December 14, 2016

How to Fix the Sagging Middle

We all run into this problem at some point or another.

You start off writing this amazing story. Your beginning is beautiful. You love your characters. And you know exactly where you want the story to wind up in the end. But somehow, in the middle of it all, you get a little lost along the way. You write that scene - it's fascinating to you, the setting of it and the way your characters interact and react, but it has no real relevance to the plot. It breaks your heart to admit it. Those scenes are the answer to all of the "what ifs" you ponder.

But they're the reason for what you might call, "a saggy middle."

The beginning is great.

The ending is perfect.

But the middle just sucks...

And how on earth do you fix that? How do you get where you want to go with a story without getting lost along the way? Plotters are so much better at this than Seat-of-the-pantsers. Still, it's an important question. As a Panster myself, I'm going to share someone else's advice with you:

I took a workshop on this at a writer's conference and the speaker suggested an idea. You probably think the answer to this lies in the hero's journey - somewhere along the way, you forgot a few steps. But what about this:

Have you ever tried writing your story from the middle?

Picture your character in a moment of adversity - not quite the black moment. But a moment where their good intentions are in question and they're wondering, "How on earth did I wind up here?"

"How did I get here?"

Hopefully you know how to get from this moment to your black moment. First, it gets hard, then their friends rally around them, they come up with a plan, they execute, all hope seems lost, then your character does something they couldn't have done when the story starts out (a lesson learned). The day is saved and happy ending commences.

All right, now we work backwards.

From the moment of, "How did I get here," work back. Ask yourself what kind of person your character has to be to find themselves in the situation. How did they get out of their comfort zone? What went wrong? What was their intent? This will bring you to your, "Day everything changed," The moment that set them on their journey.

There. No more saggy middle.

I'm sure you all have your ways of fixing a saggy middle. But this is mine. And if you think about it, it's probably the way you came up with your story to begin with. We all ask the question, "What would happen if a character who ________ faced _________?"

And that, my friends, is actually the middle.

September 8, 2016

The Who's Who of Voice

Dialogue is the foundation of expressing a character's thoughts and opinions. It can show the ways that they interact with other characters, or even give the reader a sense of where the character comes from based on their grammar. Each character's dialogue is unique and differs from the others characters. Ideally... their speech should be so unique to them, that a "he said" or "she said" is not necessary.

But how can you do this? Seems a bit... hard, right? Well, think about the last REALLY good book you read. Maybe one of the characters had a bad childhood experience and is hesitant to speak about themselves too personally. This could be key in that character's dialogue. This character will be a dodger, someone who only talks about other people and things that won't require them to give anything about themselves away. This makes your character different from another character who feels free to talk about say... their dog or their grandma or what food they like.

What about a character who comes from the slums (exaggerating here). This character will have poor grammar and limited vocabulary. They won't use words that you might find a college professor using. On the contrary, a character who comes from a very educated background will be better able to express themselves using good grammar and vast vocabulary. (stereotypical example) Someone from Texas will use words like, "ya'll," a Mainer will drop their r's and someone from West Virginia will say the "wash" as "warsh." Vocabulary and grammar are very simple ways to make them distinct.

But THINK about it. A character who has anger or lying issues will also speak differently. An angry character will jump to conclusion and accuse others regularly. They might also be the King or Queen of interjections. A lying character will say things that don't always make sense with the other character's opinions and statements. On the other hand, if say... a dog... is speaking, the dog will discuss things like food and being petted, toys or rawhide bones. A teenaged girl will prefer to talk about her boyfriend who offended her the other day, or whether or not she likes the shirt she's wearing.

So here's something to try...

  1. write out a conversation in which two or more characters are having an argument, but don't use "He said" or "she said" to tell them apart. No beats either (short action phrases, aka "Connor wiped the sweat from his forehead.") Just dialogue. 
  2. Read the conversation out loud and listen to see if you can hear your characters' distinct voices. 
  3. This done, now add some "he saids" and "she saids" 
  4. Read it again.
  5. Now you can add some "color" to the conversation: add some beats now. Make your characters DO things. Throw chairs against the walls if they need to. 
  6. Read it out loud again. I hope you're proud of the dialogue you've just created =) 

Remember, no two people are alike, even twins. When you create dialogue, we don't want a dry comments about the weather unless the character really is a dry person. Make your characters colorful and unique.

