2014 in Review: Statistics, Fave Books, Lessons Learned

It’s that time of year again! Here’s what my 2014 as a reader/writer looked like:

 

Reading/Writing Stats

# projects worked on: 4

projects abandoned: 1

projects shelved to come back to: 2

projects currently on worktable: 1

 

# books read: 54+

books purchased: 27? (Holy Schmoe.)

given as gifts: 7?

 

# readings attended: 5? (Lauren Oliver, David Sedaris, David Mitchell, BJ Novak, Gretchen Rubin)

 

Favorite Books Read This Year

Accomplishments

  1. I got an agent. — plus all the work that led up to it.
  2. I wrote the entire first draft of a MG project (separate from the YA book I queried and signed with an agent).
  3. I read 54 books, + several beta reads and nonfiction.
  4. I finished the rough draft of an illustrated project – very rough, because writing is my strong suit and art is secondary. I’m not convinced I should count this one because I’ve flagged so much of it for redoing it makes my head spin, and right now that just isn’t a high priority. But I would like to come back to it.

Lessons Learned

  1. It’s okay to abandon/retire a project. It’s important to finish things you start, but it’s also important to recognize when something isn’t working, won’t work, or when you’ve lost enthusiasm and your efforts would be better spent elsewhere.
  2. It’s okay to shelve a project indefinitely. I had a few ideas this year I was super jazzed about, only to start seeing fundamental problems with them in early development (e.g., reminded me too much of another book, or wanted to be a trilogy when what I want to write right now is standalone). So I put those projects, along with all of my notes and planning for them, carefully aside in folders that can be easily filed back to when the time is right.
  3. Beta readers are absolute gold. In theory I knew this already, but in practice I appreciated it even more. Love your readers: They will help you find the weak spots.
  4. Is it good? An obvious question, but when evaluating my own work, I’ve found it to be the ultimate measuring stick. Time may be the best aide for seeing a manuscript objectively, but asking yourself whether passages move/compel you is a close second.
  5. Is it necessary? The other essential question that’s helped me through my many revisions this year. This one is great 1) for reducing your word count and 2) consequently tightening your story, which will result in a swifter, stronger read.

 

How was your 2014 in books? Any pieces I’m missing?

Nanowritetips: 30 Writing Tips Inspired by NaNoWriMo

Throughout November I posted craft, structural, and speed writing tips on Twitter and Tumblr to aid those at work on a novel. Now that National Novel Writing Month is over, I present the complete list:

  1. Hook readers from the very first sentence. Keep them hooked with questions, tension, character, fascination, stakes.
  2. Don’t frontload with information. The story should move: start with action, and then quietly weave background throughout the opening chapters.
  3. “Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.” –Kurt Vonnegut
  4. Fewer words pack greater punch.
  5. In high school, my writing class had to describe the sound of snow being stepped on without using the word crunch. Best answer? “Like a camel licking a cactus.” I STILL remember it. Lesson learned: when describing things, make vivid and unusual comparisons.
  6. Verbs and nouns over adjectives. Was it sour, or did it kick like a mule?
  7. If you want to get the story out, say goodbye to your delete key.
  8. Highlight and use placeholders for details you haven’t figured out yet. You can come back to them in revisions.
  9. The first draft is just for you. Don’t worry about plot holes, inconsistencies, weak prose, wrong accents. Just write.
  10. Getting away from the screen (for a shower, laundry, walk, etc.) is a great way to reach solutions when you get stuck.
  11. What’s on the line? There should be negative consequences if your protagonist doesn’t get what he/she wants.
  12. When worried about bending the rules or doing something unconventional in your story, remember this: “When you start out on a career in the arts you have no idea what you are doing. This is great. People who know what they are doing know the rules, and know what is possible and impossible. You do not. And you should not. The rules on what is possible and impossible in the arts were made by people who had not tested the bounds of the possible by going beyond them. And you can.” —Neil Gaiman in his 2012 Keynote Address, aka the Make Good Art speech
  13. Write in the active, not passive voice. “Pandora opened the box.” Not “The box was opened by Pandora.”
  14. “End each chapter on a cliff.” See Writer’s Digest for more.
  15. Say things as directly as possible. (See: fewer words, tip #4)
  16. Things to avoid: clichés. Adverbs. Gratuitous exclamation points. Drugs. That boy your momma warned you about.
  17. Every sentence has a rhythm. Mind them, and arrange and vary to make music. Read This sentence has five words for more.
  18. Increase the stakes as the story progresses to keep readers turning pages.
  19. It’s easier to edit plop than nothing.
  20. Sensory details make vivid, sometimes lasting impressions. (See: “camel licking a cactus,” tip #5.)
  21. “Try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip.” –Elmore Leonard
  22. Word count slump? Try writing in bursts. Timed sessions of 45 minutes – 1 hour are manageable and bring focus.
  23. Hold the reader’s attention. Things that don’t: excessive description, asides, internal thought, showing of research.
  24. Simple is best.
  25. Every scene, line, and word should serve a purpose.
  26. Short sentences heighten tension.
  27. Dialogue can also be used to imply what’s happening and things that aren’t being said.
  28. “Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word. There are no exceptions to this rule.” –Stephen King
  29. Things that illicit a physical reaction from readers—laughter, tears, a wrinkled nose—are usually signs of a job well done.
  30. “The only universal rule is to write. Get it done, and do what works for you.” –Anne Rice

