Taking "write what you know" too literally

| Monday, August 29, 2011
Today's Tune: Rolling In The Deep

We've all heard that we need to "write what we know." But what happens when we take that recommendation too far?

If we stick too closely to the idea that we can only write about topics within our own realm of experience, we might be setting up limits for ourselves and our writing. We might end up with a semi-autobiographical (or even fully autobiographical) retelling of our own life, with an author avatar for a protagonist. Sure, this can work if it's done well (Looking For Alaska is often cited as a semi-autobiographical work loosely based on John Green's own experiences at his boarding school), but it can also flop.

A lot of beginning writers go this route. They write stories based around their own lives and they create characters that are thinly-veiled copies of themselves and people they know. Many people go through this stage. I did. I imagine a lot of my readers probably did, too. It's just one of the multitude of steps we go through on our writing journey, along with imitating styles we admire and trying to mimic the classics.

And, let's face it, the "write what you know" advice exists for a reason. If we write about a subject we have literally no clue about, it shows. Many a story has been slammed by critics for being insensitive or ignorant in its portrayal of X subject or Y character.

So, if we have to be careful not to write a fictionalized autobiography (which can, uh, cause some personal rifts if friends and family recognize themselves as characters), and we also have to be careful not to write about something we're completely clueless about, then what do we do?

We find the middle ground. We research. We give subjects the proper respect and proper due. It's absolutely okay to want to write about something you've never personally experienced yourself. For instance, I've never been male. Or a racial minority. Or an archeologist. But I can certainly write about those topics if I do my due diligence, which may include anything from reading other accounts of those topics to speaking with members of various groups.

The key here is really the pursuit of knowledge on the subject. Don't just assume you know about an experience you've never had (such as the experience of being a teenage girl when you have never, in fact, been a teenage girl). Read books about it. Talk to people in the know. Ask questions. Really try to get into the mindset, understand and empathize with a situation you've never experienced.

In the end, "writing what you know" can be taken too literally. We think if we've never experienced something, then we can't write about it. And honestly, that may be true if it's something too far out of our natural state of mind for us to understand. But we can also apply our own lived experiences to other topics.

For example: I have never been mugged. I do not know the fear or emotions that go along with such an experience. However, I have been home alone when I thought someone was trying to break into my apartment, and I have had overbearing men corner me at bars or on the street. I imagine I can very easily apply these similar experiences to the experience of being mugged to reasonably draw on what it might feel like.

What say you, readers? What do you think about the term "write what you know?" Do you think some writers are too strict with it? Not strict enough?

The "I'm writing like a kid" Excuse

| Friday, August 26, 2011
Today's Tune: Rebellion (Lies)

"I'm writing 'incorrectly' because this is how a teenager or child would actually write."

Oh my glob, you guys. Not going to lie: every time I hear this come out of someone's mouth after criticism regarding grammar mistakes/misused words/poor sentence structure/whatever, I kind of want to squirt them with the discipline bottle I use on my cats.


Yes, I have actually heard people make this excuse for problematic writing before. And no, I have never believed them for a single second. When I hear this, in my head I'm basically hearing, "I'm too lazy to fix it and I'm using the fact that I'm writing for young people as an excuse." Nice try.

Saying something like this seriously makes you sound like a condescending jerkwad. Oh, I see, you think children and teens are too stupid/uneducated/poorly read/whatever to realize when your writing is sub-par. You're also saying that they can't write for beans. That's nice.

I'd just like to clarify here that I'm not talking about deliberate voice construction, like in MT Anderson's Feed, where the teenage characters write/speak in casual slang. The intentional voice choices Anderson made in that novel clearly convey his intent: illustrating a dystopian society of people who are so jacked up on advertisement and immediacy that their method of communication has devolved and become vapid. Also, the prose itself is very well done.

What I'm talking about here is sloppy, unedited writing. Just because there are children and teenagers out there who write poorly doesn't mean YOU get to write poorly. That's like saying, "I'm writing a story about some random guy and I'm not going to correct my grammar mistakes because the average Joe probably wouldn't, either." No. Sorry. Play again.

