The Value of Professional Networking

Today, I’m preparing for the South Carolina Writer’s Workshop Conference at the Hilton in Myrtle Beach, Oct. 22-24. Three days of listening, learning, applying, and networking. By Sunday afternoon, my mind will be whirling with new ideas and new takes on old habits. I will have made several new writer friends and have a short critique on a book of essays.

 

A writer’s conference serves many purposes. Presenters/speakers are usually either published authors well-known in their genre, editors, or agents. People you need to meet if you want to write and publish. In addition, you meet fellow writers. This is professional networking and has proved helpful to me. I’ve made friends at writer’s conferences from different places. Although we don’t chat daily about national news or Hollywood celebrities—unless the topic somehow connects to our writing project—we do chat about writing and good books, and we give and take constructive criticism about our current work. It’s refreshing to talk to another writer when you have a writing problem.

 

For instance, yesterday, in preparation for this conference, I tried to polish my summary for a book of humor essays, but my writing was flat, and I couldn’t seem to get past the boring melancholy. I sent the book summary to a writer friend I met at a conference last year. She called to talk about my problems with the summary. I trusted her advice, so I revised my work and created an interesting and humorous summary to match my book of humor essays. Now I have my summary—my pitch—ready for agents I meet at the conference. It went from flat to zingy in less than an hour because of the advice and support of a writing “buddy.” 

 

This week, I encourage you to find a writing buddy, whether at a writer’s conference or in a writer’s group. Develop a writing partnership you trust and learn from each other. Write and share and apply what you learn from the critiques.

 

Take the challenge—Write Now!

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Spending Time with Family

I’m taking a break from writing today to spend the Columbus Day holiday with family. Tomorrow I’m off to get my hair cut and highlighted and treat myself to a manicure so my hands will silently fly along the keyboard.

This week, I encourage you to take time for loved ones–including yourself!

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Creative Energy of a Writer’s Workshop

The South East Mystery Writers of America (www.semwa.com) Skill Build workshop this past weekend was a great writing/learning experience. Held at Honey Creek Episcopal Camp and Conference Center (www.honeycreek.org), near Jekyll Island, Georgia, it provided a relaxing and inspiring place for a retreat. Not only did I enjoy a serene natural environment and beautiful weather, but also I gleaned information to help improve my first draft and met interesting  people who write in my genre. To mystery writers, it’s about murder—writing the crime and resolving the injustice! 

Fortunately for me, I was the only participant at the Friday evening critique session, so I took advantage of sitting with Maggie Toussaint (MaggieToussaint.com), a mystery writer, and Holly McClure (http://sullivanmaxx.com), writer and agent, as both critiqued my work and commented on the good parts and the problems in my writing. They showed me how to eliminate areas of author intrusion where I tell rather than show the character’s actions and feelings through interior dialog. 

I know this rule, but apparently, new writers—like me—often make this mistake in first novels. My critique friends explained how to eliminate this new writer’s syndrome. They did it in a way that was kind and encouraging. When Maggie revised one paragraph in my manuscript, I recognized the problem and the fix—another epiphany in my writing journey. Armed with this new knowledge, I can revise the writer intrusion out of the manuscript and let the characters tell their story. It seems an easy fix now that I know what to do. I came away enriched by the comments and inspired to revise!

On Saturday, other participants arrived early for a full day of workshops. We learned to analyze, reorder, and rewrite as wells as create WordPress blogs and turn the blog into a website—coming soon to this blog! In the afternoon we discussed the advantages of writing short fiction and its market and about writing tight: make each word count. 

To write and publish, learn the craft and then practice it. As with any skill, writing improves with practice. This week, I encourage you to improve your writing, whether it’s finding a writer’s workshop or conference to attend, reading a book on the craft of writing, or joining a writer’s group. 

Take the weekly challenge—Write Now!

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Upcoming Writer’s Workshop

My post today is short because this coming weekend is a big one for me. I’m attending my first Mystery Writers of America workshop, and I’m excited to learn new things and meet new people. However, I have to spend my time polishing my manuscript. I want it as good as I can possibly make it. Then, when I learn new ways to improve my story, characterization, plot, or whatever I learn, I’ll have a good manuscript to work from. 

