Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Acknowledging My Fears of Submission

As I was reading over my post from Monday “How Do You Prioritize Your Writing?” I couldn’t shake the feeling that maybe I wasn’t pushing myself far enough, fast enough. That perhaps I was tackling other stories instead of seeing the more or less completed ones through the publishing gauntlet.

After all, my historical romance novel has been in pretty good shape now for months. I should be querying. But I’m holding off, working on other stories and devising new ones. Why? I tell myself it’s because I want to see how I do in the contest I’ve entered first, and then armed with that feedback, I can polish my MS one last time before subbing. But is that the real reason? No. As strategic and prudent as it may seem to wait, I’m just using that as an excuse not to take the next step with this project. The big one. The soul-crushing one.

I’m avoiding the inevitable rejections that will come my way once I send my MS off into agentland. I’m afraid of my dreams of writing a book becoming real. Because then the book becomes a responsibility. No longer can I tuck it in a drawer or push it to the back of the closet and pretend it doesn’t exist. I must own this process – the good and the bad – if I want to succeed. And unfortunately, there are no safety nets.

So as I fretted that I was responsible for holding my work back, I came across a post this week that echoed my concerns. Shonna Slayton’s post at Routines For Writers called “Don’t Reject Yourself” was basically a brief but powerful pep-talk on eliminating procrastination and getting your work out there. Digging a little deeper, I found the post “Things Procrastinators Fear” with links to in-depth discussions on fear of rejection, fear of success, fear of failure, and fear of not being good enough and ways to combat them (all of which are worth a look if you are struggling with any of these issues). Now, I don’t necessarily think I'm procrastinating so long as I am still working on other writing projects, but I must acknowledge that all the different projects I have on my plate do divide my attention and keep me from moving forward. How convenient.

I realize I’m not alone in my fears. That’s why we blog, swap stories, spread encouragement, and foster community among our ranks. But it’s hard to push past the inertia and get your stuff out there. That’s part of the reason why I started this blog. To get my feet wet in a public forum. It’s also why I joined a new writing group, so that I would be working alongside others on the road to publication. Other writers to be accountable to; other writers to help me set realistic goals; other writers to support me on my journey. And it does help.

I may still hold off querying my MS until I have the results of the contest, but I won’t let anything else slow down the process. And in the meantime, I have other pieces I need to submit. It’s time to get out there. My fingers are crossed.

Erica Marshall of

Monday, May 24, 2010

How Do You Prioritize Your Writing?

Currently, I’m in a bit of a quandary as to the best way to prioritize my writing tasks. A year ago, this wouldn’t be an issue. I had one WIP and a short story or two knocking around in my noggin. But as the months passed, and story ideas accumulated as I made the time to write the way I’ve always wanted to, I now have a number of writing projects demanding my attention:

  1. Historical Romance Novel – STATUS: Complete, awaiting feedback from an editor I met at a conference and a critique as a result of entering a contest. NEED TO: Query agents, contemplate entering the Golden Heart this fall, preferably armed with the aforementioned feedback from the editor and the contest.
  2. Science Fiction Novel 1  – STATUS: First draft complete. NEED TO: Revise, paying particular attention to the character development of one of the MCs and the antagonist, and focus on worldbuilding. I also need an additional 20-30k to meet customary word counts for the genre.
  3. Science Fiction Novel 2 – STATUS: 20K of first draft. NEED TO: Decide whether I’m keeping it in 3rd person or shifting to 1st person, layer in some plot elements in the 20k I’ve already written, and finish the draft.
  4. Literary Short Story – STATUS: Complete, awaiting feedback from writing group. NEED TO: Revise based on feedback, and start targeting possible venues.
  5. Flash Fiction – STATUS: Complete, awaiting feedback from writing group. NEED TO: Come up with a title, revise based on feedback, and target possible venues.
  6. Science Fiction Short 1 – STATUS: First draft complete. NEED TO: Read over reference materials from library to finish researching one aspect of the story, finish the story, polish, share with writing group, revise, and then consider submitting it.
  7. Science Fiction Short 2 – STATUS: Partial first draft. NEED TO: Complete draft, polish, share with writing group, revise, and then consider submitting it.
Now, there are other story ideas floating around in my mind, abandoned on my hard drive, or languishing in one of my notebooks as well, but the projects I’ve outlined above are the strongest, have the most potential, and get me the most excited when I think about them.

In a previous life, I was a research project manager. Every day I had to assess where we were at with a project and identify where we needed to be and how to get there. I was constantly adjusting my priorities, moving things up on the to-do list, pushing things off until another day, and delegating like crazy.

With writing, there’s no one to delegate things to (except my husband/beta reader who gets the first pass on most things I write). And that’s usually not a problem. In fact, I love the independence that’s needed in writing. Except for the times when the ideas don’t come and I’d love to have someone at my level to bounce ideas off of. Or someone to help me figure out the oh-so-important title. Which is often the hardest thing for me to come up with for a writing project. And as a result, these are the things that I keep putting off in my WIPS.