For an illustration of intentional voice, I give you this example from the opening page of Feed:

"We went to the moon to have fun, but the moon turned out to completely suck.

We went on a Friday, because there was shit-all to do at home. It was the beginning of spring break. Everything at home was boring. Link Arwaker was like, 'I'm so null,' and Marty was all, 'I'm null too, unit,' but I mean we were all pretty null, because for the last like hour we'd been playing with three uninsulated wires that were coming out of the wall. We were trying to ride shocks off them. So Marty told us that there was this fun place for lo-grav on the moon. Lo-grav can be kind of stupid, but this was supposed to be good. It was called the Ricochet Lounge. We thought we'd go for a few days with some of the girls and stay at a hotel there and go dancing."

So. From that excerpt, you can see that there's a strong element of voice to this narrator, and that voice is casual and slang-y and sort of ditzy. There's a run-on sentence and some weird structure going on here, but it works. It works because you can tell Anderson is the master of his words and his style. His character sounds believably teenaged and he's breaking a few writing "rules," but it's clear he did so intentionally and with a goal in mind.

Now compare to this (completely made up) example:

"Josie is like completely, freaking lately. She dont have any idea how hard it is being a ghost like me. We were totally best friends until last year when I died and now its like she is this selfish bitch who doesn't want to help me at all anymore and she totally stole my boyfriend too. I hate watching them kissing it makes me so mad. If I could make my fist solid I would totally punch them both in their dumb faces but I can't so I don't. But I can sure as heck make sure her shower stays cold, mwa ha ha."

This is an extremely (intentionally) bad example, but the idea's there. I'm sure you could find someone out there somewhere who really does talk/write like this, but that doesn't make it pleasant to read. There's no purpose behind the authorial choices I made here. My narrator is a teenaged ghost, but none of this relates directly to that or adds to the situation in any way. It's just unedited and sloppy.

So. Don't refuse to edit or strengthen your work and then use the excuse that you're writing "like a kid." It's insulting. If you display mastery over your writing and use it to add to the voice/situation, THEN you can claim you're intentionally writing "like a kid." Respect the intelligence of your audience.

Can you all think of any other examples of novels where the narrator has a very childlike or teenaged voice without it detracting from the writing itself?

The Dreaded Multiple POV Novel

| Wednesday, August 24, 2011
Today's Tune: Everybody

In my post about Head Hopping from Monday, I mentioned that I'd be writing a companion entry dedicated to the terrifying Mount Everest of multiple-POV novels. Aaaaaand off we go!

I don't think it's a huge secret that multiple-POV novels are notoriously difficult to pull off, right? I mean, if you weren't aware: they're super difficult to pull off. Just so you know. Yes, in theory, anyone can write a novel from the point of view of several characters, but that doesn't mean it's going to flow smoothly or make sense or feel right. At worst, a multi-POV story can devolve into a convoluted mess where it's impossible for readers to connect to any of the characters because it's all chaotic and BLEARGH.

First things first: deciding on your style. Are you going for a dual POV? Perhaps a romance that switches between both leads? Or are you interested in more of an ensemble set up? Will it be a small ensemble (perhaps 3-5 characters), or a very large ensemble, like in Tom Leveen's Party? Dude wrote a book with eleven narrators. ELEVEN.

Okay, you know how many characters you're following. Now you have to decide how you're going to follow them. Is your narrator omniscient and all-knowing; able to peek inside the head of any character at any time? Or are you interested in more of a close-third or first-person narration style, switching off between scenes or chapters? (Here's where that whole head hopping post may come in handy).

Next, it's important to ask yourself why you want to tell the story this way. You need to make sure that there is a real, functional purpose for telling a story from multiple points of view. How will following multiple characters best serve the story you're trying to tell? Will the story be genuinely stronger if it's told this way, or are you doing it "just because?" If you want to try multiple POV because you have this secondary character you really like and you think it'd be fun to have a chapter from their perspective, that may not be the right reason.

