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Sunday, January 30, 2011

Writing Conferences: Don't Be "That Guy"

You know exactly what I'm talking about, because we've all seen That Guy in action.  You may have even met That Guy, or *gasp* been That Guy.  (If the latter is true, STOP.  Seriously, right now.)

When might you have encountered this rare specimen?

•  Sitting next to you on a cross-country flight, That Guy says: "Oh, you're a writer?  I thought about writing a bestseller once... you know, like in my spare time.  I've got this killer idea.  Maybe you could ghostwrite for me."

•  During the Q&A session at a conference, That Guy says to an agent: "I'm writing a book on the mating habits of Komodo dragons.  What kind of book deal could you get me?"

• When you're a publishing intern reading slush and answering phones, That Guy calls saying: "Everyone who's read my book loves it.  Even my lover/warden/kid/pet goat.  It must be the Best Book Ever and you'd be a fool not to publish/represent it!"

That Guy isn't always a guy; in fact, about 50% of the time it's a girl.  That Guy isn't necessarily a bad writer, either.  That Guy might even get published someday if he/she/it stops being so That-Guy-ish.

So, how do you avoid being That Guy?  Two words: common sense.  Seriously.  It amazes me how many writing and publishing hurdles can be navigated if you use your noggin.  Actually, that's kind of true in life too.

More importantly, how do you avoid the temptation of punching That Guy in the face?  I still haven't figured this one out.  But I've discovered that watching this video helps.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Writing: We Are All in this Together

Benjamin LeRoy, of Tyrus Books, gave the closing keynote for the Writer's Digest Conference.  While most of the sessions at this conference focused on craft or the business of writing, this keynote was pure inspiration.  Here are some clips from the speech that struck a chord for me. 
"Books allow us to see the world through someone else's perspective."

This is one of my favorite things about writing, or reading for that matter.  Books let us "try on" different lives and experience things we would never be able to do otherwise.  As I've mentioned before, story-telling is a uniquely human behavior and something that we all have in common, regardless of racial or cultural differences.  Thus, not only do books allow us to adopt different perspectives, but the very act of telling stories unites us. 

"When you take up the pen, you are documenting who we are as people."

There is something about writing things down that everything seem more real.  As a teenager, whenever something happened at school, I had to write it in my journal, otherwise it was like it didn't matter.  And if it didn't matter, then it didn't feel completely real to me.  In some ways, I still believe that.  As I've grown and studied literature, I've learned that even written words that are not factually true can ring true on an emotional level.  In many ways, fiction can feel more real that fact. 

"We are all in this together."

As writers, it's so easy to get caught up in things like "platform" or "getting published" but the truth is, writers and publishing professionals are on the same team.  As best I can tell, agents and editors are in this game because they love to read great writing and they believe books are important.  Writers get to supply the material.  As LeRoy explained toward the end of his talk, writers should create the best stories they can--stories that engage them--rather than trying to chase trends.

This sounded great in theory and I wanted to believe it--really, I did.   Still, doubt nagged at me so during the Q&A, I asked the following question: 

"Considering how the market is saturated with books about sparkly vampires, and considering how most human beings have the attention span of... say... a small rodent, how do we find readers for our engaging--though perhaps not quite so flashy--books?"

To which, LeRoy smiled and replied: "I don't know."

And this was when it all clicked for me.  Throughout the weekend, we'd heard about all the different ways that the publishing industry was changing.  eBooks.  Social media.  Blogs.  POD.  The problem is, it's not the writing or the publishing that's actually changing, it's the reading.  Writers and publishers are just trying to keep up.  Sooner or later, everyone who loves books (writers, agents, editors, publishers, and anybody else) is going to have to figure out how to deal with changes in the reading industry.

This is why it's important to remember that we're all in this together.  We may not be able to turn back the clock or un-invent the eReader, but we can find new ways to connect with our readers and with each other.  And that's a start.

Friday, January 28, 2011

SCBWI Conference this Weekend

SCBWI Conference NYC

I can't believe it's almost Friday already and I'm heading to another writing conference.  Not like that's a bad thing, but I feel like I haven't fully digested the last one yet.  I haven't posted all the recaps I wanted for the last conference and now here I am about to go to another.  But fear not, friends.  I have a couple more WDC recaps lined up for this weekend (set to post while I'm busy conferencing), and then next week I'll share all the inspiring and exciting things I learn at SCBWI.

Also, I have tons to say about the James Scott Bell session on Revision from the Writer's Digest Conference, but I want to try out what I learned on my own manuscript before I post about it.  After all, it's one thing to summarize what a speaker says at a conference, but it's a whole other story to put the method to work on your own writing.  Stay tuned because I'll have more on Revision soon.

Finally, remember that sooper-seekrit project I mentioned?  It's been making good progress and I'll be unveiling it soon.  In the meantime, I can tell you that I'll be collaborating with Ghenet from All About Them Words and we're really excited for this project.  Stay tuned... things are happening!

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Two Words about Social Media: Don't Panic

One of the sessions I was super-excited for at the Writer's Digest Conference was the Social Media panel.  After all, over the last year or so, I've become almost addicted to fairly comfortable with connecting to readers and writers through blogging or twitter or other webby things.

I've been to plenty of conferences with panels on social media and I find they always run into the same glitch.  The speakers are super-talented and the audience wants to hear what they have to say.  The trouble is, the panelists and audience are speaking in different languages.

