Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Why I Hate the Word "Excuses"

by Susan

Ah, the new year, the season of resolutions. Soon, gymnasiums will fill with eggnog-plumped bodies. Crispers will fill with salad fixings. The last half-pack of cigs will land under the uneaten sweet potatoes in the kitchen garbage. And writers will set their alarms for Oh-Dark-Thirty to work on their Great American Novel before slogging off to the office.

Just one more, then I'll give them up.
It's the time of year when you hear, "No excuses." Or better yet, "Suck it up, buttercup." Even with these "inspirational" sayings, most New Year's resolutions evaporate before Valentine's Day.

I'm not big on New Year's resolutions, but I despise the word "excuses." It's pejorative. It's an exercise in self-flagellation. It disrespects people's very real barriers, priorities and preferences. It tears down when we need to be built up to make positive changes in our lives.

Not to say there's not value in breaking bad habits or creating good ones, preferably both. I'd like to do both to improve my writing life. How? Recognition is my first step:

  • Recognition #1: I am getting something out of my bad habit. My time spent watching television in the evenings is silly time I spend with my husband. I have reasons I do things, even if they're not always good ones.
  • Recognition #2: There is a reason I am resisting the good habit. Maybe it's simple inertia, but maybe not. Maybe it's something I don't really want to do. Maybe I didn't reach into my jar full of "no" when I was should have and am overloaded. Maybe I'm afraid. 

So what's my plan?


  • Recognize my reasons: Beating myself up for not hitting a goal is less effective than recognizing what internal and external barriers I have and working on those.
    Leaping into the new year! (Or whatever date I choose.)
  • Start whenever: January 1 is not a magical date. I needn't wait for it, nor am I compelled to start when I'm not ready because I bought a new calendar.
  • Focus: Put one change at the top of the priority list and do that one thing. Make it solid before moving onto the next.
  • Plan: Right now, I'm putting all my deadlines on the calendar so I know when I have to carve out my time. I don't want to get hit with three at once.
  • Arrange: I'm human, so I tend to follow the path of least resistance. I need to arrange my life so the good habit is the path of least resistance. I can put my journaling notebook by my morning therapy lamp, schedule a writing retreat, spring for that standing desk, and clean my writing room. 
  • Process, not result: I can't control whether I get a poem published. I can control whether I make the time to write poetry. If I write it, I'm more likely to get it published. (Funny how that works, eh?)
  • Be a tortoise: I can only sprint through life so long without collapsing. Neither I, nor the people who depend on me, benefit if I crash and burn.  
  • Letting go is not giving up: Most people are familiar with a "bucket list." There's also such a thing as a "@#$% it list." (I assume you have a rhyming dictionary, no?) That is, a list of stuff I'm never going to do again, and that's more than OK. I can't clear out space for the things I want if I don't give up the things that no longer serve me.
  • A slip is not a fall: So I slack off one morning. So what? Doesn't mean I can't be back at it the next. Doesn't mean I'm a failure and I can give up. I don't consider this making excuses; I consider this accepting reality. I can accomplish more when I'm firmly grounded in reality.


So what are your plans for the new year? What does 2016 hold for you?






Tuesday, December 22, 2015

GIFTS, AND A GOOD SLIDE

post by Lynn

A short post for the shortest day of the year.

Remember that we’re still here. The national and world news is sometimes bleak, but at least the earth is still whirling around the sun. The world didn’t end, along with the Mayan calendar, on the December Solstice three years ago. Some thought it would.

As writers, we’re still telling stories and readers are still reading them. That’s a gift I never want to take for granted.

And tomorrow, the light will start returning and the days will get longer. Woo hoo!

Speaking of gifts, here are a few that I am regifting from the internet to you. You're not against regifting are you?


THE GIFT OF CHANGE

If you want to cultivate better writing habits in 2016 (and who doesn't?), read this post by James Clear on the chemistry of building habits.

I think he’s on to something there. I'm going to work on reducing my activation energy in 2016--mark my words.




THE GIFT OF STORY

In this video, filmmaker Andrew Stanton ("Toy Story" and "WALL-E") shares what he knows about storytelling, which obviously is a lot. Warning: contains spicy language and a naughty joke. (Now I know you’ll watch it--don’t say I didn’t warn you!)