A few reasons for telling a story from multiple perspectives: to maintain mystery and reveal information slowly. To increase tension between characters. To tell two or more "separate" stories that will eventually intertwine. To give different viewpoints on the same event, leading up to a big reveal. Revealing information to the reader that will increase the stakes for another character who is kept in the dark. There are many more, but these may give you a general idea.

Hopefully you've made your decisions about all these elements. Now comes the hard part: making it work. How do you craft a narrative from multiple points of view without turning it into a Slap-Chopped noodle salad? Here are a few things to keep in mind.

Stick to one POV per chapter. In order to avoid the dreaded head-hopping, which will horribly confuse your reader, it's a good practice to only follow one character's POV per chapter. It gives the reader a clean break before they have to jump into a new mind. If you must switch POVs in the middle of a chapter (and by "must," I mean you're doing it because it's what best serves the story and it's necessary), do so at a natural scene break. It might be a good idea to use a line break (an extra space between paragraphs) to establish time passed and/or character switch, as well. For examples of switching POV each chapter, see Shiver and Across The Universe.

When writing in first-person, it's important for each character to have a distinctive voice. This is probably one of the biggest complaints I see about multiple POV novels: the characters all sound the same. The reader can't tell them apart. What's the point of telling a story from multiple perspectives if the voices aren't different, etc. To cite Beth Revis' Across The Universe again, she does a pretty good job of giving her two MCs, Elder and Amy, distinctive voices with their own verbal tics and unique outlook. This isn't as important in third-person, since the narrator is more removed, but in first-person, a reader should quickly be able to tell they're in a different character's head. They shouldn't have to go back and look at the chapter heading to figure out whose POV they're in.

Don't overwhelm yourself. There's a difference between giving yourself a challenge and biting off more than you can chew. Don't go for the ten-character ensemble cast if you can't handle keeping track of that many different threads. Complicated does not necessarily mean better. In fact, it's usually best to keep it simple and build small, rather than juggling more balls than you can catch.

Be mindful of whose head you're in. Tying right back around to the head hopping post: remember that you can't jump from head-to-head-to-head without giving your reader fair warning/some kind of indication. That's where the chapter breaks/line breaks come in handy. You don't have to beat readers over the head with it, but the shifts should flow naturally and not be confusing.

Remember: you should be telling a story in multiple-POV because that's the way the story MUST be told. Multiple-POV can be extremely messy. It can become too repetitive and convoluted, or it can reveal too much information and kill tension. It's difficult to balance. But when it's done well, man, it can be amazing.

What are some of your favorite multiple-POV novels? Why did you love them so much? What did they do well?

Writers' Platform-Building Campaign!

| Tuesday, August 23, 2011

So, you've all heard about Rach Write's Third Writers' Platform-Building Campaign, right? No? Well, you have now!

If you're an aspiring (or agented, or published) author who would like to connect with other writers who share your interests and are genuinely interested in helping you build your online campaign, then head on over to Rach Write's blog and sign up.

Get on out there and get mingling! And remember: to receive support, you've got to give it, too :)

What does "head hopping" mean?

| Monday, August 22, 2011
Today's Tune: The Lazy Song

When sharing your work with other writing partners or receiving critique, you may hear someone use the term "head hopping, " as in, "You head-hopped from Character A to Character B here and it took me out of the narrative."

But what does that MEAN? Shouldn't you be able to tell the audience what every one of your characters is thinking and feeling at a given time?

Yes and no. It largely depends on which POV (point-of-view) you use, and even then, there are rules. Here's the thing: your ultimate goal should be to create a situation where, no matter how fantastical your story becomes, the audience is willing to suspend their disbelief and go along for the ride. However, even when writing fiction, there are certain things that will yank a reader out of the story and make them go, "Wait a minute, that's not right."

Head hopping is one of those things. "Head hopping" is a term that refers to a sudden and unexplained point-of-view shift. In other words, it's a situation where either the current POV character makes an observation they couldn't possibly know, or the reader suddenly finds themselves "hearing" the thoughts or emotions of a different character in the scene. It's a form of "authorial intrusion," or when an author lets their own knowledge show through in a situation where it doesn't work.

