Wednesday, June 29, 2011

How do you get to Carnegie Hall?

"Practice!" is of course the correct answer to this oft-repeated phrase. For those who might not know, Carnegie Hall is one of the two most well-known concert halls in the entire city of New York. It's also ridiculously hard to get on stage there, and you need to practice your ever-living bum off to get there. Radio City Music Hall is equally as well-known, but that's more for the Rockettes than anything.

As some of you may know, I've gone gung-ho lately with freelance journalism. Take a look at, and you'll see the 40+ feature articles and op-eds that populate the website over there as examples of my non-fiction writing. And now my shameless plug is over and done with, I can continue with my main topic for today.


In freelance journalism, as with fiction, you become better at all aspects the more you practice. From composition to research to query letters (oh yes there are query letters in freelancing), the more you practice the better you get at all aspects of the process.

I've written more query letters in the past month than I think I ever did for my novels. That and I'm actually sending all of them out to assigning editors along with clips of stories I'd written previously. As I write more and more of these pitches, I find myself slipping into a bit of a groove with determining the my topics and figuring out how best to describe the idea to an editor with enough force to have them pay attention.

I'm currently working on a spec piece for The Boston Globe requested on Salem, Mass. as a result of a query. My feature on the railroads of Greater Portland and Mid Coast Maine will run in the Portland Press Herald on July 24. That was assigned on the strength of my query.

Some queries were rejected because of various reasons unrelated to my execution. The publication already ran a similar story, it doesn't fit the editorial mission, they weren't planning this particular story this year ... the list is endless.

However, my rather rambling point is that the "groove" I mentioned has resulted in me being able to write targeted query letters in a shorter amount of time than it took me before. This newfound affinity at summarizing ideas into a short letter for consumption can only help in the long run; first it's 1,500-word feature articles, then I can do the same for novellas and short fiction, and finally the dreaded novel query letter.

What do you find you're getting better at with practice?

Monday, June 27, 2011

This Vessel of Ink is Empty

Most of the time, I write because there is a story in my head that won't let me go. It's like a puzzle, to put it down on paper and get all the pieces in the right place so you can sit back at the end and see the beautiful thing you've created. But it's also almost like compulsory vomit-- I just can't help myself. The story won't let me stop thinking about it, so I write it. That's nice, but not always pleasant. And there's a lot of pressure there.

As most of you know (because you were reading the Archives when it was happening), I got married last year. And during the summer leading up to my wedding, I was working full-time, volunteering at three different places, and generally being an all-around busy person. So I didn't write. Well, sort of. I wrote, but not a lot. And the book that I was working on still needs a lot of work before I can feel comfortable calling it done.

But that was okay, because I was pretty busy, and it was a totally fun project.

Right now, I'm not particularly busy, but I'm still not writing. Mostly because I finished a HUGE, labor-intensive project not too long ago, and am waiting for beta feedback on it. But also partly because I'm just feeling... empty.

That's not to say I don't have projects I could work on. There's the unfinished one from last year that I owe a lot of people to finish. I have ideas for at least two non-fiction books. And another unfinished commercial fiction that's been tickling me lately. And I wrote the first eleven pages of a new fantasy YA a few weeks ago.

But nothing's grabbing me right now. Nothing is grabbing me and not letting go. And that's the way I like to write-- grabbed by my story. Otherwise, it's just work.

I'm not afraid of work. I'm just not motivated to do it right now.

And you know what? It's kind of nice. I'm a little bored most evenings, sure, but I am letting myself do other things besides write. Like pay attention to my husband, and freak out my bunny by opening her cage door. (Seriously. She freaks. It's hilarious. But in a good way). I can go have nice long training sessions with my horse, and study for work. I can maybe even get to work on our second bathroom re-model.


No pressure.

But I know it's just a matter of time before something grabs me. Something powerful, and wonderful, and strong. And off I will go again.

In the meantime, though, I'm going to focus on the book I should be focusing on. And continue being an evil bunny mother.

Sometimes it's nice to NOT be writing. But I still wouldn't trade it for the world.

What do you do with yourself when you're empty?

Friday, June 24, 2011

In a world...where I ask a lot of questions...

So...let's talk book trailers. Fess up, you guys know you've imagined one for your WIP, am I right? (Or is that just me?) Author and friend Anna Staniszewski has recently devoted her week of blog posts to making a book trailer and instead of rehashing her well thought out points, I'm going to direct you there:

The Making of a Book Trailer - 1
The Making of a Book Trailer - 2
The Book Trailer

(full disclosure: I did the art for Anna's trailer this week, which is why the topic's been on my mind!)

