Writing Naked, Breaking Out of Your Comfort Zone!

We write, picking each word carefully. We highlight/delete, chose more precious words, rewrite and rewrite and then after months, years, maybe even decades, it’s still not everything we know it can be.

We might start working on something else, thinking time and distance might give us new perspective, and while that may be helpful, we might also want to get in touch with our inner Freud. What are we over looking, not just in the story but inside ourselves?

I’m currently doing revisions and having that feeling that the story could be great. Not just good, but something really special. But it’s missing something. My agent was able to put her finger on it.

Overtime, I’ve gotten too close to my main character and too protective. Characters in stories get hurt. Sometimes a little. Sometimes a lot. I’d built a safety net beneath her, and I was making certain she stayed over it. In short, I started controlling the character instead of letting her go where she needs to go, even if it’s somewhere I’m not particularly comfortable with.

As artists, we have to be honest in our writing, and that means letting the characters tell their stories. They may go somewhere we’re not comfortable. We may have to strip down our barriers, our emotions, maybe even our values, to keep it honest and real. We may have to write naked, figuratively speaking — especially if you have children or nosey neighbors!

In short, we have to lose ourselves enough to let the muse use us, to let the characters use us. But we also have to know where our comfort zones are, and we have to be wiling to step out of them, if that’s where our characters take us.

Here’s the pitch!

I know that it’s hard to think about spring when the wind is howling and for some of us, the snow is blowing. But spring will come and that means writing conferences! While you can find lots of helpful information online about query writing, conference pitching is something that could use more attention.

Agents receive hundreds of queries a week. Depending on the agency, maybe even thousands. Since bribery is frowned upon, especially money and certified letters saying you’ll give up a kidney to any of their family members who might need one if they’ll just read your manuscript, it’s difficult to get the agent’s attention.

That’s where conferences come in. If the conference allows pitching sessions to agents, and to be honest I always chose to spend my money at conferences that did, then this is the perfect opportunity to have an agent’s complete attention. So what’s the best way to pitch your work?

Rehearse. Think of pitching your book like an audition. You wouldn’t go to an audition without preparing, and pitching is no different. Most of you have probably heard the elevator analogy, where you imagine that you happen to find yourself on an elevator with the agent of your dreams. You have at most three or four floors to convince the agent that he or she should read your manuscript. What do you say?

I remember going to the OWFI conference some years ago. My husband and I went down the night before and stayed in eco-friendly hotel room. That basically meant the room was the size of a closet and the air conditioner, which sounded like a lawn motor, was up against the bed. I didn’t sleep all night and to make matters worse, I hadn’t practiced my pitch. For some reason I thought I knew the book well enough and thought that a spontaneous pitch would sound fresh.

It was a disaster. Especially when the agent, who was trying to be very polite, started asking questions that, to my amazement, I couldn’t answer. How could I not have answers to questions about my own book? But I was so frustrated because I knew it wasn’t going well, and I knew I’d blown the opportunity.

Conferences aren’t cheap, and they don’t come around that often, especially if you live in the midwest. A few years later I attended a pitching competition, and I was determined to have a positive experience. I practiced writing a pitch that I thought would make people HAVE to read the book.

I timed myself, trimmed down the words that weren’t as powerful and practiced emphasizing the words that were. I practiced and practiced and even though we were allowed to read our pitches, I kept eye contact with the panel of judges. At the one minute mark, I had one word left of the pitch and even though I was out of time, I blurted it out. “Corpse!”

These are the months to start researching conferences and preparing for them. This is your work. This is what you’ve spent countless hours to create. Take the time to prepare yourself. Your work deserves it.

Below is the pitch I gave for Deadly Design, the pitch that led to me getting my wonderful agent. I’m especially fond of that last word!

Connor and Kyle are identical twins. Having been genetically modified, both are extremely handsome, athletic, and intelligent. They were also born two years apart. Due to their parents’ fear of yet another miscarriage, Connor was born, while Kyle stayed behind, frozen in a fertility lab.

Connor’s perfect; he’s a track star, quarterback of the football team, valedictorian of the senior class, and Kyle’s good at video games. How can he compete with his older brother? Being born second meant he lost the coin toss. That is until children born at the Genesis Fertility Labs start dying on their eighteenth birthdays.

Now Kyle has two years to find the mysterious doctor who created them. Two years to solve the mystery in his DNA before he becomes yet another athletic, intelligent, blue-eyed corpse.