THE GIFT OF INSPIRATION

A diverse group of writers, including Dave Barry, Kim Stanley Robinson and Charles Johnson riff on the subject of revision.

In under four minutes, this video is bound to make you itch to get at that next draft, soon.




THE GIFT OF TIME-LESSNESS

Feeling frantic? ‘Tis the season.

Take a moment to read this very short post by Allison Stadd, titled “Screw Inbox Zero: Here’s a Better Plan” on 99U (a website for creatives that I highly recommend).
“Luxuriate in the absence of time-tracking, and just immerse yourself in the deep creative, contemplative thinking that can’t happen when you’re even subconsciously, subtly aware of how many minutes have gone by."



In conclusion, my friends...

Und eine gute rutsch


...which is a phrase my sister, Sally, taught me. It's a wish in Swiss German for "a good slide" into the new year.

Be safe and enjoy the light of the holidays.

And thank you, so much, for visiting this blog—it's a gift Susan and I will always cherish.





Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Cherishing the Unexpected Gift of Words

by Susan


The aftermath. My next brother up gave me the stuffed skunk 
behind me. I named him Harold (the skunk, not my brother)
Harold fell in love with one of my stuffed dogs, Jim. 
I was ahead of my time on marriage equality.
I can never remember actually believing in Santa Claus. Sure it was a fun game, but even at the age of four I knew there was no way a big man with a sack of toys was going to come through our fake fireplace. And while I liked the extra gifts, they all came wrapped in the same paper as the ones from Mom and Dad, and all the tags were in her handwriting.

Plus, we all gave gifts to each other, which with nine kids and one set of parents, adds up to one gigantic pile of presents. The "Santa" gifts weren't even the icing on the cake; they were a curlicue on the icing on the cake.

I was probably young enough to still (theoretically) believe in Santa when I became irritated at a school Christmas program. The eighth graders performed a skit where Santa brought every single present for the kids. Every. Single. One.

That's not how it works!

Gifts come from SOMEONE.

They do NOT magically drop from the sky.

There is NO Santa Claus!

I'm reconsidering that last sentence these days.

Maybe there's no red-suited dude fighting polar bears for the last floating bit of ice at the rapidly warming North Pole. But I can look at my life and see gifts dropped on my head that I didn't ask for, didn't deserve, and didn't reciprocate.

The perfect home decor: A bookshelf by every couch.
Most notably: I was given the gift of words. I'm not trying to claim brilliance, here. What I mean is that I was given the gift of wanting to work with words. I was given the gift of an appetite for reading, for devouring books, for escaping into worlds built by others and bringing back pieces with which to build my own. I was blessed to find a small audience to share them with.

Those of us who are writers have been given this gift, and it is an incredibly precious one. I have written things, imperfect as they were, that have made people laugh and other things that have made them cry. I cannot begin to tell you what that means to me. Stories unite us as humans.

I can see where the people around me added to the pile of gifts around this one. I remember the many stories my siblings read to me. I remember how in the house I was raised, there was something to read by every chair. I've been blessed with good libraries. Fellow writers encouraged me.

Still, on some level, I feel like this was dropped on my head, like a present from Santa. The work I've done, the support I've had from others has added to it, but this one gift just arrived from the universe somehow, and I didn't do a thing to deserve it.

When you write, you might believe your gift of words came from God, or the universe, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster, for all I know. You can even believe it came from Santa Claus, if you'd like. It doesn't matter.

It's a gift we get to open every time we grab our pens and open our notebooks. It's new and different every time. Could it get any better?

With that, have a blessed and peaceful holiday season, however you might celebrate it.


Tuesday, December 8, 2015

CRAFTING YOUR QUERY LETTER & SYNOPSIS: Train That Story Like a Dog!

Guest post by Joanne Kennedy

Every endeavor, no matter how pleasurable, requires discipline.

Take dog ownership. Every kid wants a dog, but few realize how much work is involved. While it’s easy to love a dog and play with it, it’s not much fun when Muffin misbehaves, and nobody likes cleaning up the poop.

Novel writing is similar in that the beginning phases are fun. Writers get to unleash their imaginations, creating fascinating characters and sending them off on quests for love, treasure, and self-realization.

