Sunday, July 25, 2010

Does Your Writing Shine or Stink?

By J. Scott Savage

WIP Update: One week to go. I’ll either finish Demon Spawn a week from today, or be within a few thousand words. It’s one of my favorite things to have a scene I’ve held in my head for over a year finally come out on paper. It’s even better when it arrives as good—or even better—than I expected. My agent will read it over and give me his feedback in August. Then, in September, when editors are back from vacation, we will begin shopping it. Next week, I’ll share a little history of how DS came from an idea that appeared pretty much full-fledged one night almost exactly a year ago, to signing an agent, to rewriting the outline, and finally . . . well, tune in next week.

Also, about two more weeks until “The Fourth Nephite” is released. For those of you who are not aware, as well as writing national novels as J Scott Savage, I also publish novels for a couple of LDS (Mormon) publishers as Jeffrey S Savage. Graham Bradley has a great review here.

A couple of weeks ago, agent Nathan Bransford wrote a blog post about why people know they don’t have the talent to be an NBA point guard, paint a masterpiece, or play concert violin. And yet when they write a book, they are sure it is the next bestseller.

He asked why people can’t tell whether their writing is good or not.

There were several great responses, including one where a commenter suggested that the problem is that all writing looks the same. A 90,000 word manuscript looks the same whether it is written by Stephen King (assuming he ever wrote a book as short as 90,000 words) or the guy who’s never even actually read 90,000 words. That’s not a bad idea. When I look at my drawings, it’s clear I have the artistic ability of a fairly untalented eight-year-old. But all writing looks pretty much the same on the page.

If you’ve been writing for long, you’ve probably had someone ask you to look at their work. 90% of the time, they aren’t actually looking for constructive criticism. They are convinced they are amazing writers and just want you to confirm it. It’s kind of funny because writers who have published are secretly sure that their own writing stinks, which is why criticism hurts so much. It’s outside confirmation of our inner fears.

Why is it so hard to judge our own work? Here are a couple of my thoughts.
  1. Easily 80% of a story takes place inside your head. If I want you to see a haunted forest, I give you a few clues. Moving shadows, trees that look like reaching hands, and spooky howls. You fill in the rest from your memory and imagination. So when you read your own writing, you see the stories you created as they appear in your head. It’s much harder to see how a reader new to your story will react. More experienced authors know that what they are trying to convey doesn’t always come through. That’s why it’s so important to get unbiased feedback, and use it.

  2. Ever listen to a recording of your own voice? It doesn’t sound like you expect it to. Part of that is because your voice echoes inside your head. But I think another part of it is because you imagine your own voice to sound differently. The same thing is true of your writing. You expect it to be good, so when you read it, it is. This is why it’s a good idea to put your work on a shelf when you get done. Giving yourself the distance of a month or two allows you to read your work new. The more you write, the better you get at knowing when your writing is working or not.

  3. If you haven’t attended writing conferences, or read enough books on writing, you make beginner mistakes without even realizing they’re mistakes. You can write an amazing description of the setting to begin your story. But no matter how good the execution is, beginning a story with a detailed setting it usually bad writing. It doesn’t hook the reader. There’s a lot to be said, for instinctual writing. But without knowledge, you are trying to build a house using only a hammer and a screwdriver.

  4. One more possibility is that you read for pleasure. You know what you like and you know what you don’t like, but you’ve never tried to break down a novel and analyze what works and what doesn’t. If you write YA romance, read Twilight. I don’t care if you like it or not. Millions of people did and do. You can’t call yourself a successful YA romance author unless you understand what Meyer did that worked for millions of readers. If you love Hunger Games, you need to analyze how Collins made you root Katniss & Peeta to get together even though Katniss was a jerk to Peeta for 90% of the book. And how she took the best of book one and made it work in book two.
How about you? Can you tell whether your writing works or not? If so, how? Why do you think so many people can’t tell if their writing is any good or not?