This is especially jarring in first-person POV, because first-person automatically indicates that we are inside one particular character's head. Therefore, that character can't make observations like, "Mrs. Anderson pursed her lips and wondered if I'd forgotten to do my homework again." There's absolutely no way for the narrator to know what Mrs. Anderson is thinking. Unless they're a mind-reader, but for the purposes of this post, we're assuming telepathy is a non-issue.

Third-person grants a little more leeway, since omniscient narration is possible. Still, it's usually a good idea to stick to the POV of one particular character in a given scene in order to prevent confusing your reader. However, if you're writing in close-third (aka, following one and only one character throughout the majority of the novel, as in the Harry Potter series), then you can't head-hop at all. When we were in Harry's POV, we didn't know what Ron or Hermione or Dumbledore or Snape were thinking or feeling. We only knew the actions Harry observed from them, and drew our own conclusions alongside him.

It is possible to pull off head hopping within a single scene, but it's incredibly difficult to do well. More often than not, the head-hop is a casual throwaway mention that the author didn't really intend, as in the Mrs. Anderson example above. Just be mindful of whether you're revealing a non-POV character's emotions or thoughts in a situation where it's not possible for your MC to know those things. Always remember, the MC can make subjective observations about a persons body language, speech, word choice, or actions, but they can't "know" what they're thinking.

Here's an example of head hopping:

"Keith clenched his teeth and punched the wall in frustration. With a howl of pain, he gripped his hand to his chest. The knuckles were bleeding. Great. He saw movement out of the corner of his eye. Marcy stood there, completely disgusted and wishing she'd never agreed to go out with him. Keith thought about trying to explain the situation with Dad and Jake and their whole stupid fight, but he knew it'd be useless. She'd already made up her mind."

Here, we're in Keith's POV, but we're "hearing" some of Marcy's thoughts. Although this is third, we're still in close-third to Keith, and there's no way for him to really know what she's thinking. He can only assume based on her actions.

Here's the same scene without the head hopping:

"Keith clenched his teeth and punched the wall in frustration. With a howl of pain, he gripped his hand to his chest. The knuckles were bleeding. Great. He saw movement out of the corner of his eye. Marcy stood there with a grossed-out look on her face. Keith thought about trying to explain the situation with Dad and Jake and their whole stupid fight, but he knew it'd be useless. She'd probably never go out with him again anyway."

As you can see, very minor changes. He sees the grossed-out look and assumes she'll probably never go out with him again. We remain in Keith's head the whole time.

I'm planning on writing a companion-entry to this one about multiple-POV novels, so keep an eye out for it! So, dear readers, have you ever seen an incidence of head hopping that you felt totally worked? What was it?

Write smart. Write well. Write whatever.

| Wednesday, August 17, 2011
Today's Tune: This Too Shall Pass

Outside Lands in San Francisco was AWESOME, by the way. Because I knew you were interested. I got to see a bunch of amazing bands and eat a bunch of delicious street food and it was fabulous.

Back to the grind!

So, goodness knows that we writerly types can suffer a serious case of the Self-Doubts. The realm of writing and publishing is big and scary. There are so many RULES. There are all these rumors about agents with shark teeth who will snark you into oblivion if you stick a toe out of line. And the worst part? All these rules and preferences seem to be largely subjective and contradictory. It's enough to make just about any wannabe author cower under the covers of their safe, warm bed.

Mmmmmm bed. Anyway.

A lot of newer writers who are just starting to learn the ropes often have all kinds of weird questions to ask, especially when they have the ear of a publishing professional. Which is awesome! Knowledge is power! But more and more, as I watch the questions that pop up repeatedly, it becomes clear that many "young" writers (in experience, if not in years) are completely under-confident in their abilities and want someone to reassure them that they're doing it right.

