Write Well, Sell Well

wwsw-2016bannerIf you live within driving distance of Oklahoma City, make plans to attend the 2016 Write Well, Sell Well conference October 21-22. Just a few of the featured guests are: Bestselling author William Bernhardt, literary agent Greg Johnson and Thomas Nelson acquisitions editor Janene McIver.

And guess who else is going to be there? That’s right, yours truly.

Christy Johnson and I will conduct a workshop designed to help authors perfect their pitches before they meet with agents and editors.

If you’re going to attend, I’d love to see you, so be sure to find me and say hello.

Small, local conferences are a great way to improve your craft, get to know fellow writers, and meet industry professionals without spending big money on registration fees and travel to attend a national conference.

I hope to see you in OKC in October!

Delighted to be mentioned

Where-to-Find-a-Good-Book-Editor1-683x1024

I was honored to find my name on K.M. Weiland’s blog listing great book editors. See the post (and a lot of other great editors’  names) here: https://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/good-book-editor/

Searching for the Poetry in the Story

Fatal-Flaws-FINAL-ebook-coverThis blog is part of the  Fatal Flaws of Fiction at Live, Write, ThriveFor more great advice on conquering the fatal flaws of fiction, pick up the book, 5 Editors Tackle the 12 Fatal Flaws of Fiction. It’s available now from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and iBooks.  Until the end of December, 2015, when you buy the paper copy from Amazon, the e-b00k is free–one for you, and one for a friend. 

 

 

If your readers wanted poetry, they’d pick up a Robert Frost anthology. Or perhaps Emily Dickinson or Shakespeare, right?

I don’t think so.

Yet, readers are looking for poetry, even if they don’t know it.

Well, maybe not poetry, but cadence. Readers want to hear words put together in beautiful ways. They want sentences to roll like waves or batter like bullets. They want to see alluring alliterations and evocative metaphors.

Readers long for beauty in words the way tourists seek out beauty in landscape and architecture. Perhaps they fly to Paris for the wine and cheese, but they’ll admire the Notre Dame on the way to dinner, and the trip will be richer for it.

How do you make your stories as satisfying as a great French meal and as grand as the Notre Dame? One way is to consider cadence when you write.

Cadence Is Not Just Pretty Writing

Cadence is rhythm. It’s that thing that makes you need to finish a limerick or lyric. If I were to sing “The wheels on the bus” Everybody in the room would say or at least think, “. . . go round and round.” You can’t help yourself because cadence longs to be finished. Poetry has a rhythm, and rhythm longs for completion.

Beautiful writing is about more than cadence though. It’s also about choosing lovely words, choosing the right words—those that reflect the scene and mood. It’s about letting people see beyond the words to the setting and characters and emotions beneath. It’s hard to describe, so let’s look at an example.

Before:

It was raining outside. I felt safe inside, in my living room, where it was dry. I was wearing a pair of pink pajama pants, sweatshirt, and a pair of thick socks. I made myself a cup of hot chocolate. I cuddled up in front of the fireplace with my cat, who was named Mrs. Boots. The cat snuggled her head into my elbow. Everything was good in the world, and I felt content. But then I heard a noise outside, where there was some kind of a bump, and I got scared.

Technically, there’s nothing wrong with the above paragraph. The words and punctuation are being used correctly. But does that paragraph have any rhythm? Any cadence? Does it evoke any emotions?

Before we look at the After paragraph, let’s analyze this one a little. The first sentence is boring and tells us very little. Is it a gentle rain or a hard rain? A warm rain or a cold rain? Is it daytime or night? Or is it daytime but dark because of the rain? Is there thunder and lightning? How long has it been raining? How long is it going to rain? So that first sentence, while technically correct, tells us next to nothing.

The second sentence—“I felt safe inside, in my living room, where it was dry.”—irritates me on multiple levels. First, it tells us this person felt safe. But in fiction we’re supposed to show, not tell. Also it uses the word inside and in back-to-back. And really, isn’t it safe to assume it’s dry inside? That last phrase is redundant and unnecessary.