But when the novel’s done, the trouble begins. If you want to sell it, you’ll have to write a whiz-bang query letter that leaves an agent eager to read your synopsis. When he does, you want your story to grab his attention from the start and hold on like a pit bull with a beef bone.

Coming up with clever query letters and compelling synopses are the writing equivalent of picking up the poop. But with a little discipline and knowledge, you can make the job a whole lot easier.

For starters, let’s define the purpose of each endeavor.

A query letter is a one-page letter introducing yourself and your writing. It should include a short, intriguing sentence or two about your plot and characters, along with your previous writing credits, if any, and your qualifications and/or reasons for writing this particular book. It’s also a good idea to explain why you chose this particular agent.

A synopsis is a summary of your plot from start to finish. It should introduce all the main characters, define the conflict at the heart of the novel, show evidence of a theme that relates your story to the larger world, and showcase your unique voice.

Every weapon you brought to the writing of your novel, from your fascinating characters to your sense of humor, should be displayed in a shining array in both documents.

When reading query letters, agents look first for a strong conflict, so in a query letter, your goal is to intrigue the reader. It’s a good idea to begin with a simple statement of your protagonist’s goal, motivation, and conflict. For example, X wants to do Y, but can’t because Z. Once you have that down, you can start embellishing the idea with details that make your novel truly unique.

In a synopsis, you have to do more than interest the reader; you want to satisfy him by telling the whole tale from start to finish. It’s not an easy task. Even the most compelling story sounds idiotic when you compress it into two or three pages. And if you include every detail of the plot, you’ll spend so much time moving characters around, it’ll read more like a chess match play-by-play than a future bestseller.

The key is to view the synopsis not as an accurate plot summary, but as a marketing piece. Its true purpose is to prove you can offer all the qualities an editor looks for.

• Characters readers want to spend time with
• A unique and compelling voice
• A strong conflict with high stakes
• Depth of emotion and page-turning tension
• A satisfying, resonant ending

Like dog ownership, it’s harder than it looks. Trying to control your narrative is like walking a brace of excitable poodle dogs. Each pup represents a turning point, and the leashes are the plot threads.

At the beginning of your outing, the leashes fan out in an organized way. But if you pay attention to any particular dog, it gets excited, running around in circles, tangling its leash with all the other dogs. Soon, the plot threads wrap around your legs in a hopeless tangle and you fall, bound and helpless, overwhelmed by the complex net of your story.

The key to successful dog walking is discipline, and the same applies to writing your synopsis. Begin with a bare-bones outline that details your story’s inciting incident and all its turning points, along with the ending. Then, cut that outline to the bone. Which events can you delete without interrupting the flow of the story or confusing the reader? Be ruthless, and you’ll soon find yourself with a manageable outline.

Next, turn your outline into serviceable sentences. Then, you can start to rewrite, smoothing out the syntax and changing humdrum phrases into vibrant descriptions. This is the time to show off your writing skills, but remember you have to be brief.

Once you’re done, it’s a good idea to turn both documents over to someone who knows nothing about your story. Ask your reader: Does the story sound interesting? Are the characters likeable? Does the plot make sense?