So I'm here to tell you: if you're writing and you're enjoying what you're doing, then you're doing it right.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not the sort to be all "rah rah, do whatever you want, ignore the rules, and if the publishing industry doesn't understand your art, it's because they're great big dumb-dumbs!" Because I do not believe that. At all. I believe that writing with style takes time, effort, and discipline, and even then it might take several tries before you write a manuscript worth selling. Them's the breaks.

BUT. I also think it's important to write the way that works best for you. As long as you've put in the effort to understand the technical and stylistic elements of writing, you can do almost anything you want.

If you're wondering if it's okay to write in a weird style or break Writing Rule #342 or get all experimental, the answer is yes. It's okay. It's all okay. Go nuts. As long as you're doing it well, you're doing it right. After a certain point, when you've learned enough and written enough, it's okay to start being confident in your work. You don't have to seek permission to experiment, because in the end, it's impossible for a subjective party to tell you that something is 100% never okay. It's always about the execution.

So hold your head up high and do absolutely anything you want. I will forever and till the end of time espouse that the rules exist for a reason and you must know them in order to break them, but break them you can. If you can make it work, then shoot for the sun, dudes.

Don't bind yourself to someone else's personal preferences. Even the hardest of the hard-nosed literary agents have been known to fall head-over-heels for something they should completely hate, but someone managed to pull it off with flair.

I think the moral of the story is this: Write smart. Write well. Write confidently. And write whatever you damn well please.

YA!Flash and a Blog Award

| Friday, August 12, 2011
Today's Tune: Nobody Dances Anymore

Good news, everyone! The YA Flash tumblog is off to a great start. If you're on Tumblr, you should follow along for your daily YA fix. Spread the word!

Several people sent an award my way this week (thank you Margo, Charlee, and Megan!), which gave me a big case of the warm fuzzies. This is the Libester Blog award, which is bestowed to awesome blogs with less than 200 followers.

The rules of the award are:

   1. Thank the giver and link back to the blogger who gave it to you.
   2. Reveal your top 5 picks and let them know by leaving a comment on their blog.
   3. Copy and paste the award on your blog.
   4. Have faith that your followers will spread the love to other bloggers.
   5. And most of all - have bloggity-blog fun!

I have to admit, I kind of hate having to pass an award forward, because I always feel like I'll miss somebody or make someone feel bad, so I usually prefer not to do it. But because I like the idea behind this award, which is to highlight some great blogs with smaller followings, I'll try it out.

My first pick is Ms. Phoebe North, who is bright and funny and recently agented. Her blog posts are always thought-provoking and intelligent, and she writes some stellar book reviews. She's never afraid to be honest, and she's always professional.

Next up is Brooke Busse, who is one of my current lovely critique partners. She posts a lot of original work she writes from various prompts. They're always clever and fun to read. A great out-of-the-box thinker, and a promising young writer.

Emy Shin is another critique partner. She writes YA and is currently working on a speculative novel with a really cool time travel premise. Keep an eye on her!

I know they already got a nudge this week, but I'll throw out Wicked and Tricksy, as well. W and T is a fabulous group blog exclusively dedicated to speculative fiction (Sci-Fi, Fantasy, Urban Fantasy, etc.). The posts are helpful, and every week they feature a different guest poster. If you write spec fiction, you should check them out.

And... unfortunately I can't pick a fifth blogger because the Follower tracker apparently went poof, so I can't tell who has less than 200 followers. Ugh. So, go ahead and pick someone from the comments section of this post to visit!

I'm off for a weekend of food, wine, art, and music at Outside Lands in San Francisco and it's going to be awesoooooome. No post on Monday, because I will be completely bushed. I'll be back in action on Wednesday. Have an awesome weekend!

Increasing tension in tensionless scenes.

| Wednesday, August 10, 2011
Today's Tune: Get Over It

If there's one thing I've learned from writing ALL THE WORDS, it's that things are inevitably going to get cut. Scenes that serve no purpose for the greater narrative, needless words, boring filler, etc. And it's not just the "bad" stuff that gets the axe -- I've had to cut many a scene that I've absolutely loved, but it didn't quite work.