Think about the third sentence: “I was wearing a pair of pink pajama pants, sweatshirt, and a pair of thick socks.” You always want to write with parallel structure. In that sentence, you can’t have “a pair of” a sweatshirt, though. We could fix it like this: “I wore pajama pants, a sweatshirt, and thick socks.” That’s better, because the cadence flows. Read it aloud and hear what I mean.

Another option: “I wore my favorite pink pajama pants and my blue Red Sox sweatshirt.” I like the extra detail of the “Red Sox,” and I think it gives us a little clue about the character. Do we need the socks? If so, then we’d need to work that information in another way.

The next sentence is blah but not worth parsing. These two are next: “I cuddled up in front of the fireplace with my cat, who was named Mrs. Boots. The cat snuggled her head into my elbow.” The word cat is used twice back-to-back. Is the “who was named” necessary? What about: “I cuddled in front of the fireplace. Mrs. Boots jumped onto the sofa with me and nudged her furry body in the crook of my elbow. She looked at me with her big gold eyes and purred until I scratched her behind the ears.” Better, I think, and I didn’t use the word “cat” once.

The next sentence isn’t worth mentioning. The final thought: “But then I heard a noise outside, where there was some kind of a bump, and I got scared.” Aside from the obvious telling—“I got scared”—this sentence is clunky and inelegant. The reader won’t get nervous because of that noise, though he might cringe at the bad writing.

So the sentences taken alone aren’t good, and when you read them together, they make the whole thing worse. There is no cadence or rhythm to that paragraph, no poetry, no imagery. Just flat words on a page. Let’s look at the After passage.

After:

The rain streamed down the window and plopped in puddles on the back porch. I squinted in the darkness and could barely make out the trees bent and whipping in the wind. I snuggled in my favorite Red Sox sweatshirt, grabbed a steaming cup of hot chocolate, and headed for the living room. The fire I’d lit earlier was already warming the downstairs, drawing the dampness away. I’d turned off the TV when the satellite went out, which was right after the weatherman promised the storm would pass by morning.

I set my mug on the coffee table, lifted my novel, and settled into the corner of the sofa. Mrs. Boots, never one to miss an opportunity, climbed onto my lap. She implored me with those big brown eyes, her purrs louder than the thunder rumbling in the distance. “Okay, settle down.” I scratched her behind the ears, and she laid her head on top of her furry paws with a look of pure contentment.

With one hand petting the cat, I lifted my book again. I had just finished a chapter when something startled me. I paused and listened. Surely nobody would venture this far from town on such a dark and treacherous night, but after a moment, I heard the sound again. A bump, then a scraping. And the noises were coming from the back porch.

I hope you agree that’s better. I attempted to lull the reader into a sense of comfort and security, because that is how the main character feels. But I also wanted to hint at the impending danger with the thunder rumbling in the distance. Frankly, that’s a subtle hint, and it’s not important to me that the reader pick up on that. If the reader feels content and then surprised by the bump, then the reader feels what the heroine is feeling, and that’s the objective.

Mastering the Art of Poetry

Think about each word. Is your character feeling content? Then the rain might pitter-patter on the deck. Is the mood darker? Then the rain could pound against roof. Same situation, but the word pound conveys a very different feel than the whimsical pitter-patter. Many words convey some sort of emotion, not just in their meaning but in their sounds. For instance, is it any wonder that the word beautiful is much more commonly used than its synonym pulchritudinous. There is nothing beautiful about that word. And while comely may mean pretty, it’s too close to its antonym homely to be used very often. So the words you choose and their sounds matter.

One great way to discover if there’s rhythm in your prose is to read it aloud. Hear the words you’ve chosen and listen to their sounds. Hear the rhythm, the cadence. Ask yourself if it sounds right, and keep working on it until it does.

Finding the poetry in the story leads not only to better writing but to fuller immersion. It’s worth the extra time, and like so many of our fatal flaws, it may be difficult at first to get a handle on it, but as you work on it, your prose will naturally become more poetic.

Your turn:

Do you struggle with finding just the right words or phrases to add some cadence to your writing? Do you find reading your pages out loud helps you hear the cadence (or lack thereof)? Which authors do you admire for their beautiful rhythms?

