Sophia Richardson for mentioning your idea of 30 pitches in 30 days and then following through with lots of great tips and experiences and, of course, pitches.

Thank you Katherine Owens for sharing that Edittorrent post (yes, this one here) and its ticking clock that sparked a HUGE flood of crazy-cool ideas for the NaNoWriMo outline I'm working on right now.

Thank you T.L. Conway for inviting me to write my VERY FIRST guest post in honor of NaNoWriMo - it's not 'til next week but check out the other great guests at her blog this week and next for the "Write What You NaNo" Blog Party.

Thank you Susan Kaye Quinn for getting me to think about #keepingOpenMinds (yippee! - come back for my #keepingOpenMinds post next Tuesday, November 1st!)

T.Y. Lisa Gail Green for paranormal analogies that make me bust my gut laughing and keep me taking notes at the same time.

Thx Saumya Dave for sharing thoughts and quotes and lessons learned and Audrey Hepburn pictures.

And Thank you Stina Lindenblatt for cool links and Old Kitty for Charlie pictures and Janet Johnson for all the awesome license plates and I could go on and on and on. And thank you kind readers for coming back to visit me and leave comments. I'm always amazed.

Not quite sure what prompted all the gushing. Really, all I meant to do was share one last pitch I came up with before I end the 30 pitches in 30 days blogfest (a few days early, I'm afraid) so I can focus all brain cells fiercely on last minute prep for NaNoWriMo. (Less than a week away!)

This last pitch was inspired by a Stuart Little first reader my seven-year-old daughter picked out, with a library owl in it. A library owl! Just go and combine two of my favorite things: libraries and talking animals! Put them together and presto: happiness and inspiration. And just when I was feeling a little guilty borrowing someone else's published idea to springboard my own imagination, here's a great post from Sophia Richardson that addresses just this very issue, pretty much guilt-free. 

So here's my last pitch, way too wordy, I know, but hey - it's a work in progress.
The library has its owl, the post office its possum, and the gym its very in-shape panther, but school's about to start and its guardian fox is missing. 12 yr old book worm Branden is sure one of his four-legged friends could fill in, but the pixies in the art room and the bullies on the playground have other ideas.

Back to gushing about blogging. I missed the Pay it Forward blogfest last week, but I guess the spirit of it reached me just the same. Please tell me some of your favorite blogs that keep you coming back for tips, inspiration, fun or friends. I'd love to visit them.

Friday, October 21, 2011

The third character changes everything

I'm continuing to write pitches (one sentence loglines) for Sophia Richardson's 30 pitches in 30 days fest and discovering more pithy pitchy things and a cool character-driven plot tip. 

Last week I figured out that my ideas, if they weren't related to something I was excited about, couldn't evolve into a real pitch. They just sorta stayed in half-pitch limbo land (just like that brief and humiliating moment when my gym teacher wanted to see if I could pitch a ball).

So here's an example of a great pitch, from the movie Mrs. Doubtfire:

Crushed by a court order allowing only weekly visitation, irresponsible dad Daniel disguises himself as a nanny to spend more time with his kids. 
(Netflix is a great source of movie pitches like this one, btw. Also, google "Publishers Weekly previews" for some great one-line descriptions). 

Here's what my half-pitches were coming out like:
An impulsive girl takes on a dare to sign up for missionary boot camp and...


Anyhoo.... what I've learned this week in building my pitches was actually from a random comment a very helpful soul named William Greeley left on this StoryFix post:
Here is a plotting method that I got from Bernard Grebanier’s “Playwriting.” It does not work for everyone:

A story is about the relationship between two characters, the central character and a second character. The turning point is an action the central character takes on a third character that changes his relationship with the second character.

For instance... In “Romeo and Juliet”, when Romeo kills Tybalt, his relationship with Juliet is doomed.

Eureka! The third character changes everything.