Even with all that chopping, there's still a chance that some relatively bland scenes are going to make the cut. An unexciting-but-necessary conversation. A homework assignment that serves a purpose in a later scene. Going to class because your character is, you know, still in high school. Whatever.

Such scenes may be boring, but they're often important to make the plot move forward or transition scenes smoothly. Still, they aren't naturally tension-filled moments. So how do we inject more tension and raise reader interest without coming across as forced?

Here are a few methods.

Make your scenes serve double, or even triple, purposes. Layer on that conflict. If you need a conversation to happen to convey important information to your protagonist, make sure there's something else going on to bring up the interest level. Maybe your character is in a rush to get somewhere important when they're stopped and they're worrying about where they need to be while the conversation is going on. Or maybe they're nervous about the person they like seeing them talking to someone else. Maybe they're convinced they're about to get in trouble. The possibilities are endless. A caveat: be careful not to have too many balls in the air. You don't want the reader to become confused or for important information to get lost in the shuffle.

Make something happen. Boring scene? Have something interesting happen. If your protagonist is in the classroom, have someone pass them a cryptic note. Have the teacher slap the desk with a ruler. Someone gets sick and has to leave. Characters play a cool game on their graphing calculator. Something. Just make sure to keep it relevant to the scene. Don't go for something so distracting or significant that it ends up a loose plot thread instead of a tool for tension.

Keep low-tension scenes short and to the point. If you're going to have slow scenes, keep them quick. (Is that an oxymoron? Eh.) Don't drag your readers through paragraphs of lengthy prose when you can make the same point in a few sentences.

Unless the scenes are truly necessary for plot movement, setting, or mood, cut them. Back around to cutting again, but it's true. This goes for any and all unnecessary scenes -- if you can cut a scene without confusion or choppiness, do it. If there will be some confusion, but it can be remedied with some general tinkering, then cut and smooth.

Use slower scenes to incorporate some internalization. Remember, tension doesn't have to be big and loud. It can be as quiet as stress from a recent fight with a parent or friend. If you have the downtime, use it to give your character a moment to think things over. Character development is important, but as always, be wary of waxing on too long or edging into whiny territory.

Amp up the dialogue. Conversations between characters should really serve some sort of purpose. Although people make random small talk in real life, you don't want to incorporate that into your fiction unless you're doing it for a reason. You can express tension in word choice, tone, whether or not one party is keeping a secret, or an escalation in emotion.

If all else fails, remind the reader of the stakes. I'm not suggesting you haphazardly drop in a stilted reminder of your protagonist's goals, but if you really need to beef up a boring (but necessary) scene, try to find a way to bring those stakes to the forefront again.

In closing, I'd like to reiterate that you should absolutely, totally, completely, 100% make sure a scene is necessary to the overall plot/mood/setting of the story. If you determine that it is, but it's still tensionless, then find a way to crank it back up.

Selecting beta readers.

| Monday, August 8, 2011
Today's Tune: Part of Your World (cover)

Thank you all very much for the congratulations and well-wishes last week! We had a lovely weekend <3

I imagine you can tell what stage of writing/editing/etc I'm in based purely on the topics of my posts. ANYWAY.

Let's talk about beta readers and how important they are in getting feedback on your work. First, let's discuss what, exactly, beta readers are. Beta readers are a set of people you select to read your work after it's completed and reader-ready. They are people who will read the work as a whole and give you feedback on your pacing, plotting, characterization, themes, dialogue, and more. They're also sometimes good for catching typos/mechanical errors you may have missed in your initial editing, but you shouldn't depend on them for that.

Beta readers are not critique partners or editors. They're not supposed to comb a manuscript page by page and line edit for you. They don't generally get into the minutia of "fixing" your manuscript. Betas are readers, first and foremost. You shouldn't be giving them a first-or-second draft manuscript that's riddled with errors and still needs a lot of work. That's what your critique partners are for. When a beta gets your work, it should be reasonably polished. Not perfect, but at least ready for an average person to read as they'd read any other book.

