Pitch Wars Pep Talk

We’re in the final days of the Pitch Wars selection period. The mentors are frantically reading through the subs, looking for “the one,” or deciding which of several “ones” they can best help. The hopefuls are handling the waiting in whatever way works best for them. Because tensions, and emotions, run high in Pitch Wars, I wanted to share what things look like on this side of the inbox.

I got a little over 100 subs, and you guys brought your A-game. I’m super impressed with the quality of the writing and the intriguing ideas I’ve been reading. And I have to choose just one manuscript to work with. This is going to be hard. As in, I’m losing sleep over this decision. When concepts and writing are this strong, it’s going to come down to which story clicks with me the most – something that’s completely subjective – and I think the other mentors are in the same situation. Agents are too, all year long, and I have a lot more empathy for them after doing Pitch Wars.

So, to everyone who subbed to Pitch Wars, congratulations on finishing a manuscript, on polishing it until it shines, and on being brave enough to put it out there. You are doing amazing things. Pitch Wars is awesome, but it’s not your one and only chance. I was a Pitch Wars alternate (when such a thing existed). I ended up publishing that manuscript with a small press. Then I found my agent in a different pitch contest. And the journey doesn’t end with getting published or getting an agent. There are still revisions and rejections and waiting and waiting and waiting.

The witty and wise Mr. Robison Wells said:

“Everyone’s in a different place, and that’s okay. Getting published doesn’t mean you’ll be published forever. Getting rejected doesn’t mean you’ll always be rejected… The truth is that most authors—even the really good ones with great careers—get depressed. They’re hard on themselves. They worry about the future. They regret decisions in their past… I don’t present this to make you stop chasing your dreams. I say it to make you feel better about this maddening business… You’re good enough. You really are.”

So, take a deep breath, soak in a warm bath, eat some good chocolate. Find something else to work on so the waiting doesn’t kill you. And no matter what happens with Pitch Wars, it’s just one step on your path. Keep going!

Better off dead? This is why we need diverse books

As a non-contributing member of society, apparently I would be better off dead. At least according to a friend’s co-worker, who holds this opinion of all paralyzed people. It’s a prejudice often reinforced by the media, including a certain recent book-turned-to-movie. I’ve even heard it suggested that giving a villain a disability is a great way to make them more “villainous.” Because, you know, disability=reduced humanity.

If my friend’s co-worker had been talking to me directly, she might have been surprised to know that I’m partially paralyzed–the effects of my incomplete spinal cord injury are only apparent in my slight limp and frequent clumsiness (and my chicken-peck typing)–but it’s still a disability I live with every day and, like many people with disabilities, it leads me to struggle with a lower self image and bouts of depression.

Maybe I would make the “contributing member of society” cutoff to this person, but why should she–or anyone else–get to make that call? Who’s to say who contributes–who has value–and who doesn’t? According to the CDC, 1 in 1o Americans is living with a disability (more if you include the crippling effects of mental illness), and nearly everyone will suffer some form of disability in his or her lifetime. Certainly we all still have value–we all still contribute in different ways, whether on a large scale or a small one.

It amazes me that anyone would actually have such a negative view of those with disabilities, and I can only attribute it to ignorance. The best cure for that kind of ignorance is understanding and empathy–seeing the value in a life different from one’s own. We can’t ever know exactly what it’s like to be someone else, but books can get us pretty close. The best stories feel so real that we are lost in another person’s world for a while–we become them for a few hundred pages. And once we’ve been in someone’s head, we’re never going to look at them the same way again. We may not completely agree with them, but we’re going to understand their point of view. We’ll see past the stereotype to find that their life has value too, regardless of ability or disability, race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, etc. And for those who are disabled, seeing someone who “looks like them” overcoming challenges and playing an important role in books and movies can be encouraging and empowering.

Of course, if the media continues to perpetuate stereotypes, we don’t fix anything. So, not only do we need diverse books and movies, but we need thoughtful ones with realistic, well-crafted characters to give voice to people whose words are often drowned out by the roars of a media industry more than happy to sell stereotypes if they think it will make money.

This isn’t to say disabled characters always have to be good guys, and they definitely shouldn’t be perfect angels. Protagonist, antagonist, or secondary character, make them well-rounded human beings, affected by their disability but not defined it, and it will start to broaden society’s understanding of what “differently-abled” means.

In the wake of the Orlando shootings, I saw a chart from the FBI describing the incidents of hate crimes in 2014. Among those numbers, 2,568 were motivated by race, 1,017 by sexual orientation, 1,104 by religion, and 84 by disability. Thousands of instances of violence that could be eliminated if we could help people see past their fears and stereotypes. Understanding, empathy, and love are the only cures for the violence, hatred, and obsessive divisiveness rife in our society, and it can all start with a good book.