This week, perhaps you can join me in revising and polishing something you are writing. Next week, I’ll share with you some of the information I learned at the workshop. 

Whatever you do this week, write something. Preferably—Write Now!

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Start Where You Are

Another frustrating but productive week in my writing life. In addition to revising Chapters 1-3 of my manuscript—for what seems like the 500th time—I began a web design class. My homework for this week: design my site’s homepage layout. Please understand that I am as spatially challenged as I am mathematically challenged. I can’t choose the correct size sauce pan to cook in or the correct size container to fit left-over food. I have no concept of visual space unless I’m working with word layout on the page. 

I sit at my desk frustrated with the task of sketching the format of the webpage on blank paper. I stare out the window, then turn my attention to the items on the wall beside my desk, and finally back to my computer. I spot a quote by Arthur Ashe, the late great tennis star, taped to the narrow black frame of my computer screen. Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.  How much more simply can a person live than by Ashe’s words? 

Start where you are. I’m on Goal # 1 in designing a website. I’m at the beginning of a learning experience, the bottom of the learning curve, but all set to climb the long slope to the apex. That’s not a bad place because I’m ready to learn. Ready for an adventure! 

Use what you have. I have two qualified instructors who are experts in information technology, web design, and teaching. They have years of experience in all three: success in managing electronic information, designing and managing websites, and teaching others to design and manage their own websites. I believe if I follow their instructions, I too will be successful in getting a website from concept to finished product—a live website. 

Do what you can. I can listen, learn, practice, and apply my knowledge. Sometimes difficult to do, but I’m determined to learn this, so today, I can 1) view websites I enjoy visiting, 2) choose one to use as a model, 3) layout my page grid, and 4) plan the content. I can do this! Now that I’ve broken the task down into small pieces, the process of designing my homepage layout doesn’t seem complicated. At the end of three weeks, I’ll post a link to the completed website for you to view. 

Any new task can be daunting, especially one for which you have no time or experience. Taking apart a large or complicated task, working with one small piece at a time, and seeking help when needed make the task manageable. 

This week I encourage you to select a task you want to undertake but have put off for whatever reason, whether it’s cleaning out a closet, rotating your tires, or beginning a writing project—or designing a website. Break down the process into small tasks, and complete each task independently. Complete the process and experience a sense of accomplishment. Start where you are and work your way to what you want—a completed task. Discover what you can do!

Take the challenge—Write Now!

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Active Voice vs Passive Voice

Last week, writing and studying the craft of writing overwhelmed me. I followed the chapters and exercises in the book, Don’t Murder Your Mystery by Chris Roerden. I read a chapter and then wrote, read another chapter and revised, and so it went for the entire week. I finished only half the book, but my manuscript improved.

Much of Roeden’s writings applies to all writing, not just mystery writing. She discusses the active verses passive voice, one of the elements of good writing familiar to all English instructors. Teachers tell us to use the active voice instead of the passive voice, but few tell us how to do this. Roerden tells how.

While teaching a developmental English class, I devised a system similar to Roerden’s to help my students avoid the passive voice in college essays. Some college instructors don’t consider passive voice incorrect grammar. No surprise there! Have you read any scholarly work lately? Passive voice bores the reader—it took a lot of thought to get that sentence to active voice! English instructors, editors, and agents read a lot of boring passive voice.

When an instructor reads an interesting active-voice essay, she gets so engrossed in the content she forgets to check for other errors. Use the active voice when you send a manuscript to replicate a similar effect on editors and agents. Give them a reason to get lost in the story and forget errors. Errors they would quickly use to reject a boring passive-voice manuscript.

I use the following technique to help my students’ writing and my writing. To eliminate the passive voice, eliminate all forms of the verb to be. Write down these words: is, am, are, was, were, be, been, and being. Don’t attempt to avoid these words as you write the first draft. Eliminate these words when you revise. Sometimes you must rewrite an entire sentence. Usually, you need only to change the order of the words that remain after you remove the passive verb.

Bear with me for a minute while I explain two rules of the English language—simplified, of course.