Now, let's talk about who you should select to beta read your manuscript. This is pretty subjective, since every manuscript and writer are different and will have different needs, but there are a few important things to keep in mind. Consider the following when selecting your readers.

Have enough readers to give you a variety or responses, but not so many that you get overwhelmed and have a bunch of conflicting opinions. Really, this is completely personal. You should have as many readers as you feel comfortable with, which may be just one, or it may be 10. Be mindful that although it's super exciting that people actually want to read your book (!!!), too many cooks in the kitchen... you know. Having a group of readers lets you know whether several people are seeing the same issue (which means it definitely needs to be fixed), and it also means you'll get a variety of opinions. It's important to find your preferred balance between enough variety and being pulled in too many directions.

Don't select people who will only flatter you. It's awesome to hear that someone read your stuff and thought it was OMG SO AMAZING. We all need that little ego boost once in a while. However, you want to make sure that's not all your hearing. If everyone you're allowing to read your MS is telling you that it's wonderful and perfect, then you're not being selective enough. Why? Because no manuscript is universally wonderful and perfect. The purpose of beta readers is to help you find the existing flaws. Hopefully some of them also stroke your ego in the process, but overall they should be helping make the work stronger.

Do send it to your parents and/or good friends. For moral support, I mean. The unabashed flattery is their job. If you need it, get it there. Of course, also keep in mind that they're, you know, heavily biased toward not making you cry.

Select people who read widely, and who read within your genre. It's not a requirement that each of your betas exclusively read your genre, but it's extremely helpful for some of them to be familiar with it. You want people who read enough to know a strong book from a weak book and who understand your genre/category well enough to know its existing cliches, pitfalls, etc.

Go for a good variety. You want readers who have something to contribute. Select people who will be able to strengthen the work because they have their own special brand of knowledge they can apply. My current betas rage from a pair of writers (who will read differently than "just readers") to a literary professor to an art/culture historian to someone in child development. All of them have unique insight to bring to the work, and all of them have helped find things I missed.

You can't please everyone. Read all the comments with a grain of salt. Give them some time to soak in. Remember, you don't have to change something just because one person found it odd. At the end of the day, it's up to you to decide which comments you're going to work with and which you'll let slide. HOWEVER. Don't disregard everything. Odds are good that some of the advice is going to be worth heeding.

Remember to be polite and say thank you. Even if you disagree with someone's comments, they still did you a favor by taking the time to read and write notes on your work. If their comments upset you, by all means, take some time to cool off. Never get defensive, whiny, or insulting. Say thank you. If they're a serious jerk, (like, they called you a hack and told you never to write again), then ignore.

How do YOU select your beta readers?

I am affianced!

| Friday, August 5, 2011
Today's Tune: Portions For Foxes

Apologies for the lack of an informative post today. Life got in the way. In the form of good news :)

I'm engaged!

And feeling pretty much like this.

So I'm taking a little breather for today and this weekend to bask in the Happy Glow and enjoy my new fiance. FIANCE OMG. I hope you all have a fabulous weekend. Keep writing!

IT'S A TRAP: I Realized I Realize Things

| Wednesday, August 3, 2011
Today's Tune: Back to California

Time for IT'S A TRAP! These posts are intended as somewhat humorous (but true) tributes to traps that we writers occasionally find ourselves falling into. Disclaimer: there are always exceptions to every rule. Sometimes even the worst writer "traps" can be pulled off with style in the right hands.

But they're usually a bad idea. MOVING ON.

IT'S A TRAP!: Your Character "Realizes" Too Much

As spots began to appear before my eyes, I realized I was holding my breath. I gasped for air. I noticed George no longer stood in front of me. I realized it was because he'd gone to the kitchen. The carpet felt wet beneath my face and I realized I'd been drooling. George brought me a sandwich and a glass of Kool-Aid. I noticed it was cherry-flavored. I hate cherries. I realized George should have known that. That's when I realized George wasn't really George at all.

Okay, so the previous paragraph is an extremely over-the-top example, but it's pretty amazing how often we come across similar "Captain Obvious" sentences in manuscripts and even published books.

