Creativity: Flexing Your Muscle

I am currently drafting my second 15,000 word manuscript in two months.  I know, I know.  To a novelist, that number is pretty ho-hum.  But I’ve been doing other work as well and I’ve noticed my energy ebbing.

Then the beads that I had ordered arrived. I was making a necklace for my sister’s birthday.  I happily started my current audio book and got to work.  Even when I realized that I had messed up the pattern and need to disassemble almost everything I was fine.  No biggie.  These things happen!

I finished the necklace and immediately got back into my manuscript.  Tippy-tippy-type!   I was super charged.

I can’t explain why it is that I sometimes forget how doing something else creative fuels my writing.  Fortunately, I had bought beads to make myself a necklace as well.  As soon as my energy level started to ebb again, I was back in the dining room with beads and beading wire.  Then it was back to my manuscript and I wrote a chapter in a day.

I’ve made a bracelet and am planning to make earrings.  Then I’ll have to find another way to recharge.  I’ve been eying things around the house that could use a coat of paint.  Knitting is also an option.  Maybe I’ll make more cacti.  They are pin cushions although I don’t trust the cat enough to keep pins in mine.

As much as I enjoy it, writing especially when I’m on deadline, takes a lot of energy.  To keep up the pace, I have to take care of myself.  That means exercise breaks, time with my family, reading/listening to good books, and recharging my creative batteries.  I sure hope I have some green yarn in my stash because purple cacti would just be peculiar.


Titles: A Contract with Your Reader

Lately I have noticed a trend in misleading titles. Yesterday I clicked on something like “Why I am Breaking Up with Twitter.”  The first paragraph was about how the author has never had a Twitter account.  Um . . . what?  You can’t break up with someone or something you’ve never had a relationship with.

Do not play with me if you want me to keep reading.  I’m serious.

If you promise me a mystery, there had better be a mystery.  Words like Secret and Curious also imply mystery.  Really.  They do.

And I’m not saying that titles can’t be clever and just a bit tricky.  Something Rotten by Heather Montgomery is about the science of road kill.  Yes, you read that correctly.  The Science of Roadkill.  But it is also vaguely reminiscent of Hamlet.  One, roadkill science, will attract the target read.  The second makes it curious and quirky.

A title is a contract with your reader.  It can promise mystery, romance, fantasy, or humor.  You don’t want your title to give too much away but you still want readers to know what to expect.  Of course, this means that you the writer need to deliver.

I have to admit that titles are not my strength.  It isn’t that I tend to fib to the reader.  Nope.  Instead I tend to give too much away. Deborah Blum does not have this problem.

The Poison Squad.  What do you expect from this title?  A group that tries to poison someone?  That tries to catch a poisoner?  This is the title of Deborah Blum’s book about a chemist who wanted to test some of the preservatives being used on foods in the 1880s and 1890s. He recruited a group of young men who would ingest the preservatives in capsule form when they ate their meals.  In this way, we learned which preservatives were safe and which were harmful. It is the beginning of the FDA.

The title is enough to pull you in but it doesn’t give the entire story away.  It hints but doesn’t deceive.  And that, my friends, is how is done.



Facts: The Devil Is in the Details

“Hello. I am a squirrel monkey.”

My husband tells me that I’m a pill.  My standards are just too high.  But I hate it when an author or illustrator gets a fact wrong.

If I don’t know you, I will put your book aside.  That’s it.  I don’t need any more of that nightmarish experience.

If I know your work and love it, I may stick around.  But there will be whining.

Last week, I excitedly picked up my stack of books at the library.  As soon as we got home, I flipped open a picture book.  WHAT!  You can’t call it a monkey and a chimpanzee.  No, no, no!  Chimpanzees are apes along with gorillas, orangutan and gibbons.  Monkeys include spider MONKEYS, baboons, tamarins and many, many more.  They may be close on the tree of life but they are not interchangeable.

The offending book is still sitting on my library shelf unread.  I may as well slip it back into the library bag.

Just this morning, I was finishing off my coffee while reading a chapter in my latest mystery.  The series logo includes two paw prints, a dog and a cat.  The dog print is beneath the profile of a dog.  It includes no claw marks.  The cat print is beneath the profile of a cat.  It contains claw marks.

I love this series, so I will keep reading but the illustrator got it backwards.  Dog prints include claw markets.  Cat claws, except for cheetah, are retractable. Only rarely, such as when they are running or pouncing, do cat paw prints include claw marks.  Yes, I will read on but I will whine.

