Category Archives: Question of the Month

Happy New Year! What are your New Year resolutions?

Lose weight. Exercise more. Adopt a healthier diet. Drink more water.
You too? Do these top your list of New Year resolutions?

I know all about goals. When I worked in Corporate America, I had to set goals. Short-term goals, the one-year plan. Long-term goals, the five-year plan. I had to write them down and submit them to my supervisor signed as if I was pledging my life away. As a corporate robot I set goals, wrote them down and charted my way to success.

What worked in my corporate America world, doesn’t work so well in my Happy Writer World. I’ve been a writer long enough to know that in happy writer world the best laid plans often end up in the garbage. Rejection letters sting and waiting for agents and editors to return calls feels like a waste of time not to mention control. My goal might be to publish a book or a short story but the publishing world has other ideas. It all boils down to what can I do better. How can I make this story float above the slush pile?

Recently author Cheryl Strayed summed up precisely on Facebook how I feel about New Year goals and resolutions:
“Is there ever an end to the daily struggle to be a better person? I’m not asking this rhetorically. I’m wondering if there’s a time when you reach it, when you say “I can no longer think of any way to be a better person.” (Or maybe there are people who do not ponder every day how they can be a better person?) When I say “better person” I don’t mean that I constantly tell myself how awful I am but rather I’m very aware of the ways in which I could’ve done better as a friend, as a mom, as a spouse, as a sister, as a writer, as a woman with some serious aspirations for this thing called “balance” (ie: time for exercise, lounging, sex, thrift-store shopping, voracious reading). On a pretty much daily basis I think of how I’ve failed in many of these areas. It’s not a self-hate thing, but rather a deep desire I have to someday fall asleep thinking, “Well done, Strayed. You’ve got it down.” I’m reflecting on this as the first day of 2014 comes to an end here on the west coast of America. Not thinking “Well done, Strayed” but thinking instead, “Maybe next year. Maybe tomorrow. Keep going. Keep walking. Just try to do better in every action, intention, thought and deed.””

I once sat in on a lecture by writer William C. Anderson. When asked a question about “how to know when to quit editing” he said that he was so relieved when BAT-21 was finally published because he could finally stop changing things and move on to something else. He said nothing ever felt perfect, nothing ever felt “done.” Most writers I know strive for perfection when theoretically we know there is no perfect, only better.

I’m struggling with these issues today as I think about what I want to accomplish in 2014. How can I write better? What can I do to propel my work forward? How can I achieve balance in this less than perfect world?

For me the answer is simple. Begin each day with optimism knowing I’m doing the best I can. Dig in knowing there will be ups and downs and some days will be better than others.

C. S. Lewis said, “ You are never too old to set another goal or to dream a new dream.” So here’s my New Year resolution. Relax and enjoy the journey. It’s a brand new year full of wonderful possibilities.

What are your New Year goals and resolutions? Do you set daily word count goals? How do your reward yourself when you meet them?
-Bonnie Dodge

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Question of the Month

To self-publish or not to self-publish, that is the question

At a recent book-selling event that was a topic of conversation among many of the local authors.  We had time to talk because a snow storm put a damper on sales.

Given the opportunity to self-publish thanks to companies like Create Space, Book Baby, Lulu and more, authors can put their books into print, at least print on demand. This route is the alternative to the more traditional one of seeking an agent who will negotiate a sale of your work to a larger publisher.

As a writer who has gone both ways, there are pros and cons to each.

Make no mistake; the largest obstacle to the more traditional route is getting an agent because most of the very big publishing houses won’t look at you without one. Your writing and/or subject matter (hopefully both) must be compelling to get their attention. Once you land an agent, they will do the work to present your book to a publisher. Publishers will provide editors to make sure your work is the best it can be, as well as cover designers. Once published, they roll out their formidable marketing machine.

With a publisher you will get a percentage of the profits from book sales, and don’t forget the cut to your agent. But hello, an established publisher had enough faith in you to publish your work. I felt very, very proud of that when a New York house picked up my children’s book, “Red Ridin’ in the Hood and Other Cuentos.”

