Writer Yoga: Balance Keeps Our Writing Fresh

After class the other day, I was talking with a member about balance from one side of the body to another. That’s the other kind of balance we find in yoga. The poses — Tree, Star, Dancer, Airplane, Warrior III — allow us to develop that calm center that keeps us from getting knocked off balance by the ebb and flow of life. But there’s another sort of balance, the kind we should infuse our practice with — both yoga and writing.

When we practice yoga, we talk about staying balanced, doing to one side what we do to the other. But sometimes, we’re coming to practice unbalanced. One hip is tight, or  an arm is weaker than the other. We wobble all over the place on the right foot, but are rock-solid on the left. In those cases, we bring ourselves back to balance by giving extra attention to the side that needs it. When I practice on my own, I often stay in Pigeon up to twice as long on my right side. That set of external rotators is tighter, and it takes longer to get the muscles to relax and loosen to match the left side. In the big picture, practicing like this brings me to balance.

It’s the same way with writing. We all have our strengths. Some people are great at the intricacies of plot. Like chess masters, they can see all the players on the board and figure out how things will go three, six or 10 moves out. Others are fabulous at creating characters that seem like they’re going to jump off the page. Some writers create description so sublimely we can see exactly what they see. Some have dialogue that makes us feel like we’re eavesdropping on the characters. And then there are those whose action scenes get our hearts racing.

But for every strength, we have an area that doesn’t come as naturally. The plot that has giant holes. Characters that feel like paper dolls walking across the stage. Description ridden with cliches. Dialogue so stilted as to be painful to read. Action scenes that plod.

It’s tempting as writers to play to our strengths, just as it is in yoga. I’ll happily do Warrior II, Triangle or Pigeon all day. Cow-Faced Pose, Seated Forward Fold, Warrior I? Not so much. My body doesn’t like those poses as much, so I tend to avoid them. We do the same as writers. The action expert keeps things moving so nobody has time to spot the gaping hole in a character’s motivation. The plot whiz twists things up so much you don’t notice the descriptions use the same phrases over and over again. The dialogue expert uses that to camouflage how little is actually happening.

But just as the poses our bodies like least often are the ones they need the most, so, too, do we need to focus some attention on the areas of writing we stumble over. I’ll be the first to admit I have plotting issues. That means in any project, I need to spend more time working on that — and I need to use the places I am strong to help me with that.

Now, we’ll all always have our strengths. This isn’t a call to abandon what we do well to spend endless time working on the other elements. But the more competence we get in the areas we struggle, the more we can let the places we excel carry our story into new heights of brilliance.

 

What areas of writing are your strengths? Which ones need more attention? Do you give them that attention, or do you avoid it? 

Experimenting With Writing Techniques

Hi, my name is Jennie. And I write fanfiction.

I’m not supposed to say that. “Real” writers don’t write fanfiction — and if they do, they don’t admit it. Literary writers certainly don’t. I can see the head of the local writers group cringing as he reads this. But I’m saying it anyway.

 

Why? Because I’ve found over the past 12 years that fanfiction builds my storytelling skills much more quickly than if I were muddling away on my original fiction. I’ve written probably 750,000 or so words of fanfiction in that time, most of it during the past three years in the NCIS fandom. I’ve used those stories to shake off the rust from a five-year hiatus from fiction writing, then to go on to build my skills in plotting, pacing, structure, dialogue, description… Pretty much every skill you need to have for fiction writing, I’ve developed through writing fanfiction.

 

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately because I just launched myself into a novel-length fanfiction story that’s very different than what I’ve written before. Part of the reason it’s so different is because the plot bunny that hit when I was brainstorming made me realize I had the chance to try out a technique called voice journaling that James Scott Bell had mentioned in Conflict and Suspense. I’ve been toying with using it for the novel rewrite, especially after two reviewers dinged my antagonists in Thrown Out for not being as well developed as the protagonists. But the idea of trying it out on a project that’s that far along gave me pause.

