Monday, August 29, 2016

Tips to Start (or Restart) Your Writing Career

It seems the learning curve for a writer begins with the first word we intentionally write and continues every day as we pursue the dream of being an author.  I’ve been thinking about what I wish I’d known-or understood better when I first began.    

Every writer’s journey is different.  We all have different jobs and family responsibilities.  We all write in different genres and have different gifts, talents and interests.  We all have different coping skills when faced with critique and rejection.  There are so many facets to being a published author that it is like talking to a young couple expecting their first baby:  They don’t know yet what they don’t know and there is so much to learn.   

Here are a few things I wish I’d known when I first started writing.

1.  Start somewhere.  Anywhere. 

You don’t need to know exactly how you are going to handle every page of a manuscript when you begin.  Just jump in anywhere.  You can make it all work together later. 

2.  Don’t confuse you as a person with what you write. 

Writers need a thick skin to endure rejection.  Editors and agents will reject your work-and it isn’t personal.  There are a thousand reasons why they reject a manuscript and it doesn’t necessarily mean that your manuscript isn’t good.  Often you will not know why your project has been rejected.  Remember that a rejection of your manuscript is not a rejection of you as a person.

3.  Understand the purpose of a critique group.

There are two kinds of critique groups.  One is a group that only makes you feel good no matter what.  The other is a group that will help you get published, even if they tell you things you don’t want to hear.  Certainly you hope your group will tell you what they love about your manuscript, but the most helpful group can point out places in your manuscript that needs some work.  When others don’t love your manuscript like you do, that is when you need that thick skin mentioned in number 2.  Listen to their opinions, but in the end you decide what is right for your own story.  Remember that a critique of your manuscript is not a critique of you as a person.

 4.  Your story is told only through the words on the page.

Your manuscript has to be self-sufficient.  If you have to verbally explain to someone all the backstory they need to understand a section in the manuscript, then it doesn’t work.  A writer crafts a story (either fiction or nonfiction) that will be read, not explained ahead of time.  A story is told ONLY through the words on the page.

5.  Publishing is a business.

This is a hard one to learn.  Most of us grew up loving books.  The idea of one day seeing our name on the cover of a book is a dream we hope comes true.  Writers are passionate about books and telling stories.  For most of us it is about the love of reading, and books, and the craft of writing.  It takes a while for some of us to accept the reality that writing books published by traditional publishers is a business.  Authors write manuscripts.  Publishers take manuscripts and turn them into books to sell.  The harsh reality is that although everyone who works for a publisher loves books, publishing houses must make money.  Therefore, they usually won’t offer a contract on a book unless they believe it will make money for them.  As authors, the sooner we learn this the better.

For those of you who want to start (or restart) writing books for children and young readers, it is never too late and never too early. 

You can do it.   

Carla Killough McClafferty 

Enter (HERE)  to win an autographed copy of Amy Cattapan's middle-grade mystery Seven Riddles to Nowhere (Vinspire Publishing). The giveaway is open to U.S. residents only and ends August 31. That happens to also be the day of Amy’s Facebook Launch Party, where you can win lots of other great prizes, including a copy of Carmela's own book, Rosa, Sola.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Gathering Story Seeds: Part Two

"Gathering Story Seeds," my last post, was about finding story ideas. I spent the summer showing my Young Writers group how to keep their "writer's brain" open and alert for those little nuggets that stick in your head.  Or as I explained to the students, "Things that make you go 'huh?'"
image courtesy of Morguefile

Like finding seeds in nature, finding story seeds can be hard work. It's not so much a matter of concentration, but of awareness..  "Don't think too hard," I tell my students.  "Keep your Writer Brain open."  A Writer Brain uses all the senses to observe. If you think about it, most of what you think of as "observation" is what you see.  Wake up hearing, smell, touch and taste. (Be cautious with taste!)

Every writer goes through a time of story drought, where your Writer Brain becomes distracted by the minutiae of life, and eventually become dormant. That's been me for the past year. A whirlwind of family situations, caused my Writer Brain to check out as the rest of the mind skittered here and there with a thousand decisions and deadlines.

