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Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Myths About Blogging

Today my writer's group had a discussion about online presence (in particular blogs and twitter).  Not that I'm any expert on either subject, but since I'm the only one in the group who blogs and tweets regularly, it ended up being more of a How-To session.  Even though I haven't had this blog for more than a few months, it's been easy to forget what it was like not to know how to navigate this world.

This morning, all the memories came roaring back and I remembered what it was like to be a newbie in the blogsphere.  I remembered all the things I used to believe about blogging and have since discovered are not necessarily the case.

Here are some blogging myths that have proved false in my own blogging experience.

• You have to be known in the blogsphere for people to read/follow your blog.  If you're a newbie, you might as well give up because you're just writing to the ether.  For the longest time, I thought the only person reading my blog was my mother.  No, seriously.  And the worst of it was, for about the first month or so of this blog, that was actually the case.  Even bloggers who now have thousands of followers didn't have any when they started.  The key is to remember that we all have to start somewhere.

• You need to blog every day, even if you don't have anything useful to say.  OK, on one hand, there is some truth to this myth because posting regularly does drive traffic to the blog.  However, from the beginning, I decided that quality of posts for my blog would always trump quantity.  I made the conscious choice that I'd rather post fewer times per week but make sure each post was up to snuff.  I figured, you all (my awesome readers) would be more likely to forgive occasional gaps in my posting than a series of lame articles.  :)

• Bloggers are narcissists who only talk about themselves (or their kids/cats/hobbies/etc).  Good blogs are not about the blogger at all, they're about the audience.  The key is determining the audience and then staying consistent.  iggi&gabi is about writing and creativity, so unless something relates to one or both of those topics somehow, I don't post it.  Sure, I have snuck in some pictures of my cats now and then.  I may have even made some Brazil references or used knitting lingo from time to time.  But this blog is not about my cats, or my Brazilian family, or my obsession with knitting.  It's about writing so unless these other topics relate to that, they're left out.

• Blogging takes hours a day and if you start a blog, you will have no time left for writing/living.  Again, this is all about finding balance.  At first, I spent WAY too much time writing posts, reading blogs, commenting on blogs and responding to comments (OMG when I got my first comment ever I almost died!).  Bit by bit, I figured out ways to do things more efficiently.  Now, I try to write my posts during the weekend prior and schedule them to post automatically.  I've set up Google Reader so I can scan through and choose which blogs I want to read each day.  A lot of it has been trial and error, but slowly I am figuring out which short cuts work best for me.

• If you don't have earth-shattering things to say, you shouldn't have a blog.  When I first started blogging, I felt very isolated.  I felt like I was all alone at my computer, writing words and sending them out into the void.  Sure, I followed a few blogs, but was too shy to comment because I kept thinking: "Who would anyone want to hear what I have to say?"  When I finally got up the nerve to comment (and started getting lovely comments back!) I realized that the blogsphere wasn't some big scary place as I imagined.  It was a community.  Blog posts were no longer something I had to "produce" out of nothing; they became a way for me to respond to what was happening in the world of writing.  When I started thinking of blogging as being part of a dialogue, it took the pressure off me as a writer.  After all, it's a lot easier to join in a conversation that's already going on, than it is to fill the void with a monologue.

What blogging myths have you discovered were not true?

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

You're Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile

Today, in honor of the worst travel day of the year, I thought I'd talk about airport security. 

In the past years, security issues have made flying home for the holidays more and more of a hassle.  Crazy X-ray machines that leave nothing to the imagination.  Pat-downs that make you wonder if you should call them in the morning.  And who knows what lies in the future of air travel.  This Thanksgiving is supposed to be the worst travel season to date and of course, the more intense the security requirements, the more travelers like to complain about it.

In light of all this insanity, I've come up with a method to help keep me just a little more... sane.  I've decided to make an art form out of getting through airport security as efficiently as I can.  As soon as I show my ID at the front of the line, I concentrate on getting all my stuff through the scanner and walking through to the other side as fast as possible.  No sense holding up the line, after all.

