Monday, June 27, 2011

Always the Bridesmaid

A few months ago, I began another writing contest journey.  This contest, for young adult novels, consisted of three rounds of competition. Round one was the qualifier.  Round two was the semi finals and round three was the finals.  While I successfully made it to the finals, I’m sure you can tell by the title of this blog that I wasn’t the winner.

To be honest, I’m not surprised I didn’t win. In the last several years, I’ve entered a number of writing contests which I have yet to win. I should qualify that by saying my second novel, Extraordinary Will, was the 2009 Reader View’s Literary Award winner in the romantic fiction category.  That being said, I’m not sure literary awards and writing contests can be lumped into the same category, but I suppose that’s a matter of opinion. In my history of contest entries, I’ve had some close calls. I’ve made it through many layers of different contests, but I can’t quite seem to break that glass ceiling to be crowned the winner.

Whether or not contests actually help a writing career is again another subjective matter. Given that I don’t personally know any literary agents, I don’t know if these types of credentials are better than no credentials at all. I’m quite certain that without a good hook in the query letter, the credentials don’t make a lick of difference. What constitutes a good query letter is a discussion for another time, but I’m ashamed to admit I’ve turned out some terrible ones in my day.

When I send my books to reviewers, I include a brochure in my media kit listing all of my positive contest achievements. For fun, I thought I’d list them here, and yes this list includes my recent contest outcome: 2011 Finalist- The Gatekeeper Post Young Adult Novel Contest, 2010 Quarter Finalist-Amazon Breakthrough Novel Awards, 2009 Reader View’s Literary Award Winner, 2008 Semi-Finalist- Amazon Breakthrough Novel Awards and 2005 Writer’s Digest Award winner.

Is that an impressive looking list or what? Of course I’m kidding, but I do hope it sways agents and reviewers when considering my work. I also use this list of accomplishments to remind myself that I do have some measure of talent, which motivates me not to give up. This is particularly important on days like today when I’m reflecting on yet another contest loss.

Another contest has come and gone without a victory. Does it make me a bad writer? I think not or I wouldn’t have made it this far. I could chalk up to the old cliché: always the bridesmaid and never the bride. I don’t think I will though. I think I’ll add it to my growing list of accomplishments and be proud of what I’ve achieved thus far.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Literary Show and Tell

As promised in last week’s post, I want to spend a bit of time talking about how the term show and tell applies to writing.  If you recall, this came about as a result of my rereading the S.E. Hinton novel, The Outsiders, and finding it rife with instances of tell rather than show. This novel was penned when the author was just sixteen, which prompted me to recall how many contemporary young authors seek my advice and struggle with this very problem. Given that I like to help people succeed where I’ve failed, and to do so in the easiest manner possible, I felt compelled to break down what it means to show readers as opposed to tell readers what you want them to know.

Before I go any further, I think it’s only fair to say I too have made the mistake of telling and not showing my readers what’s happening in my stories. Some of these mistakes I’ve shared in prior posts, including my recently diagnosed (and now in remission) addiction to adverbs.

Adverbs are those pesky words that end in the letters ly. Most often, these are used to describe a character’s dialogue. The writer wants to convey anger, sarcasm, fear, disgust, etc and falls back on one of these words.  It goes a little something like this: ‘I can’t stand you’, Mary said angrily. ‘You’re no walk in the park,’ John responded disgustedly. And so on and so forth. For some reason, writers believe the harsh words won’t stand on their own to convey the heated nature of the scene so they fall back on these adverbs. I too was one of those writers. However, since having it pointed out by a diligent editor, I’ve made an effort to cut them back and use them only in moderation. There are occasions when an adverb or two is called for, but their use should be sparing. By using adverbs, writers are telling the readers instead of showing them.

So, how does a writer show a character’s emotions without using adverbs? I often ask young writers how I would know their characters were angry, sad, frightened, etc, if they weren’t allowed to use an adverb to tell me. Many are stumped as to how to answer so I ask a few more probing questions. Let’s use anger as an example. How do I know a character is speaking angrily without the author telling me that’s what she did? Did her face redden? Did she speak through clenched teeth? Did she roll her eyes? Did she ball up her fists, raise her voice, stomp around the room, throw something… Get my drift? Writers need to use their descriptive abilities and describe the emotions and actions as opposed to falling back on those adverbs.

