Friday Links

Never fear! I may well be off in Texas conversing with the romance writers, but I have left you some Friday goodies to kick off your weekend. Wishing you all a wonderful couple of days filled with books, writing, and something tall and cool to drink. Enjoy!

Word counts of famous books – This is a fun infographic, but please keep in mind that modern titles have different requirements, so don’t assume these are average word lengths you can apply to your own WIP.

The Relationship between Creativity and Mental Illness – Interesting look at the “tortured genius” myth.

Famous Writers’ Sleep Habits vs. Literary Productivity, Visualized – Yes, more pictures.

The World’s Most Fascinating Places, as Seen in Science Fiction Books – For the armchair travelers in the audience.

Opportunities for Writers: August and September, 2014 – Another round up of places to send your work, contests, etc.


Conference Bound

I’m off to San Antonio, Texas this week for the RWA National Conference, which means I’m writing this on the fly between loads of laundry and last minute tweaks to my meeting schedule. But I thought I’d leave you all with a few words of wisdom regarding conference attendance. Even if you’re not heading out to Texas, you might have some other conference on your radar, so here are a few quick, down-and-dirty tips to help you get the most of it.

Don’t over-schedule yourself. It’s tempting, when you see the array of offerings, to fill every time slot and set yourself running from room to room the entire length of the conference, but resist that temptation. Leave yourself a few small breaks to catch your breath, chat with a new acquaintance, or for an impromptu meeting with an agent or editor you might meet in a panel.

Do speak up and introduce yourself. Everyone at a conference is there to meet people and learn things, so get to know the person sitting next to you at lunch or in a workshop. And this includes agents and editors. Don’t interrupt them if they’re in the middle of speaking to someone, obviously, but do smile and chat and treat them like a fellow human being, whether or not you plan to pitch them something.

Pack layers. No matter what time of year you attend a conference, the chances are excellent that the weather outside and the temperature inside will differ, and indoor temperatures at conference facilities tend to vary greatly. Pack a sweater or light jacket to ward against aggressive air conditioning, and some lighter-weight shirts to combat excessive heating.

Watch your alcohol intake. Yes, writers spend time at the bar during conferences, but keep in mind you still want to maintain a somewhat professional demeanor. Plus, on the off chance the agent of your dreams asks you to pitch them, you’d hate to start slurring your words.

Have fun. It’s not all business, all the time. Conferences are a great opportunity to learn and network, but also to catch up with friends and make new ones. So enjoy!

Friday Links

Summer just keeps flying right on by. It’s Friday already. I’ve a busy weekend ahead, starting with dinner and a show this evening, to help celebrate a friend’s birthday, and then some more socializing Saturday, and tons of work-related reading all in between. And somewhere in there I need to squeeze a few loads of laundry.

Weekends like this, where real life buts up against the things you want to do, make me truly nostalgic for summer vacations of my childhood, when I was too young for a real job and didn’t do much with my days besides read my way through the public library. When you hear that old cliche about kids not appreciating how good they have it, that’s the exact scenario I picture: me lying on my stomach in my childhood bedroom, the AC blowing at me while I’ve got my nose in a book.

Okay, enough with memory lane. I have Friday Links to share! I hope you enjoy them, and that they help kick off a great weekend. And if you sneak in a little good old fashioned reading time, all the better.

The Art of the Opening Sentence – We discuss how important first sentences are all the time, but this article gives you a wonderful peek into why that’s true.

A Game as Literary TutorialThe New York Times looks at how many of today’s writers were influenced by playing Dungeons & Dragons when they were kids.

What We Talk about When We Talk about Manuscripts – The folks at Algonquin give an inside look into some of the things they consider when reviewing submissions. (Hint: Most editors and agents will look for these things.)

Why Readers, Scientifically, Are the Best People to Fall in Love With – Preaching to the choir, but still interesting to read.

A Primer on Modern Japanese Literature in 10 Minutes – A quick rundown for anyone looking to diversify their reading list.

Coming Soon: Conquer the Dreaded Synopsis

Last year I taught a webinar through Writer’s Digest on how to break down the sometimes daunting task of writing a synopsis, whether you need a short one to serve as a blurb for your query letter or something more substantial to send to an agent or editor on request. It went very well and I still have people query me or come up to me at conferences, mentioning that they took the course and found it helpful. So, I’m happy to say I’ll be teaching the class again, Conquer the Dreaded Synopsis: Construct Your Ultimate Sales Tool, on Thursday, August 21, 2014, at 1pm ET.