Happy writing =)

May 14, 2016

Sometimes... you just need a little Muse

I'd really like for you all to meet Rosamund.

She's a Mark Farmer China Doll Reproduction from approx. the 1960's and I'm kind of in love with her.

Most of what I write is Victorian Era historical fiction. I love the etiquette, the technology, the fashion, the hair - all of the above. And more often than not, I can be found browsing antique and junk shops just looking at the "old stuff" and savoring the smell of moth balls (I know I'm weird - most writers are). But the best part of browsing antique shops is the inspiration I find.

paraffin heater
When I see an old paraffin heater or a kerosine lamp, I picture a scene - something like the people who must have gathered around it in the evenings after in came in the mail (they probably ordered it from a Sears & Roebuck catalog during the late 1880s - 1900ish). I see a victorian lady reading her mail. I see a man with his newspaper. I see a child playing jacks. And I hear a blizzard howling outside.

When I see a China Doll, I picture the little girl who loved her to death and sewed clothes for her. I think of the French Fashion dolls - not unlike our barbie dolls. And all I can do is gush over the way the dolls represent the fashion and beauty trends of the day.

So while browsing a junk shop about a week ago, I spotted this Mark Farmer doll and just kept staring at it. The body was in the wrong condition to be truly Victorian in origin (she actually resembles more of the turn of the century style china dolls). Still, she had the look. And her body was too yellowed to be "new."

So of course... I took her home.

Every writer has their muse.

I know some who fill their writing room or surround their desk with antiques. Others who pin maps on their walls. Some have a closet they sit in every time they take time to write. Other have a specific jacket they put on.

I suppose we're creatures of habit.

I used to have a "spot." I sat in the same chair at the same desk at the same old Mac computer till it crashed. Then I went off to college and I never really could find a new "spot." But then perhaps I was simply too preoccupied to really write unless it was for a class.

But then, recently, I noticed another writer had posted a picture of her "muse" on instagram. I'll admit, I was really inspired. She writes WWII and hers was a doll in a flight jacket. While I have a soft spot in my heart for my childhood and dolls, I wanted something more vintage. I pictured a Victorian China doll. I've wanted to own one for quite some time.

And in that junk shop, finally, I saw one that wasn't too pricey. And albeit a reproduction of one of the turn of the century chinas, I was sold.

I have my new muse.

We all need one. We're just a little too habitual not too. It's how we slip into another world, another time, another place. And if it's our task to take a reader there with us, then ideally, we ought to take measures to get there and stay there.

April 5, 2016

The Ultimate Love Story

Writing a book or a story is the beginning of a beautiful relationship between you and your imaginary characters. Don’t even try to resist the urges to laugh at your funny one-liners, cry when your favorite character dies, or obsessively hate your villain. And don’t be too embarrassed if you accidentally call your best friend the name of your main character. But keep these things to yourself, because your family will think you are nuts.

Writing wasn’t always this way for me. My name is Esther. I’ve been writing fiction since I was six or seven—not that that writing was anything I am proud of. At thirteen, I wrote my first REAL book. It was short—a children’s book about a young girl with a crazy grandma who drives a rocket ship. It’s the first piece of writing I’m not wholeheartedly ashamed of, because it’s technically pretty clean.

I started going to Mount Hermon’s writing conference that year, and I got some great editing. But I wasn’t in love with my writing. It was nothing more than a hobby—almost seemed like school to me at times. There were times my mom forced me to go to the computer. I had this unrealistic dream that I was going to get that book published. I went to Mt. Hermon twice. No interest from anyone.

Last year after Mt. Hermon, I had this new idea for a book. As soon as I started writing it, I felt something change. What was it? I fell in love with writing. It just sort of happened—I didn’t try. I found myself waking up before school at ridiculously early times to write a scene. I would goof off during school work dreaming up what would happen next. When I was supposed to be online finding scholarships for college, I would be—you guessed it—writing. And my focus turned from trying to get published for money sake, to just writing because I loved it and couldn’t stop.