Why We Write?

Right now, I’m supposed to working on rewrites of a novel I promised I would have to my agent before January 1st. Well, it’s New Year’s Eve and I’m not quite done, but I wanted to take a moment to talk about why we write.

Some say writers write because they have to. Because we’re wired with so many thoughts and emotions that if we don’t release them, we’ll explode, but instead of our bloody guts oozing down walls and clinging to the ceiling fans, it will be emotions — happy faces, sad faces, anguish like even Van Gogh couldn’t capture — painted on the walls and the ceilings.

I don’t know if I totally agree with that theory, although I love the romanticism of it. The idea that no matter what, we writers will find the strength and the courage to write.

Knowing why we do something is important. Life is short. We are sadly reminded of that fact each day. Another plane goes down, a friend dies unexpectedly, a relative gets a tough diagnosis. Or maybe we do.

So why do we spend what precious time we have on this earth, writing the stories of people who live only in the realm of our imaginations?

Is it because of our mortality? Is it because if our dreams come true, someday when we’re long in the ground, someone will be scanning the books on a library shelf and pick up the bound pages we created? They will read our words and somehow our thin, decomposing lips will curve into a smile.

Is it because, and God help us if it is, we believe we’ll make a lot of money. That our books will sell and we’ll have enough money to buy our freedom from the mundane lives we feel trapped in, lives spent behind desks or in front of classrooms or chained to factory or fast food counters?

I remember thinking that I’ll get published and I’ll be able to stay home with my babies and write. Hmmmm. My babies aren’t babies anymore. By the time I got my book deal for Deadly Design, my youngest was already proficient in “that’s what she said” jokes.

Why do we write?

Maybe it’s all the above. Maybe it’s none of the above.

Maybe it falls in the same category as why humankind felt compelled to learn how to fly or why people risk their lives to climb Mt. Everest. Maybe there’s just something in us.

Maybe it doesn’t matter.

All I know is that the world, even for all it’s beauty, would be a dull place if it weren’t for the stories. Awww. The stories. Maybe we don’t write because we have to write or because we dream of fame and fortune. Maybe we write because the stories have to be told.

Well, speaking of stories, I should get back to work. There are so many stories forming like new galaxies out in the universe. So let’s all get to work.

May 2015 give birth to many, many stories.

That terrifying moment when you have time to write!

The deadline is looming. You drive to work yearning to turn around, go home, and get to work on the job you really want to do, which is writing. But you have responsibilities. You need that pay check. So you drive down raining streets, dry streets, snowy streets, seeing your characters in your mind. Engaging them in conversations and coming up with new plot twists.

The ache is real and intense. You NEED to work. And you will. Just a few more weeks in the semester or before that next brief break and you’ll hit it like a sailor on leave hitting a …….well, you get the picture.

The time comes. For me, that means finals are finished and semester grades are turned in. Finally, I can focus on what I really want and need to. SO WHY IS IT SO DIFFICULT!

I recently tried to find the original writer who compared writing to slicing open a vein. To my surprise, there have been many such analogies by many writers throughout history. Is that why it’s so hard? Because writing is like tearing open an artery to your soul and letting it pour out on to the page?

Maybe it’s fear. If I were trying to create a masterpiece out of marble, I might work hundreds of hours only to leave it unfinished for fear that carving just a little bit more might leave my Venus de Milo without a nose or my David without his big toe. In other words, fear of screwing up!

What if what I write next isn’t as good as what I’ve already written? Or worse yet, what if I finish it, send it out into the world and no one likes it? Yikes!

The truth is writers are human. We screw up and that’s why we have a delete button and why the great Stephen King told us to “kill our darlings.” We’re going to make mistakes, and not everyone is going to love everything that we write. But that yearning is there. That desire to create. So we suck up our insecurities and we get to work

Besides all of the sayings comparing writing to self mutilation (of the highest form I might add!), there is the saying that if writing was easy, everyone would do it. It’s not easy, but if we silence our fears and jump off the proverbial cliff, well…the view is pretty damned amazing. So time to stop procrastinating and get to work.

Happy writing everyone!

Deadly Design

I’m so looking forward to 2015 and the release of my YA thriller, Deadly Design!