Young readers are the same way.  They may not pick up on the same things that I do but they want what they read to be accurate.  That means that if you are going to use the current lingo, you better get it right.  Science terms?  Don’t guess.  Look it up because a science mad kid will know when you err.

If you want to expand your pool of readers, get it right.  It doesn’t matter if it is science, technology or the latest slang, the right word matters.


Characterization: Making Them Truly, Irritatingly 3-D

Getting out in the world can be a great lesson for a writer.  Among other things, it reminds us how complex our characters should be if they are going to seem realistic.

Last week, my husband and I ran into another couple out in the country.  He had met them before but I hadn’t.  Or so I thought.  We chatted away about our jobs, our families and how much we liked being “in the country.”  Then their daughter and son-in-law arrived and reality dawned.

We had met before and the only reason I remembered was because of how she had interacted with her son-in-law.  Let’s just say OMG and leave it at that.  The next morning I got to spend some time with her and her daughters.  Fortunately, knitting often means having to count stitches and non-knitters generally can’t tell when you are counting and when you are avoiding conversation.  Is this the same person who was so nice to me yesterday?  Holy cow.

What does this have to do with characterization?  Often our characters behave the same way with absolutely everyone.  Our heroes are heroic.  Our villains are mean.  And that is that.

But real people very often behave one way with one group of people and another way with another group and yet a third way with a third group.  The differences can be astonishing.

Think about it.  A nine-year-old is going to talk and act one way with classmates.  Then there is the behavior that their parents see.  Doting grandparents?   They see an entirely different set of behaviors.

People are complicated.  While a character who was that complicated would probably be confusing, they need to be multidimensional.  At the very least this means behaving one way with allies and another with the protagonist.

Because writing just wasn’t complicated enough before.



Finding Reliable Sources

Last week, we went down to the lake for a few days.  By “lake,” I don’t mean a big, commercial lake with fast boats and water skis.  Nope.  This is a little, rural home for fish, turtles and other assorted wildlife.  It is part of an outdoor sports club (think hunting and fishing). In addition to getting so see wildlife I don’t spend much time around in the city, I get to talk to a wide variety of people.

One thing that this has taught me is that I have points of disagreement with people who hunt and fish. For example, what they call nuisance animals, I often call wildlife.

This past week, one of the men was telling me about finding a dozen or so large catfish dead on the shore.  He said that this was the work of river otters.  “You might think they’re cute, but they’re really destructive.  They kill fish just to kill fish.”

“Actually, I know that they’re cute.”  I was pretty sure his statement about otters killing just to kill was bologna but I decided not to pick an argument.  Not until I’d done my research.

River otters eat a lot of fish.  They live in groups of 2 to 8 animals and can decimate a pond or hatchery.  Part of the problem is that, apparently, when the fishing is “especially easy,” they will kill just to kill. It really is best to do your own research before you decide a source you don’t like is full of bologna.

Last week, my son told me about a news story.  A group of academics, now called Sokal Squared had spotted a trend in academic journals.  They felt that they were seeing more articles being published with poor to non-existent science.  As long as the articles supported the trending “results” that these journals wanted to see, the pieces stood a better chance of being accepted.

To prove this, the three academics wrote a number of fake journal articles.  They claimed results that they never reached.  Heck, they didn’t even do the research. But seven of these articles were accepted.  Seven.

Too often we are willing to cheer the results we agree with, even when the science supporting them is clearly fake.  And something we don’t like the sound of?  Rubbish!

Rather or not the end result is what we want, we need to take the time to evaluate the data.  That’s the only way to be certain we’ve found reliable sources.



E-Books: Why Young Readers Love Them

I may be the last person on the planet who doesn’t like reading on a screen.  But I don’t.  I think it is simply because I work on a screen and when I relax I want something different.

But I was watching an interview the other day and the person was discussing why so many young readers, especially those who have trouble reading, like e-books.  When the whole class is reading a print book, anyone and everyone can look around and see how quickly or slowly someone reads each page.  Classmates can see if you are only 1/4 of the way through the book when others are nearly done.  This isn’t a problem I would have had but it makes sense.

Young readers who have trouble reading can also select the “read to” feature on many devices.  Then the text is read to them.  My son would have loved this.  He is still a fan of audio books.

A young reader can also use their device to look up a word they don’t know, see where X country is located or check into any number of other facts.  And this is what I would do.

A friend’s granddaughter also has an issue where she can’t read on a white background.  She has to have a light blue background (I think it was light blue).  But it is easy to set this up in an e-reader.  Otherwise she has to remember to take a sheet of blue transparent film to class and read through that.  I find myself wondering how many sheet of blue film are scattered around our city.