I didn't do an empirical study, but here are a few things I observed during the session:
  • Very few young whipper-snappers in the audience, tweeting the panel from their iPhones.  (OK, I guess I'm a whipper-snapper but I didn't tweet from my phone because I'm morally opposed to phones that do more than work like phones.)
  • Hardly any people clicking on their laptops (fewer than what I noticed at other panels, in fact).  A lot of people taking notes by hand.
  • When the moderator asked how many people in the audience had a twitter account, only a few people raised their hands.
  • When the moderator asked how many used social media to interact with industry professionals who would be at this conference, no one raised their hands.  (I almost raised my hand, but then I was embarrassed because no one else did.  Remember, I'm shy.)
  • Based on a lot of the questions that came up in Q&A, most of the people at the session were just starting to get their feet wet in the world of social media.
  • As the discussion and Q&A progressed, I noticed more and more writers around me looking like they were about to have a nervous breakdown.
Despite these obstacles,  I was blown away by the awesome I observed from both the audience and speakers at the session.  This session had everything to be an incredible opportunity.  Writers hungry for information were present and motivated to connect with some of the leading industry professionals in the field of social media.  Both sides of the equation were there, but it seemed like there was one crucial piece missing in the middle.  What it needed was some way to bridge the gap.

How do we solve this problem?  Personally I'm a believer in baby steps.  When people get overwhelmed with too much information, they end up shutting down altogether.  The idea is to help them take one tiny step outside their comfort zones.  Once they've grown comfortable with that, they take another step.  And so on.

This is where you come in.  Think back to when you were new at all this social media stuff.  For some of you, it could have been last week; for others, it was back in 1989.  The point is, somehow or other, you learned to get comfortable with it and to make it work for you.  All sans meltdown.

I want to know: If you had one piece of advice or one small step you'd recommend to a newbie, what would it be?

Here's mine:

From The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Every Book Can Get Better: Getting to Know Your Protagonist

Putting Fire in Your Fiction, a craft session taught by Donald Maass, helped me reevaluate how I think about my characters.  This session focused on what makes fiction great and how we can apply that to our own novels.  Not surprisingly, it all comes down to building great characters, most especially your protagonist.

According to Maass, there are 3 basic types of protagonists: the Everyman, the Hero/Heroine and the Dark Protagonist.  I had heard similar categories mentioned in writing workshops so this concept was not entirely new to me.  What was new, however, was Maass' approach for getting to know your protagonist, depending on the category.

The obvious thing would be to figure out who the character is, right?  Actually, what Maass had us do in this session was the exact opposite.  For each category of protagonist, he had us look at who the character could be, not necessarily who the character is.

1) Everyman: Instead of focusing on how "normal" or ordinary this character is, try to figure out what makes this character inspiring.
2) Hero/Heroine: Sure, this character is extraordinary... maybe even superhuman, but what makes him or her human? 
3) Dark Protagonist: This character is wounded/lost/condemned to suffer but how can he or she find hope?

We've all heard writing teachers tell us that our protagonist needs to change, but rarely do they ever tell us how.  Maass' lecture taught me that character development comes down to one simple principle: whatever category your protagonist falls into, the challenge is to make the reader realize that the character could be something that's the flip-side of who the character actually is.  In other words, the ordinary character needs to have the potential to do something extraordinary, the superhuman character must become at least a little bit human and the condemned character must discover a glimmer of hope.

But wait, it gets better.  Instead of making us think only about our characters, Maass showed us how to get to know our characters by drawing from our own experiences.  He had a whole series of questions he asked us to answer about ourselves and our experiences depending on what category our protagonist fell into.  Essentially, the question lists came down to this:
  • For the Everyman think of someone who inspires you.  Try to tease apart what it is that makes that person inspiring and they give that trait to your protagonist (even if it's just a small slice of that trait).
  • For the Hero/Heroine make note of ways in which you are fallible and human.  Try to give some of that to your protagonist.
  • For the Dark Protagonist consider ways you can feel compassion for that character.  How can he or she find redemption?
Sometimes it's scary when our characters turn around and do the opposite of what we want them to do.  I know when that happens to me, it seriously makes me question my sanity.  But the truth is, when our characters misbehave or surprise us, that's when we know that they're becoming real.

Update: for more on Donald Maass' session Putting Fire in Your Fiction, check out this post at All About Them Words.  In her post, Ghenet shares some tips from Maass on how you can draw on your experiences to make flat scenes come to life.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Agent Panel: Quit Obsessing

Every time I go to one of these "How to Get an Agent" panel discussions, I always end up feeling a bit like this:

The experience is often a bit like that child psychology class I took in college where I got a whole semester of "101 ways you WILL ruin your child's life before it's even born."  The only difference here is that instead of ruining your child's life, you're destroying your book before it's even published.

But it doesn't have to be that way.

The agent panel at the Writer's Digest Conference taught me that finding an agent boils down to 3 principles:
  • Do Your Homework
  • Don't Be Stupid
  • Quit Obsessing
Here are a few priceless gems I learned from that panel discussion.  (By the way, the amazing agents on this panel were: Janet Reid, Donald Maass, Jud Laghi, Mary Kole and Chuck Sambuchino as moderator.)  Now for the pearls of wisdom.