I still want to be published, believe me. I’ll be going to Mt. Hermon again in two years to try. But even if I don’t, I won’t stop, because writing is a part of me, and I’m never letting go. I hope that this can be of some inspiration to you.


Mirror, Mirror

Have you ever seen a movie in which the acting is terrible? The lines seem forced and unreal, the actor’s tones and facial expressions are either too cheesy and cliché or not dramatic at all, and you go away from the movie theater wishing you didn’t waste ten bucks on the ticket. Believe it or not, books can be the same way.

We’ve all read books in which we read something (a phrase, an action beat, even the whole plot) that was unrealistic or poorly written. It leaves us thinking, “No way would a person in real life say/do that.” And when a character in a book is unreal, readers don’t get a chance to bond with him or her. And that’s what the main objective in a book is, isn’t it? I don’t know about you, but if the character is unreal, says ridiculous things, and “giggles” out her words every four sentences (really, how many times do you “giggle” while you talk?!), chances are, I’ll put the book down, because I can’t connect with her.

So, what is one of the things you can do to keep from making this error in your own book or story? Mirror, mirror! I got this idea from Christine Tangvald, a wonderful and enthusiastic writer and writing teacher from Mt. Hermon. I had her edit some of my children’s book, and she suggested that I take my work into the bathroom and act out a scene in a mirror. Before long, I was giggling myself because of the ludicrous and highly cliché things that I had put in my manuscript. By doing this, I was able to fix a lot of things and make them truer to every day life. And yes, there were times where I realized I had to spice things up a bit. It also gives some great ideas for those action beats (character’s actions that go before a quote) in which you can’t figure out what to say. Instead of saying, “She/He scratched his/her head” several times, you will be able to come up with things that have to do with the plot. Things come naturally in the mirror.

So, print out your work, head to the place in your house with the largest mirror, and act away. First, though, I would highly recommend you do it when family is not around (that’s another story).

Esther Seim

What Is A "Comp Title" and Do I Have One?

One of the first things to do when you finish a manuscript, is craft a query letter (if you want to publish, that is). But either way, even in your crafting stage... as you brainstorm your book, there's this little thing called a "Comp Title" you ought to keep in mind. It's slang for "Comparative." What is your book similar too?

If you consider your own reading habits, you'll probably see a trend. For example, readers of Kiera Cass's "The Selection Series," likely prefer books that involve contests, love triangles, dystopian societies and not too much gore.

Think about it like categories or tags... ways to label a book.

One of my favorite books is "The Rose Legacy" by Kristen Heitzmann. It takes place during the late gold rush, it's a Christian Romance, there's an arranged marriage, and a lot of historical detail. Of course, there are other categories, but I don't want to give any spoilers. But, to the point, many of the books I enjoy reading are similar.

Today I saw an advertisement on Penguin Teen for a Dystopian novel. "Readers of Kiera Cass's Selection will love The Glittering Court," it read.

That's a Comp Title.

At the same time, while readers enjoy reader books with similar content, they don't want to read the same story twice - that, and you can get accused of plagiarism.

So, ask yourself this question: If you are worried your manuscript is too similar to another published title - one of your comp titles - then think about what sets your book apart. What's your unique spin on the story?

A good example of this is retellings.

One of the most popular retellings is probably Gail Carson Levine's "Ella Enchanted." Which is in essence a spin on the story of Cinderella, but it's not Cinderella.

Well, how?

For all intents and purposes, Ella's mother died, her father is absent and she has a stepmother and stepsisters who treat her horribly. She also has a fairy-godmother.

BUT... Ella is under a curse. She and the prince meet before the ball and become friends. To a certain extent, she saves herself. And there's also a "Lord of the Rings" sort of element with the creation of cultures and languages such as Ogerese, Ayorthian, and Gnomic.

This is a marketing issue. More and more, authors are playing a bigger role in how their books are advertised. These days, authors are traveling - speaking and doing book signings - they have a face and a personality. A platform. Your potential publisher wants to know, "Where do I put this book on a bookshelf?" That's right... who's name is next to yours at Barnes and Noble?