So how do you prioritize? Especially when each writing journey is different, when your end goal may differ from another’s, when your work is so uniquely yours it’s not apparent how to move forward… Sometimes, it seems that making a decision via Rock, Paper, Scissors can be just as reasonable as a more elaborate decision-making process. And sometimes, I suspect, there's no right answer.

I don’t have any hard or fast rules. I try to take the pieces that are closest to being of publishable quality (still trying to come up with a litmus test for that – ha!) and send them off to contests or get them in the hands of my writing group, so I have a bit of breathing room to consider my next move. Then, during the in-between times, I work on the other pieces that aren’t quite ready for primetime. Usually I select the projects that need the least amount of work before moving on to the ones that require more mental effort and preparation. Case in point: Project #3 on the list was started well before #2, but I ran into trouble and starting doubting my initial POV choice. Instead of slogging through it, I put it on hold and completed the first draft of #2, which was more straightforward in terms of structure and plot. I wouldn’t call myself work-adverse, but this was certainly a case where I avoided the project that demanded more of me in favor of something slightly easier.

Part of me wonders if I am making these choices because I’m (relatively) young and impatient and want to get my work out in the world now. Will I prioritize my writing projects in the same manner five, ten years from now?

How do you prioritize your work when you have competing projects vying for your attention? And if you’ve come across other blog posts tackling this issue somewhere in the intertubes, please post links in the comments below. Thanks!

Thursday, May 20, 2010

How Buying a House is Like Writing a Novel

Yes, this is one of those writing process is [insert metaphor here] posts. And yes, I may be unduly influenced by the fact that my husband and I had our offer on a house accepted earlier this week. But the whole house hunting/buying process revealed a number of uncanny writing associations to me, which is what I want to share with you today.

At the start of your search for a new home, it’s helpful if you have a sense of what you are looking for. How important is location? Do you want something that you can move right into, or are you a do-it-yourselfer? When determining what your next novel’s about, similar questions crop up. Where does your story take place? Are you a planner or a panster? Are you writing for the market or are you blazing your own trail?

Where do I sign? : Hook and Premise

Over the course of our house hunt, a sure sign a home had potential was whether or not I could imagine myself living there, along with my husband and dog and any theoretical offspring we may consider having in the (distant) future. As an aspiring writer, you can bet it’s pretty easy for me to imagine all sorts of scenarios, even in ugly houses. But the ones that stuck out were the ones that kept me thinking even after we moved on. The ones I wanted to make my mark on right away. And luckily that was the way I felt about the home we made an offer on.

Brainstorming story ideas is a similar process. I have a number of ideas that I could develop, but I usually only tackle the ones that get me hot and bothered (in a good way). The ones with an innovative hook or an exciting premise. An idea that gets its mitts into my mind and doesn’t let me go until I get it all down on the page. Your story idea should grab you, just like any home you buy. Don’t settle for something that’s an almost fit. You will be disappointed.

Location : Setting

When choosing a home, location can be pretty important. The right school district, commuting distance, access to public transportation, distance to stores and services. These type of things all impact your house’s value and can set it apart from others in the crowd. Similarly, if your house backs up to a highway or a gas station, that can negatively affect the value.

With books, setting is just as important as location is to a house, impacting character, plot, and mood. Done well, setting can seamlessly support all elements of your story, in some cases becoming a character in and of itself. Setting that’s underdeveloped or there just for show (think wallpapered historical romances) can weigh down the rest of the work, leaving your reader unsatisfied.

Layout : Structure

Seeing the inside of different homes helps prospective buyers decide if they’d like to live there. Some layouts are functional, others inviting, and some just down right funky – often a result of piecemeal renovations gone wrong. The layout is a result of the plans of the builder, the materials used, and how everything came together.

Just as the structure of your novel is a function of plot, character, and your means of telling the story. It can be full of twists and turns like that creepy upstairs hallway or fairly straightforward like an open floorplan. But what matters most is that your story’s structure successfully encapsulates all narrative elements in a cohesive way. You don’t want a bathroom all by itself in the backyard of your home (unless you actually like outhouses). Neither do you want to have Plot Point C or Character X existing on the periphery of your story’s structure.

Décor : Style and Diction

So you have your house, and now it’s time to put your mark on the place. Wallpaper, paint, tile, new carpets, hardwood floors, furniture, pictures, linens…the possibilities are enough to make any HGTV host squeal with delight. You want something that speaks to your personality, something that soothes your soul on cold winter nights by the fire. Shape, color, texture are all at your disposal.

When writing, it comes down to words, punctuation, and how you combine them. You want your story to be yours. Let every line resonate with your authorial voice. Wield your words like a hammer or as softly as a stroke of a paintbrush, in order to achieve the emotional impact you want. But above all, make it yours.