Feel free to add your own in the comments!

Good Writing Advice: Not everything you write has to become a novel

Said another way: Don’t take yourself too seriously.

On Monday I went to see Lauren Oliver. After her reading, Ms. Oliver took questions and talked a bit about her writing process. She mentioned at one point that she is ALWAYS working on something, and that if she finished one book on Tuesday she would start another on Wednesday.

“WHAT?” squeaked my inner editor. “How!”

And so I raised my hand and calmly asked her, “So how much do you have planned going into a new book?”

She answered,  “Nothing.”

Then she laughed and said that wasn’t entirely true; she’d been writing long enough that she always has a steady stream of ideas on backlog to work from.

Still, a principle remained: she always had to be working on something, and as such was willing to write without being secure in the knowledge that what she writing would end up a novel.

“I’m not sure why people think that way,” she said (referring to a writer’s mindset/need to have ALL work end up a book). Earlier that evening she’d mentioned writing 40 pages based on her first core concept for Rooms, and having to put it down for a while because 40 pages in she’d realized she just “hadn’t found the story’s heartbeat.”

So what’s the big stigma with false starts? Why are we (am I) so afraid of them? They’re still writing, aren’t they?– and don’t they allow us to explore possibilities, conduct trials and errors, flex our writing muscles? Are they not still valuable? Do we not learn from them?

Perhaps more importantly: Wouldn’t a mindset of exploration free us from the crippling pressure of writing a book in the first place?

What’s in a reading? Some observations as attendee, as author

A former professor once said that she liked to think of readings as gifts: something that one gives one’s audience. That listeners can enjoy and take meaning, amusement, solace from. Or anything, really; it’s the author’s gift to give. What it does is, by and large, up to them.

I am fortunate to live in a city never wanting for literary events. This year, especially as it was one of my writing resolutions to attend more readings, I have had the chance not only to experience these events, but to observe just what sort of “gifts” their authors are giving.

Here are some observations I’ve made– both as an attendee, and as an author taking notes for the hopeful Someday she might be on the other side of the podium. First,

As a listener:

1. Most readings consist of the same parts: introduction/stand up (the author introduces him/herself and drops a few well-chosen lines to get listeners laughing and engaged); the actual reading of material from the book the author is there to promote; open Q&A with the audience; the signing of books.

2. Every author reads differently. Some authors read a great deal. Some don’t. Some read from books other than what they are there to promote, or in addition to it, and some read what they’re working on now or just wrote that morning.