So here is one pitch attempt I came up with this week when I played around with adding a third character:

When a prodigal daughter returns to her family, her bitter older sister tries to ruin her chances of rebuilding her life and complicates a budding romance with a mutual childhood friend. 

Ye-ah. Still needs some work. Which leads me to Sophia Richardson's pitch check-in post today, and how "only lazy thinkers have bad ideas. Everyone else just has ideas that haven't been played with enough."

She also has more pitchfest-related posts, one with great a genre-flipping idea and another one that points out that a better pitch is one where your character is taking an action instead of just having things happen to him/her.

Katherine Owens also checks into today with a pitch and clues about where she gets her ideas, and why letting ideas cook for a while is important. 

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

One secret of successful Middle Grade fiction

Okay, it's not a secret. But I'm guessing it's not widely known. Because I'm such an expert on MG and all (not really) and I've been reviewing books/ reading reviews /reading MG/YA blogs for just barely a year and a half. But I haven't seen anyone mention this juicy little tidbit yet.

But now I'm going to be evil and insert a side note in here before spilling the juice. Oh sure, go ahead and scroll down, I'd do the same thing, but my evil insert is that I am also finally posting my first #WS4U progress report.

Sheri Larsen started the Writers Support For You group MONTHS ago with Tuesday check-ins, but y'all don't want to hear my complicated story of revision burn-out. I have a new project I'm outlining.  I will start the first draft of "Seeing Through Dreams" (update: title changed to Star Tripped) in November for NaNoWriMo, but in the meantime, I've been steadily accumulating notes, plot points, character inner conflicts, settings, and worms.

Yup, worms. Not earthworms. Another type altogether. Sort of my own very odd mythical creature invention. I promise they are not slimy.

But anyway, now that I've totally weirded you out, back to my awesome MG discovery.

So I just finished reading Holes, by Louis Sachar. Which I believe every person on the PLANET should read. Because it's just that great. (And, oh, I just realized, Holes kind of goes along with my worms idea. Worm holes.) (Sorry, I'll shut up about the worms now).
Now there are many things about Holes that are great. I could write a whole series of posts on the greatness of this book. But what I am focusing on here is what I also noticed in two other great MG books I've read recently, too:

From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs Basil E. Frankweiler, by E.L. Konigsberg.

The Mysterious Benedict Society,  by Trenton Lee Stuart.

What do all three great books have in common? The juicy "secret" (sort of) I discovered?

It's a variation of the plant and payoff technique that Laura Pauling clued me into a while back. Through out these stories, the author "plants" various amusing events, items, and odd but unrelated facts.

The sneakers in Holes, the peach sploosh, the onions, the yellow-spotted lizards, and even a notebook fished out of a toilet - none of these have anything to do with each other. Until the end.

And it's so cool how all the "plants" add up to a multi-faceted pay-off, like puzzle pieces suddenly fitting together. (Wow, I just outdid myself with that analogy there. Sooooo original.)

The other two books I mentioned also have delicious plant/pay-off treats. And you can't tell, until the end, what is actually a genuine "plant" versus a red-herring.

I'm sure it's not a technique limited to just MG, it's probably been adapted from the mystery genre, but there is definitely a fun MG twist to the plants and pay-off that these three books excel at (you see it a bit in the Harry Potter books, too, but not as fully realized).

I'm curious why I haven't seen this technique in the 68 YA books in my Goodreads "read" list. Yes, there are individual "plants" in YA (Across the Universe, by Beth Revis, is one I can think of right away) but nothing like this smorgasbord of plants that all tie together for a huge pay-off at the end in Holes.

Please share if you've encountered a book (any age range or genre) that has this great plant/pay-off technique! I'd love to find some more to read - they're addictive!

Friday, October 14, 2011

The Ranch Next Door

I'm excited to host Elisabeth Foley here today, a blogging friend I met last year who was brave enough to answer my interview questions! 