Repairs and Renovations : Revisions

Whether you buy a fixer (like we are) or you buy new, sooner or later, household repairs will need your attention. Whether it’s a loose railing, a hole in the drywall, or a complete overhaul of the kitchen, you are going to have to get your hands dirty and make some changes.

Your manuscript isn’t immune to changes either. You will need to revisit and revise your story often to eliminate the clutter, to smooth out the prose, and to tighten up the plot. It’s hard work. Make sure you have the proper mindset in place to make the most of what you already have. If you find yourself in over your head, it’s ok to go back to the drawing board. Maybe your improvement project is bigger or more complicated than you thought. Just remember what you’re working towards, and keep chiseling away at it bit by bit.

Home Inspection : Peer Review

Getting a home inspected is typically a part of the buying process. But even over the course of owning a home, an inspection can alert you to potential problems before they become too costly to deal with. Think of it as a preventive measure to keep your home at its very best. Similarly, over the course of writing your novel, it can be helpful to stop and take stock of where you are at. Sometimes the best way to do this is to let a trusted critique partner or writing group take a gander at your WIP. Much like a home inspector, they will typically provide you with unbiased impressions and point you to things you need to work on. But don’t let just anyone inspect your home or read your work. Always get credentials and referrals first.

Appraisal : Agent/Editor Evaluation

After painstakingly caring for your home or laboring to make renovations, you’re ready for Show-Me-the-Money-Time. Maybe you want to refinance or want to have an accurate accounting of your assets. An appraiser would take a look at your property, compare it to others in the neighborhood, and tell you how much its worth. Sometimes all your hard work and investments pay off. Sometimes you can be surprised – maybe your improvements were just average or not enough to keep up with other homes in the area.

The same thing can happen when you think your novel’s ready for primetime and you start querying. This is when you see if your story can hold its own against the competition. Is your story strong enough for an agent to take you on? Is your story good enough to be published? Maybe, maybe not.

Regardless of your home’s appraised value, remember that you are the one who has to live in it every day, not some person from the bank assigning it an arbitrary numerical value. Similarly, if your story gets rejected by an agent or editor, it’s not the end of the world. You wrote your story, you are the one who got to live in a world of your own creation over the course of its development. Remember that and cherish those moments,  especially as you make plans for your next WIP.

There are a lot of homes out there for you to choose from. Just as there are an astounding number of book ideas floating around in the ether. But it is what you do with your idea or your house that makes it truly yours. Happy hunting!

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Assessing My Blog's Impact

Today is a special day. This is my 28th post, and if you look on the sidebar, as of this writing, I have 28 followers. One follower for every post I’ve written. That’s pretty cool for someone going into this whole blogging thing without many expectations.

I started this blog in late February 2010 and it’s now mid-May. And as you can see from the picture below, interest is taking off. Relatively speaking, of course.

Something that is both frightening and heartening at the same time. So I’m trying to make sense of where I’m at, where I’m going, and who I’m indebted to for making my little blog more visible.

To begin with, here are my top five posts overall:

Top Posts (in pageviews)

415   Coffee Shop Etiquette
244   Lessons Learned – My First Writing Conference
132   A Tale of Two Writing Groups
84     Resource Roundup Part 1 – Finding the Right Word
46     Anatomy of a Story

Total page views: 4,528

The first three I tweeted (via @bluemaven) and were picked up by some Influentials and their followers. The last two I tweeted and were picked up by others in the twitterverse, but not to the same extent as the top three.

@elizabethscraig has picked up a lot of my posts and retweeted them, and I credit a lot of my traffic to her. (You should be following her!) She scours the web on a daily basis and posts the best finds over the course of the day. And I know if something I post and tweet about doesn’t get picked up by her, then I just need to work harder on my next post. Kind of a built-in quality detector.

So what is immediately apparent, Twitter is my friend. This is confirmed when I take a look at my top 10 sources of traffic for my blog:

Traffic Sources (accounting for 791 of 854 unique visits or 92.6%)
178   Direct Link

Number 3 on the list,, featured Lessons Learned: My First Writing Conference on the website and it was tweeted widely by @inkyelbows and her twitter minions (you should be following her, if you aren’t already). Thanks to her influence, that post was featured by Writer’s Digest’s weekly blog feature Best Tweets for Writers, which sent an addition 35 people to my blog (source number 8 on the list). If this isn’t a convincing enough demonstration of how getting the attention of the Twitter Influentials can work for you, I don’t know what is.

Another big surprise was how much traffic Laura Marcella’s blog Wavy Lines generated for me. Laura’s been a great blogging buddy in terms of passing along awards and commenting on a regular basis. (Thanks again, Laura!) She has all the blogs she follows displayed on her sidebar, and I’m sure that has helped send some of her readers my way since her blog has really taken off thanks to all her hard work. The blogroll feature is something I don’t have on my site just yet, but after seeing what it has done for me in terms of increasing my visibility and gaining followers, I am thinking about adding it and providing the same benefits to others. Geez, this social networking does work.