3. Distraction happens. People sneeze. Babies cry. Small children, and occasionally long lines of teenagers thread through the audience or before the podium at THE MOST inconvenient occasions. A speaker can either read on, or, as David Mitchell did, take it in stride: acknowledge a running child with, “Hello, little person!” a throng of teens with “Hi guys!” and a crying infant with “It’s my reading, and he can cry if he wants to.” For me, this last approach really harkens back to the gift-giving aspect: rather than shaming these people or willfully ignoring them (or indeed competing with them for the audience’s attention), one is reaching out to the source(s) of distraction in a respectful, playful, and even inviting manner. Thus rather than a nuisance, it becomes a bit of fun for the audience, and parents/sneezers/wanders-through are more likely to feel gratitude than embarrassment. Might even gain some new listeners.

As an author:

1. There is more than one way to engage with an audience. What a speaker can do beyond speaking is perhaps limited by context, but there’s a certain amount of room for creativity here. Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project and Happier at Home, at one point discussed the small indulgence of appreciating smell, and as a sort of enhancing prop passed around vials of some of her favorite handmade scents.

As someone with classroom experience, I could see engagements taken in other directions, too: shows of hands. Short games. Trivia with candy/literary/other prizes. As long as it’s relevant.

2. What a presenter can give is not limited to a great performance. I’m thinking specifically of David Sedaris here, who makes a point of giving his listeners (particularly teens, who it is rarer to see at readings) some kind of physical token to take home. He gives small things, random things: tiny plastic toys, postcards,  bracelets, hotel shampoos, packets of honey mustard, things from his pockets, sometimes things former listeners have gifted him (like a small box of chocolates, which he couldn’t eat).

Obviously this is one to exercise good judgment with, but for Mr. Sedaris’s standard genre (humorous creative nonfiction) it’s both amusing and appropriate. And what an unusual, lasting impression it makes!

3. If you’re trying to generate interest in something other than your book, a reading may be a good place to do it. I have seen newsletter signups passed around (Rubin) and authors promoting another author’s book alongside their own (Sedaris). Both alluded to these extras only briefly, and did so in a non-intrusive way.

Again, though, it’s all about relevance. Most readings are not places for promoting political agendas, etc.

4. If you don’t want to take pictures with people, you don’t have to. As a presenting author, you can work with the bookstore/library/school etc. staff to establish some ground rules beforehand. While some speakers are naturally photogenic and happy to pose with those getting their books signed, others would prefer not to pose, and some would rather not take pictures at all. David Sedaris mentions a sly trick in Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls: he asks the bookstores to put out a large sign forbidding photography, and makes it sound like it’s their policy that photos not be taken.

5. Engagement doesn’t have to end at the event. Many authors are on social media, and some take to the Tweets (/tumbls, etc.) after a reading to continue engaging with people who came to see them.

BJ Novak favorited my Tweet. I felt Twitter famous.

Good Writing Advice: Start with the logline.

What is a logline? Well, if you’re an author, you may have had that classic moment where you tell someone you’re writing a book, they ask what it’s about, and then you ACTUALLY HAVE TO TELL THEM. A logline is that crisp, convenient, one-sentence-ish premise that falls effortlessly from your lips in answer, smoothly summing your story and sparing all parties embarrassment in a single breath. You know– that description you can give for like any book or movie ever, whether you liked or watched or even finished reading it or not. That you definitely don’t stumble over when describing your own work. Goodness, no.

Because chances are you are sensible: that at some point you’ve developed a brief oral pitch to use as a flotation device. Me? I know what it is to flounder. I floundered a lot with my first book. I still splash a bit, but I’m getting better with time and each subsequent novel.

One thing that really helped in defining my last book, both to myself and to others, was starting with the synopsis. Plotting roughly what was going to happen before I actually started writing not only gave me a road map for the novel ahead of me; it made it easier to talk about.

That’s why I can really get behind screenwriter Blake Snyder, who emphasizes the importance of starting with a good logline in his screenwriting book, Save the Cat!:

“If you don’t have the logline, maybe you should rethink your whole movie.”