Do Your Homework.  This includes obvious things like researching the agents before querying or knowing the word count parameters for your genre or target age group.  It also means finishing the book before you query (for fiction and memoir) and sending material to the agent the way he or she wants to get it (i.e. don't snail mail if he asks for email, don't send an attachment if he prefers pages in the email text).

Don't Be Stupid.  There are no-brainers like: "don't send naked pictures with your query" (do people actually do that?) and "don't make claims about your internet presence if you don't have the numbers to back it up" (i.e. don't lie).  But some mistakes they mentioned were also more subtle.  For example: if you have an editor at a publishing house who's already looking at your work, let the agent know.

Notice how there is a significant correlation between this principle and the previous one.  In short, if you do your homework and use common sense you will seriously cut down your chances of doing something incredibly stupid.  And that's a good thing.

Quit Obsessing.  This was probably the principle that most made an impression on me.  A few examples:
  1. Of course you want to know what the word count parameters are for your genre but don't obsess if your book lies a little outside the limits.  As Donald Maass put it: "When a book is powerful, I never hear editors comment about length."
  2. It's a good idea to have your book professionally edited, but that doesn't mean you have to shell out a gazillion dollars to do it.  A couple of insightful beta-readers can be just as professional.
  3. Don't apologize for not having credentials.  Most authors have had one book that came before they had "credentials."  It's called a first book.
  4. As for genre, you worry about all those fancy marketing terms like "commercial women's fiction" (stuff for women that sells) but in the end, it's about figuring out where your book will find a home in the book store.  And in the words of Donald Maass: "Genre is a 20th century concept."  Considering how book retail is changing, I think he may have a point.  In other words, don't panic if your book falls outside the genre pigeonholes.
    In the end, these three principles of querying are just a tiny slice of the pie, because what really matters is the writing.  As Janet Reid said: "Write beautifully and send the query."

    I don't know about you, but that makes me feel a lot better.

    Monday, January 24, 2011

    How Reading Can Change the World

    OK, we've already established that reading is awesome, but imagine my surprise when I went to the Writer's Digest Conference and the most inspiring talk of all was not actually about writing.  It was about reading.

    Richard Nash, who gave the lunch keynote speech on Saturday, gave a fascinating talk about how writers have to be readers, how reading and writing are the opposite sides of the same interaction.  All I have to say is: OMG did he read my mind?  This is exactly the sort of stuff I've been obsessing over for the last few weeks.  In fact, after hearing Richard Nash speak, I am completely convinced that reading can, in fact, change the world.

    A few weeks ago, I posed the following statements for discussion.
    Writing is the ultimate form of manipulation.
    Reading is the supreme act of defiance.
    Some of you got the writing part of the equation right away.  When we write, we can control the words and how we express them to guide the reader in whatever direction we choose.  Writing--if you really think about it--is no more than a few inky scribbles on a page.  Lines and dots.  But if we're strategic in how we use those lines and dots, we can actually put ideas into our reader's head.  We can direct and manipulate what our reader imagines and how our reader responds.  Richard Nash had a great analogy for this concept in his keynote: "Our words are hours that we can take up inside someone's head."

    I don't know about you, but I think that's a powerful thing (and not a privilege to be taken lightly).

    But what about the reading part?  How can reading be an act of defiance?  I addressed this when I talked about types of readers last week.  Some people might read to get the information or to figure what the author's trying to say, and that's fine.  But the moment you realize that everything the writer's doing with his words is essentially an act of manipulation--a way of taking up real estate inside your brain--then you can start reading like a revolutionary.  All it takes is awareness, knowing that the writer's doing some slight of hand tricks and is trying to direct your mind this way or that.  Once you're aware of this, you can step back and decide if you actually want to be directed.  And once you do that, you've become a rebel.  You're fighting the machine.  You're Reading.

    And how, exactly, can Reading change the world?  That's easy.  One of the biggest problems I see with the world is that everyone out there is trying to be a writer.  Everyone's got an agenda; they're trying to use their words and take up mental real estate and get people to listen to what they have to say.  The problem is, very few people out there put effort into Reading-with-a-capital-R.

    I totally get why that happens, though.  Reading like that can be exhausting, sort of like watching a magic show and constantly trying to figure out how the magician pulled off the last trick. Our world is so saturated with information that it would be impossible to read like a revolutionary all the time.  We'd all lose our minds.  The trouble is, a lot of people have stopped Reading all together.  They just accept the information they see at face value and move on to the next thing.  I call this voluntary illiteracy.

    In the end, Nash's speech came down to one important point: "Writing and reading are behaviors.  Most people do both."  I agree completely and would add only one thing:  To change the world, we need to do both but do them responsibly.

    I thank you all for the privilege of letting me take up a small slice of your mental real estate.  Now go out there and do something amazing with your words.

    Sunday, January 23, 2011

    Sharing the Awesome: Writer's Digest Conference 2011

    Hello friends of iggi!  How I missed you and your smiling bloggy faces while I was at the Writer's Digest Conference.  It was such a great weekend though and I had oodles of fun.  I met lots of amazing people and learned tons and tons.

    Oooh, and guess what...  I've brought back prezzies!

    There was so much awesome stuff to learn at this conference and I want to share it all with you.  After all, what's the fun of having something awesome if you can't share it with your friends, right?