More and more writers, even ones who have been published by traditional publishers, are looking at self-publishing. In this route you will have to take care of the things publishers do from editing to cover design to marketing to distinguish your book from the many, many more books there are out there because of self-publishing. That is a downside because the time you spend doing this takes away from your writing time.

If you take this route, my best advice is to spend money on an editor. Readers usually don’t care who publishes a book, but they will care if it’s poorly written and full of grammatical errors that bump them out of the story. Then they’ll ask, “Who the hell published this book?” On the plus side, there are lots of editing services and cover designers available and plenty of advice online about how to market. All the profits from the sales of your book go to you.

The end product is also a published book.

So when asking the question to publish or not to publish, remember both ways mean work. Ultimately, you will never get paid for the hours upon hours you put into writing and rewriting your book unless it makes the bestseller list and you sell the rights for a movie starring Brad Pitt and Sandra Bullock.

In the end, no matter what route you pursue — love the writing.

Patricia Santos Marcantonio

Leave a comment

Filed under publishing, Question of the Month

NaNoWriMo, Who’s winning?

It’s day 20. By now you’ve written 33,336 words of your great American novel. You’re on the home stretch. You’re ahead by 3 words. You’re still in the race. You’re winning, right?

If you’re like me, probably not, although I know some writers participating in *NaNoWriMo this year have reached their goal of 50,000, or are really really close. But not you, you’re still slugging away at that mountain of words wondering why you let so and so talk you into this messy frustrating confusion when you’d rather be thinking about turkeys and Christmas trees. But you can’t because you have to stay focused on characters who won’t behave and plot lines that wander off into the desert and disappear. You’re tired, frustrated, and hate the project you’re working on. Or you’re behind in your word count and looking for any reason to stop writing and return to the real world.

Before you do, give yourself credit for attempting such a daunting task in the first place. Writing takes discipline. Writing every day takes a great deal of discipline. In a perfect writer’s world every morning you would rise to an already prepared healthy breakfast and a pot of coffee. You would write all day without distractions. You would retire at night with a ream of polished words, a real page-turner ready to meet your publisher. But in the real writer’s world you have to prepare the healthy breakfast, feed the pets and get the family off to work and out the door, maybe vacuum the rugs, or even put in a day’s work at the office before you can settle down and write. Squeezing enough time to generate 1,666 words a day is a chore in itself so why bother?

Because you’re a writer. Stories buzz around your head dying to be told. Because when you’re not writing, everything seems in a constant state of chaos.

If you’re stumped and ready to throw in the towel, here are some suggestions that may help you reach your NaNo goal this year.

Write from a different point of view. Or write in a different tense. Mixing it up might lend new energy to your writing.
Kill your internal editor. Now is the time to write. You can edit later.
Do some free writing if you can’t think of anything to write. Just the action of moving your fingers releases something in the brain allowing you to move forward.
Don’t stop to do research. Add asterisks. When your draft is done, you can fill in the blanks. And, you might discover that a date or fact you thought was important no longer is.
If you’re feeling low or depressed talk to other writers or read the pep talks provided on the NaNoWriMo website. Visit their “procrastination station” for inspiration.
Don’t delete, don’t edit, just keep writing.

So it’s November 20. Ten days to go. You’re 2,000 words behind. Thanksgiving is just around the corner and it’s easier to focus on the green bean casserole than keep your fingers and brain moving. But look how far you’ve come. You’re in the middle of your book where things usually tend to get messy anyway. It would be so easy to quit.

But instead of giving up, dig deeper. Time travel back to October when NaNo sounded like a great way to whip out a draft of your story. Capture some of that creative energy then sit down and start writing.

Because you can do it. You’re so close. You’re almost there.

-Bonnie Dodge

*NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month. On November 1, participants begin working towards writing a 50,000 novel by 11:59 on November 30. It’s free and a fun way to write a novel. For more information visit NaNoWriMo.org.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Question of the Month, Writing

Are writing conferences worth the money?

I just returned from a writing conference where an attendee asked, “Are writing contests worth the time and money?”