While waiting in line, I survey my carry-on situation so I know exactly how many plastic bins I need to grab.  Of course, before I leave home I always make sure to wear shoes that slip on and off easily.  I put my photo ID in my pocket for quick access and always hold onto my boarding pass because they might need to see it more than once.  Oh, and I make sure my quart-size plastic baggie of liquid stuff is out and ready to go so I'm not digging through my carry-on once the race starts.

While other travelers moan and groan about the long lines, I'm glad that I have that extra time to get ready.  By the time it's my turn, I zip right through.  This past flight I made my best time, under 17 seconds from ID check to all-done on the other side.  Some people might say I'm making light of a serious situation by turning security check into a race for my personal best time, but in the end, it keeps me distracted and prevents me from getting cranky.  And no one can complain that I'm the person holding up the line at security check.

"But what does this have to do with writing?" you might be wondering.

To me, the publishing process is a lot like airport security.  Before you can soar up high, you have to jump through a lot of hoops, most of which are completely out of your control.

A lot of writers end up griping about the process because it seems to be so gosh-darn unfair, but what we really should do is make it into a game.  Have a little fun.  Make a joke or two.  After all, that's what many very successful authors did when they were getting started and it sure seemed to work for them.  Take Stephen King, for instance: he stabbed his rejection letters through a peg on his wall until the stack got so heavy the peg broke.

We need to recognize which aspects of the process we can control and which ones we cannot.  When I travel, I try to maximize how efficiently I perform all the steps that I can control, and I've found that the same can be true with my writing.  I can't control if an agent likes my work, but I can make my query and submission as strong as possible.  I can't make a literary magazine accept my short story but I can edit the piece until it's as good as I can make it.  I can't guarantee that I'll get published but I can write every day, and that's half the battle right there.

So whether you're waiting in line or jumping through hoops, try to remember to take things a little less seriously and have some fun.  And it never hurts to smile because sometimes those security folks will even smile back.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Finding Treasure

One of my favorite things to do in LA is to visit the La Brea Tar Pits.

For those of you who haven't been there, they're these gigantic pits of sticky mud where all these prehistoric mammals got stuck, perished, and now people have excavated the bones.  The prehistoric skeletons are on display at the museum and it's incredible.  I thought the NYC Natural History museum's dinosaur wing was impressive but the La Brea Tar Pits definitely win when it comes sheer volume of prehistoric treasure.

My favorite part?  There is an entire hallway wall lined top-to-bottom with Dire Wolf skulls.  Yes, that's right.  Prehistoric wolf skulls.  Hundreds of them.  Amazing.

And what blows my mind is this: who would've thought that a pit full of sticky mud would yield so many incredible treasures?

But it did.

Which brings me to the point of this post.  Right now I'm in the middle of editing and my manuscript is about ten notches lower than a pit of sticky mud.  Seriously.  It makes the La Brea Tar Pits look like a shiny swimming pool.  And there are moments when I start to wonder, is it possible that there's anything of value hidden under all this muck?

That's when I try to remember the tar pits.  The hundreds of wolf skulls.  After all, if scientists could pull out all that treasure from a pit of sticky mud, surely I can find one tiny redeemable thing in my mess of a manuscript.  And thinking that makes me feel better.

Where will you find treasure today?

Speaking of finding treasures, it's about time I announce the winner of the most recent contest and share some treasure!  Turns out I didn't make it to 200 so I'll be drawing one winner.  But stay tuned: there will be more contests to come in the future.

And the winner of the Road to 200 Contest is...

Catherine Lavoie

Catherine, please send me an email: iggingabi[at]gmail[dot]com to claim your prize!  Can't wait to read your pages.

I'd also like to say a special thank you to everyone who entered the contest.  You guys are the best!

Monday, November 22, 2010

Museum Monday

I'm in LA today, museum-hopping the day away.  While I'm gone, I thought I'd share with you a small selection of my favorite works of art.  These pieces are each by different artists and on view at different museums around the world.  As you can see, the artworks are dramatically different from one another but they all have two things in common: (1) I have seen each of these pieces in real life at least once, and (2) when I look at each of these works, I feel a powerful emotional response.  I hope you all find at least one of these works as inspiring as I do.  Enjoy!