Monday, July 19, 2010

A Great Event

An AMAZING Opportunity for Readers and Writers in Utah!

This is a really amazing event I will be part of again this year. If you haven't signed up, hurry and do so. It was a blast last year and I expect it to be again this year. Lots of Utah's best children's book authors and illustrators.

Readers and Writers….SAVE THE DATE!

August 21, 2010
The Waterford School
1700 East 9550 South
Sandy, UT 84093

The Children’s Literature Association of Utah (CLAU)





Help us put books in the hands of underprivileged kids in Utah!

DAYTIME WRITING WORKSHOP: (Pre-register by August 15 $60/Walk-in $70)
Love writing? Spend a fabulous day with award-winning Utah authors! Get hands-on writing advice and move your manuscript closer to publication! Author panel, critiques, and book signings. Lunch provided.
(For adults and children 12 and older.)

EVENING EXTRAVAGANZA: (Pre-register by Aug. 15- $10/Walk-in $15, Family price $25) Book-Lover but not a writer? Or, just looking for a fabulous night out? Come to an evening extravaganza with entertainment by singer Nancy Hanson, The Divine Comedy troupe, a celebrity author panel, and a raffle with prizes that will astound you! (Adults and children over 12.)

COMBINED PACKAGE:($65 Pre-registration by August 15 price)
Love BOTH reading and writing? Attend the workshop , followed by the evening event! Have an experience you won’t forget, and all in the name of literacy! Remember, your purchase benefits Utah kids!



Or mail a check to:

CLAU - Writing for Charity [Make checks out to CLAU]
P.O. Box 614
Layton, Utah 84041

Please include the following information: Names of all participants and whether they will attend the workshop or evening event, or both, and contact information including your address and a telephone number.

Can't wait to see you there!

Am I Turning Into a Bathinista?

WIP Update: I love when you reach the point in your story where everything just starts to flow. You know the characters. You’ve established the setting. You’ve managed to make it past the tough transitions. You know, the ones where you need to get character A to go with character B to place Z. But inherently character A would not want to go to C. You have to make the story flow in such a way that the reader completely believes. Anyway, I’m past most of the tough stuff now and writing scenes I’ve been excited about for six months or more. 10,000 words in the last three days and, as the Loverboy song goes, loving every minute of it.

So, I have a confession to make. I have a bathroom problem. No nothing like that! What kind of blog do you think this is? Although if you’ve got any regularity tips . . . Just kidding. Really! It started out with a simple request. Let me start by saying that I am about the most basic bathroom person you have ever met. I have an electric razor, non-electric toothbrush, Crest. I usually wear my hair so short I can, and do, comb it with my hands. The fanciest thing I have on the sink is some hair gel.

In the shower, I am even more basic. I have a bar of the same kind of soap I’ve used for over 15 years, and shampoo. That’s it. I think my shampoo might have conditioner in it, but I’m not sure. That’s the way I’ve always been. If I run out of shampoo, I’m okay with using soap to wash my hair. If I run out of soap, I just wash my hair first then use the suds to soap off. If I spend more than five minutes in the shower it’s a miracle.

So back to the request. My wife was going to Bed, Bath, and Beyond—a store I try to stay out of unless I can take a nap on one of the beds. She asked if I needed anything. I made the mistake of saying, “Yeah. Actually could you get me one of those things you scrub your back with?” You should have seen her eyes light up. She starting using crazy, words like loofah and pouf—which she was obviously making up on the fly. (I have even more proof of this since Word doesn’t think loofah is a real word either. It keeps underlining it red. See. Loffah, loofah, loofah. No such word.)

Mostly I just nodded. She was so excited that I wanted a bathroom accessory that I didn’t bother telling her I didn’t plan on using it in the shower, I just wanted to scratch the parts of my back I couldn’t reach with it. Anyway, she came back with this long wooden handle, with a handy little rope on one side and a loofah sponge on the other. Of course now I actually had to hang it up in the shower, and use it there. When she discovered I was just scratching my back with it, she told me I actually had to put soap on it.

