Wednesday, March 27, 2013

How Waxing Your Eyebrows Is Like Editing

by Mindy McGinnis

Waxing doesn't feel good. Neither does editing. But don't you feel improved when they're both done?

I'm blessed with a head of dark Irish hair, which is great until my eyebrows start trying to mate with my hairline. Eyebrows are kind of like those support words we use in our writing - a less kind phrase would be "crutch words." Those words don't seem so bad at a glance. They're like that one little hair that escaped you and is hovering off by itself to the left of where you actually wanted your eyebrow to end.

But then the little follicles spot that solitary solider, and they send out a rescue party. Pretty soon you've got scouts going out to check the terrain. They report that it's okay, so the recovery team goes out and you know what? It's actually pretty comfortable out there. So they stay. And then the commanding officers think they might as well fill out the ranks and pretty soon the entire army has reappeared, marching right out across your face like the wax never happened.

Letting your brain get comfortable with using the crutch words is a dangerous business that leads to a manuscript in desperate need of a slashing. Or a waxing, as I've taken to thinking of it.

I'm very aware of what my crutch words are - just, then, that. Those are four-letter words to me in more ways than one. So how do you identify your own crutches? There's a great free tool to help you out.

Wordle can be incredibly useful in your editing process. It creates a word cloud based on the text that you paste in. Here's what Wordle made for me, based on the first 20 pages of NOT A DROP TO DRINK:

I'm pretty happy with that. Not only are my main characters prominent, but if you look at the larger (more occurring) words you can get an idea of what the book is about, even if you haven't read my query. Even better, I don't see my crutch words in there. That means I did a good job of rooting them out. 

Give Wordle a shake and see if it can help you identify your crutch words, then pour the self-editing wax on and rip 'em out by their roots.

Mindy McGinnis is a YA author and librarian. Her debut, NOT A DROP TO DRINK, is a post-apocalyptic survival tale set in a world where freshwater is almost non-existent, available from Katherine Tegen / Harper Collins September 9, 2013. She blogs at Writer, Writer Pants on Fire and contributes to the group blogs Book PregnantFriday the ThirteenersFrom the Write AngleThe Class of 2k13The Lucky 13s & The League of Extraordinary Writers. You can also find her on TwitterTumblr & Facebook.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Character Interviews

by Erin Cashman

Some writers fully outline their book before they even put a word on the page.  Each chapter is detailed.  The cast of characters is set. A friend of mine who does this spends a long time on this process, and then writing the novel comes fairly easily to her.  Others start writing, and have no idea where they are going to end up.  I’m somewhere in the middle.  I usually know the beginning and the ending, but I like to let the characters tell me how I should get from Chapter One to The End.  I have conceptualized my main character and important secondary characters, but often around page one hundred or so, they have much more distinct voices and personalities.  I stop there, and go back to the beginning, adding depth and layers. This has worked out really well for my writing process.

When I finish my first draft, I put it down and walk away for a couple of weeks, and when I go back to it I take stock and really look at my main characters and their journey.  Usually their transformation – whether it be small or significant, is apparent. But sometimes my characters can be a little cagey.  It sounds strange, but I feel like they are holding something back, and I don’t know them as well as I could.  And so I interview them, as if I was a reporter, and I knew every detail of their story.  Here are some of the questions I ask:

  • What is your deepest desire? 
  • What has shaped and influenced you?  How has the tragedies and traumas in your life effected you? How does it influence how you see yourself, and others?
  • How do you view yourself?  Within your family?  Within your peers?
  • Describe yourself in three words. 
  • Define yourself.  When all of your fears and doubts are stripped away, who are you?
  • At the end of your journey, where you proud of yourself?  Did you accomplish your goal?  What would you change? How could you have done better?

As I play interviewer to my character, I am often surprised by the answers.  But once I write them down and review them, I have a much keener understanding of my character.  I use this information to drive my revisions, and hopefully, by the end, I have a much more developed character.

Erin Cashman is the author of the Young Adult novel The Exceptionals

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The Tortoise and the Hare

by Anne Clinard Barnhill

     I have no idea why I’m thinking of Aesop’s fable, The Tortoise and the Hare—maybe it’s just because the Easter season is upon us and bunnies come to mind.  Whatever the reason, I’ve been contemplating the story of the reptile and the mammal.  What I’ve decided is, as writers, we need to have qualities of both.

     Like the tortoise, we must be willing to move slowly.  Our careers never hop along as quickly or smoothly as we might like.  We must develop the patience and determination of the tortoise as it makes its way across the highway.   You’ve seen one, slowly raising one wrinkled leg to take a step.  The journey must seem a thousand miles to the small being, but, like the Chinese sage, the tortoise knows such an excursion begins with a single step.  The tortoise is willing to take all the time it needs to achieve its ends.  We writers must do the same.  Just as you can’t hurry the tortoise along, you can’t hurry art.