The class airs live online via a PowerPoint presentation, with me calling in to teach, and everyone attending able to type in questions as we go, which I then answer at the end of the session. The class gets recorded, so attendees receive the presentation with my narration and all the Q&A material afterwards. In addition, the course includes a synopsis critique. Attendees have a couple of weeks following the class to take everything they’ve learned and apply it to writing or revising their own synopsis, which they can then send to me for feedback.

Please note that while you can purchase the course materials after the fact, only writers who register for the live class on August 21st will be eligible for the critique. You don’t need to actually attend live if your schedule conflicts, but you should register ahead anyway if you want a chance to submit your synopsis for some comments. I’m looking forward to helping more people tackle the synopsis hurdle, and I hope a few of you will join me!

Wish List Update

Just a fly-by post to let you all know that I’ve updated my Wish List here on the blog. For anyone who hasn’t visited before, this is a short list of projects I’d love to see more of in my submissions box. It’s not an all-inclusive rundown of what I represent, but a look more specifically at some of the types of stories or characters I’m itching to read these days. It changes with my mood and also the market, so be sure to give it a peek if you’re thinking of querying me or are interested in what has me excited right now.

Friday Links

Happy Friday! And yes, Friday Links are back this week. I actually spent a portion of last Friday feeling like I’d forgotten to do something, so you can see how ingrained these are in my routine.

I hope everyone who celebrated had a lovely July 4th last week, and that everyone else had a good week, too. We’ve got some heat and a bit of weird humidity going here in the Los Angeles area, so I was happy to spend my vacation in the air conditioning, just doing some reading and hanging out with friends. A very summery stay-cation.

This week, of course, has been business as usual, but I do have a fun assortment of links to share, so I’ll get to those now. Wishing you all a wonderful weekend filled with bookish pursuits. Enjoy!

Jo Walton Talks Science Fiction, Research, and Collaborating with Readers – A lovely recording of a recent interview for Between the Covers.

16 Places to Pitch Short Stories – If you’re writing any short pieces, here are some ideas of where you might send them.

12 Fundamentals of Writing the Other (And the Self) – Some great things to keep in mind when creating diverse characters.

The Daily Routines of 26 of History’s Most Creative Minds – A really interesting set of infographics that illustrate how much time different creative types have allocated to sleep, work, leisure, etc.

How Writers Write Fiction: A Free Online Course from the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program – A six-week online course starting in September.

Edited to add:

Guest Post: From a Marginalized Young Adult’s Perspective – A 19-year-old aspiring writer speaks out about the limited perspectives in YA fiction today.

Toys… er, Tools for Writers

Writing requires very few tools if you’re just getting started and sincere in your desire to commit to that first draft. Really, a pen or pencil and some paper does the trick. The important thing is to sit down and get to it rather than wasting time worrying about the right computer or the proper program or what font will make you look most writerly. At its heart, writing is about… writing.

However, writers do love their toys. And the truth is that, once you’ve actually started to write and have finished some stories or drafted your novel, there are plenty of tools out there that can make your life easier. Some are even pretty necessary. Most editors expect a polished manuscript delivered electronically, so a computer with an internet connection and your own professional email account comes in handy. Then there’s the software that helps you turn off that internet connection long enough to get your writing done, and it just kind of balloons from there.

I’m a firm believer that less is more. Find the tools that work for you and then get back to the business of writing and marketing your creations. That said, I’m a fan of a few products out there, and there happens to be a summer sale, so I thought I’d share with the class. I’d like to state up front that I’m in no way connected to these programs or their creators, nor do I receive any benefit if you decide to purchase them. I just think they’re very useful tools, and I’m taking this opportunity to pass along the information.

Scrivener. This is a writing program that was truly designed with the creative writer in mind. It allows you to pull in all your research materials, see your work in outline or notecard formats, color code characters or themes or whatever you’d like, rearrange chapters or sections or combine them all with ease, reformat into a standard manuscript format or export into a self-pub format, and so much more. You can download it for a trial run before purchasing, and it’s the sort of program that allows you to jump right in and work with just the basic tools and learn the more complicated functions as you go. Plus the website offers up plenty of helpful video tutorials for when you want to figure something out. I know so many writers who have switched to this program and adore it. Available for Mac and Windows, and on sale until August 15th, 2014.