There are no bad words

I’m pretty straight-laced, so people who know me may be surprised by that title. I mean it, but let me clarify. There are crude words. There are hurtful, insulting words. There are words meant to shock that are usually a crutch or stumbling block to saying something meaningful. There are boring words. There are dangerous words. There are certainly words that I don’t felt the need to use in my writing or my everyday conversation.

But I don’t like to think of them as “bad words.” Like all words, they have a meaning and a function in communication.

To illustrate, I’ll use a four-letter word I find particularly insidious: “hate.” My kids are allowed to hate Brussels sprouts and homework and early bed times. I discourage them from saying they hate other people. Why? Hate is a dangerous word, and I want them to think carefully about how they use it.

Now, let’s look at these words: Fun. Good. Bad. Said. I. He. She. It. Stuff. Things. A lot. Pretty. Walk. Big.

Some teachers are trying to ban these and other common words entirely from their students’ writing vocabulary, a trend covered in this article from the Wall Street Journal.

I’ve long been aware of the campaign of some English teachers to encourage their students to use adverbs to liven up dialogue tags: “He said happily,” instead of just “He said.” Now, adverbs are NOT bad words. They have their place. For instance, “I expect to die at any moment now,” he said cheerfully. There might be a way to write around that “cheerfully,” but it does its job: it shows that the statement is being said in a way the reader might not expect. It changes the meaning and gives more understanding. But then there’s, “I’m having a great day,” she said happily. We don’t need happily, because we’ll read it that way anyway, and extra words just bog down a story.

These teachers are doing a disservice by encouraging the thoughtless use of words. Now we have the other extreme, with teachers advocating the thoughtless dismissal of perfectly functional words.

I love words, and I love supporting young writers, so this makes me angry. These teachers are crippling their students’ abilities to express themselves by laying down arbitrary rules. Encourage your students to expand their vocabulary and seek out more interesting ways to say something? Great! Ban serviceable words from their lexicon? Boo!

Let’s look at “said” as an example. “Said” is almost invisible in writing. And guess what? That’s a GOOD thing. Readers love dialogue, and when we’re deep in the middle of it, we don’t want to be distracted by bleated, honked, chattered, cried, shouted, chirped, barked, etc. Those words are attention hogs. They’re not serving their story; they’re distracting from it by saying, “Look at  me!” Occasionally, we want that. But not in every line of dialogue. Heaven help anyone who has to read a book written that way.

Okay, then what about “pretty?” “She was pretty” is a bland statement–say it to ten different people and you’ll have ten different images of what “she” looks like. It would be better to say, “Her glossy black hair fell down her back in long ringlets, and her brown eyes shone with laughter.” Now maybe we’re more or less on the same page. But “pretty” need not be tossed in the garbage. How about, “She was a pretty enough girl, in a shy, retiring way.” In that example, “pretty” adds to the sentence’s voice, and its vagueness supports the narrator’s description of the girl. It’s not a “bad” word, it’s just a frequently misused one.

Writers have a tendency to get bogged down in rules. “Adverbs are bad.” “‘Was’ is bad.” “Show don’t tell.” There’s a reason behind each of these rules–and it’s important to understand that reason–but they are not unbendable, unbreakable guidelines to good writing. Writing may be one of the hardest of the arts because it’s deeply subjective and difficult to teach and to learn–there are things writers can learn about structure, voice, or dialogue, but there’s no formula that makes writing work. What is spell-binding in one author’s hands may be clunky and unreadable in another’s. Still, that search to pin it down means writers get hung up on rules, afraid to tell their story in a natural way.

So, instead of teaching young writers that some words are “bad,” teach them how to actually think about words–what they mean, what they imply, and the work they do in a piece of writing. Encourage them to stretch themselves, but to always keep an eye on the ultimate goal: to communicate clearly and effectively.

Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style isn’t perfect by any means, but I think its underlying premise holds true: “Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that he make every word tell.”

Make every word matter.

If not, we may end up with the kind of writing George Orwell warned us against in his essay, “Politics and the English Language,” when he said language should be “an instrument for expressing and not for concealing or preventing thought.”

And here are his simple rules:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Though my writing is far from perfect, I owe a great debt to my high school English teachers: Mrs. Hampton, Mr. Arnt, and Mr. Bennett. Thank you for teaching me to love and think about words instead of boxing them, and my writing, into arbitrary rules.