She's just published a collection of short stories titled The Ranch Next Door. Westerns - yay! I'm a westerner! (well, transplanted myself to Wyoming from New York 16 years ago, that counts doesn't it?) I have ranches next door to me, too - so much fun! (unless loose cattle and wild antelope block the road when I'm running late to work). 

Elisabeth is giving away an e-version of the Ranch Next Door to a randomly-selected commenter on this post, so please share your thoughts. On to the interview (more details about the collection below).

What is your favorite word?

Indeed. Used as a surprised or thoughtful ejaculation, this word has become a staple of my family’s vocabulary since we became acquainted with one of our favorite BBC miniseries, Charles Dickens’ Martin Chuzzlewit. I love hearing it.

(Margo here - Indeed, Chuzzlewit is pretty cool word (name) too!)

What is your least favorite word?

Constructive. As a child, I always hated being dismissed with the sensible order, “Go find something constructive to do.” Now I’m just as likely to say the same thing to my younger siblings.

What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally?

You know, I’m afraid when I get on a roll creatively, I’m too busy taking advantage of the fact to stop and think about what started it. Perhaps I should one day, so I can take advantage of that!

I’ve always been stirred emotionally by the beauty of nature. An unexpectedly beautiful view from a hill, the effect of sunlight through the trees, autumn color—well, I’m not too good at capturing in words the feeling it gives me. As L.M. Montgomery put it very simply in Anne of Green Gables, “It gave me a thrill and I just said, “Thank you for it, God.’ ”

If you were given a chance to travel back in time, what year or place would you go?

Actually, I think I’d pick the 1940s. Although I love writing about the later 1800s, I think I’d feel more at home in the 1940sI love the fashions, the music, the small-town America and even some of the glamorous big-city life depicted in classic films from that era.

Describe your book in seven words or less:

Short stories, surprised sheriffs, appearances and disappearances.

Please share with us about your favorite book and fictional crush to date?

Favorite book? One favorite book? Oh, all right. Westward Ho! by Charles Kingsley—historical novel of English explorers in the Elizabethan era. I’d say this is a book that transcends my usual tastes, because I’m not particularly interested in that period of history, but the book is just so tremendously entertaining that I always go back to it every once in a while.

Fictional crush? I’m too shy to answer that.

If you could be any character in fiction, who would you be?

Hmmm, I don’t know. Why not Anne of Green Gables? I’ve always wanted to live on a farm like that.

If Hollywood made a movie about your life, whom would you like to see play the lead role as you?

Well, the only Hollywood I know anything about is old Hollywood. Perhaps Deanna Durbin. Lots of music and happy endings guaranteed.
(Margo here - had to include a picture of Deanna Durbin! I was curious)

How would you describe yourself in seven words?

Introvert, optimistic, absent-minded, incorrigibly imaginative, secretly romantic.

Thank you Elisabeth - I loved the incorrigibly imaginative and secretly romantic! Here's a little more about her collection:

The Ranch Next Door (available as an e-book from Amazon and Smashwords)
Suspense, humor and a touch of romance await in seven short stories of the American West. In the title story, "The Ranch Next Door," a cattleman's young son dreads breaking the news to his family that he has fallen in love with the daughter of a neighboring sheep rancher despite an ancient feud between the two families. In "Cross My Heart," a boy is torn between betraying his conscience or a fugitive friend, and in "Delayed Deposit," five people are taken hostage during a bank robbery that turns into a tense standoff. The collection also includes the award-winning "Disturbing the Peace," honorable mention in the 2010 Rope and Wire short story competition. These seven stories total approximately 40,330 words or 161 book pages.