So, who are you? What is your book like? What what will attract your reader?

What are your comp titles? Yes, you need them.

April 3, 2016

Should I Get A Degree in Creative Writing?

This is a big question for many fields, but I would definitely lump Creative Writing in that category. It's actually a thing, you know... a degree in Creative Writing? You can go to college, do some general ed and take a bunch of pre requisites and upper division electives centered around becoming a writer.

But oddly enough, writing is one of the few careers that doesn't require education to be successful. Most of the published writers I know don't have a degree in the profession. Sarah Sundin, for example, is a pharmacist.

Part of this is because we all learn how to read and write during the course of our primary education. After that, writing is a "gift" of sorts - it's something you naturally are inclined towards or practice like crazy to hone your craft. Then, either the editors like your style, or they don't - which means you need more practice. In conjunction, storytelling is something that we gain from personal experience - living life.

So, should you get a degree in Creative Writing? Is it even worth it?

That all depends on a few things...

Honestly, this is a big factor.  
I'll let you in on a little secret... I'm currently wrapping up my last semester of college, and when I graduate, I will have a degree in History and a minor in Bible & Theology. Not English with a concentration in Creative Writing. Do you want to know why?
Because I write Historical Fiction. Plain and simple. I do research when I'm world-building for my manuscripts and over the last four years, my education has really helped my research skills. I've also gathered a lot of fodder for storytelling during history lectures. 
I'll tell you this, right now... most colleges are not geared towards helping you become the next Suzanne Collins or J.K. Rowling. Creative Writing classes will lean heavily in the short story/flash fiction/poetry direction. College is about going deeper, and so Literary writing tends to be the focus. Metaphor, shape, breaking rules - that's the idea. The next Great American Novel.  
If that's your aim, then a degree in Creative Writing might be very interesting for you. But if you want to write something that's going to appeal to the masses, fly off the shelves and have a pretty cover, you might be bored with all the Lit prereqs - American Lit, British Lit, Lit and Culture... all that jazz. 
There are some colleges that will offer more in the Commercial department, but it's less common.
I have a friend who just graduated with a degree in English and now she's going on to get what's called a MFA (Masters in Fine Arts) - or essentially, a Master's degree in Creative Writing.  
For a lot of people - this is definitely overkill. The amount of money you spend of your education will most certainly not equal the amount of money you'll make writing. I once asked a Christian best seller what she makes per/hour. After doing the math, she admitted that even with good sales, she invests months into a manuscript and makes pocket change per hour. It's not lucrative.  
However, book sales aren't the only means of making money with an English Degree. That friend of mine plans to teach Writing at the college level - and she will need higher credentials to do so. 
Depending on what you plan on doing with your future, Writing might not be your only ambition or income. In some cases... you might even need a Plan B for income. It's pretty common for writers to have a day job. Like being a super hero (yes, I went there). It's like having a job to support your hobby - though, if you are lucky, you might write the breakout novel that gives you a bright, lucrative future. If you're lucky.  
Anyways... that day job? Don't do something your hate. When you're picking a major, make sure it's something you enjoy. Personally, I love writing, but I also love history. My history electives are my favorite classes. I can't wait to get started on my single-subject teaching credential. I'll have summers and spare time to write.  
Just think about it. 
Your future and your education should reflect the ways God has gifted you. Don't be too practical, but don't make decisions lightly. Think about it. And just because making it as a writer won't come easy doesn't mean you can't do it. If you love it, then pursue it.

I really do love writing, but I didn't chose to get a degree in that area. I'm not much of a Literary person, I don't think I want to teach at the college level, and I don't think writing will be my only occupation. So, in just about a month, I'm going to be graduating with a History degree.

However, I have a lot of electives aside from my history classes... I've taken Creative Writing, Advanced Creative Writing, Writing/Publishing the Novel, and Special Studies: Novel Workshop. In addition to that, I try to make it to a Writer's Conference every year.

Just because you're not getting a degree in Creative Writing, doesn't mean you're not serious about pursuing publishing.

And if you do answer "yes" to any of those questions above, an English degree with a Creative Writing concentration might be just what you need to go all the places you're dreaming of.

Good luck, Writers!