But tell me, you awesome Alliteratis...what are book trailers to you? Have you purchased a book because you were impressed with the trailer...or vice versa? Do you seek out book trailers, avoid them, or just have book trailers thrust upon you? Are there any that you've seen lately that have been particularly successful? The floor is yours! (but we have to be off it by 6, there's a wedding later)

And just because it's Friday (I want this guy for my voiceover):

Monday, June 20, 2011

Przewalski's Horses and Tiger Cubs and Celebrities, Oh My

Today I started training at work for summer camp. On top of everything else they've offered me, one of the supervisors asked a few weeks ago if I would be interested in teaching summer camp. My response?


And today-- oh, today-- made me the happiest zoo educator EVER. Why? Because I, as an instructor for summer camp, get to take my kids behind the scenes to all these cool animal areas.

Today we visited our Przewalski's horses, and I had a major fangirl moment. See, I'm, uh, kind of a horse person. And I LOVE the Przewalski's horses. They are endangered, so my facility has been trying to breed them. They are the last truly wild horse, and are the last living ancestor of the domestic horse.

My first impression? They're short. Like, good pony size. They came about up to my ribcage. We only got to see them through a fence because they ARE wild, after all. But we got to toss some carrots over the fence. And I got to take a couple really cool pictures, which made me very happy.

This is a Przewalski's horse, just in case you didn't know. Note the mohawk mane. These guys are HARD CORE.

Later, we went to our elephant exhibit, and while there, we saw a celebrity! I am NOT TMZ so I won't be disclosing WHO it was. Suffice to say they are from a very popular and long-running primetime drama show. It was kind of random, as usually the celebrities that visit us come on private tours to have some measure of protection from the public. But not this one. They were just wandering around with their family.

And then we got to go to visit our tigers. Right now, we have 8-month-old cubs. They're pretty big already, about the size of a german shepherd, but still PRETTY DARN CUTE. We got up close, about two feet away, with the cub's face pressed into the chain link from the other side. It was ADORABLE. It took ALL OF MY WILLPOWER not to reach out and pet the tiger. I could live with nine fingers. But it probably wouldn't have been worth getting fired over. So there's that.

So yeah. That was my day. And you want to know the best part? I get to do it again and again and again-- and I'LL be giving the tours the next time. With my camp kids. AMAZING.

Oh, and there are also two more days of this! I think tomorrow we will go visit the back area of our lions.

This post is because I want to share the amazingness of my job with you guys, since you were all so supportive when I got it in the first place. And because I am full to bursting with excitement that I actually get to work there and do these cool things. And I think that's worthy of a blog post, don't you?

*Note: Any and all RANDOM word capitalizations in this post are due to my current level of excitement. Regular, less-capitalized-blogging should resume next week. Maybe.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Are you a Cranky Pantser or an Evil Plotter?

So I love to travel. I know it's a given for most people, like saying "I hate needles" or "chocolate is magical" but...I really do! When it's just me or me and my dear hubby, we could have no plans at all and have the grandest of times. No itinerary, schedule or tickets needed. I'm a fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants kind of...uh...flyer. Well, you know what I mean.

But I don't "pants" everything. I DON'T PANTS WRITING. I can't! I've tried and I can't. In fact, I started a new story a few weeks ago. Something fun and light(ish), no pressure or revising just yet, just that heady exhilaration of creating a new world, looking through baby name books for new characters and writing every errant thought down just in case it "fit" into the plot somehow. That's right...I figured I'd pants the while darn thing.

This time I CONSCIOUSLY put away my Scrivener and my outlining tools, my chapter by chapter drawings and my (literal) character sketches. I said to myself, "Maybe plotting takes the fun out of it. Maybe pantsing this thing will get it out in 17 days like Elana Johnson's POSSESSION or one of Natalie Whipple's infamous three week novels. I can do this. I CAN JUST WRITE." Grass is always greener, am I right?

But I got one chapter! Then another, then...nothing. Nothing whatsoever. I scraped and thought, plead with the characters and scrabbled for the setting but NOTHING. Not even the handsome hero was giving me anything (and he was the one chatting me up from the beginning!)

So I gave in. I sketched out my heroine and hero, drew the apartment, the school, the missile silos. I outlined chapter by chapter what was happening, labeling Act One, Two and Three, giving each scene a single word emotion (Fear! Dedication! Frustration! Triumph! Hunger! wait, that last one was just me...) Basically, the deepest form of OCD outlining that you can do without actually writing the dumb book.

And my brain heaved a sigh of relief. I gave it a few days to sink in...and then began to write again, literary itinerary in hand.