“It depends,” the presenter said. “Is it a well-known contest? Will you get any feedback?”

I could say the same thing about writers’ conferences.

Most of the writers I know have more than one job: they work to pay bills, and they also write. Digging up a couple hundred bucks to attend a conference, not to mention making time to go, can be daunting. It’s too expensive. It’s too far. The kids need braces.

I’ve been on both sides of the fence. I’ve organized writers’ conferences so I know how expensive they are to host. I’ve also been the writer staring at a brochure, trying to justify squeezing money from an already tight budget. 

But I am a writer. How can I improve if I don’t mingle with my peers?

Other professionals—accountants, attorneys, bankers, and lawyers—attend conferences and workshops to stay current with their industry. Why shouldn’t I?

I’ve been writing a fair amount of time, and I’ve attended many writers’ conferences. Some were good, some not so good, but I always gleaned something, even if it’s something not to do—like answer a text message in the middle of a presentation. Besides the current information on craft and submissions, what I find even more valuable is a word most introverted writers hate, “networking.” As writers, we sit alone in our office creating great stories, and now we are expected to extend our hand, introduce ourselves and tell everyone what we write. It’s painful, but where else but writers’ conferences can you discuss the craft of writing with other serious writers? We know they’re serious because they’ve spent the kids’ lunch money (just like we did) to attend.

Maybe the biggest reward for attending writers’ conferences is the energy that percolates from the meeting rooms, filling the halls and building with palpable enthusiasm, propelling us home eager to finish our novel or book of poetry. As Mastercard says, “Priceless.”  

Only you can decide if entering contests or attending conferences is worth your time and money. Before you decide, I would encourage you to look at writers’ conferences as opportunities to grow your career and improve your craft. Take a risk; put yourself out there. Ask questions. After a session, thank the speaker. Shake his/her hand and ask for a business card. Network. Talk about what you love most, writing. And in the meantime, get busy saving those pennies.

DSC02972

Lance Thompson at the 2013 Idaho Writers and Readers Rendezvous talking about log lines.

DSC02982

Alan Heathcock talking about originality.

DSC02980

Alvin Greenberg and Doug Copsey

3 Comments

Filed under Question of the Month

How to get through that dreaded book signing.

You’ve written a book. You actually have it published and just committed to a book signing, which is still a week away. Already your knees are shaking. Your head hurts. You’re sure you’re coming down with a cold. You’d rather wait tables or clean toilets. Welcome to the wonderful world of being an author.

Book signings can be intimidating. Under pressure, our insecurities bubble to the surface. No one will buy my book. No one will show up. No one will like me. This is a natural reaction for most writers. But book signings don’t have to be painful. Here are some ways to help you have a good time, even if you don’t sell a single book.

Organization goes a long way in making your book signing successful. Once you set up your signing, keep calling back and checking in to make sure everything’s on track. They have you on the calendar. Books have been ordered and will be there in time. If you are bringing your own books, make sure you have them with you and remember to bring them to the store.

Several weeks before the event, promote your signing. Send out press releases and do radio spots if possible. Post on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter to get and keep a buzz going. We’re all busy. It’s easy to forget.

The day of the signing, arrive early. Bring signs promoting your event. Dress professionally and try to arrive fresh and relaxed. Make sure you have

books
business cards
plenty of pens
water
tablecloth just in case
bookmarks/promotional material
a smile and positive attitude

Remember to smile and talk. Don’t hide behind books or look away when a customer approaches. Look them in the eye. Extend your hand and say, “Hi, I’m having a book signing today.” Put the book in their hand and ask a question that relates to your book. “Do you like xxxx stories? Did you know xxxxx?” Even a genuine comment, “I like your scarf,” is enough to begin a conversation. People buy books from people they like, so find a way to make these strangers feel comfortable and interested in what you have to say. Forget about selling books and sell yourself instead.

Have realistic expectations. Everyone who walks into the store is a potential customer, but they may not like the kind of book you write. Hand them one of your bookmarks and ask them to recommend you to their friends.