Though identical twins, Connor and Kyle couldn’t be more different. Star of the track team, valedictorian, and all-around golden boy, Connor has always overshadowed his sarcastic loner brother Kyle. Though identical, the brothers were born two years apart to help better their chances of survival. Kyle always thought being born second meant he was the unlucky one, that is until kids conceived at the same fertility clinic start dying on their eighteenth birthdays. Now Kyle has two years to find the elusive Dr. Mueller, who not only created them, but who genetically manipulated them, turning them into virtual gods.

In a race against time, Kyle sets off to find the missing doctor and to unlock the secrets hidden in his genetic code, because eighteen isn’t long enough. And he doesn’t want to be yet another perfect, blue-eyed corpse.

Writing for Your Reader

This week I was discussing a short story assignment with a student. She’d shared her story with a writing group and found that they took issue to her not telling whether or not a character was male or female. She stated that it was her goal to keep this hidden from readers so there would be surprise at the end when the readers realized the sex of the character.

The whole discussion led me to how Stephen King opened his lecture at Wichita State University last week. He started with a “dumb joke” only we never got to hear the punch line because when reading the joke online, he’d gotten stuck. The joke starts, “Two jumper cables walk into a bar”. How does one visualize this? How exactly do jumper cables “walk into a bar”?  I thought of this because when reading my student’s story, I was stuck in trying to visual a character that was not described in any sense or ever referred to using “he” or “she”. (And we all know how annoying it can be to constantly read a character’s name over and over again instead of the usual substituting of a pronoun.)

My advice to her was that as readers, we need to visualize what we’re reading. We need to see the characters, or in Stephen King’s case, the jumper cables. If hiding the character’s gender is really important to the story, she has to find another way to help the reader see that character, to know that character.

As with all advice, we have to be able to take it ourselves. Last week I got an email from my agent discussing how a character in my new YA novel needs to be fleshed out more. In my mind, I had intentionally made this character somewhat vague because the main protagonist doesn’t want to know her. Told in the first person, the protagonist has lost everyone she loves, so she guards herself against getting to know or love this new person.

But then there are the readers– the people we write for.  What if they want to know the character more? What if they want to fall in love with her?  What if they want more than superficial descriptions? What if they want to know everything about her?

Then to my horror, I realized that I don’t know everything about her. I had grown so close to my protagonist, I had refused to get to know this character as well.

As a writer, I had to ask myself why it was that I’d kept my character at arms length and most importantly, I had to knock it off!

Every writer has their own way of dealing with character development. For me, it’s sitting down at the keyboard and basically conducting an interview. I plan on doing just that this afternoon. Since I used to be a therapist, I might even imagine my character sitting on a sofa in my old office as I try to delve deep into what makes her tick, what her fears are, and her aspirations. And then at some point, I might need to stretch out on the sofa myself, and ponder what it is about this character that makes me hesitant to know her too well.

Stephen King said that it’s impossible to keep ourselves completely out of our stories.  I think Sigmund Freud would agree. If there’s something that keeps us from revealing our characters to our readers, or to ourselves, we might want to do a little self reflection.

In the end, we owe it to our readers to know our characters, and in getting to know our characters, we might just get to know ourselves a little bit better.

Writing Idols — We all need them

We all know that writing is a lonely job. And with no audience to applaud (or maybe boo) our narrative choices, it’s also a job that comes with a lot of self-doubt. Instead of the typical ‘angel’ ‘demon’ most people have on their shoulders, writers have a critic and, if they’re lucky, a miniature version of their literary hero, or heroes, reminding them that success is possible.

Last night I got the opportunity to hear Stephen King speak on the campus of Wichita State University. I’ve always been a fan, but to be honest, it was when Stephen King wrote his book On Writing, that I became more than a fan. He gave me permission to write. Okay. He gave permission for all of us to write, or to do whatever it is we love to do because hey, isn’t that what life is supposed to be about. We’re supposed to do what we love, with or without a guarantee that we’ll ever make it onto the shelves of a bookstore.

I’ve made reading his book a summer ritual and since I have the audio version, I get to hear his voice reading his words about the craft of writing. It’s a must read for any writer!

Okay, I’ll try to stop being a Stephen King cheerleader for a moment and get to my point. Because writing is something we do alone, because writers, published or not, are filled with self-doubt and insecurities, we need idols. Early on, mine was Flannery O’Connor. I loved and still love the way her hand can reach out through the page and literally slap the reader across the face. I have other idols as well. Cormac McCarthy is one. And then of course, there’s Mr. King.

Our writing idols do more than inspire us. They push us to be our best, to find an even better word than the one we just agonized over for thirty minutes. They refuse to let us settle for mediocre, and most importantly, at least for me, they let us see what’s possible.