    The bad news is, I can't give you exact transcripts of all the sessions I saw.  First off, I didn't manage to take notes on every last detail of awesome because I can't write that fast, so I only wrote down the really good stuff.  And secondly , I'm not sure it's actually legal or good-sportsman-like for me to transcribe those sessions anyway.  (And lawyer-hubby reads this blog, so I gotta stay on the nice side of legal.)

    But the good news is, I can give you the really super bits of awesome.  And when it comes to the other stuff... really, do you want to hear the boring parts?  Didn't think so.

    What does this mean for the iggiLand?  For the next whatever-many days, I'll be doing recaps of all the super-amazing tools, tricks and ideas I picked up at the conference.  This means I'll be breaking out of my usually-scheduled post topics, but I have a hunch you'll forgive me.

    Here's a preview of what's in store:
    • How Reading Can Change the World
    • Agent Panel: Quit Obsessing
    • Every Book Can Get Better
    • Writing Conferences: Don't Be "That Guy"
    • Two Words about Social Media: Don't Panic
    • How to Survive the Revision Process
    • Blogging 101
    • Writing: We Are All in This Together

    In the meantime, you can find more awesome at the Writer's Digest live conference blog.  Oh, and if you were at the conference and you couldn't see a session because it conflicted with another one, you can always check out the live conference blog to see the ones you missed.  (I know I'm going to...)

    And on twitter, check out the #wdc11 hash tag for conference-related tweets.

    Oh, and if you were at the conference and are doing recap posts on your blog, feel free to leave the link in the comments so we can all share the awesome with you!

    Now, here's a round of iggi-tinis for all.

    Thursday, January 20, 2011

    The Portacle

    As of last weekend, our house has been slowly disappearing into boxes all around us.  We still have another three weeks until we move, but because I'll be busy with conferences the next few weekends, we've had to get a jump start on the packing.  Perhaps the hardest part about the move has been parting with all my writing books/supplies/knick-knacks (even if just for a few weeks).  This is where the Portacle comes in.

    Portacle = Portable + ORACLE.

    As some of you may recall, the ORACLE (along with my special writing space) is where I keep my miscellaneous writing ideas, prompts and exercises.  But alas, my beautiful workspace and containers of treasure are slowly disappearing into boxes and I've had to ask the tough question: which parts of my workspace can I absolutely NOT live without for the next three weeks?

    Here's my list:

    For Writing
    • Journal (unlined)
    • Stickers
    • mini Image File (a couple of postcards tucked into the journal)
    • Who/What/When/Where/Why/How question cards
    • Small velvet drawstring baggie containing dice, worry stone and beaded charm
    For Reading
    • Kindle
    • Amazon gift card (Christmas gift - to be used only in literary emergencies... like if I run out of things to read between now and February)
    • The Iliad (Fagles translation) for some light reading or to cure insomnia, not sure which
    For Teaching
    • The Art of the Short Story (the textbook for the class I'm teaching)
    • Strunk & White (duh)
    • Ordinary Genius by Kim Addonizio
    • Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose
    • Good Poems by Garrison Keillor
    • Two books on craft (one poetry, one fiction)
    • Graphic Novel version of Pride and Prejudice (because I can't survive without at least one version of my favorite book)
    I can't tell you how much it has pained me to store away my books.  On Writing (Stephen King).  Writing Down the Bones (Natalie Goldberg).  Bird by Bird (Anne Lamott).  I mean, it's almost like taking your friends and squashing them into boxes.  It'll be three whole weeks (or longer) before I see any of their shiny, smiling covers again.

    But hubby put his foot down and said I had to pack the books.  Either that, or the movers wouldn't take them and I was going to have to move the books to the new place all by myself.  (I hate it when he makes sense and sounds reasonable.)

    Still.  All these empty bookshelves make me feel so darn lonely.

    Guess what I'm unpacking first when we get there!  :)

    Wednesday, January 19, 2011

    Let's Talk Tense

    Last week we talked about Point of View so I thought this week it would make sense to talk about verb tense and how that affects the viewpoint choices we make.  The choices are pretty simple and there are only 2: past and present.  (Yes, there's also future tense, but, really, have you ever seen an entire short story or novel written only in future tense?  If you have, please post in the comments and you will make my day.)

    When it comes to tense in fiction writing, there's one essential "rule" to remember: be consistent.  If you decide you want to write in present tense, stay in the present.  If you choose the past tense, stay in the past.

    But how do you choose the verb tense to begin with?  The best way is to understand the benefits and limitations of both, then decide which one serves your story best.  Here's a little cheat sheet to help you choose.

    Present Tense
    • Immediacy - You feel like you're right there with the main character.
    • Suspense -  This is especially important if your story is one where the POV character is in peril.  If the story is in present tense, the reader won't know until the end if the POV character survives.
    • It Can Sound a Little Unnatural - Let's face it, present tense is relatively new in the world of fiction writing.  Our ears are more used to hearing stories told in past tense (e.g. "Once upon a time there was a...")  This is not to say that all present tense sounds weird, but for some writers, it may not come as naturally and could end up sounding hokey or gimmicky.  The trick here is practice, practice, practice.
    Past Tense
    • Distance - The narrator has more distance from the events in the story it because they happened in the past.  This gives the narrator some perspective about those events and allows the narrator to have some hindsight.
    • Location in Time - Using the past tense, you also need to consider where the narrator is telling the story from.  (This is especially important if you're using 1st person.)  Is the narrator an old man looking back on his early life?  Is she telling the story just after having lived it?  Depending on where the narrator is NOW, it can effect how he or she tells the story.
    • Less Suspense - If you're writing in 1st person or 3rd person limited and it's past tense, the implication is that the POV character has lived to tell the tale.  In most stories, this is probably not a problem and won't kill much of your suspense, but if your novel is all about whether or not the POV character survives, then past tense could lessen the suspense.
    Choose wisely.  Be consistent.  And don't tear the fabric of the space-time continuum.