This summer, the pace slowed down. I had the luxury of focusing on my young writers and their progress. Talking about using all your senses and staying alert for six straight weeks must have imprinted on my Writer Brain.

No sooner had the Young Writers summer program finished than it seemed as if Story Seeds were cascading from the heavens. Even in the best of the staying-focused-and-alert times, Story Seeds are scarce.  Filling a page in "Seeds" notebook in a month is a huge deal. (Yes, I'm Old School; I still use a notebook.") This August, the notebook is half-filled...and there is still another week in the month!   Out of seemingly nowhere, Seeds have been falling in my lap, tapping me on my shoulder, being handed to me in the supermarket checkout along with my change. Seriously.

For example...

I was skedaddling through the "10-Items-or-Less" line at Publix, with four cups of Greek yogurt...and a hammer.  The checker (her name tag said "Rebecca") scanned the hammer. I am not a chatty person by nature, so it was out of complete silence that Rebecca hefted my new hammer, and with a gleam in her eye, said, "You know, when I was a little tyke, I wanted nothing more than a bright red tool box and hammer. And my mama and daddy got me one for my birthday."

Bzzzzap!  Writer Brain shocked to life, neurons firing rapidly. "How old were you?" asked Writer Brain, which is considerably more nosy and sociable than Mary Ann's brain.

"Two, three." Rebecca said carelessly, bagging the hammer and yogurt separately. "Guess that wouldn't happen in today's world, would it?"

Mary Ann's brain agreed that no, it probably wouldn't. I had a quick mental image of my own daughter at two, armed with a hammer.  Writer's Brain leaped into action to quash the silliness. Writer's Brain hurled down the words, "Becky's Toolbox." I scribbled that down on the back of the receipt as soon as I was out the sliding doors. (I know, I know..where was my notebook?) Unlike a lot seeds that seem interesting, but will need germination time, this one had sprung roots and was pushing through the dirt by the time I hit my driveway.

image courtesy of Morguefile
The wealth of ideas grew and multiplied. Family stories from my dad, an anecdote on Facebook, a surprise cache of Kodachrome taken by parents early in their marriage...all of these things have given my Writer's Brain more than enough to process, mull and squirrel away for future use.

My antennae are up, my ear cocked, nose ready.  Don't stand within my energy field, or you will wind up in my next story! Let those Story Seeds rain down on me.

Posted by Mary Ann Rodman

P.S. Don’t forget to join the fun! Enter (HERE)  to win an autographed copy of Amy Cattapan's middle-grade mystery Seven Riddles to Nowhere (Vinspire Publishing). The giveaway is open to U.S. residents only and ends August 31. That happens to also be the day of Amy’s Facebook Launch Party, where you can win lots of other great prizes, including a copy of Carmela's own book, Rosa, Sola.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Female Protagonists: Hearts of Fire

Photo credit: Photo via VisualHunt
 Recently Jo Eberhardt wrote (Problems with Female Protagonists) about her surprising discovery when, after counting the books in her personal library, she found that only a mere 27 per cent of her books had female protagonists, despite “her conscious intention for a 50/50 split.” Further researching female protagonists in other media, she found that over 70 percent of lead characters in popular movies were male. And even in those movies that feature female protagonists (Divergent, Hunger Games, Twilight), male characters speak more than female protagonists, and thus still dominate the story.

The protagonist of any story, the hero if you will, acts as a window inviting the reader into the story. The reader is drawn into the narrative because, just as the protagonist searches for his/her identity, the reader is engaged in their own search.

Yet, if the hero is always male, and the journey is always his story, what recourse is left to young adult women and adolescent girls? What is her story?

The profound truth, and primary function, of adolescence is the separation from parent, the search for uniqueness and the triumphant integration into wholeness. It’s the essence of the archetypal hero’s journey. Boys and girls look for their own hero to identify with. Both seek guides – protagonists – to show them how to begin their journey.