El Greco, View of Toledo
Edvard Munch, Vampyr

John Singer Sargent, Fumee d'Ambre Gris

Rene Magritte, The False Mirror

The Unicorn at Bay (medieval tapestry)

Vincent Van Gogh, Irises

Saturday, November 20, 2010


Here's the ugly truth:  No writer exists in a void.  All writing is influenced by what has come before.  There is no such thing as utterly, completely unique because writing exists within a context.

In a world that's always screaming for the Next New Thing, how do we writers reconcile that with the scary truth that there's really no such thing as new?  Here are a few things I learned as I completed my WIP draft.

1)  Write what you love, not what the market "wants."  I used to work in the toy industry and it always boggled my mind that we had to predict what kids would "want" not now but a year from now.  We could spend a whole year developing a product only to discover at the end of it all that the trend was over.  The same is true for writing.  If you're working on your project because the genre or topic are a big hit now and you want to jump on the bandwagon, chances are you'll be disappointed.  But if you're working on this book because you love the subject and the characters, then no matter what happens, it's win-win.

2)  Context isn't something to be afraid of.  Think of it as a "safety net."  In the product development world, companies love to create extensions of popular product lines.  After all, a good chunk of the development legwork has already been done in the first version, customers recognize the brand and there's already a built-in market for it.

Think of books that came before yours as a similar "safety net" to your project.  Study the books--both the successful ones and the less so--and think about what made them work or not work.  Think about what you can do to differentiate your project from what has come before, but still keep it within the context.

3)  Find partners in crime.  One of my favorite things to do is go to conferences!  I love meeting other writers, learning about the craft and hearing new information about the business.  This January 2011 I'll be attending the Writer's Digest and SCBWI conferences, both in NYC.  If you've signed up for either of these, let me know in the comments!  I love connecting with new writer friends.

The way I see it, you never know who you'll meet at one of these things.  It could be a new critique partner or beta reader, it could be someone you'll collaborate with some day, it could be a future mentor or someone you might mentor yourself.  The key is to be open to possibilities.

4)  Ideas are not books.  Books are books.  In his memoir, Lessons From a Lifetime of Writing, David Morrell talks about the distinction between the idea and execution.  Every time I start getting down about how un-unique my ideas are, I reread his chapter on plot where he discusses this subject.  His main point is this: sure, an idea might be shiny and new, but an idea does not make a book unique.  What makes a book unique is how the writer implements the idea.  An example:

Take the Harry Potter series--many people marvel at J.K. Rowling's originality. "How did she come up with such a unique idea?" they wonder.  As if all it takes to create a fantastic book (or series of books) is one extraordinary idea.  Because when you have the fun flashy idea then the book just writes itself.  Ha!

I don't know about you, but I find this outlook to be rather belittling to the writer; it's almost as if the writing doesn't matter.  But as we all know, Harry Potter is about much more than just one sparkly idea.  These books are what they are because the author wrote them.  That same concept in the hands of any other writer would have turned out to be completely different.

5)  Ideas are like subways: any minute now there will be another one.  When I worked in toy development, our department had a attitude that boiled down to this: "If a competitor wants to steal our idea, let it.  We'll have an even better one in five minutes anyway."  The minute you think of your idea as one link in a long chain of great ideas, then that one idea doesn't seem all that ground-breaking anymore.  If you coddle and protect your idea like it's something precious and priceless, you run the risk of getting too attached and taking the project too seriously.  Have confidence that another better idea is always just a brainstorm away and that even if someone does "borrow" your concept, they'll never be able to execute it like you will.

Now go out there and do something wild and crazy and unique!