Number 10 on the list, Adventures in Children's Publishing, surprised me as well. They’ve been great followers and commenters, and recently featured my post A Tale of Two Writing Groups on their site. That sent another 11 people my way. You hear all the time how links are the lifeblood of blog traffic yada yada yada, but this really cemented that concept for me. Thanks, ladies!

All in all, I couldn’t be happier with the reception my posts have had and the followers I’ve gained here and on Twitter, and all in less than three months.

I’m encouraged, I’m honored, I’m thankful, and now I’m even more determined to keep up the hard work!

So to recap, here's how I attribute my blog's success so far:
  1. Using Twitter to bring in new readers.
  2. Following Twitter Influentials and others with similar interests, and hope they'll take note.
  3. Reciprocating in terms of comments, following, and linking.
  4. Striving for quality in every post.
PS. All the data came from Google Analytics, which is tied to this site. There are other services out there. Wordpress has analytics built in, and StatCounter is another free service you can use to monitor your blog.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Coffee Shop Etiquette

I’m at the coffee shop working on something writing-related – whether it’s writing longhand in my notebook, marking up printouts, or typing on my laptop – at least once a week, sometimes even more frequently depending on my schedule.

And I’ve learned a thing or two when it comes to working in a public space and staying productive:

Rule One – Buy Something. I know this should seem like a no-brainer, but order something so you can justify camping out at a table for hours. It doesn’t have to be expensive either – a small coffee, cuppa tea, a cookie, will do just fine. You’d be surprised how many people don’t buy something and just use the tables, snatch up discarded newspapers, or freeload WIFI. But the baristas know. And they may bug you if you don’t pony up at some point.

Rule Two – Tip. All baristas are not created equal. This I know. But it’s a good policy to tip if you haunt the same place over and over again. If you are paying cash or leaving a cash tip, be sure to place the money in the tip jar when the barista has an opportunity to see you. You don’t have to be too obvious or overly generous, but a little goodwill can go a long way.

Rule Three – Bus your Stuff. When your muse calls it quits and you’re getting ready to leave, throw out your coffee cup or put your plate in the bus tub. I find this helpful at the places I frequent often. The baristas know I pick up after myself and are less likely to interrupt me to clear away my cups and plates over the course of my stay, which can be crucial when I’m in the creative groove.

Rule Four – Know Where the Power Outlets Are.
Peak times aside when real estate is scarce, if you’re an old-fashioned scribe like me, get a seat away from the plugs. You won’t be taking a seat away from someone who needs the electricity, nor will you have to deal with the people who interrupt you in order to plug in their wiz-bang iPad or trusty laptop. On the other hand, if you need the computing power, always be polite in asking for access to the plugs and be mindful of plumber’s crack.

Now, there are many reasons for choosing a coffee shop to get some writing done. Because writing is a solitary endeavor, it can be good for the soul to be around others as you work. I like the white noise of the espresso machines, the tinkle of laughter, and murmur of voices as the background music to my latest WIP. And some come for the spectacle, to people-watch, to borrow snatches of dialogue and physical characteristics from the other patrons.

But if you are serious about getting work done during your coffee shop visits, here are a few more things to keep in mind:

Coffee shops are public spaces – Don’t let the intimate seating fool you. Coffee shops cater to a number of different demographics. Loud cell phone talkers, crying children, study groups, and that one homeless person who always comes in and asks everyone for spare change. And then there’s you – that quiet, squirrelly-looking person in the corner with a notebook and delusions of grandeur. Remember that the variety is what makes a coffee shop interesting. Most annoyances will be fleeting. 

Avoid eye contact with your neighbor if you’re not up for conversation – Sometimes it can’t be avoided. People will talk to you. One afternoon I was heavily involved in a draft – my pen scribbling to keep up with my thoughts – when the man sitting next to me, sighing and muttering to himself, launched into a huge discussion about his new startup as soon as I looked up from my page to give him my patented quelling look. Sadly, he was unaffected and rattled on for a good twenty minutes before I realized he wasn’t going to leave off. I wasn’t going to get anymore work done sitting next to him, so I made my excuses. I still wonder what would have happened if I never looked up from my notebook.

Beware the handsfree headset types – These are the people with flexible work schedules, who work from home but come to the coffee shop for a change of scenery, or  who don’t have a dedicated workspace and capitalize on the free internet. You don’t want to be stuck near someone who is fielding non-stop calls, consulting with clients, or trouble-shooting their laptop with someone from India for two hours.

Hopefully these observations will help you stay productive in your coffee shop environment of choice. Just remember, like most things, caffeine is best enjoyed in moderation.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

A Tale of Two Writing Groups

It wasn’t until I joined a writing group that I started to feel like a real writer. I’ve been writing for years, harboring hopes and secret dreams, but it wasn’t until I started outing myself to other people that the label started to stick.