1)       English language sentences use the SVO method of construction: Subject, Verb, Object. Another way to look at this is to ask who did what to whom? Who = the subject; Did what = the verb; To Whom = the object. This order ensures the subject does something to the object.

2)       When you use a passive verb coupled with the preposition by, you create the most passive of all sentences.

The following simple sentence demonstrates an example of passive voice.

Myrtle Beach was hit by Hurricane Hugo on September 22, 1989.

To change this to active voice, ask yourself: Who did what to whom? Then, ask yourself: Who (or What) performed the action? Next, remove the passive verb was and the preposition by. Finally, rearrange the remaining words. 

Hurricane Hugo hit Myrtle Beach on September 22, 1989.

A word of caution: You cannot remove all passive verbs from 100% of your writing, but if you eliminate 90% of them, you create the active voice. Also, please remember to focus on this problem in your revisions, not in your first draft.

If you still use Word 2003, you can find the percentage of passive voice sentences in any document in the Word Count and Readability dialog box. Unfortunately, I’ve never found that feature in Word 2007.

This week, I encourage you to eliminate as many passive verbs as possible in a chapter of your manuscript as you revise. If you don’t want to read the entire chapter, use the Find tool, and choose one of the passive verbs to begin your search. Sounds easy until you try it, but the more you practice, the easier the task becomes.

Take the challenge—Write Now!

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Identify the Beginning; Eliminate the Past

On a good day, I take two steps backward to move one step forward with my writing. Just when I thought I had written the perfect opening, I found that my opening was not the beginning of my story.

Each week, I read a different book on the craft of writing. This week I’m reading Don’t Murder Your Mystery: 24 Fiction-Writing Techniques to Save Your Manuscript from Turning up D.O.A. by Chris Roerden. I found two pieces of information in the first sixty pages that made me reconsider the opening and remove much of the past in my mystery manuscript. I determined two things: 1) Where does my story really begin? 2) How much backstory should I include?

According to Roerden, a story begins “. . . where the first sign of trouble appears. It’s where a change threatens to upset the status quo.” Roerden goes on to quote mystery author and literary agent Jack Bickham, who tells writers in The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes to “Identify the moment of change, and you know when your story must open.” Bingo! A light bulb moment for me.

The beginning of the story is not where the protagonist came from or where she’s going; it’s where her problem for this story first surfaces. In my manuscript, the problem first appears at a New Year’s Eve party, yet I had begun the book three weeks later. Therefore, the real beginning became part of my backstory. I told the reader about the beginning instead of showing the reader the situation as it unfolded.

Even though I had a good opening line, it was backstory; it was the past. I rewrote the opening—for what feels like the 100th time—to begin during the New Year’s Eve party at the moment the protagonist’s problem first appears.

What should we include as backstory? To paraphrase Robie Macauley and George Lanning in Technique in Fiction: only the part of then that is important to or has some bearing on now is worth telling. To achieve this, Chris Roerden suggests using Chapters 1-3 of your manuscript. Highlight all information that’s backstory. Then selectively cut non-essential information. For each highlighted sentence or paragraph, ask yourself: Is this info important to this story? Does it have a bearing on this story? If the answer is no, cut it and move on. Be ruthless.

I did as Roerden suggested. More than half of my first three chapters contained information that didn’t have a bearing on my story; therefore, it was non-essential information. Most of this info described the characters’ background, not something the reader needed to know for this story. However, I don’t throw the words away. I created an electronic folder for CUTS where I placed all the deleted text. Perhaps I can use it in another story—or not.

Deleting words is not an easy task. I tend to develop an emotional attachment to all words I write. As a writer, I sometimes have to let go. This is one of those times. I’m writing a mystery, not a history (thanks for the reminder, Chris). Of course, you need to include some backstory in your work but made it short and to the point without interrupting the story’s action.  

After eliminating pages of non-essential backstory, I reread my first three chapters. I didn’t want to put the manuscript down. Each sentence moved the story forward with a momentum that kept me reading. Is that not what all writers—and agents and publishers—want readers to experience: the I-can’t-put-it-down syndrome?

This Labor Day, I encourage you to find the first sign of change that begins your story and make it the beginning of your story. Then delete unnecessary backstory from your first three chapters. The last part will be laborious (but it is Labor Day!), even difficult, but worth the effort in the end.