    Tuesday, January 18, 2011

    Gabi's Sooper Seekrit Method for Writing a First Draft

    Step 1: Wake up at 3:42AM with an idea.  Decide not to write it down because your notebook is in the other room and if you go get it, you'll be too awake to fall asleep again and then you'll have insomnia.  Convince yourself that it's OK to go back to sleep without writing the idea down because you'll remember it in the morning.

    Step 2: Don't remember it in the morning.  Remember just enough to know that you lost a superbly awesome idea.  Beat your head against the wall.

    Step 3: Never fear.  Said idea will come back to you at another, even more inopportune moment, like in the shower.  This time you'll be ready with a notebook.  Write it down.

    Step 4: Spend precisely 12.667 days obsessing over how awesome said idea is and how you can't wait to write it.  (Number of days may vary depending on the awesomeness quotient of the idea.)

    Step 5: Sit down in a frenzy and write exactly 613 words (give or take), exploring said idea.  Read it over.  Decide that you're the worst writer ever and you'll never be able to capture such an awesome idea on paper.  Beat your head against the wall.  Again.

    Step 6: Read a novel or two, or twelve.  Obsess about how amazing those books are and how unbelievably sucky your writing is and how you might as well do something else with your life, like collecting rare edible fungi.

    Step 7: Have a good cry.

    Step 8: Read what you wrote again and find one moment, one turn of phrase that's not completely awful.  Decide you're not utterly hopeless (just 99% hopeless).  Try again.

    Step 9: Fall in love with a character.  Start seeing the world through her eyes and realize you kind of like living in her head.  Decide you'll stay a while.

    Step 10: Stop obsessing about the idea and start obsessing about your character.  Make long character bios for her and all her family and friends (even if her family and friends have nothing to do with the story in the first place).  Write outlines, mind maps, charts, whatever it takes to keep your ideas straight.  Sleep with your notebook under your pillow.

    Step 11: Practice some stealth writing.  Hide in a dark corner of a coffee shop and write.  Jot down ideas while riding the subway.  Talk to yourself.  Listen to the voices in your head.  Write down everything and don't look back.

    Step 12: Repeat Step 11 and keep moving forward until you get to the end of the story.  When you hit a wall, remind yourself why you fell in love with this character and this story in the first place.  When all else fails, ask your muse to send you strength to carry on.

    Step 13: Carry on.

    This post is part of the "What's Your Process?" Blogfest, hosted by Shallee McArthur.

    Monday, January 17, 2011

    Reading as an Act of Defiance

    There's a lot of research out there on reading and how people learn to read.  Scientists use fancy terms like "sub-lexical" and "phonemic awareness" to talk about how readers give meaning to and make sense of the little black squiggles on a page.  Essentially the research boils down to this:

    Readers start out "learning to read."
    Eventually they shift gears into "reading to learn."

    Scientists use their big scientific words to explain the whole "learning to read" part, but what happens when readers get to the "reading to learn" stage?  Is that all there is?  Is that as good as it gets?

    I don't think so.

    The way I see it, there are lots of different ways you can "read to learn" and it all depends on what you want to get out of the thing you're reading.  Here's my take on the stages of reading that happen once you're "reading to learn."

    The Collector:  This reader collects clues and information from the text.  She reads with a pen in one hand and a highlighter in the other.  She underlines a lot.  She makes careful notes in the margin and copious outlines.  For her, language is a means to an end; it is simply a way for a book to convey valuable information.  Boring textbooks tend to bring out the Collector-Reader in many of us, mostly because underlining helps keep us awake.

    The Interpreter:  This reader is constantly asking "what does it mean?"  He wants to know exactly what the author was trying to say with each phrase, each sentence.  This quest becomes all the more urgent if the author is no longer alive and therefore cannot be asked directly.  The interpreter believes in the infallibility of literature: that if Shakespeare put a comma in that precise spot he must have done it on purpose and therefore it has to mean something.  Just as Freud believed there are no accidents in life and all actions stem from a deeper meaning, the Interpreter-Reader is certain that there are no accidents in literature and if the author wrote it that way, then there has to be a reason.

    The Revolutionary:  This reader doesn't worry about what it all means, because to her it doesn't matter.  Meaning is relative.  Instead, when she reads something, she wonders "how did the author do that?"  What's the author's agenda and what slight-of-hand tricks is he using to pull it off?  Writers are almost always in this category because they know that when authors write something, they're just trying to get a reaction or response from the reader.  Writers know this because they do it all the time themselves.

    The Revolutionary realizes that by putting words on a page, the author is trying to shape the reader's interpretation of those words.  Whenever an author chooses one word over another and puts that word down on the page, he is making a decision that will shape or manipulate the reader's response.  The moment a reader recognizes that this is happening, he or she can decide whether or not they will allow themselves to be manipulated.  It's just like realizing that televised news broadcasts are not objective, but have specific agendas; once you recognize that, you can see past it and look for the actual information.