Last summer, I joined a writing group that meets every Monday night for two hours. During the meetings we participate in two timed writing prompts and then read our work aloud. The format is loosely based on Natalie Goldberg’s notion of writing practice. This type of improvisational writing is admittedly not my forte. I’m not an off the cuff writer. I work in layers; I write after doing a lot of thinking ahead of time. So this group soon became a way for me to practice writing spontaneously.

The first few weeks I was so nervous I had trouble writing through the nausea I’d feel at the prospect of sharing my work unedited. I desperately wanted not to suck and prove that I belonged alongside the other writers. But as the weeks went by, I realized something. I was only competing with myself. It was up to me to engage with the prompts, to make something out of nothing, to beat the clock. The other members of the group merely served as my witness, cheering me on through solidarity. Sometimes a prompt would really connect with me but not someone else, or vice versa. As weeks turned into months, I’ve noticed my writing has gotten tighter and thanks to the feedback, I’ve developed a better sense of what I do well. And all in a positive, collegial environment.

But then the euphoria I felt being with my writing peers began to wane a few months ago. Participating in the group was a huge boost to my self-confidence, but it wasn’t enough anymore. I was growing tired with merely practicing writing and wanted to transition to writing for publication in a group environment. It didn’t help that my current group only focused on transitory works, never to revisit them. We also only gave each other positive feedback to keep the inner critic at bay. And that was the problem. I wanted criticism – the good and the bad – so I could get better. Only knowing what I was doing well wasn’t an accurate picture of my abilities overall.

I happened to find a listing in the local paper for a writing group that was looking for new members pursing publication. The ad stressed they were looking for serious, professional writers. I wasn’t sure that was me. Sure, I was writing full-time with the goal of publication, but I would not call myself professional, since I was still unpublished. But I thought it couldn't hurt to call for more info. After talking to the organizer, she assured me that I’d fit right in and added me to the mailing list.

I was really excited to be apart of something where publication was a goal, but all my insecurities came back with a vengeance. What if everyone else was awesome and more experienced than me? I didn’t want to be the one holding everyone back. Then there was the issue of the writing sample. This was my first impression with these folks – they would see my writing before they’d see me, and I didn’t want to eff it up.

After a lengthy internal debate, I decided to submit the first five pages of my historical romance novel because I was getting ready to enter a contest and wanted my submission to benefit from the other members’ critiques. (This later turned out to be fortuitous because of Editor X’s full request, but I did not know that at the time.) I had other pieces of course, but I wanted to tinker with them a bit before I sent them out. The romance novel on the other hand was fresh in my mind. But what if the other members hated romance and wouldn’t be able to get past the genre to assess my writing?

But then the other samples from the other participants came in. One incomplete and two finished literary short stories, one comic book script, and a rough introductory chapter to a nonfiction book. A good mix, and nothing in the samples suggested these people would be out of my league. As I started preparing my critiques in anticipation for our meeting, I realized I had a lot to contribute as I went through the different pieces. All the classes I took, all the books I read, the techniques I taught myself were all coming together in a real way. I had internalized so much in working on my own stories, it was easy to overlook the techniques I used almost instinctually. But when looking at other people’s work with fresh eyes, all the tips and tricks I learned were easier to apply and showed me just how far I’d come.

We had our first meeting the last week in April. Just like before, I was terrified. I arrived at the café we’d be meeting at a bit early and sat in the parking lot trying to calm down. When I finally got out of the car and met the others, it was clear we were all in the same position. Some had started subbing already but the rest were people like me – close to sending things out but in need of guidance and support. We went around the table, discussing each piece. When we got to mine, I was thrilled to find that people weren’t turned off by the genre and had some constructive things to say about the piece (which bolstered my courage to send the manuscript off to Editor X the following day).

I’m still meeting with my old writing group, and am looking forward to the second meeting of my new group in two weeks’ time. Each one serves as an outlet for different facets of writing. Here are a few of my guidelines in participating in writing groups:

  • Joining a writing group can help cement your identity as a writer.
  • A writing group can be a safe environment to develop your craft and interact with other writers.
  • Be aware of how the writing group’s scope will and will not help you in developing your craft.
  • Critiquing other people’s work can help put your own writing in perspective.
  • Never underestimate how the support of others can help you on your writing journey.

And finally, here are a couple links to other posts from the past couple of weeks that deal with writing groups that may be of use to you:

How having a critique partner can improve your writing from The Graceful Doe - a discussion of the benefits of working with a critique partner (applicable to writing groups) and recommendations for handling the critique process.

Guidelines for Author Critique Groups from Sylvia Dickey Smith Books - More guidelines for engaging in the critique process.

20 Questions for Test Readers from yingle yangle - a handy list of questions to ask when requesting feedback and to keep in mind when critiquing other people’s work.

Writing Group post series from Writers & Artists:
Part 1 – Every Writer Needs Readers
Part 2 – Establish Your Goals
Part 3 – Learn from Others
Part 4 – Quality Not Quantity

Happy writing (alone or with company)!