Rather than dread the signing, take advantage of this opportunity to meet people and make new friends. Hope for the best and expect the worst. The result will fall somewhere in between. But mostly, try to relax and have fun. And don’t forget to thank the store for hosting your event.
-Bonnie Dodge

Leave a comment

Filed under Question of the Month

You’re a great writer, but can you tell a story?

A writer lamented recently about a rejection she received. The agent loved her writing, but the book was still rejected. The reason? The writer couldn’t tell a compelling story.

I’ve been there. For more than three years I worked on a book with mystical elements set on a tropical island. My story had great themes and characters. Several agents told me they loved my writing. But the book was rejected again and again because I didn’t know how to tell a story. Oh, I had a beginning, a middle, and an end. I had outlines and character sketches and over three hundred pages. But in those beautifully written pages, nothing much happened to bring my story to a compelling resolution.

Bill Johnson, in his book A Story is a Promise: Good Things to Know Before You Write that Screenplay, Novel, or Play, says understanding “that a story is a promise is a cornerstone of the foundation for understanding the art of storytelling.” Further, a good story sets out its promise and moves an audience toward a desirable resolution.

Telling stories sounds simple, but it isn’t. As a writer I have to stay focused, to remember what I promise my readers—this is a story about a young woman who finds something to believe in—and then make sure I deliver. Side tales about enchanted forests and supernatural sharks may be entertaining, but do they really move the story toward its resolution? If they don’t, they’d better be deleted.

Knowing how to tell a good story is as important as being able to write beautiful words. If the story you love is getting rejected time and again, the rejection may have nothing to do with your skill as a writer. It just might be that you need to learn to become a better storyteller.
-Bonnie Dodge

1 Comment

Filed under Question of the Month, Writing

Eliminating prepositional phrases

I’m in the process of editing my current novel and looking for ways to make my writing better. One way to reduce words and clarify meaning is to identify and eliminate as many prepositional phrases as possible.

For example, in the above sentence, “in the process of” is a prepositional phrase. I could just as easily say, I’m editing my current novel.

When writing, I listen to the voice in my head, putting words down as I hear them. That doesn’t make them golden, or darlings I’m reluctant to kill. That makes them patterns of speech I hear in my head. My job as a writer is to edit those patterns for clarity.

One way to spot prepositional phrases is to look for the following words, which are often used in prepositional phrases:

about                       below              in spite of                  regarding
above                       beneath          instead of                  since
according to           beside             into                             through
across                      between         like                              throughout
after                         beyond           near                            to
against                    but                   of                                toward
along                       by                     off                              under
amid                        concerning     on                             underneath
among                     down               on account of         until
around                    during             onto                         up
at                              except             out                            upon
atop                         for                    out of                       with
because of              from                outside                     within
before                      in                     over                          without
behind                     in front of      past                          with regard to

Here are some examples from the first chapter in my current novel.

Herb’s stomach could no longer handle food. Just the thought of it sent him to the refrigerator in search of another beer.
Better: Just the thought sent him searching for another beer.

The residents of Aspen Grove don’t talk.
Better: Aspen Grove residents don’t talk.

We can sit in front of the fire and make snowflakes.
Better: We can sit by the fire and make snowflakes.

Rows of fat becomes fat rows. The decision of Abbie’s mother becomes Abbie’s mother’s decision. In an efficient manner becomes efficiently.

As you eliminate prepositional phrases, you’ll discover verbs and adverbs become stronger. For example, Abbie responded to the allegations with vehemence becomes Abbie responded vehemently to the allegations, resulting in less words to wade through and a clearer picture of Abbie.

In Thanks, But This Isn’t For Us, Jessica Page Morrell describes too many prepositions as “the carbohydrates of writing.” She gives the following examples to streamline your work:
went up in flames: burned
at a later date: later
drew to a close: ended
in the vicinity of: near

You get the picture, simple and concise. Too many prepositional phrases put distance between important words and dull your writing.