Here's the thing: we are already inside the POV character's head. Always. Especially in first-person POV. If they make an observation, it's already assumed that they made said observation because they sensed, realized, or noticed something. The reader does not have to be told that they came to a "realization."

When characters "realize" or "notice" something, two things tend to happen. First: the extra words bog down the prose, complicate the sentence, and involve more "I" statements than necessary. Second: it can make the POV character seem really, really dumb. Most people know when they're not breathing, or when the ground is wet, or when a person moves out of their field of vision. It's an understanding that happens in the brain in a fraction of a second. If it takes your character longer than that (long enough to think "I realized..."), the reader might wonder if they're a little (or a lot) slow on the uptake.

This "I realized" or "I noticed" method of conveying information tends to make prose sound like storytelling. "Duh," you say, "It is storytelling." Yes, but a reader isn't supposed to FEEL like they're being told a story. They aren't supposed to feel like someone is sitting across from them and telling them about this thing that happened. They're supposed to feel involved. Saying "I realized it had started to snow" sounds much more like a person trying to tell you how their perceptions work than someone creating ambiance. "It started to snow" is the exact same sentiment, but you cut out the "I" statement, the "realized" statement, and the passive "had" statement.

How To Avoid This Trap

Just let your characters make observations. When you're editing and you catch an "I noticed" or "I realized" statement, ask yourself if it's really necessary. Is it a situation where a reasonably intelligent person might take a moment to connect the dots? Or is it a situation where a reader might go, "Wow, it took her a while to realize she was hot, even though she's been sweating since the last page?"

Focusing too much on "I" statements can make prose seem repetitive, as well. Again, we're inside the POV character's head. If they see/hear/smell/feel/taste something, we know that THEY are the one doing the sensing. "I noticed it was cherry-flavored" can very easily become "It was cherry-flavored." We don't have to specify that our POV character saw this. If she's saying it happened, we know she witnessed it, because we're viewing the world through her eyes.

This can be extended to many other "I" statements, such as "I smelled burning hair" or "I heard a loud whistle" or "I tasted blood," though these are far less questionable. However, if you notice too many of your sentences start with "I" (or "CharacterName" if you're writing in third-person), you can mix it up. For example: "The unmistakeable odor of burning hair filled the room" or "Loud whistles pierced the air" or "Blood, salty and coppery, leaked from my mouth." Or something. Such statements serve the triple-purpose of getting rid of all those pesky "I" statements, creating more mood/ambiance, and varying your sentence structure. Win-win-win!

One last caveat: The topic of this entry is situational. There are many instances where "I realized" is perfectly appropriate. It is up to the author to use their own best judgement in deciding which uses are valid and which are superfluous.

Introducing YA!Flash, plus an interview

| Monday, August 1, 2011
Today's Tune: Gimme Some Salt

I would say Happy Monday, but I won't, because I kind of hate it when people say that. Except I just said it? IT'S MONDAY. DON'T JUDGE ME.

But I have some exciting tidbits for today! First, Mindy McGinnis over at Writer, Writer, Pants on Fire interviewed me for her Bloggers of Awesome series. You can read my interview here! Thanks, Mindy!

Next, I'd like to share an announcement with you. Today I'm launching a new Tumblr called YA!Flash, and I would love it if you checked it out. YA!Flash is intended to be a sort of "daily dose of YA" blog, where you'll get snippets of young adult literature in the form of flash fiction, teen poetry, micro-reviews, pictures, videos, sound clips, artwork, and whatever else people can dream up.

I'm encouraging people to submit their own flash fiction/poetry/reviews/whatever to the blog. I'd love for it to grow into a big ol' joint blog for the YA community where people can go to read a quick story or find a cool video. So please, check it out, follow, spread the word, submit some work, whatever you'd like!

I used a lot of exclamation points in this post. WHOOPS. DEAL WITH IT. MONDAYS.

But seriously, have a great week. Write, love, party, work, relax, be awesome, etc.


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