Monday, May 10, 2010

Blogger Buddy Award

Thanks again to Laura Marcella of Wavy Lines for the Blogger Buddy Award.

She also tagged me with the following questions that I must provide five answers to:

Question 1 - Where were you five years ago?
  1. Graduating with my master’s degree in Mass Communication.
  2. Panicking because I didn’t know what happens next.
  3. Planning a road trip to the Colorado Rockies for a week of hiking.
  4. Pretending I was going to move to NYC and do something amazing instead of…
  5. Following my boyfriend (now husband) to the Midwest where he was finishing up his PhD.
Question 2 - Where would you like to be five years from now?
  1. Published by a prestigious publisher!
  2. Able to tell my friends and family just what is it I do all day.
  3. Living in my own house, in the foothills of a mountain, with an office (for me), a garden, and a patio to watch the sunset.
  4. Have developed my writing craft to a point I am proud of.
  5. Have visited South America, the Pacific Northwest, Boston, and the English countryside.

Question 3 - What is (was) on your to do list today?
  1. Answer and post this series of questions on my blog.
  2. Run with the dog.
  3. Doctor’s appointment.
  4. Submit my next pieces to my writing group.
  5. Get a mortgage quote from yet another lender.
Question 4 - What 5 snacks do you enjoy?
  1. Chocolate.
  2. Cheese, worthy of cheese plates at fancy restaurants.
  3. Peanut butter toast.
  4. Nuts: almonds, cashews, and pecans… Oh my!
  5. Potato chips, even though I almost never let myself indulge.
Question 5 - What would you do if you were a billionaire?
  1. Pay off everyone in my family’s mortgage.
  2. Give my undergraduate alma mater an endowment for the English Department.
  3. Buy lots of land.
  4. Get a new wardrobe.
  5. Live off the interest.
If you, dear reader, wants to be tagged, be my guest and be sure to post a link to your response in the comments.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Resource Roundup Part 1 – Finding the Right Word

For the first installment of the Resource Roundup series, I’ll be talking about resources and tools (primarily online or computer-based) that will help you find just the word or phrase you need. Other topics will be forthcoming. As this series progresses, I’ll be capturing everything that’s covered on a Resource page that will be available on the sidebar.
We all know the right word in the right place can be transcendental, but getting to that right word can be a hard slog. “A ha!” moments aside, what we want to say often eludes us. In some cases, we are only searching for a synonym; others, we aren’t quite sure what we want to say, but know what we have come up with isn’t right. Still others, we are searching for a conciseness in language that eliminates the ramble. Or the telling detail that lets everything in a story fall into place. This is where art and creativity come into play, but that doesn’t mean you can’t stack the deck in your favor.

Dictionaries on Drugs

WordWeb – The freeware version of this package is amazing (, and I use it almost every time I open Microsoft Word. It provides extensive definitions for words, including some slang and phrases. What makes it so great is that you can see synonyms and related words alongside the definitions. It works offline, and for those of you who are mouse averse, you can customize hot keys. If you stump it, or are looking for greater detail, you have the option to look up terms on Wikipedia or Wiktionary through the same interface. There’s a Pro version as well, but in the two years I’ve been using this program, I’ve been pleased with its current level functionality.

Visual Thesaurus – I probably don’t use this as often as I should, but as the name implies, it provides a visual mapping of a word and its related concepts. You can travel from node to node, activating new terms as you go. In addition to providing definitions, the software also lets you sort items by parts of speech. I tend to use the program the most at either the beginning of a project, when I’m still trying to get a better understanding of the story landscape, or towards the end of a project, where I take what I think is the theme or the recurring tropes in a piece and plug them into the program and see if there are other words and concepts I can work into my story to add continuity – you know, that whole “unity of effect” thing. There’s a couple different subscription options, but if you’re not a bone fide visual thinker, you can probably get away with using the free sample feature on the website (

Reverse Dictionary – This is a website ( I stumbled upon a couple of years ago, and it’s great for the times when you aren’t sure what word or concept you want. Maybe you can only come up with a placeholder word that only hints at what you really want to say. This is when I pull up the Reverse Dictionary. It can generate a word if you know the definition (horseshoer = farrier), provide synonyms, or examples of word. This process can generate a lot of noise (the more words you enter, the more variables it has to consider), but sometimes it’s so right on, it’s scary.

What’s in a Name?

I have a tough time assigning my characters names. The sheer number of names out there can be paralyzing. The right name is evocative, symbolic, and/or indicative of a certain time or place. And since the names of characters appear over and over again in a story, you’d better get them right. – No big surprise here, but a baby name website is tremendously useful when trying to identify just the right name for your characters. What I like about is that you can search names by number of syllables. Often I’ll find I want a name that starts with a T, for example, but has three syllables. The advanced search feature at lets you input these and other criteria to help narrow things down. What’s also nice about their interface is you can mouse over the names in your results list and get a popup window telling you the meaning and origin of the name. In other baby name databases you usually have to click on the name, then go to that name’s page for such info, then click the back button, which is tedious and time-consuming.