The next time you sit down to edit, besides looking for ly words, to be, and redundant sentences, keep an eye open for excessive prepositional phrases. You’ll be surprised how much better your story will be.
-Bonnie Dodge

Leave a comment

Filed under Question of the Month

It’s really Thelma’s movie

One of the first things writers learn is that good drama means your characters change, either for better or worse, within the scope of the story.
Why is change so important?
Because it doesn’t happen without conflict, which keeps the motor of our story running. That lesson really struck me to the core when I took a screenwriting class. The instructor used the example of “Thelma and Louise.” Whose movie was it? he asked.
It was Thelma’s and Louise’s, we answered.
No. Who was the person who was different at the end of the movie?
The answer is Thelma. She started out as a mealy housewife who had the fortitude of a Twinkie. At the end, she found strength and resolve. Louise’s personality didn’t really change. So it was Thelma’s story.
Another example, “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.” Sure, the movie seemed to focus on that charming and funny Ferris. But did he change during the course of the movie? The answer is no, again. The movie really belonged to Cameron, Ferris’s friend. Cameron went from a kid afraid of his father and afraid of life to a young man who would stand up to his father and therefore, to life.
One more example, “The Shawshank Remptiomption.” Is it really Andy Dufresne’s movie? No siree. It is Red’s, who began the film as a man who dared not to hope and ended as a man who looked toward hope as he met his friend in Mexico.
Whenever I watch a movie or read a book where there is little, no, or God forbid, superficial change in the characters, I feel unsatisfied.
Not all change has to be for the good, nor does it have to be a lightning bolt from God. It can be subtle as silk. Take the recent movie, “The Ides of March” (and here comes the spoiler alert). Stephen Meyers, played by Ryan Gosling, works for a presidential candidate played by George Clooney, who also directed and co-wrote the movie. Stephen starts as a true believer in his candidate and loves being in the thick of the campaign. After learning a secret about the candidate and becoming a victim of dirty behind-the-scenes politics, Stephen also digs in the dirt to stay in the game. He changes for the worse by becoming the very thing he hates.
Of course, some characters are so iconic they don’t seem to or have to change, such as Sherlock Holmes. And there is much joy in watching them make sense of chaos. Still, I think about how much more depth to those stories if Sherlock had showed change. The game is afoot.

–Patricia Santos Marcantonio

Leave a comment

Filed under Question of the Month, Writing

Managing Procrastination and Distraction

I’d like you to meet my two best friends, Procrastination and Distraction. They follow wherever I go. It’s as if they sit on the floor beside my bed, waiting for me to wake so they can tag along all day and torture me. Yesterday I rose, a hundred tasks to finish, and there Distraction was, pulling me away from my chores. After a trip to the bathroom—I left the light on because I would be back soon to take a shower—I padded into the kitchen, poured a cup of coffee, and went to my office to check for an important email. After reading email, Facebook, and Twitter, I returned to the bathroom, ready to take my shower only to discover three hours had passed and most of my morning was gone. I had a short story to write and a deadline, and I had yet to write a single word. Distraction was howling with glee but I was furious and disgusted.

After lunch—no breakfast because Distraction was too busy to let me eat—I sat down with full intention of roughing out the first draft of my story when Procrastination wanted to play. Okay, I said, ONE game of spider solitaire, then back to work. One game became four. Then I wanted a snack. Then I had to use the bathroom. Then I needed to take that shower I didn’t get in the morning. By 4:30 Procrastination needed a nap, so I sat down at my computer and opened my file. I wrote a few sentences before Distraction pulled up a chair.

“Hello,” she said. “Let’s look up haunted mines in Idaho.”

That of course led to a site about cemeteries, which lead to a site about who was buried where. Before I knew it it was time to think about dinner so Distraction and I started looking up recipes for corn chowder. After dinner I promised I would work on my story, but then the phone rang. I had to clean the kitchen, fold the laundry, and by eight o’clock I was just too tired to write.

I was talking with another writer a few days ago, saying I accomplished so much more when I worked full time at the bank.

“Me too,” she said.

“I’m too easily distracted,” I said.

We agreed that working from home is full of caveats. A trip to the bathroom means a trip to the kitchen where a glass of water turns into an apple with peanut butter. Then flip on the TV to check the weather, when just as easily we could look out the window to see if it was snowing—we’re supposed to be writing so what does it matter?