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Finding Competitive Books

Sooner or later, writers have to put their writing into context.  This means tracking down published books that are similar to the WIP (i.e. competitive books) and reading them.  Some writers like to do this sort of research as they're working on their own book.  Other writers prefer to hold off until they've been through a draft or two.  Regardless of when you decide to start doing your research, it's going to take time.  And that's time you won't be spending writing, or revising, or querying, or... you get the picture.

Which brings me to the point of this post.  How do we actually find these elusive books in the first place?  And for that matter, how do we keep our reading lists from getting long and out of control?  I'm a perfect example of the latter.  Every time I hear of a book even remotely similar to my WIP, I have run out and read it.  This is all well and good, but it does nothing to get my actual WIP written in the first place.  The message here is to find a balance.  Yes, research is important, but the key is to do it efficiently and effectively.

To that end, here's a nifty trick I've discovered that has helped me speed up the search for competitive books.  All you need is the internet and the title of (at least) one competitive book.

1) Go to and search for that one competitive book you've already found.   If you don't have the title of at least one book that's similar to your WIP, try doing a keyword search.  All you need is to find one book and then the search becomes much easier.

2) Scroll down to where it says "Customers who bought this book also bought..."  Browse through the books listed and make a note of any that might fit within the context of your WIP (similar themes, genre, target audience, etc.)

3) Use the "Look Inside" feature on Amazon or search for the titles you've noted using Google books.  Read a few pages.  An alternative is to go to a bookstore or library with your list and browse the shelves.  After all, you want to make sure the books you've put on your list are actually going to be useful.

4) Now read 'em.

This trick might seem like a no-brainer to all you super-efficient genius researchers out there, but believe it or not it took me forever to figure out.  In case anyone else out there has been beating their heads against the wall (like I did for so long) I figured I'd pass on this trick.  Sure, this search tool isn't foolproof and nothing beats the tried-and-true method of getting recommendations from a librarian or knowledgeable bookseller.  But in a pinch, this saves time.  And as I see it, that just means more time for writing.

On a separate note: Don't forget to check out my contest!  It's open until Saturday.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Hooray! And a Contest!

Hello friendsies and a Happy Monday to you!

This week is chock-full of happy news:

1)  As some of you may have already figured out, I finished the first draft of my WIP.  Whee!  I feel like baking everyone in the blogsphere a cake.  Then again, smashing cake pieces through the computer screen would be rather messy (not to mention I'd get crumbs all over my keyboard), so here's the next best thing:

 2)  I got to 166 followers on my blog this weekend!  That means I'm closer to 200 than to 100.  Woot!  200 followers, here I come!

3)  I met fellow blogger, Bess of It's the World, Dear, last week to discuss my critique of her piece (she was the winner of September's DIY MFA contest).  Anyway, I had so much fun reading her work, I thought to myself, "gee gabi, you gotta do that more often."

So, in light of all these exciting things, I've decided to throw another contest called:

The Road to 200 Contest

Here's how it works:

To enter the contest: Leave a comment below.  That's it.  No tallying entries or or all that icky math stuff, just your shiny happy comment to this post.  Isn't that easy?

Prize: One lucky winner will get a critique of their first 25 pages from yours truly.
(Standard formatting: double spaced, 12pt font.)

But wait... it gets better!

If you're not already following this blog, you might want to join the fun.  And spread the word because...

If I make it to 200 followers by the time the contest closes, I'll double it to two lucky winners.

Contest closes this Saturday (11:59pm November 20 EST)


Saturday, November 13, 2010

Work In Progress

I don't usually blog about my current writing project because I'm always scared I'll jinx it if I talk about it too much.  Don't get me wrong, I'm not a superstitious person.  I have a black cat that crosses my path on a regular basis, Friday the 13th is one of my favorite days of the year and I cross my eyes and make faces regularly, just to make sure I won't get stuck that way.  But there's something about talking about my WIP that gives me the heebee-jeebies.

Now I'm in the final sprint--only a few hundred words away from finishing--so I feel OK about sharing with you all.  In fact, I feel more than OK, I want to share because that way you'll understand why I've been a bit more MIA than usual these last few weeks.  Still, part of me is a little superstitious about talking about my WIP so I've decided to tell the story in pictures, starring baby animals (because baby animals make any story that much cuter).  Here it is.  The progress report of my WIP (title to be revealed later) told in pictures.