Behind the Name – This is another name website ( that I use frequently. I usually double-check my findings from with Behind the Name, particularly origins. Behind the Name also does a better job, in my opinion, with alternate spellings of names. The descriptions of names are more comprehensive than and they appear to have a bigger set of mythological, religious, and historical names, which may be of interest depending on the project you are working on.

Colloquialisms and Clichés

Now if you know anything about writing, this subtitle should make you a bit nervous. We all know we should avoid clichés in our writing and cut out what’s hackneyed and trite. But sometimes in the quest for verisimilitude in our writing – the appearance of truth – these things can creep back in because that’s how our characters think and speak. So the following tools may be of use if you are trying to accurately capture slang, phrases, and clichés in thought or dialogue. Similarly, if you are trying to avoid such things, these tools may be useful in ferreting them out.

Cliché Finder - You can search this database ( and find clichés that include your search term. For example, how many clichés include “moon”?
  • once in a blue moon
  • over the moon
  • by the light of the moon
  • he thinks she hung the moon
  • moon over a boyfriend
  • man in the moon
  • the dark side of the moon
  • the moon is made of green cheese
  • the cow jumped over the moon
The most subversive clichés are the ones you don’t notice anymore. And this tool is great for a quick check of your work.

Phrase Finder  – I first came across this on the Getting Past the Gatekeeper website and it was covered earlier this week by another blog as well. As someone who tends to mix their metaphors and can never remember how the phrase goes because there are just too many of them, this tool ( is very helpful. Many of the phrases are similar to those found in the Cliché Finder, but here, the makers have included the etymology and background for each phrase for all the word nerds out there.

Urban Dictionary – I use this tool ( more often to ensure I understand what’s being said on certain message boards, on reality shows, and by Cartman on South Park than to find words to use in my WIPs. But that said, Urban Dictionary is a great place to find current and ever-evolving slang words and phrases, which can be a good way to illustrate your character’s background or verbal ticks in contemporary stories.

Practice Makes Perfect

Because language acquisition and retention is an ongoing process – use it or lose it, if you will – I am constantly finding ways to build up my vocabulary and language awareness (in addition to reading widely, of course).

Word a Day Emails – I have signed up to receive word-a-day emails from A.Word.A.Day, Merriam-Webster, and Visual Thesaurus. If you are feeling daring, Urban Dictionary has this service as well. These are a great way to learn (or relearn) a new word each day, without having to study the dictionary for hours. First thing in the morning, these emails are waiting in my inbox, and I read through them along with everything else that has accumulated in the night. It’s just a taste to keep the synapses firing. A.Word.A.Day usually has a theme for the words each week; Visual Thesaurus often showcases words relevant to the date in history; and Merriam-Webster just randomly selects words from their dictionary pages.

Schott’s Vocab – This is a blog on the New York Times website ( primarily focused on the use of language in the global news media and occasionally advertising. Often Schott is deconstructing the terminology used by journalists and politicians to describe political and economic conditions. While I am not always interested in the political terms he explicates, it is fascinating to see how these terms originate, who uses them, and for what purposes. It’s easy to forget when you are writing fiction that language is political. When you name something, you are exerting power over it. When a political faction appropriates one term over another, you may want to ask yourself why. And this is what makes Schott’s blog so interesting.

Television – Now before you roll your eyes, think about it. You can’t write ALL the time. It’s ok to veg out in front of the TV sometimes; just keep your eyes and more importantly your ears open. Language is a living thing, and sometimes that’s most obvious in the dialogue on current TV shows.

When you notice the dialogue is really bad, ask yourself why that is and figure out how you would fix it. But when the dialogue is smart, witty, and also entertaining, start paying attention. Think Buffy the Vampire Slayer (and other Whedonesque offerings) or the Gilmore Girls. Both shows had a unique take on language, a distinctive cadence, and different base of referents they drew from. 30 Rock is another show airing currently that has coined a number of pop culture phrases in between the jokes (The Language of 30 Rock and 30 Rock Glossary). What’s great about language is that it can be stretched to accommodate new meanings all the time, regardless of the medium. So take note.

Now I turn it over to you. What are your go-to resources for finding just the right word? What tools have I missed?

Monday, May 3, 2010

Lessons Learned – My First Writing Conference

Two weekends ago, I attended my first writing conference. I thought since I had embraced most aspects of the writing life, I should join my fellow writers in the area and part with some hard-earned money for a daylong writing extravaganza. And if I were writing this post immediately after returning home from the conference, my disappointment with the whole experience would be clear.

Lesson One – All experiences require some time for reflection for their full effect to be recognized.

But we’ll get to that in a moment. The conference organizer started things off Saturday morning with a bit of unimportant housekeeping. But one thing stood out – she recommended that at lunch the attendees sit with someone other than the person they’d be pitching to later in the day. As it would turn out for me, this was excellent advice.