Speaking of descriptions, I often find character descriptions gone awry. By that, I mean authors once again tell the readers what a character looks like. I know what you’re thinking. How else will readers know what characters look like if the writers don’t tell them? There are ways to show readers what your characters look like that don’t consist of the following: John was six feet tall with blonde hair and blue eyes. This kind of description is dull and can be detrimental if John is the protagonist. When writers start off by telling me what their characters look like, I’ve already lost interest. Instead, I encourage writers to find another way to work in physical description. Instead of just telling us John is six feet tall in this straight forward way, say something like: John had to hunch over to fit his six foot frame in the door or John never could find inexpensive clothes that fit well, owing to the fact that he was six feet tall. There are all kinds of creative and clever ways authors can introduce character traits without boring the reader.

Some authors also tend to take the show and not tell advice a little too far. They’re so keen to show readers what they want them to see, that they end up doing it in a rather telling way. It happens like this: Mary entered the house and saw two blue couches facing each other. On the wall, she saw photographs of Tom’s ex-wife and felt angry. Then she looked at the coffee table and saw the photo album and saw the words Tom and Sue engraved on it in gold letters. Can you pick up the mistakes in the italicized section? There are a couple of them. The glaring mistake is the use of the words she saw to describe the setting. Many authors do this. I can only suppose it’s because they think readers won’t be able to otherwise know who’s seeing things, but they’re missing the boat. Authors need readers to identify with the protagonist and feel as though they could be him or her. Using words like she saw takes that away from readers. Not to mention, it disrupts the flow of the story and insults the readers’ intelligence. Consider the following passage: Mary entered the empty house. Photographs of Tom and his ex-wife lined the painted walls. A photo album entitled Tom and Sue sat atop the coffee table. Mary’s face heated up as she mashed her lips together. Why did Tom still have so many photos of Sue in his house when they’d been divorced almost ten years? Could he still be in love with her? I think you’ll agree the second passage did a much better job of setting the scene and portraying Mary’s emotions without weighing the story down. 

As I've said a few times, I've been guilty of many of these same mistakes. In fact, it pains me to admit but some of my early professional offerings, including my award winning novel Extraordinary Will, are chock full of these issues. Since the beginning of my career, both my writing and I have matured. In sharing this, I hope to spare many up and coming writers the agony of going straight to the slush pile. Can I guarantee following these rules leads to publication? Of course not, but it makes for better writing all the way around. 

Monday, June 13, 2011

Funny how things Change

From the moment I learned how, I’ve loved to read.  As a writer, I find this to be both a blessing a curse. Sometimes, when reading a particular story, I catch myself editing it in my mind. I’m sure you can imagine how difficult it makes reading, but that doesn’t stop me from reading when I can squeeze it in. I will confess since becoming a writer, I’ve made less time to read, but it’s a love that never goes away.

Not long ago, someone asked me what my favorite book from childhood was. Without hesitation, I replied it was The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton. Even from an early age, I knew I wanted to be a writer someday so I drew inspiration from the knowledge that she penned the novel at the age of sixteen.  Of course, I didn’t find that out until much later.

I stumbled across The Outsiders by accident.  My mother and I were thrift store shopping, something we did out of necessity. Thrift stores were and still are a great place to get good books at the best prices. Though I don’t recall the exact price my mom paid for the book, I’d be willing to bet it was less than one dollar. I’d also venture a guess that it was one of the first editions as the cover art used a myriad of psychedelic seventies colors. 

When I bought the book, I didn’t know anything about it or the author. The blurb on the back caught my attention so I bought it. After reading it, I was hooked from the first word and devoured it in short order. I then raved to my mom about what a great book it was and proceeded, much to her dismay I’m sure, to discuss all of the plot details. When I’d finally finished, my mother told me that sounded a lot like a movie she’d just taped on television the night before. Yes, I’m dating myself, but this was before the Tivo/DVR days. I was delighted when my mom popped the tape in the VCR and I discovered it was in fact a movie based on my beloved novel. There were some variations from the original story, as there are with most novels converted to screenplays, but I loved it.

As a freshman in high school, I found myself ahead of the class when my English teacher announced we’d be reading The Outsiders. Without even reading the book, I aced every quiz and test on the subject. And I was thrilled when we spent a few days watching it in class. I still loved the movie and the novel it was based on.

Suffice it to say somewhere between childhood and adulthood, I misplaced my copy of The Outsiders, but I never got over my love of the novel. First chance I got, I purchased a VHS copy of The Outsiders, but for some reason didn’t buy the book.  For my first Mother’s Day, my loving husband gave me the latest edition and wrote a very nice inscription on the inside back cover. After that, I set the novel aside. I didn’t lose it. Instead, it’s been sitting on my book shelf nestled safely between numerous other books waiting for the mood to strike that I’d want to read it.