 

This fanfiction story gave me a chance to start from scratch in building the antagonist first and getting inside his/her head. That led to me trying a different technique in storytelling — first-person snippets from the POV of the antagonist at the end of each chapter. I’ve been fiddling with a similar approach in All That Is Necessary, but third person POV and not every chapter. It gave me some of what I wanted, but it wasn’t working as well as I had hoped. But experimenting in this fanfic project with this combination of deep third for most of the story and first for the chapter endings is creating an effect that I’m liking and that the readers seem to be enjoying. If that’s  the right word for being completely creeped out, which has been the actual effect.

 

Even as I delve deeper into this side project and into a story that would probably give me nightmares if I wasn’t the one writing it, there’s a piece of my brain that’s making notes about how these techniques could work in ATIN and cataloguing how readers react as I post each chapter. As both the new story and the novel revisions play out, I’m going to be interested to see how this cross-pollination continues to play out.

Indie Interview: Rob Cornell

Tell us a little about your indie book or books, for readers who aren’t familiar with your work.

I have five novels out there right now. One is a standalone thriller entitled Red Run. It’s about a single father of two teens who learns his daughter’s been murdered and his son is the prime suspect. He goes about proving his son’s innocence and trudges through all sorts of secrets about his kids, his ex-wife, and even his own in the process. The two other novels I have in the mystery/crime genre are Last Call and my latest release, The Hustle. They both feature private-eye turned karaoke bar owner, Ridley Brone. The Ridley novels have all the wisecracking humor you’d expect from a PI novel (think Janet Evanovich) with a layer of tragic humanity that many readers should be able to relate to.

Then there’s my urban fantasy thrillers, The Lockman Chronicles. I call my conception of these books my chocolate and peanut butter moment. Remember the old commercials for peanut butter cups? You had two people—one eating chocolate, the other peanut butter—and by some crazy accident their snacks would meet. “You put your chocolate in my peanut butter,” one would say. The other says, “You got peanut butter on my chocolate.” Here’s a YouTube vid if you don’t know what I’m talking about.

Anyway, I’m a huge fan of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher thrillers. Hard-core action. Strong, sometimes remorseless hero. Plot twists galore. I’m also a huge fan of Jim Butcher and his Harry Dresden series. This is urban fantasy done right. Emotionally engaging main character. Quirky supporting characters. Cool magic. Scary creatures.

I got to thinking. What if someone like Jack Reacher landed in a world like Harry Dresden’s? That spawned the idea for DARKER THINGS. Basically, it’s action-thriller meets urban fantasy. I put my chocolate in my peanut butter.

You talk on your blog about the frustration with the marketing mindset of the traditional publishing industry. How has that shaped your approach to indie publishing? 

Simple. I write what I want. What I find fun. I tell the kind of stories I want to read. I don’t have to worry about knocking off the corners of an idea to make it fit some predetermined slot. I write what I want and worry about how to get it to readers after the fact. Kicking the voices of prospective agents and editors out of my office has done wonders for my writing. I’m writing more than I ever have and I’m having a blast in the process. And lucky for me, there’s a handful of people out there who like reading my stuff.

What made you decide to edit your own work? Do you recommend that to other writers? Why or why not? What’s your editing process? 

I edit my own work because I can’t afford an outside editor. But let me clarify. I’m not the only pair of eyes on this thing. I have a discerning first reader that picks up the crumbs I leave behind. Could I do better with a paid editor? Maybe. Maybe not. Just because someone charges you to read your manuscript and write on it doesn’t mean they’re any good at it.

I only recommend this to other writers if they have that good first reader. But even then, I’m not the kind of guy that likes to tell other writers how to do their business. I don’t think it matters. If the story works and readers enjoy it, you’re golden.

As far as process goes, like I said, I have a first reader that goes through the manuscript for me. Then I go through it again. The nice thing is, if I miss anything (and everybody misses something, indie or traditional) digital publishing allows me to fix those things. I’m made some pretty glaring errors with my first published novel, Red Run. I was new to the whole indie publishing scene and hadn’t really committed to it even. Since then, I’ve cleaned up that novel, and have gotten some great reviews for it.

What were the biggest surprises you had before publication? After? 

My biggest surprise beforehand was that people were self-publishing. It seemed crazy to me. It went against everything writers have been told since … forever. The biggest surprise after was that people were buying my books and that many actually liked them.