Take the challenge: begin at the beginning; eliminate the non-essential past—Write Now!

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Life as a Writer—Structure & Focus

The word structure is not on my list of favorite words. Telling you I’m not a structured person is a great understatement. I’m more of an impatient, impetuous, quick-tempered, fly by the seat of my pants type woman. I want what I want, and I want it now. I’ve learned the world doesn’t work this way, but some things are difficult to let go. So when I tell you I recently read two articles that increased my productivity, you may be surprised to learn that one of the articles is on the need of structure in a writer’s life.

The article suggests writers create structure with a writing schedule. Not necessarily a set word count or specific number of hours per day. Rather that writers find a structure that works for them and set a daily schedule based on their specific needs. I agree that a writer needs structure, some type of schedule, to be productive day after day. Binge writing is not the most productive writing. Saying I would write every day was not enough for me. I need specifics.

My writing schedule created productive writing time with useable content in my writing and revising. This schedule isn’t carved in stone, but I guard my scheduled writing time from cancellation and intrusion. Yes, this means blocking off the time on my calendar and turning off my cell phone. Remember, you are not the center of the universe; life will go on if you miss one call. In my sixty-plus years, I’ve never saved a life by answering my phone the minute it rang. I’ve never opened my door to find Ed McMahon with a million-dollar check. Don’t think it will happen now. If it does? Well, I’ll have a new story to write. If Ed appears, I could start a new genre!

The second article suggests writers focus on one type of writing. Because I write both creative non-fiction and fiction, I often find it difficult to focus on one or the other. No matter which one I’m working on, I tend to think about the other. I lose momentum with my writing. Sometimes I switch projects several times a day because I don’t concentrate—or focus—on the project. This article came to mind every time I switched projects. Finally, I decided to focus on fiction, specifically my mystery-romance manuscript, for the rest of the week.

The manuscript is a three year-old work-in-progress. I want it finished. I’ve started over several times—always the same story but with different beginnings. I added, deleted, revised until I forgot the original story plan and some of the characters. I had no wish to finish it. In the last few weeks—after making an outline—I attempted to correct parts of the story, but it seemed fragmented instead of cohesive. Once I established my focus, cohesion within my fiction manuscript, I began on page one and worked my way through the manuscript marking places that needed research (not my focus for this rewrite) and situations that needed more development. It worked. I finished large chunks of the manuscript revision each time I sat down to write.

This week I challenge you to improve your writing with structure and focus: 1) Structure your writing by creating a writing schedule and adhering to it for one week. If you have only fifteen minutes a day, then write for fifteen minutes a day for seven days. If the schedule works, stay with it for another seven days. If not, revise it. Keep revising until you find a schedule that works. Then, commit to the schedule to create structure in your writing life. 2) Focus on one specific type of writing and on one element within that writing.

Take the weekly challenge—Write Now!

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The Craft of Writing–A Killer Opening

I wrote a killer opening for my novel. It killed any desire to read further. Or so my friends said when I shared my work. Each gave a different remedy. Some said to open with dialog; others said to describe the setting (coastal South Carolina). Still others said to open with the murder itself. None of these seemed right in a first-person point-of-view murder mystery.

Frustrated and confused, I turned to the writer I consider the master of first-person POV mysteries: Sue Grafton. I’ve read each of her twenty-one books at least three times. From 1982 through 2009, Grafton wrote her way through the alphabet from A is for Alibi to U is for Undertow. Her fans, including me, await V is for . . . .

After reviewing all twenty-one books (twenty are in first-person POV; U is for Undertow, a thriller, blends first- and third-person POV), I found a common thread: a foreshadowing of what is to come. The had-I-but-known school of thought; the looking-back-in-hindsight thoughts. My favorite is C is for Corpse. Fortunately, I own the audio-book, so I sat at my computer and typed as I listened.

When I finished, I had a new opening for my novel. Of course, this may change; it’s a work in progress. For now, it’s a beginning that lets readers know who’s marked for death. Yet it leaves them wondering who will kill him and when, why, and how. Colonel Mustard in the library with a candlestick at midnight?