    More importantly, though, writers know that when look under the hood to figure out how a piece of writing works, you're not too far from learning to build an engine from scratch.  After all, the moment you ask: "how did the author do that?" you're just a half-breath away from asking: "how can I do it?"  And that's what writing's all about.

    Saturday, January 15, 2011

    Why I Read

    This past December, a new hashtag took twitter by storm.  The concept is simple, people just state the reason why they read and add #whyiread, all in 140 characters or fewer.  Check it out!  It can be quite inspiring.

    As for why I read, there are almost too many reasons to list.  Here are the most important ones:

    1)  Words are delicious.  No matter what mood you're in, there's always something you can read that suits perfectly.  In the mood for something dark and decadent?  Try a Gothic romance.  Or what about a light, fluffy souffle made of humor essays?  Yum.  Oh and guess what?  No calories!

    2)  Hours of entertainment.  A paperback costs about as much as a movie ticket (at least that's the case in NYC), yet a book can give me many more hours of entertainment than I can get at a movie.  And if you like the movie and want to see it again, you have to buy another ticket.  Not so with a book.

    3)  Travel the world from the comfort of your couch.  You start with airfare and hotel-stays.  Throw in all the hassles--airport security, the airline loses your luggage, your flight gets re-routed because of a snow storm--and before you know it, you need a vacation from your vacation.

    4)  Let's Pretend.  This is my favorite reason, by far.  When I read a book, I can be inside a character's mind.  For a brief few hours, I'm transported to a different world and I become a different person.  I can try out different lives that I'd never be in real life.

    What about you?  Why do you read?

    Friday, January 14, 2011

    Sooper Seekrit Fridays!

    So it turns out that the collaborative project for Fridays is not ready to be unveiled just yet.  All I can say is that it's going to be super-awesome!  Anyway, I'm excited and sad that I can't tell you all about it today, but never fear.  All will be revealed soon enough.

    In the meantime, have a kitteh.  Or two.  Or more.

    (Courtesy of

    Thursday, January 13, 2011

    Dice Games for Writers

    As a writer, I have found that one of the most versatile (and portable) sources of writing prompts is a set of dice.  There are many writing games you can play with a die and they can help bust through writing blocks.  Here are a few games that work for me.

    Writing by Numbers
    Roll the die and multiply the number by 10.  That is the number of minutes you have to write.  Do not stop writing.  Keep your hand moving.  If you find yourself getting distracted, bring yourself back and keep writing.  Subject doesn't matter; what's important is that you're writing.  You can do a similar exercise where the number on the die indicates the number of pages you need to fill in your writing session. 

    Tip: Writing by hand often helps kill the inner critic.  After all, it's OK to be messy while scribbling in a journal.

    6 Questions
    Roll the die.

    1=Who?   2=What?   3=When?   4=Where?  5=Why?   6=How?

    Use the question to investigate a character from a current project.  Push the question as far as it will go.  For example, if you rolled 1, you might ask "Who is this character?"  "Who is he at the core?"  "Who is he to his friends?"  "His enemies?"

    Point of View
    Roll the die to determine which POV to write in.

    1 = 1st person
    2 = 2nd person
    3 = 3rd person limited
    4 = 3rd person multiple
    5 = omniscient
    6 = wild card*

    *For wild card, choose any other point of view not listed above.  If you're not sure what the options are, you can find more info on POV in this post.

    Roll the die again.
    odd # = present tense
    even # = past tense

    Why Dice Games?
    There's something freeing about leaving some element of one's writing up to chance.  It's as though all the responsibility is no longer just in the writer's hands.  By making your writing time into a game of chance, it can help strip away some of the anxiety or perfectionism which often haunts many writers.

    Wednesday, January 12, 2011

    Point of View: A Cheat Sheet

    When starting a new project, one of the big decisions you have to make is which point of view (POV) you're going to use.  Here's a cheat sheet to help you choose.

    First person is when the narrator is a character in the story.

    First Person
    This is when the main character is the person telling the story.  In other words, this is the "I" narrator.  Examples: Holden from Catcher in the Rye or Katniss from The Hunger Games.

    First Person Peripheral
    This is when the narrator is a supporting character in the story, not the main character.  This is still the "I" narrator, but now the narrator is not the protagonist.  Example: Nick from The Great Gatsby (Gatsby is the protagonist).

    Third person is when the narrator is NOT a character in the story.

    Third Person Limited
    Third person is the "he/she/it" narrator.  Limited means that the POV is limited to just one character.  This means that the narrator only knows what that character knows, only sees what that character sees.  Examples: A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens (where the story follows Scrooge at all times--even scenes that Scrooge would not be privy too we see through his eyes as he travels with the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future).  The Book of Three (first book of the Prydain Chronicles) where the narrator follows the protagonist Taran.

    Third Person Multiple
    Again, we're in the "he/she/it" category, but now the narrator can follow multiple characters in the story.  The challenge with this POV is making sure your reader knows when you're switching from one character to another.  A good way to make the switch is to use chapter breaks or section breaks to signal a new POV.  Example: The High King (which is the final book of the Prydain Chronicles) where the narrator follows several characters in the story, including Taran.

    Third Person Omniscient
    This one still uses a "he/she/it" narration but now the narrator knows EVERYTHING in the story.  The narrator isn't limited by what the POV character knows.  It's sort of like the narrator is god, hence the term "omniscient."  This type of POV was very popular back in the day but has recently become less popular (some people feel like it's a little old-fashioned).  Still, some excellent books use this narrator.  Examples: Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens, and Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen.