What’s been the most challenging part of the process? (Is that different from your experience with traditional publishing?) 

Putting your books out there on your own, you’re basically a one-person publishing house. Which means those responsibilities publishers handle for you (cover art, editing, marketing, etc.) you have to do on your own. You’re not just an artist anymore; you’re running a business. I don’t mind any of that. In fact, seeing myself as an entrepreneur is empowering. But the key is balancing those responsibilities. The writing must come first. If you don’t have the books, you won’t have the readers, no matter how much time you spend on Twitter.

Do you plan to continue to publish your own work, or are you looking to get a traditional publishing deal?

I’m looking for a nontraditional deal. There are new paradigms forming in the wake of this mighty change in the industry. The most visible is Amazon’s foray into publishing. The way they do business makes traditional publishing look positively draconian. There are other, smaller, upstarts staking territory in the new world. They provide the services of a traditional publisher, but with author-centric contracts. Basically, the resurgence of the small press, but with far more return on the investment for both publisher and author than the old model.

What advice would you offer for currently unpublished writers considering the indie route? (How about for traditionally published authors considering switching?) 

Do your research. Look at every possibility. And write nothing off just because some yahoo from your writing group says real writers don’t do that. Real writers write stories and get them into readers’ (digital) hands. I missed a real opportunity because I didn’t know enough and wasn’t willing to question my own assumptions. I kick myself to this day for it.

Is there any indie “conventional wisdom” you disagree with? Why?

There’s a lot of conventional wisdom I disagree with. For the sake of brevity (and to avoid getting flamed too hard) I’ll mention one. There’s a myth out there that in order to write well, you must write slowly and carefully. It’s garbage. Don’t believe it. If you write with passion and let the story carry you away, you’ll have a lot better story for it. And there is nothing wrong with releasing more than one novel a year. You’re a storyteller. If you want to make a living at this, you’re going to have to step it up. When people get upset by this suggestion, I like to bring up William Faulkner, who wrote As I Lay Dying in something like six weeks (might have been less) and sent it to his editor without revising a word. So, no, writing slow is not a requirement for writing well.

The big discussion point lately has been KDP Select and Amazon’s demand for exclusivity in exchange for participation. What are your thoughts on the tradeoffs? 

I’m almost dead set against it. The exclusivity thing is tough to swallow. Amazon is offering an author five days to give away their book as long as they also give away the right to sell it anywhere else…does that sound right to you?

I say almost, because if you have a whole bunch of titles (more than ten) I think it might be work experimenting on a single title to see if it actually gooses sales.

Full disclosure: I enrolled one of my books in KDP Select, thinking I would “experiment” with it. I ended up changing my mind afterward. Luckily, there’s a three-day grace period where you can get out of it so you’re not stuck there for 90 days. I opted out, and don’t plan to opt in anytime soon.

One of the challenges for indie authors has been the large volume of work out there that isn’t ready for publication, especially since readers have limited tools to search through the pile for the quality books. Do you think this will always be a problem, or is it just a phase in the evolution of epublishing?

I don’t think it’s a problem even now. It’s not that different from traditionally published books. There’s no way you can read all the books ever published. If you look at it that way, then it’s overwhelming. But then you start to break things down. Fiction or Non-Fiction. Different genres. Different sub-genres. Books on the bestseller lists. Books recommended by friends. Books you have read positive reviews on. Books by authors you’ve discovered and are automatic reads.

The same thing can be said with e-pubbed books. Is there a lot of garbage out there? Yeah. Have I had to read through anything not ready for publication? Nope. That’s what the whole word of mouth and browsing favorite genres comes in. And if I want to try something new? I can download a sample to my Kindle and read it in my spare time. If I get hooked — click and I have the books.

I don’t have to worry about the junk, because the closest I’ll get to it is the first paragraph of a sample.

An accidental nomad, Rob Cornell grew up in suburban Detroit, then spent five years living in Los Angeles before moving to Chicago to receive a BA in Fiction Writing from Columbia College.

He has traveled full circle, now living in rural southeast Michigan with his wife, two kids, and dog, Kinsey—named after Sue Grafton’s famous detective.