Lesson Two – Never turn down the chance to share your work with industry professionals when given the opportunity to do so.

Following the keynote – which offered more inspiration than insight – it was time for the expert panel with editors and agents, followed by a Q and A with the audience. As people raised their hands and the microphone was passed around the room, I squirmed in my seat, growing increasingly uncomfortable with the type of questions asked and the ignorance displayed by the other attendees. Now, I am/was an unpublished writer full of hope, just like everyone else in that room. But nearly every question asked was something that could have easily been answered by a simple Google search. As disappointed as I was that the questions never moved past the basics of submitting and formatting, I learned something. Two things, actually.

Lesson Three – You probably know more about writing than you think.

Lesson Four – If you take the time to educate yourself on the writing business, on issues of craft etc. (through classes, books, and reading blogs like this one), you know more than the majority of aspiring writers.

Now, I can’t say the attendees of this particular conference were representative of all writers, but the overall lack of awareness was a big boost to my confidence. Which was great because I realized over the course of the expert panel, the agent I was supposed to pitch to would not be interested in my story.

In my defense, I kinda waited until the last minute to sign-up for a pitch session. Like attending the conference, I convinced myself that if I was going to do this whole writing thing the right way, I needed to practice pitching my story. Based on the descriptions of the agents who’d be attending, I chose Agent Y because she repped historical fiction. Since my book was historical romance, I thought I had made a good choice. She was a new agent still building her client list and I had no way prior to the conference to see her track record as most of her projects were still forthcoming. But when Agent Y announced during the panel she didn’t rep romance in any form, I could feel the pitch and writing sample I prepared burning a hole in my bag.

So what to do? With Lesson Two firmly in mind, I decided to sit at Editor X’s lunch table, as it was clear she had extensive editorial experience in the romance genre from the panel. It was high school all over again, as writers rushed to sit at the tables with the editor/agent/writer of their choice, except everyone had a different idea of who the cool kids were. Editor X was, in a word, awesome. She went around the table asking everyone about their project and provided great advice. I left the lunch table with a list of three agents to submit my project to (two I already knew about) and the confirmation that my plans for my manuscript were on target.

Lesson Five – Sometimes confirmation you are on the right track is more valuable than new information.

The afternoon consisted of smaller breakout sessions interspersed with 10-minute pitch appointments. By now, I had banished the urge to skip out on my pitch and told myself that the best way to recover was to admit to Agent Y up front that my project wasn’t a good fit for her and use my 10 minutes to discuss the industry.

Lesson Six – Always have a backup plan; more specifically, other questions to ask if your pitch crashes and burns.

Agent Y was gracious enough to agree, and I learned more about her manuscript preferences and how she evaluates projects – information that may or may not be useful in the future. But at least I didn’t come off as a complete fool and blow the oh-so-important first impression. At the end of our talk, Agent Y suggested I talk to Editor X. I assured her I already had at lunch and gave her my thanks.

The breakout sessions that followed were a bit of a letdown, in the sense that I didn’t learn anything new about topics such as world building, historical research, or writing the short story. The talks only seemed to scratch the surface – something great for beginners, but not for someone a little further along in their craft like me who had already learned so much just by doing.

Lesson Seven – Writing is (still) the best way to learn how to write.

Driving home from the conference, I was disappointed. I had fudged my very first pitch session and although I had confirmation on which agents I should send my manuscript to, I didn’t really get anything else out of the conference. I felt I had squandered my time and money, and would have been better served had I just spent the day writing at home.

But then on Tuesday, I received an email from the conference organizer, telling me that Editor X was interested in seeing my manuscript and that I should send it on if it was indeed complete. Now, setting aside the remarkableness of this request for a moment, I must stress the fact that Editor X had no reason to know my name. I sat across from her at lunch in the farthest possible spot, and I didn’t see her again after that. What I suspect happened is Agent Y mentioned me to Editor X after my failed pitch session, and Editor X, now armed with my name, asked the organizer to pass on the request. Talk about remarkable.

So with much dithering and hand wringing and line editing, I sent in my manuscript on Wednesday. Half an hour later, I kid you not, Editor X wrote back, saying she was glad I got her message and that although she had to read agented manuscripts first, she’d get back to me eventually. And that’s how I got my first full request without ever sending a query to an agent.

Maybe this is not so uncommon… for editors and agents to be so kind and open to hopeful writers. I find it hard to believe I made that much of an impression at lunch to justify Editor X’s request. Maybe she just felt bad for me after talking to Agent Y. I don’t know. But what I do know is that an editor at a major publishing house will read my manuscript.

I don’t know what happens next. Every writer’s journey is different (just browse the ‘How I got my agent’ series on the GLA blog) but had I not gone to this conference…well, let’s not go there.
Lesson Eight – Always be open to new opportunities. You never know what could happen!
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