Enjoy! <3 <3 <3

At first, things were going swimmingly.  I finished my thesis,
had a solid outline, and was writing along.  La la la la la...
Then, as I was climbing fast toward the climax, I made a fatal mistake:
I looked down.
"Yikes, it's pretty high up here."

Lucky for me, I have some great writing buddies
who weren't afraid to give me a pick-me-up.
I kept writing.
Even so, there were times I just wanted to curl up inside my shell.
Then, I finally made it to the final showdown!
Good thing I'm trained in the art of pen-wielding,
because my villain turned out to be a piece of work.
"Take that, evil character!"
Now I'm sprinting to the finish line.
1200 words... 1100... 1000...
And pretty soon I'll type the two most beautiful words in the English language:

How about you?  How's your writing coming along?  Any NaNoWriMo folks out there?  If so, how's the experience been treating you?

Write on!

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Verse Novel Challenge Update

Hi all!

As you may recall, I'm participating in Caroline Starr Rose's Verse Novel Challenge.  The goal is to read five verse novels by the end of 2010.  I've recently finished reading the fifth one so I thought I'd do a little update and give my take on the verse novels I've read.

Love that Dog by Sharon Creech

This was the first verse novel I read this year, which I reviewed here.  I loved this book and read it in one sitting because I couldn't put it down.

Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse

A beautiful, heart-wrenching book.  I was completely pulled in.  The musical connection (the main character's love of the piano) especially resonated with me.

Witness by Karen Hesse

Loved this book.  It was SO powerful.  I especially loved how each of the different characters had such distinct voices.  After a while I didn't need to see their names at the top of the poems; I could tell who was speaking from the language alone.  I wish I had read this when I was writing my literature thesis on "Book As Experience" because it would have been a perfect fit.

Make Lemonade by Virginia Euwer Wolff

The prequel to True Believer, this book is simply lovely.  Unlike the other verse novels I read, this was the only one that read as one long poem, rather than a collection of poems.  I know in a previous post I questioned whether Wolff's verse novels could be considered such (since she herself refers to them as "prose with line breaks").  But I was dying to read Make Lemonade and figured that if it felt poetry to me then it would be OK to consider it part of the verse novel challenge.  Let me tell you, it was pure poetry.

One of Those Hideous Books Where the Mother Dies by Sonya Sones

This was another book that I read in one sitting.  I love the idea of a book set in LA and in the glitz and glamor of the celebrity world and yet the story rings true to any kid.  The pain of loss, the trials of fitting in at a new school, these are all things that readers can relate to, regardless of the glamorous setting. My only quibble was with the ending, which was a teensy bit predictable, but it was still satisfying. 

Monday, November 8, 2010

Famous Last Words

Everyone's always talking about first sentences and how important it is that they make an impact and draw the reader into the story.  But what about the last sentences, the words that stick with readers after they put down the book?

As writers, most of us are wired to take a sentence and write forward from it, but how often do we write toward something, toward an ending?  A classic writing exercise is to take a random sentence from a famous novel and write from there, using those words to jump-start our own writing.  Today I'd like to challenge you all to do the opposite.  Below is a list of last sentences, final words from existing books.  The idea here is to write toward these last words so that they fit as the last sentence of your piece.

Here's a fun exercise! Choose one of the sentences below and write a short piece with the sentence you chose as the final sentence.
  • No one has claimed them yet.
  • "Let me tell you about it."
  • Everything must go.
  • "Make me pretty."
  • ...and it was still hot.
  • It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer.  [She] was both.
Bonus points to anyone who can guess which books these sentences come from!

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Ruby Slippers

Once in a while, life just turns blah on you.  Situations get toxic.  Your writing doesn't cooperate.  Work just isn't as interesting as it used to be.  Blah.