Why do we do this? I tell my writer friend it’s because writers are creative people. They write poetry. They make sculptures and paintings. They play piano, guitar or drums. They belly dance. They are creative. Creative people like to make things then rip them apart to make something new. It’s more like play than work, and of course my two friends Procrastination and Distraction would rather play than work.

As a creative person, writing to me is like playing. It doesn’t feel like work, so I treat it accordingly. And to be honest I am a terrible boss. I don’t hold my employee accountable. I make sure she shows up at the office, but I never really check her progress. I read once that Harold Robbins was on deadline and his editor locked him in a hotel room and refused to feed him until he produced a certain number of new pages. So see, it isn’t just me.

Ah hmm. Today is a New Day. I will use a heavy hand; after all I am the boss. I will not have lunch until I finish the first draft of my short story. I will not check email and Facebook until I have my pages done. I will not play spider solitaire AT ALL, not until this story is finished. I will not turn on the TV to check the weather. I will drink water instead of coffee, which keeps me hyped and edgy. Today I will be a better boss and make sure my employee is more productive. And when Distraction and Procrastination call, I’ll tell them to go outside and jump in the snow.

What can you do to eliminate Procrastination and Distraction when you should be writing?

-Bonnie Dodge

2 Comments

Filed under Question of the Month, Writing

Does doubt keep you from writing?

My friend and I have been writing for more than ten years. In that time I have published two books, many stories and several articles. My friend has published nothing. Her problem, I think, is that she is afraid of success.

Just last week we had a conversation about a short story she wants to submit. She has been working on this story for several months now. She has even taken this story to her critique partners for feedback. Now that the time is nearing for her to submit, she is second-guessing her story. “Did I put in too much?” she asked me. “Is it going to be good enough?” she worried.

“Don’t talk yourself out of submitting,” I warned. “Send it out and get on with your novel.”

The self-doubt my friend is experiencing is normal. Many writers wade through doubts every day. Faced with a blank page, they often freeze. They ask themselves, “What do I have to say that’s important? What do I have to say that hasn’t already been said a thousand times?”

Carleen Brice, author of the novel Orange Mint and Honey, (which inspired The Lifetime Movie Sins of the Mother), recently said that as a writer she has doubts every day. “I’m working on a rewrite of my third novel, which sometimes fills me with so much anxiety I want to crawl not just under the covers, but under the bed,” she writes in a guest blog.

I know the feeling. I, too,  battle self-doubt. Instead of hiding under the bed, I turn on spider solitaire and eat up all my writing time matching suits in digital decks of cards. Why do I do this?

Audrey Marlene, in her article, “Self-Doubt – An Illogical Perspective”, says doubt can be caused by many things, including

• Feelings of inferiority
• Low self-esteem
• Feeling a lack of control over your life
• Believing you are not good enough or smart enough
• Anticipating failure even before you begin
• Rejection
• Believing that your emotional security depends on someone or something

It all boils down to fear. Fear of failure. Fear of success. Fear of losing control. Fear prompts me to focus on what I cannot do rather than what I can do, or on what I desire. Marlene claims the best way to let go of self-doubt is to build self-confidence.

I want to be a writer, and I know that I have to push self-doubt away if I want to be successful. To help banish my self-doubt, I continue to hone my craft, and, if I’m feeling particularly negative, I’ll call a writing buddy to help get back on track. I submit. If my work is rejected, I submit again.

I’ve been writing long enough to know that every word I write isn’t golden. I’ve come to accept, even anticipate, rejection because I know that writing is subjective. I’ve learned that if someone says it isn’t good enough, I can rework the story or throw it in the garbage, where it might possibly belong.

William Shakespeare once wrote, “Our doubts are traitors and make us lose the good we oft might win by fearing to attempt.”

Conquering fear isn’t easy, but it gets better with practice and positive self-talk. I will remind my friend of this the next time she claims her story isn’t good enough.

Are your doubts traitors? How do you push through them to achieve your writing goals?

-Bonnie Dodge

2 Comments

Filed under Question of the Month