Just so y'all know, cattle ranchers and sheep ranchers are sworn enemies on the range, and Elisabeth gives us a tale of starcrossed lovers within this conflict. Love it! So give us some comments on ranches, starcrossed lovers, Anne of Green Gables, beauties of the big screen in the black and white days, or anything else Elisabeth inspires in you today! I'll announce the winner of the Ranch Next Door early next week.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Idea (without passion) = dud

Those people who are idea factories? Who come up with so many cool ideas they have to play eny-meenie-miny-mo to pick which to work on next? Those people frustrate me. One of them is a close friend of mine. (She's also a writer). I love her. I admire her. I admire her ideas, but I also want to strangle her when she starts yet another conversation with that dreaded "Oh, I had a great idea last night! Let me tell you about it." (And really, they are great ideas. She amazes me).

See, I have come up with exactly 4.5 good story ideas in my life (add a few more fractions if you count short story ideas). I get a lot of wonderful ideas to add to my 4.5 stories or to put a nice twist into an existing plot, but not anything original enough to boost that basic number up to 5.5. (Or even just 5.0).

But I also believe that our brains have an "idea muscle" and if we exercise it, amazing things can happen. When I'm brainstorming to flesh out one of my 4.5 story ideas, or to fix a plot hole, I start working this muscle with lots of "what if" questions, and soon cool things start to happen.

But that's with an existing plot idea to start with. What if you have to start from scratch?

What if, say, you are so fed up with your idea-less self that you decide to join a friend (like Sophia Richardson) in something crazy cool like a challenge to come up with 30 loglines/pitches in 30 days?

I spent the first six days of said 30 days scratching my head. Even with some great idea-catching tools that Sophia provided  (here's three of them)....

30 Pitches Pitstop #1 (some great tips here)
This is How I Do It (her process for evolving ideas into a pitch)
What's in a Pitch (the basic pitch components)

...I still came up with... zilch.  Experiences from my life? Booorrring. The only one worth exploring, in my opinion, I had already used in plot idea #3 out of 4.5.

Newspaper/magazine articles? Blech. Lots of ideas, but not enough spark to get them to that next evolutionary stage, the logline. Also known as the pitch. A character in conflict with consequences, in one to two sentences.

It finally occurred to me: ideas without passion were duds. The missing crucial element was passion.

What am I passionate about? (besides my family and horses. Oh, please not another kid/horse story).

Well, my own blog sidebar convienently reminded me: I love history, faith, maps and mythical creatures.

I started thinking about some of my favorite moments in history (ones hopefully not written about already). Ideas started popping like popcorn. Not very original ones, but at least the ol' idea muscle was flexing a little. Great stories of faith, ditto.

With a germ of an idea,
even if it's not very original,
if it's about something that EXCITES you,
it is only a matter of time
before you figure out
how to put a new spin on it.

Maps - well that one stumped me for a while. I'm a geography geek with maps plastered all over the walls of my home and office - but, how to get a story from that?  Then  I read Elana Johnson's most excellent post this Monday - Mixing the Strange with Normal.

Take one normal thing, a map, and mix it with a strange thing (or, not-normal thing) like... take your pick. Time travel (a  map that takes you back in time). Or, dual personalities (a double-sided map with a dark side). Oh yeah, fun ideas really started percolating. Perk, perk - no caffeine required (well, maybe a little. And a little chocolate never hurts, either). 

Then I looked at mythical creatures. There are whole encyclopedias written about mythical creatures, which I have been known to waste countless hours at work on my own time browsing through. Information overload!

So first I made a list of my favorite creatures, then I crossed out all the common ones that everyone loves to write about: dragons, zombies, vampires, faeries, werewolves, changelings and other shapeshifters (not that I wouldn't love to write about these. But I figured I might need to barter my soul to come up with a truly original idea).

Then I added a few bizarre ones to my list, ones I bet most people haven't heard of (unless you grew up in or studied about their country of origin). I started skimming the myths and folklore on these creatures. Put a spin on this myth, change the location on that myth, a modern-retelling of another myth - ideas bubbling all over the place.

Idea high! Idea rush! Idea overdose! Oh my mythical madness, what fun.

