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 clich√© 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 clich√© 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!