/rant

What I learned by not winning NaNoWriMo

I’m a big fan of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month–a challenge to authors to write 50,000 words in one month). It’s not for everyone, but I find it a great motivator. Congrats to everyone who participated, and especially to those who finished!

This is my third year doing NaNo, and my first year not winning. The manuscript I decided to write this year was for a middle grade project. I finished it last week, and I’m excited with how it turned out, but I was still about 13,000 words short (that’s the problem with doing MG for NaNo–they’re usually under 50,000 words).

At first I was determined to finish anyway. I pulled out another project and tried to force my way through it, but there were still too many gaps in my research, and I was hating every minute of it. Writing, which is usually my sanctuary, became torture. I continued getting more frustrated and discouraged, until I finally realized no one was making me do this. Not completing NaNo wasn’t going to ruin my life or my career or have any negative effect on me except what I was inflicting on myself.

I wrote a rough draft this month, just as I’d planned, and I also finished a final round of edits for my agent on one manuscript and a first round of edits for my editor on another. That’s not including the progress I made on my WWI novel (yeah, I counted those words as part of my 37,000). That’s a pretty busy month, and it doesn’t account for all the non-writing things I had going on. Why was I beating myself up over 13,000 words?

I think most writers are goal-oriented, which is a good thing in a career that requires a lot of self-motivation. But we can get bogged down in goals, especially if we lose sight of the reasons behind them, and even more especially if we have perfectionist tendencies. For me, at least, this was a good lesson in focusing on my own _real_ goals, not the goals someone else imposes on me, or arbitrary goals I set for myself.

Once I realized that, I was able to start enjoying writing again, though I didn’t give in to the temptation to turn my life upside down to try to hit 50,000 words. This year, I’ll wear my regular, “not a winner” NaNoWriMo t-shirt with pride. 🙂

Titles are not my forte

My husband came up with the best working title ever for my WIP set in Utah during World War I. Ready for it?

All Quiet on the Wasatch Front.

My co-author suggested A Bridgerland too Far, which is a close second even if it is the wrong war.

I have no clever titles of my own to add. My folder for the project is labeled, “WWI.”

A good cover is probably more important than a good title, but only by a little. Think of the books you’ve picked up just because the titles were beautiful, funny, or intriguing, and especially the books that really live up to their titles. Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet. Across a Star-Swept Sea. The Drawing of the Dark. It’s a Mall World After All. The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. Different books, different genres, all great titles.

My agent has rejected at least a dozen title suggestions for the YA fantasy I’m revising, and I’m not there yet. A fellow author, Chadd VanZanten, suggested finding a great line from the book–one that really gets to the heart of the story–and using that. While I like to think I have some lovely writing in there, I can’t find that magical line (which probably suggests another area where I can grow as an author). A lot of people steal from the classics, but everything I come up with that way has already been used. I guess, This Book is Awesome and You Should Read It probably won’t fly. Of course, I may come up with something I love just to have a publisher change it, so maybe I won’t stress about it too much, but someday I want to develop that knack for clever titles that beg readers to grab the book from the shelf.

Storymakers 2015: Meaningful, believable relationships in stories

Here’s another post about lessons from LDStorymakers, this one including my own “light bulb” moment at the conference. On Thursday, my agent emailed me suggesting that the next step in revising my manuscript is to deepen the relationships between the characters. I started thinking about how I would do that and, honestly, not feeling very sure about how to go about it. My very first class on Friday at Storymakers was Sarah Eden’s class on defining relationships, and while the rest of the conference was great, it would have been worth it for me just to go to this one. It was a light bulb moment and gave me the formula I needed to make the relationships in my manuscript do more.

Among other things, Sarah Eden talked about how all deep, realistic relationships are about needs. Characters are in relationships because it fulfills some need for them, but it also might keep them from facing a shortcoming they need to overcome. For instance, in Pride and Prejudice, Darcy and Bingley’s friendship fulfills Darcy’s need for someone who tolerates/accepts his social backwardness and Bingley’s need for guidance from someone with a level head. In order to grow, they have to face these shortcomings. Darcy needs to develop his own social skills, and Bingley needs to learn to make his own decisions. As the characters grow and change, their relationship must change as well.

Ms. Eden pointed out that the real, internal change that is the hallmark of realistic characters in a well-developed story must have an external reflection, including in the character’s relationships with others. Some relationships will strengthen and deepen, some will shift (i.e. from friendship or even antagonism to romance, from mentor to friend or enemy), and others will become more distant or dissolve altogether. Some may not change on the surface, but the underlying dynamics will be different (such as in family relationships). The external changes have to be a natural outgrowth of the internal changes, but if they don’t take place, the internal changes seem less real, and the characters and their relationships ring false or shallow.