I love Olympic figuring skating. I can’t skate. I doubt I could even walk with skates on, but watching them glide across the ice, then spin at dizzying speeds after doing some triple, double, cow thing in the air is amazing. Did I ever aspire to do that? No way! I’d break my neck and probably the part of my body I happen to be sitting on right now. But I love watching them because they remind me of what humans are capable of. Do I believe I will ever be able to craft words the likes of O’Connor or McCarthy or King? No. But the great writers show us what humans are capable of. And while I know that there are elephants who can paint pictures, last I heard all writers are humans.

We can be capable of greatness, our own form of greatness. I like my miniature version of Stephen King sitting on my shoulder, telling me that what I just wrote needs to be highlighted and deleted ASAP! IT SUCKS!  But I also like the little voice that sometimes say, “Hey, not bad kid. I think you might really have something here.”

Be inspired. Study your idols, and instead of reading a line and saying to yourself, “Holy crap, I’ll never write like that!”, remember that even the greats started somewhere. And as much as we may love the voices of our writing idols, the world doesn’t need another Connor or McCarthy or even, yes it pains me to say this, another King. The writing world needs a choir of voices. Let them inspire yours.

The Fault in our Hearts-Why I write for teens

Let’s face it, being a teenager isn’t easy. Sometimes, it flat out sucks. Especially in today’s society where some teens are expected to get passing grades, participate in extracurricular actives, help out around the house and work a part to full time job to help pay their car insurance and sometimes, the groceries. And in the background are the voices of people talking about how lazy kids today are and how they don’t know anything.

Is it any wonder that some kids and young adults yearn for something, hopefully not a terminal disease, but something to make them feel like their lives matter, that they matter. The character’s in the best selling novel, “A Fault in Our Stars” are given a wonderful gift. Not the gift of cancer, but the gift of being appreciated and valued. The gift of having parents and friends who don’t take them for granted. The gift of mattering.

I remember a young girl, maybe seventeen or eighteen, telling me that she wished she’d get into a car accident. “Not a really serious accident,” she said. “Just one where I’d get hurt enough that people would come to the hospital to see me and maybe they’d think about how terrible it would be if they lost me.”

Yesterday, I went to the grocery store and found a little girl wandering lost. She told me her name and said she was five. I walked through the store looking for her mom and when we found her some fifteen minutes later, she ran to the woman, grabbed her hand and smiled up at her. Her mom pulled her hand away and didn’t acknowledge her child in any way. Typically, I’m a non-violent person, but I wanted to shake this mother and say, “Hey, look at your kid! Be glad she’s not going to end up on the proverbial milk carton!” But the sad truth is, I don’t think her mother would have cared one way or the other.

If you feel like you don’t matter, if you feel like you don’t exist because the world goes on around you and no one ever seems to stop and just…see you…see yourself. Appreciate yourself. And I know that sucks because we’re meant to be loved. We’re meant to matter to others but sometimes people, for whatever reasons, have blind hearts. They don’t see what’s right in front of them. They don’t see what should matter most.

Since the 1950’s, teen suicide has gone up 600%. This may seem like a random fact to throw in here, but it’s not. Life is tough and sometimes we’re so desperate to get people to notice us, to value us, that we leave. We throw away our own lives and futures because the pain of being invisible, of not mattering, is just too much.

As if life hasn’t been tough enough, now bullies can post on Facebook and Youtube. They can share their cruelty and your perceived flaws, to the world. Parents are busy, some working two jobs and still not making ends meet. We’re all sleep deprived and many of us are barely holding our heads above water. But in the midst of all that shitty chaos, there’s one thing to remember above all others.

You matter. You shouldn’t have to be riddled with cancer and having daily chats with the Grim Reaper to know that. The reality is that our time could be up at any minute. We could choke on a hot dog, get hit by a drunk driver at a cross walk, and yes, our cells could start working against us and turn into that diabolical villain that’s fought with chemo and radiation and…appreciation.

I write for teens because they matter. Because every one should matter. I can’t SEE everyone. I can’t acknowledge everyone’s existence and the importance of that existence, but I can put words together that reach out from the page and can tap my readers on the shoulder and can tell them what I wish they already knew. I can tell them that no matter what is going on in their lives, they deserve to exist. They deserve to be loved. And if those around them don’t see that, it’s not their fault, but the fault in our hearts.