Aeon Timeline. This is a much more specialized program and certainly not for everyone. However, if you’re heavily into world building for your project, you write historical novels where you want to track your characters’ history versus actual historical events, you’re writing a series of novels set in a created world where the characters lives overlap (for instance a number of romances in the same town, etc.), or anything where an in-depth timeline could prove useful to maintaining your sanity, you might find this to be an extremely helpful program. Additionally, if you’re using Scrivener 2 for Mac, you can sync projects between the programs. As with Scrivener, you can download a trial version to help you decide if this is a useful program for you, for either Mac or Windows, and it’s on sale until August 15th, 2014.

Sale information for these and several other programs is available at SummerFest 2014. Please make sure to check, as different purchase parameters apply depending on the program in order to take advantage of the discount.

Mapping Your Territory

Many writers are heavily influenced by their surroundings. Even if they don’t set a book in their own city or town, they’re likely to incorporate things they see or overhear, bits and pieces that can be transposed and repurposed according to their needs. When the town itself becomes the setting, such influences can be even more pronounced.

Some writers think they need to live somewhere exciting to mine their surroundings, but that simply isn’t the case. Even authors who are intimately acquainted with the largest, busiest cities on the planet turn to the less frequented corners of their space for fresh inspiration. Small towns can fascinate readers who live and work in high rises; farms and fields interest residents of concrete jungles. Every place has its own rhythms and pace, secrets to share or to hide away.

Author Geoff Nicholson is a Brit living in Hollywood, but his writing focuses less on the glamour and more on the city itself — the streets, the citizens, the interesting architecture. In the video below, he walks his neighborhood and observes, and those discoveries may or may not make their way into his work.

Try wandering your own town or neighborhood, or else drive somewhere nearby that’s less familiar and give it the same treatment. Don’t get too caught up in writing anything down while you wander. Maybe take a camera, or just use the one on your phone to take a few quick shots for visual cues you can refer to later on. But really look around. See with a writer’s eye. You never know what might come in handy.

Kicking Your Characters into High Gear

As an agent, I look at a lot of different things when I’m reading submissions — strong writing, engaging story, excellent build up of suspense, and compelling characters. These are all important, but that last one in particular can really throw me out of a read if you haven’t managed to create a realistic, believable protagonist, or if your villain comes across as flat. It would be impossible for me to compile a comprehensive list of all the ways I see characterizations go astray, but I will focus on some of the most frequent issues to give you a place to start.

One of the most common problems I see with characters — especially the protagonist — is that they ultimately come across as far too perfect. Because they are often driving the story, they succeed too easily in order to allow the author to move the plot forward. Whatever obstacles pop up, the protagonist miraculously has all the skills required to solve them and keep going. The result is someone who is just a little too smart, a little too action-oriented, and just plain boring. A perfect character is an unbelievable character, and very difficult to identify with because, as much as we’d all love to ignore our own faults, we know that we have them and that everyone else has them, too. Make sure your character needs to struggle; if they’re intellectual give them physical obstacles to overcome; if they’re a loner, force them to work in a team situation. Take your character’s major characteristics and mix them up, making sure that they are better at some things and not good at others. Not only will you have a more believable and interesting character, but you’ll allow room for growth along their character arc. Just be sure they don’t end up perfect at the end, merely ahead of where they started.

Another issue writers have with characters is developing a believable range of emotions for them. Too often, each character seems to represent a certain level of emotion — a happy or sarcastic character who provides quips and comic relief, the grumpy character who dwells on the worse-case scenarios and points out all the problems, the smart character with the dry wit and the quick answer. Even if characters have their roles and their strengths, they should not fall into these sorts of ruts, and their emotional arcs need to be more complex. Particularly with the protagonist, it’s vital to communicate the character’s emotions in a way that the reader can understand them, because often they drive their decisions and actions. Your reader might not always agree with how the character feels and what they do, but if you can put them inside the character’s emotional state, you can allow them to understand those choices and continue along for the ride. In some cases that will mean not showing the emotion itself, but instead focusing on how the character struggles with their feelings. Not everyone is willing to allow their emotions to show in their expressions. In fact, many people work very hard to keep those things to themselves. But something always leaks out and gives them away. Think about how that applies to your characters in your given situations.

The folks at the Writing Excuses podcast have a series of episodes focusing on character development, and I highly recommend you check out Three-Pronged Character Development and Showing Emotion in particular for additional thoughts and a few writing exercises to help address these issues. Happy writing!