    Third Person Objective
    Just like the omniscient narrator can get into any character's head, the objective narrator gets into NO ONE's mind.  This means the objective narrator can only relate information that is easily visible (character's words and actions).  This narrator can't tell us about the character's thoughts or feelings because it doesn't know.  It's kind of like watching a movie, where the only information you get is what you can see or hear.  This POV is very tough to sustain for long pieces which is why the only example I can find is a short story: Raymond Carver's Little Things.

    Other POV Choices

    Second Person
    This is the "you" narrator.  "You go to the store and realize you forgot your wallet... etc."  Like objective POV, the second person is hard to sustain so there are very few novels written in second person.  This POV is more popular for short stories.  In fact, the first story I ever published is in the second person (which is weird because I think it's the only story I've ever done in second person).  Anyway, if you're curious, it's here.

    Unreliable First Person
    This is when you have a first person narrator but you can't trust him/her for any number of reasons. Maybe the character is a very young child who doesn't really understand what's happening in the story.  Or perhaps the character is insane.  Or better yet, the character could be perfectly sane but also a pathological liar so you can't believe what she says.  Example:  The Tell-tale Heart by Edgar Allen Poe.

    Epistolary (or other) Form
    Epistolary is when the story is told in letters.  There are many forms that work similarly to epistolary forms, like journal form or a story told through emails, etc.  Mostly these forms work like the first person because the main character in the story is often the one writing the letters/journal/etc.  The difference is that the story is limited even further because of the form.  For example, people don't usually write dialogue in their letters, so if you want to use dialogue in epistolary form, you'll have to find a way around that.

    In the end, POV is all about consistency.  Whatever form you decide on, it's important to let the reader know what the "rules" are for your story and then stick to them.

    Edit: Added and corrected a few examples.

    Tuesday, January 11, 2011

    Getting Ready for a Conference

    In three short weeks, I'll be at the first of the two conferences I'm attending in January.  I've been to several of these in the past, but each time I still get frazzled.  I have this paranoia that I'll forget to bring something super-important and it will lead to some massive catastrophe and I'll never get published.  Never.  Ever.  Ever.

    OK, this analogy might be a bit of a stretch, but bear with me.  Navigating a conference is sort of like knowing your table-manners.  Suppose you're going on a date with the person of your dreams to some fancy-schmancy restaurant.  Do you really want to spend the entire time thinking about whether you're using the right fork for the salad?  If you're worrying about not embarrassing yourself with the silverware, then you're not thinking about the really important thing: "is this person right for me?"

    The secret of success is to figure out which one's the salad fork beforehand.  In fact, if you know this stuff so well that it comes naturally to you, your mind will be freed up so you can think about the important things like when's the best time to go for your first kiss.

    For writers, conferences are the ultimate dinner date, only instead of figuring out which fork to use or whether you should kiss this person, you're stuck thinking about query etiquette or whether you should pitch your book to an agent in the bathroom (which, by the way, you shouldn't).

    What to Bring 

    In Portuguese, there's a saying that roughly translates as "You don't want to show up with your hands flapping."  This means when you go to someone's house for dinner, you need to bring something.   When going to conferences, the same rule applies.  Only here, instead of flowers or chocolates, you'll want to bring along the following items:
    • Business cards:  If you don't have business cards professionally made, you can print some up on your home printer and cut them with an Xacto blade and ruler (not scissors... please, not scissors).
    • Notebook:  You'll want to write down notes, contact info from participating agents/editors, submission guidelines and lots more.  Besides, you're a writer so you probably don't go anywhere without your trusty notebook anyway.
    • Layers:  You never know if the conference rooms will feel like a sauna or frozen wasteland.  What I can tell you is they won't be a balmy 72 degrees.  If you wear layers, you'll be ready for anything.
    • Tote bag or large purse:  At lots of these conferences, they have a bookstore where you can purchase books written by the speakers.  Oftentimes there will be opportunity to get these books sighed after the talks or at the end of the conference.  If you're like me and can't resist getting a signed book, you'll want some convenient way to carry all your loot home.
    Know Your Manners

    As with any situation, you need to come prepared with knowledge of the proper etiquette.  Rather than make a long list here, I thought it would be better to refer you to the advice from a couple of agents themselves.
    Remember, the more preparation you do beforehand, the more you'll be able to relax and enjoy the conference when you're actually there.

    Monday, January 10, 2011

    Reading in the New Year

    picture credit
    I've been thinking a lot about reading lately.  Why is literature important?  Why do we read it?  In the face of all these new media for getting information, why do we read at all?  Can literacy change the world?

    As a continuation of September's DIY MFA project, I would like to dedicate Mondays to all things reading-related.  Some things I'd like to talk about is the purpose that fiction and literature serve in our society.  I also want to discuss the close relationship between reading and writing and why you can't do one without engaging in the other on some level.  Most importantly, I want to look at how we can learn to think beyond the page.

    Story-telling--which is basically reading and writing at the purest level--is a unifying part of the human condition. Think about it, despite cultural or racial differences, people all over the world have engaged in story-telling for the past thousands of years.  That we know of, no other species on the planet engages in story-telling the way people do.  Sure, birds might communicate by flashing their feathers and whales might call to each other.  Chimpanzees might even learn basic sign language, but none of this is the same as story-telling, which humans have been doing since cavemen painted on walls.