An opening grabs readers’ attention and keeps them reading. The best opening I’ve read in a contemporary book is from The Glass Castle: A Memoir by Jeannette Walls: I was sitting in a taxi, wondering if I was overdressed for the evening, when I looked out the window and saw Mom rooting through a Dumpster.  That one sentence hooked me. I had to read the book, which is every bit as interesting as the first line.

This week, I challenge you to read the opening (just a sentence or two) of twenty books. Go to your public library, Barnes & Noble, Books-A-Million, Borders—can’t leave anyone out. Choose books on your own bookshelf, or use Amazon.com (Look Inside feature). Select books at random. Or look at all the books in a series, or all the books by your favorite author. When you find an opening you like, write it in a journal. No, don’t photocopy the page and add it to a three-ring binder; you’re a writer, so write. Note the book and the author for future reference. I open my journal often and read random entries. They inspire me to write and/or rewrite to improve my writing skills and my story.

No matter where you are in your story development, write or rewrite the opening until it’s the best you can write. Don’t let your opening murder the story. Take the challenge—Write Now!

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The Craft of Writing—Techno Savvy

Recently, I’ve read several books and articles on what agents/editors/publishers want besides good writing skills, a unique voice, original plot, and strong characters. They demand a strong platform—online social networking. In other words, they want a lot of people to know your name. Your brand. Remember the song, We Are the World? Now is the time to embrace the concept. Get online and shout, “Hello, World!”

If you’re like me and shun all technology beyond e-mail and cell phones, you are living in the dark ages. Create a blog, purchase a domain name and website package, create a Facebook (my grandchildren taught me to do this), and learn to tweet (Is tweet a verb? If so, how would you conjugate it? I tweet; I tweeted; I have tweeted; I’m tweeting?)

Think of a blog as a letter to a friend, a website as your professional image. Facebook is like walking down the street with your friend, Jane. Along the way, you meet another friend, Morgan, who doesn’t know Jane. Morgan is with one of her friends, Nancy; neither you nor Jane knows Nancy—did you follow that? A friend of a friend, okay? You have a circle of friends; Jane, Morgan, and Nancy each have a circle of friends you don’t know. When the circles intersect, lots of new people see your name. That’s a good thing. You want as many people as possible to know your name. 

Do the math—this isn’t difficult even for an English teacher: If you have 10 Facebook friends (it’s easy to multiply by 10s), and they each have 10 Facebook friends, you now have your name in front of 100 people (I think). If the Facebook friends of each of your friends have 10 Facebook friends, well, you get the picture. If not, get out your calculator, or trust me when I say the number increases exponentially. What? Just because I’m mathematically challenged doesn’t mean I don’t know a few math words. I wasn’t married to an engineer for 25 years for nothing!

Think of Twitter as a quick greeting/note/response, as brief as a handshake—Hey, how ya doin’? Or Let’s meet on Tuesday for lunch. Or Did you see Burn Notice last night? Or I love you! Be careful with that last one.

I mentioned in an earlier post that I joined several writing associations. Romance Writers of America (www.rwa.com), offered online classes to help me get started with social networking. Just this month, I’ve learned to use several tools to fling my name into cyberspace—in a good way.

I know how to write. I know what to write. I make time to write. Every day. But all this is only part of the picture. It’s no longer enough to write a good book; you must help with marketing as well. Think of this as a rite of passage from unpublished to published writer. Or you could think of it as blackmail by the publisher: “Do this or your book dies!” Did I mention that I also belong to Mystery Writers of America? Whatever you call it, you have one more skill to hone—just when you thought passive voice or comma placement was the only skill you needed to master.

I gave myself two challenges this week: 1) learn to add tags to my blog, and 2) create a writer’s Facebook account separate from my friends and family Facebook—some things are not for the world to know.

I challenge you to 1) go online and read your favorite writers’ websites, blogs, Facebook, and Twitter, and 2) create a blog or Facebook—even if it’s for friends and family only. Some blog sites enable you to link Facebook and Twitter to the blog (wordpress.com does).

Take the challenge: Let’s get techno savvy and cyber-social! Do it; Write Now!

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