But that doesn’t mean their journey is the same. Even if the heroine’s journey follows a similar path, toward a similar purpose, there is a difference between his journey and her journey.

Megan Leigh (Dispelling the Myth of Strong Female Characters) offers interesting insight into the “myth” of strong female characters. Among many stories (and movies) claiming to have strong female characters, one overriding issue seems to be distinguishing between strong and weak, and passive and active characters. A female who is caring, vulnerable, even emotional tends to be considered a weak character. Yet, a strong female who is aggressive, abrasive, even with difficulty connecting emotionally, is considered negative. Both types are flat, negating their own flawed, complex humanity. As such, both types are reduced to a stereotype. In contrast, male characters are often allowed to play the full emotive spectrum. Says Leigh, in too many stories, the strong female protagonist is considered “special,” the exception or chosen one. If only one woman is ever shown to be capable and complex, and is presented as the exception, the “very framing of the narrative in a way that has men writing off most females as incapable, is an issue unto itself.

Tasha Robinson (We’re Losing All Our Strong Characters to Trinity Syndrome) considers Valka, the long lost mother of Hiccup in the movie How To Train Your Dragon 2. Valka is complicated, formidable, wise and damaged, and she is fully capable of taking care of herself. For decades she had successfully avoided capture and death at the hands of the bad guys. Yet, within minutes of coming onto the scene, she becomes suddenly inadequate and needs to be rescued – twice. And for the rest of the film, she does nothing except  tell Hiccup that he is the chosen one. She has become superfluous.

Likewise, the “strong” character of the elf Tauriel in The Hobbit 2 demonstrates “elven archery king fu” when killing evil spiders and orcs, but only “shows any personality when she’s swooning over dwarf Kili.”

In my classes, we study gender identity and gender profiling, surveying several top rated TV shows that feature strong female protagonists that dare to tackle male-dominated jobs. These include super smart spies, corporate lawyers, political leaders, even homicide detectives. Despite the implied power positions, these jobs are often in the background. Their story-lines are often dominated by the unhappy state of their private life. Despite being labeled as capable, they are often rescued by their male counterparts. While their male counterparts are dressed in practical clothing that allows them to run, jump, and maneuver themselves effectively, the female protagonist tends to wear form-fitting clothes, with shirts buttoned down suggestively, and high-fashioned heels. Even their boots have heels. Meanwhile, those who weld their power are considered manipulative, shrill, even overly cold and emotionally disconnected, and usually it is because they are unhappy without a man in their life. I could go on, but you get my point.

It would seem, according to Robinson, that “strong female characters – someone with her own identity, agenda and story purpose – has become more of a marketing term than a meaningful goal.”

The heroine’s journey embodies its own language, ordeals and symbols that are uniquely her own. Strong female characters are not merely spunky spirits with backbone. Nor are they – think superheroes -- female impersonators let loose on the unsuspecting world.

Returning to the mother of Hiccup, Valka. As an ancient symbol, the dragon (according to Jung) is “the wildness of spirit,” which escapes and destroys the artificial order of oppression. Valka, however, had her wings metaphorically clipped just as she was becoming interesting.

Ursula Le Guin once stated that a storyteller’s mind does not work with archetypes not individuals. Says she (in personal correspondence), “I can think about what journey [my character] has to go in order to be what she can be … but [cannot] generalize about the feminine heroic journey.”

I would argue that, in fact, that is exactly how a storyteller’s mind works. Such storytelling is inherent in our thinking process. These ancient symbols have been a part of the human condition since before time. Storytellers have drawn upon these very images to tell their stories.

So the question remains, where is her story? Who are your favorite strong female protagonists?

Bobbi Miller 

P.S. Don’t forget to join the fun! Enter (HERE)  to win an autographed copy of Amy Cattapan's middle-grade mystery Seven Riddles to Nowhere (Vinspire Publishing).
The giveaway is open to U.S. residents only and ends August 31. That happens to also be the day of Amy’s Facebook Launch Party, where you can win lots of other great prizes, including a copy of Carmela's own book, Rosa, Sola.