Those are moments when you need ruby slippers.  I don't mean literal ruby slippers like in The Wizard of Oz (though someday I will own a pair of these babies all my very own).  What I mean is, you need give yourself something decadent and luxurious, even it's it's tiny.  Something that tells you: "I'm pampering myself for a change.  I'm being nice to me today, because I deserve it."  Ruby slippers can mean different things to different people.

For me these little luxuries include:
  • Wearing glittery lip gloss
  • A sparkly bookmark, preferably pink
  • Brewing a pot of coconut vanilla tea
  • Lavender hand lotion
How do you like to pamper yourself when life gets you down?  What are your Ruby Slippers?

Friday, November 5, 2010

Who's in Your Corner?

It's easy to be a supportive friend and colleague when things are going according to the status quo.  People fall into patterns and get used to things being normal.  They adopt roles within their social groups and communities: "helper" "mentor" "leader" and so on.  But what do you do when the "helper" is the one who needs help?  Or the "mentor" needs some mentoring?  Or the "leader" needs someone to take the reins for a while?  When anything veers away from the standard pattern, relationships get tested.  This is true of friends in all walks of life, including writing friends.

There are key moments when you find out who's in your corner, like when you and a friend bump heads, or when you're going through an especially tough spot in your own life.  This is when you discover who you can count on and who you can't.  Because a true friend will adjust his or her role and adapt to the crisis at that moment.  Friends recognize the difference between the person and the problem at hand, and they find a way to move forward.

Moments of success are also key for showing who's on your side.  True friends will be happy for your success and you'll be happy for theirs as well.  There's no competition or need to compare with one another because you trust that there's enough goodness in the universe to go around.  Good friends will celebrate with you, whether the obstacle overcome is small or enormous.

In life as well as in writing, it's important to know who's in your corner.  To those of you who have seen me through happy writing moments and through not-so-happy ones, I'd like to say a huge "Thank You."  To those who have just joined the fun, welcome!  I can't wait to hear what you have to say and learn more about you.  And to those special people who are my anchors and support (you know who you are), I don't deserve you but I'm so glad you're my friend.

Happy Friday!

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Binge Writing

First off, I wanted to give a huge shout-out to all my readers who are participating in NaNoWriMo 2010.  You guys are awesome and you continually amaze me with your strength of spirit and dedication.  Go writers!

In light of it being November and NaNoWriMo being under way, I thought I'd talk today about binge writing.  I myself have never done NaNoWriMo but I've experienced my own writing binges in different contexts (mostly academic).  For instance, I completely rewrote my college thesis two days before the deadline.  My psychology master's thesis got done during the week before I moved from upstate back to NYC.  In fact, the only thesis I've ever written that was not started and completed in the days before the deadline was the MFA thesis, believe it or not.

My point is, I know what it's like to crank out pages in a short period of time and to write so hard you don't know whether you're crying or your eyes are bleeding or your brain's exploding.  Or all of the above.  I know the rush and thrill of when all those disparate ideas come together at the last minute and the whole project feels like it's suspended in air, waiting for that last breath, that last keystroke.

But aside from the frantic rush of it all, there is strategy to binge writing and I thought I'd share a few things I've learned from my own binge writing experiences.

1) Don't forget to eat.  Whether you take a short break for dinner or keep a snack next to you as you work, remember to refuel with food.
2) Sleep can be optional for a day or two.  But if you're planning to pull all-nighters for a month, be prepared for lowered productivity.  I know because I've actually done this and it's not a good idea.
3) Bathing is optional. (Unless you plan to go out in public, in which case, do the world a favor and take a quick shower.) 'Nuff said.
4) Take breaks.  Sometimes your brain needs to zone out and relax.  Beating it with a stick isn't going to get the words on the page any faster.
5) Goals can change and that's OK.  You may find as you work on your project--be it NaNoWriMo or something else--that your goals may shift.  That's perfectly OK and it's important allow yourself the flexibility to change directions if need be.

Here are some happy writing vibes to all you awesome writers, especially those doing NaNoWriMo.  Hope your project goes well!

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