I've seen the other side, ladies and gents, and I'm happy to return to set up camp in PLOTTER territory. But what about you guys? Have you crossed enemy lines? Find it agreeable or scary? Were you once a plotter turned pantser or vice versa? What made you switch? Of course both are equally effective but...ISN'T PLOTTING BETTER THAN PANTSING? COME WITH ME! FOREGO YOUR PANTS FOREVER!

Uh, maybe I should phrase that differently...

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Yes I'm weird, but so are you (probably)

"You're so weird."

That's one of the most common things Her Highness the Missus says to me around the house. Typically when I've come up with something that makes my darling (some would say long-suffering) wife shake her head at me. The fact that this occurs almost daily isn't ignored, and it shouldn't really come as any surprise to someone who's spoken with me for more than 20 minutes. Yes, I've got some weirdness in me -- however I'm of the opinion that some of the best writers are highly weird people.

We're weird because we see the world differently than a lot of other people. Rather than look at a person and make snap judgements on their socioeconomic class, education level, or whether they're someone we want to get to know or not, we start making up stories about why their hair is frazzled or why they wore that particular blue shirt today.

Writers are always thinking in terms of telling stories. It doesn't matter whether you're a journalist, a critic, a filmmaker, a novelist, or a playwright -- story is the first thing that pops into your head. What's that person's story? What's this place's story? Where can this place fit in my novel?

It's a difference in worldview, like I said, but it's also a difference in what's important to us. Isaac Asimov wrote in Gold: The Final Science Fiction Collection, "What would you rather have? Asimov the prolific writer, or Asimov, the fashion plate? I warn you. You can't have them both. (pg 288)" This is an important truism, and one that I say explains why I never cared about the clothes I wore until I met HHTM. Yes, much of my current wardrobe has been purchased under her influence. It's easier to give up that particular battle.

But anyway, my lack of fashion sense isn't really the point here. My point is that writers are a distinct breed of people who are able to look at someone and decide there's a story there. What makes a writer especially different is that they make the decision to write those words down so other people can enjoy the world that the writer sees.

And that's why we're weird.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Hang the Rules!!! .... Mostly

Some of you, who have been following us/me for a while, probably know that I am not a big fan of most of the so-called "writing rules" that float around out there, in blogs and in books on writing fiction. "Don't use adverbs." "Don't use -ing verbs." And so forth.

I've blogged about this before, though I find myself unable to find said blog posts at the moment. Basically, my philosophy when it comes to writing is this: learn the "rules" so that you can learn how and when to break them. But don't get hung up on following them.

Until now, I haven't really had a problem with my technical stuff, like grammar. Betas have always commented how strong I am in that area, and I assumed it was something that would always stick with me.

Until now.

My first beta, Keri, just gave me back my most recent manuscript. She is my best friend and has read EVERYTHING I've ever written (though a few of my other crit group buddies have also had that honor/burden). Recently, she took up writing, too. And one of the first things I did when I heard that she was doing this was give her all of my "rules" books. Why? Because they *do* help, when you're first starting out writing your first novel. It's nice to keep those rules inside your head. Besides, they have good pointers in them about overall story arcs and as such, I figured they would be supremely helpful to her.

Now, I won't say I can claim this is the reason for what I'm about to say, because she has always been a strong editor/ writer/ reader. But as we sat there going through my manuscript, one of the first things she said to me, and brought up throughout, was my sentence structure. And as I'm going through her copy of the MS with her notes all over it, I'm blushing in embarrassment. Never have I had someone LINE EDIT my work so deeply. Usually, I catch that stuff in my many rounds of revisions.

This manuscript sounded fine the first 30 times I read it through. It's this 31st time, with the notes from my friend, that make me cringe and want to just chuck the whole thing out of the window. Page after page, I can't believe I actually handed this off to someone. AND FOUR OTHER PEOPLE HAVE IT LIKE THIS.

My first inclination, out of embarrassment, was to blame it on something else. It's in past tense, I want to say. I haven't written in past tense since my first book. It's historical. I haven't ever tried something so far out of my comfort zone before. But those are all excuses.

The fact is, the real reason this happened, is because I forgot The Rules. Sure, I know them. But I forgot to use them. And for this reason, among many others, it's awesome that my friend Keri is just starting to write, and has The Rules fresh in her head. She can call me on my crap and help me out. Even if I am totally humiliated that she had to fix so much, and that other people are reading it in its current craptacular state. Sigh.

Have you ever forgotten The Rules?

Friday, June 10, 2011

Sick note

Guys, it's been a rough week for the Alliteratus. I'm calling in a sick day today, too. Just got back from traveling and the brain is not working as it should.