This way of evaluating relationships has me super excited to get back to work on the relationships in my manuscript. I already know my characters well–their strengths and weaknesses, the “wounds and wants” that motivate their actions–and their relationships do change in the story, but now I have a tool for examining those relationships and their growth. I can ask myself at the beginning of the story what each relationship means to them–what needs it fulfills–and in what ways their relationships are “unhealthy”–providing a crutch for their shortcomings that will have to be removed. I can make sure their relationships reveal more to the reader about who they are. Then, I can make sure the shifts in their relationships by the end of story reflect their internal struggles. Doing so will hopefully help my readers (and my agent 🙂 ) feel like the relationships are deeper and more real.

How to make historians crazy in three easy steps

Pop quiz! What’s the oldest university in Europe? The official answer is the University of Bologna in Italy (dating to the 11th century), though the University of Paris and Oxford have reasonable claims to be as old or older. They pale in comparison to the Guiness Book of World Records’ pick for the oldest operating university: University of Al-Karaouine in Morocco, founded in the ninth century by a woman, Fatima al-Fihri (how cool is that!?).

But one of the first centers for higher education in Europe was Cor Tewdws, or the College of Theodosius, founded in Roman Britain (modern Llantwit Major in Glamorgan, Wales) during the fourth century. It survived the collapse of Rome, and though it was destroyed by the Irish (known then as Scots), the Vikings, and then the Normans, it was rebuilt and functioned until the sixteenth century, when Henry VIII dissolved it because it was also a monastery.

What does this have to do with insanity in historians? I’ve been researching Cor Tewdws for my current work in progress, and I’m feeling like this:

sokkafacepalm

So, here are three things that will have historians crying, drinking, or pounding their head against the wall:

1-Tell them about some amazing historical event, but provide no details or proof. That’s why post-Roman Britain is a fascinating time period, and a completely frustrating one. It gave us none other than King Arthur–one of the most influential figures in Western legend and literature–but provides nothing more than rumors to suggest he actually lived. Part of the problem is that people don’t often bother to write things down when their society is literally burning to the ground, and what was written rarely survived. There’s just enough to tantalize–vague references, later legends–so historians fight like starving dogs over the little scraps of information and spin it to fit their pet theory. King Arthur was a Sarmatian war leader? A Celtic god? An alien? Sure, depending on how you look at it.

Stargate-FacePalm

2-The scarce evidence is a good start, but it may not be enough to bring on a full mental breakdown. The next thing you have to do is make sure the evidence is impossible to make sense of. Take the case of Cor Tewdws. We’re told that when the Irish first raided the college in the mid-400s, they captured none other than the illustrious Patrick, taking him back as a slave and thus beginning his epic journey to sainthood (you didn’t know St. Patrick was Welsh, did you?). That’s awesome. Then, a generation or so later, St. Illtud (who was one of Arthur’s knights before becoming a monk, but then, apparently everyone for a two-century span was one of St. Arthur’s knights, which lends credence to the god/alien theories) re-established the college. Some of his young students included notables like St. David (patron saint of Wales), Gildas the historian, and St. Patrick. Wait … what!?

Calvin Facepalm

3-Whew, okay, your historian survived that one too? He or she is crying a little, but pressing onward? Time for a spitball: forgery. For example, many modern interpretations of early Welsh history are based on the work of nineteenth century Welsh historian and bard Iolo Morganwg (AKA Edward Williams), who compiled ancient Welsh documents, inscriptions, and legends into one handy source. The problem? He made crap up. And since we’ve since lost some of the original documents he had access to, we have no idea which parts he made up and which parts he didn’t. Maybe we shouldn’t trust historians who use a bardic pseudonym (especially one so close to YOLO). Now, if it was just Iolo/Edward who did this, it might not be so crushing, but the kicker is that pretty much every medieval historian did the same thing. They were all big, fat liars. Oh, sure, they had good intentions, wanting to get people excited about their national heritage, but we all know where good intentions lead.

Triple-facepalm

So, the sum total is that we have no idea what really happened 1500 years ago. Honestly, there’s a lot of things we don’t know about 100 years ago, and it’s miraculous that we know anything about the “Dark Ages.” We’re basing our guesses on fragments of evidence written down after the fact, often contradicting each other, and in all likelihood at least partly made up. It would be like historians in the future trying to learn about World War II solely by watching Indiana Jones. You’d get that there were Nazis and that they lived in Germany and were bad, but that’s about it. And you’d go crazy looking for that warehouse with the Ark of the Covenant.

Indy facepalm