Not sure what I’m going to do with this information but it has been rattling around in my head for the last few days.


Inspiration to Write

Its always interesting to hear from other writers which childhood books/authors inspired them to write themselves.  I had many authors I loved and many books.  Meg Mysteries.  Marguerite Henry.  The first Box Car Children book.  The Little House books.  Marguerite de Angeli’s Jared’s Island.  A book of children’s poetry that included “Wynken, Blynken, and Nod.”

But I’m highly visual and I have to wonder if my first steps into this world were based on my love of National Geographic.  My Uncle John and Aunt Mary ordered  National Geographic for my parents for Christmas every single year.  And each month I skulked around the mail box, looking for the magazine to come.

To bad for everyone else if I got to it first.  I’d have it for days.

I love the brightly colored photos of far off places.  I wanted to see all of the animals and the science and the history.  Space, ocean and jungle. It was all mine.

Of course, I also knew that I better get through it before my mom got ahold of it.  Because if there was one “nude,” I would lose access.  My father was much less concerned about this.  He was a school teacher and considered National Geographic educational.

But it wasn’t only National Geographic.  All of my parents plant guides, coffee table books and even cook books. Books about West Texas history.  Books about the buffalo soldiers and old forts.  If there were photos or drawings, I would claim these books as well.

Reading was important and I was an avid reader.  But I was probably drawn into this world first by the brightly colored images in National Geographic.  


Shrunken Manuscript: The Nonfiction Proposal

This week, I decided to try something new in terms of a shrunken manuscript.  I did it with a nonfiction proposal.  I don’t know about you, but when I write a proposal it is easy to get lost in the details.  A friend pointed out that I needed to keep my slant front and center.  I went through my proposal again but wanted to really be certain this time I had it right.  Because I thought it was right before I showed it to my friend.  Thus the shrunken manuscript.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with this technique, Darcy Pattison details how to work with a shrunken manuscript in her book Novel Metamorphosis.  In short, you reduce your font and margins, make it single-spaced and get the whole thing on about 30 pages.  That number is pretty flexible.  You want the font to be large enough to read but you want the page count to be small enough that you can stand back and study what you’ve marked up.

Sometimes a shrunken manuscript is used to study your balance of dialogue, action and narrative.  In this case you highlight each in a different color and spread the pages out.  The three should be fairly balanced so if you have pages of narrative with no action, you’ll need to make a change.  The same for huge patches of dialogue with no action or action with no narrative.

This time around I printed out my proposal in six pages.  Then I took a highlighter and marked all of the places where my key terms appeared.   Then I discovered that once I spread out the pages and tried to scan for yellow highlighter it was too hard to see.  I went back over it with greenhigh lighter and tried again.

I’d done a great job working the key terms, and thus emphasizing my slant, in the overview and most of my outline.  I had the appropriate materials in my bibliography. My sample spreads?  Not so great.  So I went through and added a bit more to both my outline and my sample spreads.

If you have questions about how to use work with a shrunken manuscript, look up Darcy’s book or ask here.


Questions to Ask an Agent

You might think I’m a stunning conversationalist.  After all, I’ve done dozens and dozens of interviews.  I ask questions.  I listen to answers.  I ask more questions and respond. But I get to plan these interview-based conversations ahead of time.

Yeah.  It makes a huge difference.  That’s why I’m noodling over what I want to ask when I hear from a potential agent.  This is me being positive and when I hear from that agent, I want to be prepared.  Because, if I don’t prepare, when the phone rings, I’ll just sit there like a lizard.  Unblinking.  Still.  I base this observation on past experience.

So I’ve been noodling over the questions I want to ask.  Here is what I have so far.

  1. Do you see yourself as an agent who helps writers develop individual projects?  Or is your goal to help build a career?
  2. What makes you want to represent this manuscript?  Me as a writer?
  3. What publishers do you think will be a good fit for this project? How many publishers do you approach at a time? How long will you try to sell a project?
  4. How do you prefer to communicate?  E-mail?  Phone? How often should I expect to hear from you?
  5. How do you feel about clients doing work-for-hire?
  6. Are you opposed to clients submitting work you have no interest in representing?
  7. When the time comes to revise a manuscript, how do you work on revisions with your writers?  What does your process look like?
  8. How early do you want to be involved in a new project?  During idea generation?  After a solid manuscript has been drafted?
  9. How many manuscripts will you shop around per client at any one time?
  10. What happens if you leave the agency?

So far I have two agents reviewing my work.  I’m looking at others and weighing who would be a good fit.  Hopefully I’ll soon have my work out to a few more.  And then . . . well, I’ve got my questions ready.