What's your favorite idea for coming up with ideas?

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Mark Twain converts from pantser to plotter!

How come you never see plotters converting to pantsers?  Would this be an unnatural evolution?

I started out as a pantser, but did a lot more pre-plotting with novel #2 and even more with novel #3. I don't think I could go back to writing by the "seat of my pants." My life is so busy with other commitments that it's hard to justify the time to do first drafting without a plan, when I know it would result in restructuring and major re-writes.

Heads up: fantastic example from the Hunger Games coming up soon. Feel free to skip my musings on different plotting methods.

I'm still a panster, too. While I'm writing my first draft off my plot outline, suddenly a new idea will pop into my head, or my character will go off in an unexpected direction, and I go with it. That's pantsing.

But it's not a complete reversal from plotter to pantser, because before I go too far, I revisit my outline and work the new direction into the plot and my character sheets, readjusting to make sure everything still fits together.

With NaNoWriMo starting in less than a month, I'm spending October brainstorming and plotting to get ready for take off on November 1st.

Here's some pre-plotting methods I recommend:

First novel: after realizing that pantsing my novel resulted in glaring plot holes alongside way-too-complicated plot tangles, I chose the Marshall Plan for Novel Writing by Evan Marshall to outline my new, streamlined plot for a massive re-write.

Second novel, first draft: used the Marshall Plan with modifications from the Writer's Journey, by Christopher Vogler, which elaborates on the mythic structure of the hero's journey,  found behind most storytelling.

Third novel, first draft: used a combination of the two methods above, plus a beat sheet and other great tricks from Save the Cat, by Blake Synder.

So this year I am using all three methods above, plus another popular one: the Snowflake Method, developed by Randy Ingermanson at

These methods are actually pretty easy to combine because they are all based on the Three Act structure but each offers additional insights, tips and tricks.

I had to give the Snowflake Method a try because I recently read a tip from Randy Ingermanson's October newsletter that really impressed me.

You'd think folks would have run out of fodder from the Hunger Games by now - I've read soooooooooo mannnnnnnnnnnnny posts on writing technique with examples from this great book (and they've all taught great lessons). Here's yet another great lesson, thanks to Randy:

The Hunger Games is a deep and powerful story. The reason is very simple. Each of the two main characters has three values that are in conflict. Let's look at Katniss's central values:
* Nothing is more important than survival.
* Nothing is more important than my sister.
* Nothing is more important than avoiding love, because the more people you love, the more you have to lose
Each of these values is in conflict with the other two. Katniss decides early in the story that she values her sister more than her own survival. The ongoing conflict in the story comes as she feels a growing attraction to Peeta. Can she dare to return his love, when she knows with certainty that they can't both survive the arena?
Likewise, Peeta has three central values:
* Nothing is more important than survival
* Nothing is more important than protecting Katniss
*Nothing is more important than being true to who you are.
For Peeta, these values are in massive conflict.

I really believe Randy pinpointed the reason why the Hunger Games is such an emotionally gripping story. He goes into a lot more detail in his October newsletter. It's worth reading in full (actually, all of his monthly e-zines are worth reading).  But here's a great summary of it:

Look into your characters. Push them against the wall and make them fill in the sentence, "Nothing is more important than _________."
Take what they tell you and run with it. For the novelist, nothing is more important than values in conflict.
As I'm snowflaking-hero-journeying-beat-sheeting-Marshall-planning I'm also going to be brainstorming conflicting character values.

Story is characters in conflict, but powerful stories are also values in conflict.

BONUS: hey, just figured this one out my own! Identifying your character's values that are in conflict is a giant help with character development. 

Yeah, it takes me a while to see the obvious! (shaking head at myself)

Please share. Do you have a recent favorite movie or book where the main character has a conflict with values? (If you are especially brave, ask yourself this question about your own values, too. I have a HUGE conflict between two of my values. Maybe I'll share that some other time...)
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