In between moving and writing, he’s worked all manner of odd jobs, including lead singer for an acoustic cover band and a three-day stint as assistant to a movie producer after which he quit because the producer was a nut job. You can find his books on Amazon and  Barnes & Noble.

Writer Yoga: Letting Go of Expectations

Some mornings, I come to my mat and everything clicks. My body feels fluid, moving pose to pose smoothly. Other mornings, it’s a struggle. I feel all the places my body deviates from the norm, all the ways I struggle to find the essence of the pose.

I have writing days like that, too. Some days I sit down and find myself typing away, the words spilling onto the page like water rushing over the rocks. Other days — too many of those days lately — I find myself struggling to find my place, procrastinating over this task or that one, anything to postpone my daily writing. And though I can predict which day I’ll have when I sit down most of the time, I’ve been surprised both ways before.

The past couple of weeks have been tough for me from a writing standpoint. I just switched schedules at work because of a staff shortage. After a few weeks of a patchwork solution that had me doing three early-bird shifts, three late-night shifts and one day off, my boss realized he needed something sustainable over a longer time period. So now I’m working night desk five days a week with two weekdays off. Instead of a 4 a.m. alarm, I find myself getting home from work about 11 p.m. and hoping to wind down enough to be in bed before 1 a.m. With gym classes on my two days off from the paper, and work on my three days off from the gym, I don’t have any days I’m truly off. And yet it still took me about 10 days to figure out why my writing production has been almost zilch. That happened a few days ago, and I’m still trying to stop beating myself up over it.

Whether it’s yoga, writing, parenting, work or just life in general, we tend to have expectations. Simple ones, like being able to do a certain thing at a certain time. And the more complicated ones that involve a million tiny steps over a longer period of time. There’s a fine line between setting a path in life and hamstringing what we do in expectations.

As a naturally Type-A person, setting goals and expectations is easy. We’re the ones who need to learn to let go, to allow life to happen and roll with the punches. Not everybody’s like that, and for some, the goals and expectations step is part of what we need to do to find a direction and a purpose. But whichever category we fall into, part of finding our way in life involves both setting a path and being open to detours along the way.

Today, do one thing without expectations for how it turns out. Just enjoy the experience. 

Weighing the Value of Promotion vs. Writing

Dan Blank’s post last week about defining success has combined with some other things in my life right now to get me asking myself that very question. One of the things that’s been a challenge the past several weeks has been finding a way to balance writing with platform building and social media. Roz Morris had a really great post on the topic this weekend where she pointed out that publishing in order to build a platform was backward. The book doesn’t build the platform — the platform builds the audience for the book.

Lately, I’ve been feeling like trying to keep up on everything to promote my writing has left me with very little room to actually write. Now, some of that is a function of schedule changes at work that I’m still adjusting to. But for me, it’s also a sign I needed to step back and think about a) what I’m trying to accomplish with my first book and b) what I’m trying to accomplish with the Exeter series in general.

Thrown Out is never — in and of itself — going to be a best-seller. It’s an odd niche (short-story collection) and it doesn’t fit into any other genre because the common thread among the stories is the setting and characters, not the genre. If it reaches best-seller status, it will be because it’s backlist for novels in the series that are easier to categorize and promote.

Recognizing that is liberating in a lot of ways. The way for me to get more people to read Thrown Out is to write and publish the next book in the series, the first novel. It will be easier to find because it fits into a genre that does well in ebooks, and as people find it and like it, they will be more likely to hunt down my other books.

That, in turn, allows for more of a focus on what’s important — writing the other books and short stories in the series. I also now have a better focus for what’s important in terms of additional blogging and other writing projects. After all this introspection, I have a better way to set priorities.

As a writer, it means my Exeter books won’t come out as quickly. But I think they’re going to be better books. I also hope they’ll find more of an audience because of cross-pollination with my other projects. We’ll see. Everything in the world of indie publishing is an experiment these days, and this is just one more of them.

Book Review: Awake, an anthology to benefit The Trevor Project

I picked up Awake a while back while doing research for my next book, set when Dan is 13. The chance to read some short stories showcasing the point of view of LGBTQ teens seemed like a perfect opportunity. And I was intrigued by the idea of an anthology benefiting the Trevor Project.