Pursuing Excellence In Writing

I started Finding Amanda, my latest full-length novel, duringNaNoWriMo. The first 55,000 words flowed onto the page in November of 2011. I continued quickly through the end of the year, and in January of 2012, I typed those two wonderful words, “The End.”
And then the real work began. The book was mediocre at best. After having eight critique partners read through it, after cutting it from 107,000 words to around 90,000, after pouring over every word painstakingly for a year, it was ready.
NaNoWriMo encourages authors to write fast. But for most writers, that first draft is just the raw material. The masterpiece is created in the editing process. Authors who choose do the hard work to polish their manuscripts are the ones who pursue excellence.
But we Christian authors are writing with God, so it shouldn’t be hard, right? Doesn’t having the Sovereign Creator on our side make the work easy? Far from it. The apostle Paul was working alongside God throughout his ministry, and what does he say about it? “…I worked harder than any of then, though it was not I but the grace of God that is with me” (I Corinthians 15:10). The road to excellence will require diligent work.
Perhaps I shouldn’t assume that excellence is your goal. I would suggest that it should be. There are many scriptures that discuss this issue, but one of my favorites is Malichi 1:14, which reads in part: “Cursed be the cheat who has a male in his flock, and vows it, and yet sacrifices to the Lord what is blemished.” Offering mediocre work to the Lord is a dangerous business. Excellence should be everybody’s goal.
But what is excellence? It is the quality of being excellent, and Merriam-Websterdefines excellent like this: “Meritoriously near the standard or model; very good of its kind.” Read that again, and note: Excellent does not mean perfect. Perfection is an impossible standard for us mere humans, and its pursuit often serves only to highlight our flaws and paralyze us with fear.
It seems to me that those who insist on perfection rely on self to achieve it. Isaiah 64:6 reads in part, “All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags.” Our efforts to be perfect will never amount to anything. To insist on perfection in our work or anybody else’s denies God’s truth that we are frail humans in need of a Savior.
On the other hand, those who strive for excellence trust that the one and only perfect God can use even our flaws for His glory. As Paul says, “When I am weak, He is strong” (I Corinthians 12:10). He is perfect, and in Him and Him alone can we find perfection. He who seeks excellence also understands Psalm 18:32: “It is God who arms me with strength and makes my way perfect.”
We may never be perfect, but the pursuit of excellence encourages us to do our very best. Proverbs 22:29 reads, “Do you see a man skillful in his work? He will stand before kings; he will not stand before obscure men.” Although you may not literally stand before kings, you never know who will read your words, nor can you know the impact you can have when you hone your skills. Pursuing excellence takes work, but consider the alternative: “The soul of the sluggard craves and gets nothing, while the soul of the diligent is richly supplied (Proverbs 13:4).
Excellence does not mean we are better than others or that we should strive to be. When did God ever say, “Do better than your brother” or “Be excellent, so you can make your sister look bad”? In fact, I Corinthians 4:6 specifically warns against that when it reads in part “…none of you may be puffed up in favor of one against another.” God wants us to offer Him our best efforts without concerning ourselves with what others are doing. The question should not be, “Am I better than my competition?” What we need to ask ourselves is this: “Am I pouring my heart and soul and strength into honing the skills and the craft? Am I walking alongside my Lord, learning from Him and creating with Him?”
Excellence recognizes that God is the source of our talents and the inspiration for our stories. I Corinthians 12:5-6 tells us, “…there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone.” So God empowers our activities, and only He can take what we create and use it for His glory. Alone, we can only ever hope to achieve mediocre results. But with God, our meager efforts combine with his eternal power to accomplish amazing things.
Finally, it’s important to note that within the pursuit of excellence is the assumption that we will rest. The Lord takes rest seriously enough that he made this the fourth commandment: “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy” (Exodus 20:8). We will never learn it all. We will never be perfect, and we don’t have to be. When we realize that God is the Author—and for us novelists, that word takes on special meaning—then we can trust His perfect plan, which always includes rest, rejuvenation, and peace. The result is not up to you. You do your part in pursuing excellence, and God will always show up to do the rest.
In what ways are you pursing excellence in your writing career?

Do you have difficulty separating excellence from perfection?