In the meantime, that child has grown up to be a teenager and another child has been added to the bunch. Imagine how old I felt when my teenage daughter was reading The Outsiders in her eighth grade English class.  Not only was my daughter reading a book I’d read at her age, but it was required reading one year earlier in her generation. To say I was disappointed she didn’t share my love of the book was an understatement. I tried to get her to watch the movie with me, which I’d discovered was now on my on demand cable menu, and she suffered through less than half before bailing on me. Once again The Outsiders was set aside.

Not too long ago, I had the pleasure of stumbling across a DVD version of The Outsiders in the $5.99 sale bin at my local supermarket.  To be fair, it was actually my husband who discovered it and encouraged me to buy it.  When I got it home, I realized this wasn’t the same version I’d grown up watching. This version contained deleted scenes and was marketed as the novel version as it was a truer adaption of the book. Something old was new again, and after watching it, I had a longing to read the book.

I pulled the book from my shelf and have spent the last two weeks reading it while sitting on the sidelines of my younger daughter’s cheer practices.  I’m nearing the end of the book, and I have to say, it’s lost a bit of its luster. The writer in me sees things that make me cringe. The first thing to jump out at me was the overabundant use of adverbs. I’ll admit it. I used to be a writer who relied on phrases like ‘he said sarcastically’ or ‘she studied him doubtfully’. Thanks to an astute editor, I’ve learned the difference between show and not tell and use them as little as possible. Then there was the use of the phrase ‘what had happened’ as in ‘we wanted to know what had happened’. Many of us as writers, myself included at one point, don’t realize we’re using the words had and that when we don’t need them. It’s much better to say ‘we wanted to know what happened’. It reads better and sounds better and doesn’t litter the story. I also found Hinton’s physical description of each new character she introduced to be done in a boring, straightforward way. I see this same mistake in the work of many young writers I read today and will discuss in more detail next week.  

As much as it pains me to say it, I don’t think The Outsiders would’ve held up in today’s market if Hinton submitted it. I doubt it would’ve seen publication and suspect it would’ve ended up on the slush pile. In fact, I’ve seen and dare I say written far better that hasn’t made it past the editor’s assistant. As a young girl, I loved this novel, the movie and even the short lived television series it spawned. Bet you didn’t know that one! As an adult, I have fond memories of the novel and still like the movie but can’t say I love it.

Funny how things change.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Can You Say Vindication?

Today’s topic came to me quite unexpectedly.  I’d planned to write about something else, which I won’t mention in case I decide to do so at a later date. Given that I devoted quite a few of my previous posts to the existence and origin of signs, I thought it best not to ignore one dropped into my lap. This will make sense as we get further along.

Some time ago, I broached the topic of celebrities who venture into the literary world. The overall feel of the post was disdainful and resentful.  As a serious writer, I found it more than a little offensive that the likes of Snooki and Tyra Banks were trying their hands at fiction.  Being a good actor, model, recording artist, etc doesn’t automatically make for a good author. However, celebrities are usually bumped ahead of other aspiring writers who are no doubt more talented. Why? Celebrities come with a built in audience and require less of a marketing investment.  Let me again say, some celebrities are multi talented and can make good authors. Most are not. I felt that way then, and I still feel that way.

Well imagine my surprise to read an article on MSNBC in which a reporter, whose name escapes me, echoed my sentiments. Not only did he share my thoughts, but he even referenced my least favorite and overly hyped celebrity, Tyra Banks. He also threw in a few others I’d missed which included the likes of Hillary Duff and Lauren Conrad, both of whom wrote novels that climbed to the top of the New York Times Best Seller list. I’m sure you can imagine the expletives this incited from me.

Although this subject always gets my dander up, it wasn’t all ire and frustration the article evoked from me. As you’ve no doubt figured out based on the title of this blog, I felt vindicated. I’m not the only one in this industry who recognizes this disturbing trend. A fellow writer with a much larger audiences shares and gave voice to our concerns. Does this mean we can expect a decrease in the number of celebrities crossing over as authors?

Until the public takes a stand and refuses to validate their efforts by refusing to purchase their novels, celebrity writers are here to stay. Seeing as how that’s not likely to happen, it’s something I have to accept as one of those things I can’t do anything about. In the meantime, it’s good to know I’m not alone in my resentment of this practice. Can you say vindication?