Be ready to make changes once you have feedback. It’ll be good practice for working with the editor you’ll win when you send out that beautifully groomed, well-disciplined query letter and synopsis to an agent who can see the future champion in your newly subdued story.

~~~

Want to learn more? I’ll be teaching a workshop on Crafting Your Query Letter and Synopsis at Novel Writing University at the Laramie County Library on Saturday, January 30, 2016. 

The workshop will include templates for synopsis writing and other hints and tips. 

If you attended previous sessions of NWU, you’ve already met my friends and co-conspirators Amanda Cabot and Mary Gillgannon. As three published authors with very different approaches to novel writing, we’ll be offering a one-day workshop from 10:00 to 3:00 focusing on selling your finished novel. 

Other topics include Choosing the Perfect Agent (Mary) and Contract Negotiation (Amanda). There will be a question-and-answer session at the end, and writers of all levels of experience are invited to attend.



Joanne Kennedy is the RITA-nominated author of eight contemporary western romances, including Tall, Dark and Cowboy, One Fine Cowboy, and the Decker Ranch series. Her next book, How to Wrangle a Cowboy, will be released in February.

Joanne lives at the Wyoming border in a pint-sized paradise that supports wild things ranging from mountain lions to ermine. She shares her home with a fire-fighting fighter pilot, two dogs, and an irascible cat. The animals are relatively well-behaved.

Joanne can be reached at her website, joannekennedybooks.com, her blog, joannekennedybooks.com/readers, and on Facebook at Joanne Kennedy Books.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Tips for Getting Your Press Release Published

by Susan

Me, after the paper went to press. Photo by Dan Cepeda
Yeah, that's me in the picture, 20 years ago when I worked as the news editor for The Sheridan Press. I'll confess, the picture might have been a little staged, but the sense of exhaustion was real. In my working life, I've done everything from assembling Thighmasters to throwing 70-pound boxes of meat around in a freezer, and I can tell you that I never worked harder than when I worked in newspapers.

Look at that picture. That's the person you have to get your press release past. There's one simple way to do it.

Make her life easy. 

This is not a post about how to format a press release. There are plenty of resources online for that. We're going to focus on how to write a news release so it's more likely to be used.

All the news that's print to fit


It might help to know a little bit about the way a newspaper works. Although the saying might be, "all the news that's fit to print," in truth it's often "all the news that's print to fit."

Newspapers sell as much advertising as they can, then determine editorial space based on that.  Laying one out is a bit like playing Tetris, dropping text around the ads while the pressure mounts as time ticks away. Woe to the editor who delays the press run.

First priority for space are the stories generated by the newsroom reporters.Then comes everything else, including (you hope) your press release.

There may be many other equally newsworthy press releases floating about the newsroom. So how do you make yours stand out? Make it easy for them. Give them something they'll want to use in a format they can cut and paste with minimal work.

The ideal press release

 A busy reporter or editor appreciates it when a press release:
  • Is newsworthy, which will vary depending on the size of the paper and the size of the news hole. 
  • Sounds like a news story, that is, sounds like what the reporters write.
  • Is a reasonable length, no more than one page, preferably. 
  • Is in electronic format, so they don't have to retype it.
The more they have to massage it into usable shape, the less likely they'll want to use it. Note that in these days, these four principles can work with electronic publication, too. At least they would with me in my day job where I maintain an organizational blog that shares relevant news.

How do I make it sound like a news story?

Go to your paper and read all the bylined stories. You will notice a few things. First, they cut to the chase immediately. The first sentence lets you know immediately why you should read it, and the Five Ws should be knocked out before they go to the second paragraph. 

One of the most common and the weakest beginnings to a press release is "Such-and-such is pleased to announce..." Have you ever seen a front page news story lead that way? You're simply adding fluff they'll have to cut anyway.

Stories are typically written in inverted pyramid structure, with the most important information in the first few paragraphs, then less and less important information as the story progresses, so that the editor doing layout can lop from the bottom as needed to fit. (Remember that game of Tetris?) 

The thing to remember about pyramid structure is that the first paragraphs should be what's most important to the reader, not to the person writing the press release. Avoid the temptation to name all your donors or give the history of your organization right at the beginning. 

Include a quote if you can, but it should sound like it came from a human being. Try not to let people write their own quotes! Most people will get overly stiff and formal on you. Get them talking and write it down, or ask for the gist of what they want and craft something for their approval. A quote should also add flavor and emotion and not be used as an information dump. Here's where all those dialogue writing exercises you've done come in handy. 

Newspapers use Associated Press style, and it's helpful to purchase the AP style guide if you're going to be writing news releases on a regular basis.

But I need it to be longer than one page!

You probably don't. Trust me. If it's important enough to merit more than one page, they'll send a reporter after you. And if a reporter calls, respond immediately. "Deadline" has a whole different meaning to them than it does to a normal human being. Most of us mark our deadlines in days, while they might be marking theirs in minutes. 

How should I sent it to them?

The days of hand-delivering press releases are over. You can check the newspaper website to find out how they want to receive news releases. If in doubt, pasted into the body of an email Send it early enough they can use it, but not so far in advance of an event that it gets set aside and lost.

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Granted, my newspaper days were long ago. If you work for one now and have different thoughts, I would love to hear from you in the comments. Or if you've written a few releases and have additional advice, please share it!