Well that, as so many things seem to, introduced another issue. It turns out that if you rub a bar of soap across a loofah sponge (stupid made-up thing), it kind of fills it the sponge in, making it pretty darn ineffective as a back scratcher. I mentioned this to my wife, and the next day there was something called body wash in the shower. Maybe you know about body wash already, but I seriously didn’t have a clue. I thought that Axe stuff on TV was some kind of cologne. Anyway, it looks like shampoo. But don’t make the mistake of putting it in your hair. Let me tell you, get that stuff in your eyes and it stings like crazy!

Anyway, you rub some of this blue stuff on you, and then use the loofah and it works pretty well. In fact there were three pretty cool things about it. One, it smells better than my normal soap. Two, it doesn’t slip out of your hand and fall on the floor. And three, it’s got these little scrubbies in it. Kind like tiny grains of sand. That was pretty cool.

Once she discovered I liked the body wash, things came fast and furious. A big puffy ball showed up on a little rope next to the back scratcher/loofah. You use it with the body wash. It looks kind of sissy, but at least it was blue. (I really hope this isn’t the pouf she was talking about. I would totally hate to discover I was the proud owner of a pouf.) Next, since I liked the scrubbies in the body wash, and it totally stings your eyes, she introduced me to something called face wash. Much like the body wash, except it doesn’t sting, and it makes your face feel kind of minty when you’re done using it. Then the soap on my sink disappeared, replaced by this scented hand soap that comes out in a foam. Now all day I find myself sniffing my hand, which apparently smells like “Sea island cotton.” Who knew cotton plants smelled this good?

You might be asking yourself, what is he complaining about? He has an awesome wife who bought him all this cool stuff. That’s true. She is awesome. And I do like the stuff. But that’s exactly the problem. I’ve always kind of viewed myself as a pretty simple guy. I’ve worn the same brand of jeans, Levis 501s, since I was in high school. I would be happy to wear jeans , t-shirts, and no shoes every day of the week. I don’t watch reality shows (I’ve never seen a complete episode of American Idol.) I have no clue who most actresses or actors are, and I couldn’t spot a trend if it hit me over the head with a fashion. It takes me ten minutes to pack for a business trip and all my toiletries fit easily in the little plastic bag you have to fit all your liquids in for a carry-on.

Now look at me. Face wash, body wash, sponges, poufs, soap that actually has a “fragrance.” Who knows where this will end? What if my wife notices the dark circles under my eyes from staying up too late reading? What if she decides to do something about the wrinkles at the corners of my mouth? I could end up with a "routine." I could start getting little wicker caddies for my lotion.

What if a bottle of Just for Men shows up next to my shampoo? This could get very bad very quickly. And what’s scariest of all is that I might discover I like it. Please someone stop this. Help me! I think I’ve become a bathinista.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Moving Walkways

By Jeffrey S Savage

WIP Update: Currently I am a little more than halfway done with my national Young Adult manuscript, Demon Spawn. I’ve been hung up a little on a scene where a character turns on her friend. I was struggling to find a way to make the scene both believable to the reader, hurtful to the protagonist, but not make you hate the friend. I finally nailed it at about midnight. I have both the next Farworld book plotted and expect to start Air Keep soon. Shandra is currently in the simmering stage, but I can say most of it will take place in New York, and this book will NOT end with a cliff hanger of any kind.

As I’ve mentioned previously, I am doing a lot of travel lately. Recently I noticed something that happens in every airport. You see someone obviously racing for a flight. It could be a man, a woman, a couple, younger, older, heavy, thin. It doesn’t matter. They are in a hurry. As they get to the moving walkway, they see the line of people getting on and decide to go past it. If they run the whole way, they can make better time. But most of them are pulling suitcases or lugging bags. They skip the walkway to make better time, but instead—although they are walking more quickly than the people on the walkway—they fall behind, because even a reasonable walking speed on the moving conveyor is faster than a hurried walk off of it.