The same should hold true for books. If you can’t answer what your story’s about (in Snyder’s words: “What is it?”) succinctly and compellingly, there’s a chance that you don’t really have one.  Or that it needs work. And why waste time writing something that doesn’t sing to you and to others? Without a north? A logline is your novel at its barest: the bones upon which the story rests. It only makes sense to build from the foundation up.

That said, I am curious to hear your thoughts, fellow writers! I know there are pantsers as well as plotters out there, and some people feel stifled by any planning prior to writing.

What is your approach? What do you find works best?

Read what you love.

“It was as if some people believed there was a divide between the books that you were permitted to enjoy and the books that were good for you, and I was expected to choose sides. We were all expected to choose sides. And I didn’t believe it, and I still don’t.

I was, and still am, on the side of books you love.”

—Neil Gaiman, in his Newbery Medal acceptance speech for The Graveyard Book

Upcoming July Contests for MG and YA fiction

Two exciting contest opportunities this month for unagented kid lit writers:

1. The Writer’s Digest 16th free “Dear Lucky Agent” Contest: Middle Grade. Happening now until July 30, 2014. Judged by Peter Knapp of Park Literary.

  • Submit: the first 150-200 words of your unpublished, completed book-length work of middle grade fiction; title; logline; proof of shares (see below).
  • Special rules: must mention the contest twice via social media and submit proof of shares with your entry.
  • Prizes: Top 3 winners all get: 1) A critique of the first 10 double-spaced pages of your work, by your agent judge. 2) A free one-year subscription to WritersMarket.com ($50 value)! But there is always the potential extra excitement of clicking with the agent who’s judging, too!
  • Full details here.

2. The Miss Snark’s First Victim July Secret Agent Contest (for YA, MG, and chapter books). Entry by lottery only. Enter on Monday, July 21, 2014 from NOON – 6:00PM EDT. Judged by a mystery agent whose identity will not be revealed until the contest is over.

  • Enter the lottery July 21 for one of 50 spots in the contest.
  • Submit: the first 250 words of your COMPLETED manuscript; your name/screen name; title; genre.
  • Prizes: vary each round. In May, THREE “winner” entries were awarded full MS requests!
  • Why this contest rocks: All 50 entries are posted on the MSFV blog and receive critique from both fellow entrants and the mystery agent. So even if you don’t win, you get helpful feedback! Can’t go wrong with that.
  • Full details here.

Happy submitting!

1) Walk into library 2) Pick a book off the shelves.

Today I’m writing because I’ve recently rediscovered the pleasure of something I haven’t done for fun since high school: walking into a library, picking up a novel I’d never heard of and had no prior plans to read, and getting sucked in from jacket to epilogue.

As a writer, I’m also an avid reader, but here is my issue: I almost always know what I am going to read. I like structure: I work from lists. I’ll read what a friend hands me, what catches my eye on Goodreads. With purpose: books that play off one another, novels I will later be able to watch the film adaptation of, research/background reading, comp titles, work whose writing mirrors what I intend to do next. I read on a mapped route. And to some degree, if you read a lot of the same author, or work through trilogies or series, or even have a favorite table or shelf you always check at the bookstore, you might do the same.

Here is what I think.

I think, like writing, our reading should sometimes surprise us. And not just surprise us; knock our socks off and eat them and spit out a pair of mittens. Okay, maybe minus the eating and mittens. Point is, a good story has the power to floor you. A good, unexpected story can obliterate you.

In the best possible sense.

So here is my reading challenge for you:

  1. Walk into a library or bookstore.
  2. Pick up a book you’ve never heard of (though by all means, read the jacket and go with one that snags your interest). Bonus points for a genre or age group you don’t usually read!
  3. Take the book home and read it.

If you’re lucky (do not underestimate luck), somewhere in number three you will enter a time warp because the book you’ve brought home to read is so ridiculously engrossing you can’t set it down ’til it’s over. Try it. See what happens.