Writing is the furthest thing from my mind at the moment. Which is okay, right? We all need a moment to come up for air and look around at what the rest of the world is doing. Wait, you CAN look at baby name books without getting a million ideas for characters? You can travel without composing the next blog in your head? You can write an email without worrying about the arc of the narrative? Interesting way of working, rest of the world.

How does the mindset of writing affect the rest of your world? And what do you do to take a breath? I'll bet you put birds on things. (I know I do.)

Pardon if you've seen this on the other nine billion social media networks on which I've shared it.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Knee-deep in eggs

A few weeks ago, I did something very stupid.

I signed up for the employee art fair at my new job.

This art fair is awesome, because the proceeds will go to help build a new tiger exhibit for us. It won't make NEARLY a dent in the total we need, but every dollar helps, right?

So I decided, "Hey! I'm a crafty person. I like making things. How about I make some things and try to sell them?"

That was my first mistake.

My second?

Waiting until yesterday to start working on them.

The art fair is this Friday.

So, that's what I find myself doing right now. Working on egg after egg after egg. I've got about 8 done so far out of the dozen I was shooting for having. (I just thought having a dozen eggs would be... appropriate?)

And here I am. Four eggs left. Three days to make them. And these are the biggies. The super-duper secret eggs I won't be telling anyone about because if I can't make them I don't want to be all disappointed.

So that's why this blog post is empty of anything but filler. Because, like the eggs I should be decorating right now, my mind is empty of anything but air.

If you guys don't mind, I'm going to go back to doing that now, okay?

I will try to have something more writerly for you next week. :)

Friday, June 3, 2011

A fluffy post from someone who feels SO DANG FLUFFY

It's Friday! Another long-awaited Friday at the end of a far too long of a week. My kid is down for a nap, we're going to visit Grandma and Grandpa this weekend and my husband's off in dentist navy boot camp for a week (I know, really...what is that? He said they get rubber guns. Do those shoot rubber bullets? Is he learning how to take down hippies and give them mouthwash? I don't know)...and I am done with another huge project.


As a reward, this week I get to curl up with three (3!) completed manuscripts from three (I said 3!!) amazing writer friends. Guys, I know I've said it before but you people are INCREDIBLE. We put so much work into writing---studying blogs and craft books, rewriting and beta-ing and revising and drafting and revising and revising and revising---and you know what?

IT PAYS OFF. IT PAYS OFF BIG TIME. I'm no expert, but I know what I like and I am blown away with the level of story-telling brilliance I'm seeing from my amazing friends.

Honest, I have nothing else to add to the collective world of writing themed blogs today except this: KEEP ON TRUCKING. We are doing awesome. No matter how frustrated you get with the little speed bumps on your journey to first draft, revision, submission or publication, know that you are doing GREAT. Because you know what? You're actually doing it. The step from wanting to do something and actually doing it is a very large step indeed.

So be comforted in the fact that whereever you are in the journey of writing, you're ON THE JOURNEY. Take some time to pat yourself on the back. Give yourself a daily affirmation, give yourself an Oreo or go treat yourself to a really nice book/dress/suit/home entertainment system/puppy/small country. (And if you do the country thing, invite me.)

Yeah. You guys are awesome. Any big writing/reading plans for the weekend? Tell me truly in the comments: just how awesome are you? (Answer should not vary greatly from "the most awesome")

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

REPOST: Details, Details, Details

This post originally appeared March 31, 2010.

So I've talked about research and its importance to crafting a vibrant story -- you don't want to make a faux paus like having a fictional doctor prescribe the wrong medication (unless that's part of your plot), for example. Similarly, you don't want to give knowledge to a 17th century natural philosopher that wasn't discovered until well into the 20th century. More important than this, though, is knowing which information to include and which to leave out.

In this manner, one rule and one rule only needs to be considered: What is important to your plot?

You can have books upon books of research on 17th century science or 19th century medicine (I'm almost certain such things exist), but if it's not germane to your story then there's little to no point in including it anywhere within your text. An example from my own writing -- one main character started his life on a farm. I show little to no aspects of farm life in the story, except in the very beginning of the story where he's discovering certain things about himself while doing the farm work. I'm not going to do a lot of research on the proper operation of a Renaissance-era family farm when the farming section of the book is perhaps fifteen to twenty pages out of more than 200. There's no point to communicating that much detail when it doesn't influence the plot.

Similarly, the steam-engine science and biogenetics of my current WiP are at or slightly above basic understanding. That's all the research I need to include in order to craft a vibrant world in the story. I could go into much more detail, and perhaps might now that I think about it, but one of the things I know I'll have to remember is not including details for their own sake. If it's relevant to the plot, then it's included. Otherwise it's left on the proverbial cutting room floor.

What about your own WiPs? What is the most interesting piece of research you've done that wasn't important enough to include in your story?