     Unfortunately, we are not born with a protective shell to cover our softer, more vulnerable parts.  So, as writers, we have to develop that hard exterior so the inevitable rejections and disappointments of the writing life will not disappoint us.  Without such protection, we might lose our ability to face the blank page altogether.  I’ve known a lousy review to bench a writer for days.  Sometimes, years.  We can’t afford to expose our sensitive Creative Child to abuse.  We must construct a shell.

     Pausing along the road to take in the scenery, smell the newly budding trees and listen to the birds chatter as they awaken will slow us down, yes.  But taking time for such things also enriches our spirits and our writing.  Our lives, perhaps our most important work of art, will be deeper and more in touch with the Divine when we halt along the highway to experience an ‘eternal now’ moment.

     But what about that pesky rabbit that comes hop, hop, hopping along behind us, rushing to the finish line?  The truth is, we can learn from the hare, too.  First, the hare is driven; getting there is the point.  It takes a vision of what things will be like when we ‘get there’ to goad us along.  The hare has such vision and is well-served by it.

     The hare also is soft and furry, a gentle creature for the most part.  As writers, we must cultivate our ‘soft and furry side’ (or our emotional intelligence if you prefer) so our powers of empathy can imagine what life must be like for the ‘other.’  The more we can connect with the humanity of the ‘other,’ the more we enrich our own humanity and the humanity of our readers.

     The female rabbit has an amazing capacity most mammals lack; the female can be pregnant with one litter of bunnies and, before these are born, can become pregnant with another set.  Like the mother bunny, as writers we often have one book idea with another looming in the background.  This is a good thing—may we all be as fecund as rabbits!

     Soon, warm weather will bring out the tortoise and the hare.  When you see them, smile and wave in recognition.   They are your muses.

      By Anne Clinard Barnhill, author of AT THE MERCY OF THE QUEEN.  Anne's new novel, still untitled, will be out in January, 2014. 


Thursday, March 7, 2013

How To Be Your Own Publicist

By Barbara Claypole White

Press coverage is the frosting on your book launch and probably the only promotional activity you’ll engage in that’s free. Yes, FREE.

Author loops have endless chatter about hiring publicists, but really, you can do it yourself. Good press coverage depends on two things: research and crafting a story. And who better to do either than a writer?

As a former publicist, I created a marketing plan—okay, a glorified to-do list—with big dreams of national press coverage. But like most debut authors, I had limited time and resources. So, I focused on what I could handle—contacting the local press. And it paid off big time.

Local media is a huge resource for the following:
- news coverage of author events and book releases
- features /  interviews  with authors
- author event listings 
- book reviews 
- event photos—if it’s a slow news day

Step one: communicate with your publisher 
My publisher seemed happy for me to contact the local press, but I kept them in the loop. This was how I discovered that one of the lovely guys in the P.R. department could coach me through a radio interview. You’d think I’d know how to talk to the press, right? Wrong. I knew how to promote other people’s work, not my own. My debut novel, The Unfinished Garden, is a personal story on many levels. When I talk about it, I get sentimental and sidetracked. Not good.

Step two: do your homework
Research your local media the same way you researched agents. Decide who you want to approach and why. For example, I contacted the editor of Triangle Gardener, a free magazine with a long shelf life and a good circulation. She told me politely that the magazine didn’t cover fiction, but I had perfected my pitch. I mentioned how my novel had an interesting twist on the theme of the healing power of gardening. Because I’d done my homework, I also knew that a blurb about the book—with a picture of my pretty cover—would be a good fit on their “News for the Garden” page. As you can see above, it was.

Step three: figure out lead times
Common sense here, but obviously a local weekly with event listings has a shorter lead time that a glossy magazine that comes out once every two months.  Know thy lead times.

Step four: lists are important
Create lists of news journalists, feature writers, community calendar editors, book reviewers, photo editors, and local organizations with newsletters. You can contact all of them for slightly different things. For example, someone compiling a listing of local events will want only the most basic information: time, date, place, event. If you’re interested in news coverage or a feature, you will need to…