The collection is well worth the price, even if the proceeds weren’t going to a nonprofit. The four authors each tackle a different aspect of the experiences LGBTQ teens face daily, bringing them to life in vivid detail. The goal of the book was to give LGBTQ teens stories that reflected their experiences, something they could relate to. Going into writing with the goal of making any point has its hazards. As writers, we run the risk of slipping from storytelling into preaching. These authors didn’t. The characters are realistic, their situations believable. Their roads have bumps; misunderstandings and hostility from friends and family alike. And yet they also show hope, a sense that one day it will get better.

Some of the stories have clear-cut endings, while others are a bit more ambiguous. I found the most powerful one to be Robin Reardon’s “A Line in the Sand,” but the stories are so distinct in style and topic that each reader will likely have a different favorite.

The collection is geared to teens, but anybody can enjoy these stories. For the people who can identify with one of the characters, this collection is a beacon, a reminder that they are not alone. For the rest of us, these stories give us a window into a different experience in life, as all good fiction does. And as we read, we start to find places of common experience with the characters, even though our situations might differ. The best fiction taps into a shared truth, reveals something about our world we might otherwise not see. Awake falls into this category, and is definitely worth reading.

Indie Interview: Nick Earls

Nick Earls is a traditionally published Australian author who went with indie press Exciting Press, run by author Will Entrekin, to crack the US ebook market. He’s joining us today to talk about his experience, especially the differences between traditional and indie publishing (hint: fewer meeting hurdles).

Tell us a little about your indie book or books, for readers who aren’t familiar with your work. 

Reviewers have compared my work to that of JD Salinger, Martin Amis, Jeffrey Eugenides, VS Naipaul, Woody Allen, Raymond Carver and, most often, Nick Hornby. Perhaps that just shows I’ve been reviewed a lot, since I don’t think I can draw the Venn diagram where all those writers intersect. I’m interested in people and how they work, so that’s what I write about. Comedy often finds its way in there, one way or another.

As far as my indie e-books go, we’ve started by releasing a novel, a couple of novellas and some short stories, and I think they give some idea of my range, from carefully observed small moments in regular lives to slapstick involving body parts to one story featuring a unicorn. There will be more to come in the months ahead (more e-books, probably not more unicorns).

Monica Bloom is the novel, and the one that’s had the Salinger and Eugenides comparisons. It’s about a sixteen-year-old falling in love for the first time with a girl who, due to circumstances, he meets only five times. It’s set thirty years ago, because it couldn’t work the same way in a world full of Facebook and cellphones. And because Continue reading

New Blog Schedule

If you’re looking for today’s Meet the Character, please come back in a couple of days. Now that I’ve had the blog posting schedule in place for a few weeks, I realized a couple of snags with timing through the week. I also just had my schedule at the newspaper shift around, so that makes the changes even more important. Starting this week, here’s the new schedule:

Mondays: Blog tour posts, guest posts, housekeeping (like today) and any other topic that doesn’t fit on a different day.

Tuesdays: #WriterYoga

Wednesdays: Indie Interviews

Thursdays: Meet the Characters or Around Town

Fridays: Book reviews

Book Review: Conflict and Suspense by James Scott Bell

James Scott Bell is well-known among writers for his useful, practical wisdom on improving our writing and story structure. Conflict and Suspense is the fourth writing book of his I’ve purchased, the third one I’ve read, and like its predecessors, it’s going to be a mainstay in my writing library.

I have two bookshelves of writing books. One is the bulk of the collection, and is just high enough to make getting to them difficult. Conflict and Suspense — if it were a paperback — would go on the other shelf, Continue reading

Free Par-Tay!

Several authors I network with have all joined together for a Free Par-Tay event — all of us have made books free on Kindle today through Saturday. (Don’t wait until Saturday to get them – a lot of the books will revert back to paid mid-day.)

If you’re looking to stock up, head on over:


Free Par-Tay!
If you’ve just been looking for an excuse to get my book, it’s here.

Happy reading!!!!