Here are my latest treasure finds, the two books-off-the-shelf that inspired this post:

Wool by Hugh Howey

Thousands of them have lived underground. They’ve lived there so long, there are only legends about people living anywhere else. Such a life requires rules. Strict rules. There are things that must not be discussed. Like going outside. Never mention you might like going outside.

Or you’ll get what you wish for.” –Goodreads

 

Doctor Sleep by Stephen King

“Stephen King returns to the characters and territory of one of his most popular novels ever, The Shining, in this instantly riveting novel about the now middle-aged Dan Torrance (the boy protagonist of The Shining) and the very special twelve-year-old girl he must save from a tribe of murderous paranormals.” —Goodreads [abridged]

Full jacket copy here.

Reading Bingo Challenge 2014

Make reading even more fun this year by playing this Reading Bingo Challenge designed by Retreat by Random House. If you’re into books, scavenger hunts, lists, and/or crossing things off (all of which I totally am), you’re gonna love this.

This is also a great way to get people who are intimidated by books excited about reading. You can put it up on the fridge, use the squares as scavenger hunt prompts, share it with friends or a book club. They have both a generic and a YA one, so whatever you read, your bases are covered, and it makes a phenomenal activity for kids. You can even assign prizes as extra motivation!

Click either of the images below to go to the original post.

30 Short Stories in 30 Days: The List

Last year, for the month of January, I read a short story every day. I set this challenge for myself as a concrete goal that would expose me to many authors, genres, and writing styles in a short time and collectively improve my own writing. And it did: After each story I’d reflect on what I’d read in terms of both content and writing, and then I’d write a blog post about it.

What I forgot to do was post a complete list of the 30 stories. So, requested by a reader and terribly belated, here it is– the 30 (actually 31) stories I read for this challenge. The links included are to the blog posts I wrote for each story, most of which contain links to where the story can be found online.

Enjoy!

30 Stories in 30 Days: The List

  1. “The Saucier’s Apprentice” by S.J. Perelman (Day 1)
  2. “The Masque of the Red Death” by Edgar Allan Poe (Day 2)
  3. “A Sound of Thunder” by Ray Bradbury (Day 3)
  4. “The Chrysanthemums” by John Steinbeck (Day 4)
  5. “The South” (El Sur) by Jorge Luis Borges (Day 5)
  6. “The Door” by E.B. White (Day 6)
  7. “A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings” by Gabriel García Márquez (Day 7)
  8. “Three Questions” by Leo Tolstoy (Day 8)
  9. “The Tale” by Joseph Conrad (Day 9)
  10. “A Hunger Artist” by Franz Kafka (Day 10)
  11. “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson (Day 11)
  12. “The Necklace” by Guy de Maupassant (Day 12)
  13. “The Gift of the Magi” by O. Henry (Day 13)
  14. “Graven Image” by John O’Hara (Day 14)
  15. “The Nightingale and the Rose” by Oscar Wilde(Day 15)
  16. “A Good Man is Hard to Find” by Flannery O’Connor (Day 16)
  17. “The Standard of Living” by Dorothy Parker (Day 17)
  18. “The Happy Man” by Jonathan Lethem (Day 18)
  19. An Upheaval by Anton Chekhov (Day 19)
  20. “The Monkey’s Paw” by W.W. Jacobs (Day 20)
  21. “Almost No Memory” by Lydia Davis (Day 21)
  22. “The Three-Day Blow” by Ernest Hemingway (Day 22)
  23. “The Second Bakery Attack” by Haruki Murakami (Day 23)
  24. “Putois” by Anatole France (Day 24)
  25. “The Ghosts” by Lord Dunsany (Day 25)
  26. “Nicolas was…” by Neil Gaiman (Day 26)
  27. “Harrison Bergeron” by Kurt Vonnegut (Day 27)
  28. “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (Day 28)
  29. “The Last Question” by Isaac Asimov (Day 29)
  30. “The Little Match Girl” by Hans Christian Andersen (Day 30)
  31. *Bonus story! “The Apostate” by George Milburn (Day 31)