This reminds me of what I see so often in writing—and in the rest of the world too. People mistake action for progress. You hear things like, “I sent out my query letter to a hundred agents.” Or “I finished that entire novel in two months.” Yes, it’s good to finish your novel. Yes it’s good to contact a bunch of agents. But are you walking on the moving walkway? Are you talking advantage of the things that are there to help you succeed? Or are you skipping them because they appear too slow? Here are a few things I suggest.

1) Listen to people who know what they are talking about. I’ve almost entirely stopped reading people’s manuscripts—even from friends—because they don’t want to hear that their story needs work. They want to hear that their book is wonderful as it is. These same authors ignore critique groups, skip conferences, and avoid classes. They wouldn’t dream of sitting down to a piano for the first time and playing a complete song, but they are sure their first attempt at writing will sell for a million dollars. If you are serious about anything, talk to people who have succeeded at it, and make sure that you spend less time talking about what you are doing and more time listening to what they tell you.

2) Choosing quantity over quality. There used to be a guy in a New York train station who sold wallets to people who got off the train. They weren’t great wallets, but they were cheap. And he had hundreds of thousands of people walk by every day. Just by shouting, “Want to buy a wallet?” he managed to make sales. The same thing could work in finding a spouse. Just ask everyone you meet until someone says yes. I’m sure it would work. And I know a couple of guys who seemed to be doing just that at the dances I went to when I was younger. But would you want the spouse you would end up with that way?

Don’t try to get an agent the same way that guy sold wallets. For one thing, it usually doesn’t work that way with agents. For another thing, you probably won’t be happy with the agent you get. I know it gets said a lot, but you should spend MUCH more time researching agents, studying web sites about writing query letters, and polishing your approach than you spend sending out letters. Once you think you have it right, send out somewhere between 5 and 10 letters at a time. If you don’t get any requests. Rework the letter.

3) Do not send out your first draft. Or your second draft. It’s that simple. Yet people ignore this advice all the time. I know you are excited to get your book finished. And you should be. Go out to dinner. Call all your friends at 2 in the morning and scream, “I’m done!” Then explain you are not ending your life, just your book. You just finished writing a single project of x thousand words. Celebrate! You deserve it. But do not send it out to agents. I promise you that no matter how good of a writer you are, the story is not done. Sending out your story after the first draft is like waking up from a night’s sleep, sweaty, hair messed up, bad breath, and immediate going on a first date with the person of your dreams. I’m sure it works occasionally, but do you really want to chance ruining the perfect match because you stink? Do you want to turn off the agent of your dreams because part of your story stinks?

The month or two, or more, after finishing a story is the time to get as much feedback as possible. Find everyone who is saintly enough to read your work, send it to them along with some questions like: Are the characters believable? Did you follow the plot? Were you hooked by the first chapter? List any scenes or motivations that were unclear. Mark any sections where you felt tempted to skim with a red pen.

Get as much feedback as you can—setting your ego aside. This is not the time to explain yourself. This is the time to gather all the comments—good and bad—that you can.

Once you have all your feedback together, compare notes. Notice common threads. Come up with and editing plan. Yes, it may feel like you’ve slowed down the whole process. But trust me, you are on the moving sidewalk. Those people who are gloating over finishing their WIP in a month and sending it out to a hundred agents, will have received all of their rejections when you send out a polished manuscript and query letter that will generate interest.

I’m sure the people who skip the moving walkway get some benefit out of it. They definitely get more exercise. Maybe they get to the plane a second or two earlier. But most times not. And when they do get to their gate, they are tired, sweaty, (trust me I know, I usually end up sitting by them) and grumpy. By contrast, the people who study the gates, take the trains, walkways, and other tools designed to make getting from one part of the airport to another faster and less hassle, are happier, more rested, and far more likely to enjoy the flight ahead of them. Just remember that in the long run everyone ends up on the same plane. Be the passenger who does so wisely.