Step five: find your hooks
Figure out what makes your novel different or newsworthy. For example, I worked several different angles for The Unfinished Garden:
  1. Local settings. My heroine owns a wholesale plant nursery in Orange County, North Carolina, where I live. For my inaugural signing, I chose to read from an important scene set at a local hot spot, the Maple View Farm Country Store. The county press loved this angle, as did a preserve-our-countryside group that publicized the event in their newsletter.
  2. Local girl makes good. My heroine, who’s English, rushes back home to her childhood village after her widowed mother has a nasty accident involving a springer spaniel and a hedgehog. At one point, she visits the historic market town of Olney, near the village where I grew up. This was the angle I worked for the local press in England. In addition, I donated ten signed copies to the Olney Oxfam Bookshop, a charity store that’s mentioned in the novel—another angle that attracted the local press. (The shop also promoted TUG heavily on their Facebook page.)
  3. Gardening as therapy. We have serious gardeners in my area. No brainer.
  4. OCD is an unusual hook for fiction. OCD frames my world as a mother and as a writer of fiction and non-fiction. The hero of TUG is the first obsessive-compulsive romantic hero in mainstream fiction, and he's a believable obsessive-compulsive. Since myths, stigma, and stereotypes surround OCD, this makes him unusual. I used this angle to set up an event at the local library during OCD Awareness Week and to snag two radio interviews. Oh, and the success of Silver Linings Playbook has presented new opportunities. (The fun never ends with P.R.)
Step six: first contact
Press releases are useful, but I’m not a fan. Back in the day, when I had big dude clients, the best stories I placed were tailor-made for the media I approached. I know it’s time consuming, but I wrote individualized emails (consider step two). If you opt for a press release, research layout and keep content factual and concise. You have one goal: sell your story.

Step seven: follow up
Journalists are just as busy as we are. Don’t assume no answer means lack of interest. The most impressive coverage I received came from my local paper. I had emailed the editor several times, and she hadn’t answered. One day, on a whim, I phoned. She was so apologetic, said she’d meant to answer me but had been swamped. As we chatted, we discovered she lived down the road. After she stopped by one night on the way home from work, we spent several hours together. She did an in-depth interview, took photos of my garden, and left with a signed copy of TUG. Several weeks later, she posted a glowing review online, wrote a full-page article about me and the novel, and wrote a second article about OCD. I call that the motherload.

Step eight: preparing for interviews
Create five or six key points and aim to control the interview by inserting one key point into every answer you give. Here are my key points:

  • The Unfinished Garden is a love story about grief, OCD, and dirt 
  • It’s published by MIRA, the imprint of Harlequin that handles mainstream or literary commercial fiction 
  • Readers can find me on Facebook 
  • Readers can check out my website,, for listings of my events
  • TUG is available as a trade paperback and an e-book from Amazon, IndieBound, Barnes & Noble, Books-A-Million, the Harlequin website, and iTunes, and signed copies can be ordered through Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill (my local indie)
  • OCD is a highly individualized anxiety disorder that creates irrational fear in the absence of true threat. In its most severe form, it’s a crippling allergy to life. (Personal aside: Real OCD is a living, breathing nightmare. To fight back, as my beloved hero does, takes extraordinary courage. This is a point I wanted to make in every interview)

Step nine: send thank yous
Remember—you’re going to need these people for novel two!

Step ten: don’t stress
Any press coverage you orchestrate will help spread the world. If you only manage to contact one local media outlet, that’s still huge. Be proud, be very proud. And then return to what you do best: writing.


Barbara Claypole White is the author of The Unfinished Garden, a love story about grief, OCD, and dirt (Harlequin MIRA, 2012)
“White…conveys the condition of OCD, and how it creates havoc in one’s life and the lives of loved ones, with style and grace, never underplaying the seriousness of the disorder.” Romantic Times 4* review
“Barbara Claypole White gives us a moving story about the challenges of OCD and grief combined with the power of the human spirit to find love in the most unlikely of places.” Eye on Romance
“A fabulous debut novel, The Unfinished Garden easily earns Romance Junkies’ highest rating of five blue ribbons and a recommended status for its unpredictable originality! So good!” Romance Junkies

Monday, March 4, 2013

Big Girls Don't Cry

by Priscille Sibley

I’m going to tell you a story, and it's a little tough to share because this all feels a little confessional, but here goes:

I’m a big girl. And I don’t cry. Really, I rarely ever cry. And when I do, I don’t shed tears because I have something called Sjogren’s Syndrome. Never heard of it? The short and very incomplete version is my eyes are desert dry. I carry eye drops everywhere. I never wear makeup unless I’m making a public appearance, and then I pay for it with even more irritated eyes for the next week. So if you see me out and about and my eyes look like they’re red and stripped of mascara, it’s not because I’ve been crying. I can’t. It’s the Sjogren’s Syndrome.

Which doesn’t mean that I don’t feel like crying when something hits me with an emotional boulder. And this week something did pick me up and roll me over and drop me onto the canyon floor. Where it was very dry. Dry joke. Dry humor.