How Writers Can Avoid “Underwriting” Emotions

FatalFlaw_9-150x150I’m blogging at Live, Write, Thrive today on Underwriting Emotions. Here’s an excerpt:

Show, don’t tell. That lesson is drummed into novelists’ heads, and for good reason. Readers don’t want to be told stories; they want to experience them. They want to charge into battle with your hero, face down the enemy with your heroine. They want to be in the action, not just watch it from the sidelines. They want to feel your story.

And great writers oblige, moving from scene to scene quickly, including vivid details to help the reader imagine the settings, filling each moment with tension and conflict. But sometimes, the emotions get lost along the way. And this can lead to “underwriting”—what we’ve been looking at all month. Leaving out important pieces that are needed to engage your readers.

What’s Missing When You “Tell” Emotions?

You certainly don’t want to name emotions with fabulous writing like “She was sad.” That’s pure telling. So writers find a way to show it. “Her eyes filled with tears.” Great, now we know she was sad. But there’s always more to sadness than just tears.

The last time you cried, was your brain engaged? Because mine was. In fact, it was probably what was happening in your brain that caused the tears. Let me take it a step further. Every emotion we wear on our skin is an outward manifestation of something deeper.

You might be able to tell if your spouse is mad because of that little vein that throbs on his forehead, but can you tell what led to his anger? Was it frustration? Irritation? Jealousy? Was he feeling critical? Or defensive? Or perhaps fearful. Some of us rage against fear.

So as an author, if you just show us the throbbing vein or the teary eyes, you’re missing an opportunity to show us the character’s emotions. You’re underwriting.

Read the rest at Live, Write, Thrive.

How Writers Can Seek and Destroy Banal and Obvious Dialog

FatalFlaw_8-150x150I’m blogging at Live, Write, Thrive today. This month, we’re looking at Fatal Flaw of Fiction #8, Flawed Dialog Construction. Here’s a sneak peek of the post:

This month, we’ve been discussing writing great dialog. I’ve heard editors say that when they’re evaluating a manuscript, they’ll check the first block of dialog to see how the author handles it. The manuscripts of authors who don’t have a handle on dialog get passed over. It’s that important.

The problem is that dialog needs to sound realistic, but you don’t want it to be realistic, for one very good reason—realistic dialog is boring. Here’s an example of what I mean. In this passage, the heroine, Reagan, is desperate to get some information from Walter.

Before:

Walter answered on the second ring. “Walter Boyle.”

“Hi, Walter. It’s Rae.”

“Wow, Rae. How are you?”

“I’m okay, Walter. How about you?”

“Oh, it’s been busy. I love my job, though. Working as a reporter for the New York Times was always my dream job, so I’m not going to complain. I haven’t heard from you in months. I’ve been calling and calling, but you never call me back. Where have you been? What’s been going on with you?”

“I’m glad you still love your job. I’ve been . . .” She thought of the infant sleeping upstairs. “Busy. Listen, I need a favor.”

“Of course you need a favor. You always need a favor. You practically fall off the edge of the world, but as soon as you need something, then you call me. First, you need to tell me what you’ve been up to.”

“I really don’t have time to go into all of that right now. And it was awkward, you know, because we were together, and now I’m with someone else. I didn’t know how you felt about that. But still, I really need a favor.”

Bored yet? Read the rest of the post–and a much better version of this dialog exchange, at Live, Write, Thrive.

How Fiction Writers can Show Emotions in the Characters in Effective Ways

FatalFlaw_6-150x150I’m blogging at Live, Write, Thrive today about showing emotions in your characters. Here’s an excerpt:

This month, we’ve been studying that famous axiom for fiction writers: show, don’t tell. Today, I’m going to tackle what I think is the most difficult thing to show in our novels—emotions.

If you’ve been writing for a while, no doubt you’ve heard it’s not acceptable to name emotions. Don’t tell us Mary is sad. Show us she’s sad.

Many writers lean on a clever trick to show emotions—they describe a character’s physical reactions to emotions. So characters are often crying, yelling, and slamming doors. Their stomachs are twisting, their hands are trembling, and their cheeks are burning. We hear exasperated breaths and soft sighs. Don’t even get me started on heartbeats. Some characters’ hearts are so erratic, I fear they’re going into cardiac arrest.

Stop by and read the rest at Live, Write, Thrive.