    I know.  Heavy stuff, right?  Before I sign-off for the day, I'll leave you with the following:
     Writing is the ultimate form of manipulation.  Reading is the supreme act of defiance.
    Agree or disagree?

    Saturday, January 8, 2011

    DIY MFA: We're Ba-ack...

    It's January and the new semester is starting soon.  That said, iggi and I have decided to bring back DIY MFA, to help you all get your writing resolutions under way!  (New to the blog or not sure what DIY MFA is?  Just check the iggi U tab at the top of the page to learn all about it.)

    We're making a few tiny changes.  There's still TONS I could say about literature, craft, and creativity, so I will continue posting articles on those topics.  Since community and the workshop are more about going out and actually experiencing these things, there's only so much I can tell you before you have to jump in and try it for yourself.  I won't be posting as regularly on these two subjects, but will bring them back when something important or relevant comes up.  Also since my passion is writing Middle Grade and Teen literature, I'll be doing more posts specifically targeting that genre.

    So, what does this mean for DIY MFA?

    Monday:  Love of Literature  (i.e. Everything reading-related.)
    Tuesday:  Wild Card day 
    Wednesday:  Craftivity  (i.e. All about the craft of writing.)
    Thursday:  Brain Boot Camp (i.e. Tips about creativity, writing prompts, ideas for exercises.  Basically, everything you need to exercise your writing brain.)
    Friday:  This one's going to be a collaborative project and I plan to unveil it this coming Friday.

    What do you have to do to be part of the fun?  Just read the topics you want to follow and comment if you feel like it.  Also, please sign up to be part of the iggi&gabi email list!  You won't get spam and you'll be in the loop if DIY MFA news comes up.  In September, I contacted readers on the list to ask for volunteers to guest post or help out with the DIY MFA community.

    Friday, January 7, 2011

    Conferences Coming Up

    This month is my big conference month.  For the last two weekends of January I'll be attending both the Writer's Digest Conference and the SCBWI Winter Conference in NYC.  Check these links for more info on these two weekends of writerly bliss:

     Writer's Digest Conference
     January 21-23

    SCBWI Winter Conference
    January 28-30

    I love conferences and I wish I could go to a couple every month of the year but that would break the piggy-bank and seriously cut into writing time.  So instead, I have to make the most of the ones I actually can attend, and that means meeting other awesome writers in person.  (Which is probably my favorite thing in the entire universe!)

    But there's a problem: I'm shy.  Especially when it comes to talking to new people.  I get all excited to meet other writers and then I go to these conferences and I get all nervous.  So I just sit there and stare at my notebook.  Alone.  All alone.  Either that or I go with a friend or two and only talk to them because I'm too shy to branch out.

    But not this year.  I've decided I will meet new people and talk to other aspiring authors.  That's where you all come in.  Are you going to one of these conferences?

     If so, let me know in the comments and we can try to meet up!  Or just find me when you get there.  Trust me, you'll know it when you see me.  I'll be the girl with her face buried in her notebook secretly praying someone will talk to her.  And since iggi insists on attending these conferences as well, I'll be toting my ever-so-stylin' iggi bag with these little guys printed on it:

    Thursday, January 6, 2011

    Starting Fresh!

    Hello friends!  Hope you all had a marvelous New Year.  I know it's been quiet around here.  Sorry to leave you all in the lurch!  I meant to start posting again on Monday but I was struck down by a new year flu (blech) for a few days, but now I'm back to normal and ready to start posting again.

    Everyone and their mother is posting about writing resolutions, but I thought I'd do something a little different.  First off, I'm not sure I want to share all my goals and resolutions (mostly because I'm bound to have a #gabifail or two so this way I save myself the humiliation of having to admit it in public.)  But more importantly, I think resolutions aren't just about setting goals and striving for them, but about a change in attitude and outlook.  Instead I've come up with a 2011 plan.

    Picture Credit

    2 Manageable Goals: 
    • First, I'm doing the 100+ reading challenge for 2011 and I'll be posting the books I read here.
    • Second, this year I will finish the edits on my WIP.

    0 Comparisons:  I'll admit it, I can't help but compare myself to the people around me.  I try not to--I really do--but it's almost like a reflex and I can't help it.  The college bulletin arrives in the mail and I always feel super-inferior because I haven't discovered a cure for cancer, I haven't finished a triathlon in record time, and I haven't sold my start-up company for billions of dollars.

    But then I started thinking... even if I knew how to do all these things, it's not like I would actually want to.  Don't get me wrong.  I'm very glad there are people out there coming up with cures for cancer, performing amazing physical feats like a triathlon or building start-up companies that give other people good jobs.  I'm glad these things are happening in the world.

    And I'm also glad that I don't have to be the one to do it.

    This year, rather than letting these things get me down, I've decided I will not run away from the college bulletin.  I will not pathologically avoid Facebook.  When I see someone accomplish something great, I'll send happy "Thank You" vibes to that person for doing it because it means I don't have to.  And that means more time for writing.

    1 New Approach to Creativity:  This video is super-inspiring!  It's a bit on the long side but it's SOOOOO worth it.  It's totally changed my attitude toward the idea of genius and creative success.

    1 Quote:
    "The core skill of innovators is error recovery, not failure avoidance."
             ~ Randy Nelson, Pixar

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