Let me get back to that. As previously stated this is my post full of confessions. When I was fifteen, my mother died. It was different than what happened to the character in my book if you happened to read it. My mother’s illness had an abrupt onset, an acute course, and two weeks later, she was gone. Two weeks isn’t a long time, but I assure you that during the decades, which have followed, those two weeks have continued to live on as a defining moment, a turning point. My mother’s death happened when I was at a very impressionable age. It shaped me in many ways -- for better and for worse, but this confession isn’t all that deep. It was a long time ago, and I'm fine now. I only tell you this because of something that happened on my mother’s birthday, the first one after her death.

A made for TV movie called Sunshine aired. In it a young woman developed terminal cancer and made a recording for her young daughter to have later. Again, this situation was completely different that what happened to my mother. But I watched the movie, sobbing as young girls do when they see a sad story. What truly pulverized  me, though, happened in the last few minutes of the movie. Although it wasn’t attributed, the main character read a poem by Christina Rossetti.

Fast forward six months: the movie was rerun on the first anniversary of my mother’s death. First on her birthday, then on the anniversary of her death. Seriously. And of course, I watched it again, armed with a pad of paper to scribble down that poem. Realize, in those days, there was no On Demand. No VCRs. No DVRs. No internet to Google search a line of poetry. Life was simpler and in some ways so much harder. I needed that poem. I just needed it. It said things to me I needed to survive my grief.

I tried to write as fast as I could, but I didn’t get it all. I didn’t know who the poet was. So I wrote a letter, beseeching the network that aired the movie to send me a copy of the poem. The letter was pitiful. No doubt. And morose. I was deep, deep in grief. And I never expected to hear back. I didn’t for a while.

Today, I can’t help but think back to the person who opened that letter and read it. I don’t know who it was. But God bless him or her, because, he or she sent me a copy of that poem. Nothing else, just the poem in an envelope addressed to me.

WHEN I am dead, my dearest,

  Sing no sad songs for me;

Plant thou no roses at my head,

  Nor shady cypress tree:

Be the green grass above me
  With showers and dewdrops wet;

And if thou wilt, remember,

  And if thou wilt, forget.

I shall not see the shadows,

  I shall not feel the rain;
I shall not hear the nightingale

  Sing on, as if in pain:

And dreaming through the twilight

  That doth not rise nor set,

Haply I may remember,
  And haply may forget.

~Christina Rossetti

I can’t tell you how much how much comfort those words have brought me through the years. The two-time coincidence of the day the movie aired – let’s not go get all Twilight Zone – but I was fifteen, and this felt like a message from my mother.

Words. They are powerful things.

A few days ago I received an email from a reader. My book is about a woman who suffers a devastating brain injury and just as they are about to take her off life support they realize she is pregnant. After reading my book, this woman reached out to tell me her own story and told me why my novel touched her. Why she could relate to my book. I’m not going to share the details because I think she wrote me in confidence, but her story was heartbreaking. She suffered a terrible loss. And unbelievably, she thanked me for my book. I never, ever expected that response.

I wonder now about the person who opened my letter so many years ago. That person answered my prayer, and sent me a poem that I recite by heart every time I go home to Maine and visit the cemetery where my mother is buried.  

Words are powerful things.

I don’t cry. I swear I don’t. I can’t. But I am in a puddle on the floor.  

Friday, March 1, 2013

Get out! Get out!

by Sam Thomas

Most writers are pretty insecure about their craft. The insecurity is born of experience: we have seen our work rejected many more times than its been embraced, whether by agents or publishers. We are regularly tell ourselves (or are told by agents or editors) that our work is not good enough. We also tend to keep to ourselves – writing is self-expression for introverts. We did not start bands, take up stand-up comedy, or spend our evenings at poetry slams. We shut ourselves off from the world and wrote.

Fine and dandy, except that with the decline of marketing budgets and the virtual disappearance of literary taste-makers (except the one whose name starts with “O”), the whole J.D. Salinger approach to publicity is not going to fly. Want to get our books out there? It’s up to us. The problem, of course, is that we are insecure and introverted.

My goal here is to encourage new writers to get out there and meet people. Offer to present at local libraries, visit with book clubs, talk to whomever will listen!

If you do, you’ll discover some pretty awesome things. First, it’s a ton of fun. You are already passionate about your work, or else you wouldn’t have taken the trouble to write a book. That passion will come through. And remember that (unless you’ve set up a kiosk on a street corner), the people who come to see you are already interested in your work, or else they’d be somewhere else. You don’t have to convince them of anything. If you are polite and honest, people will walk away happy.

The other thing to keep in mind is that while you may not think it’s a big deal getting published, and you recognize that it’s a real grind, but others are much more excited. And while it’s pretty clear to you that you’ve been very lucky (at least that’s the case for me), that doesn’t mean you don’t have a good story to tell. People like to hear about the writing and publishing process first hand. The process might grind you down, but talking with readers and prospective readers will build you up!

So get out there!