Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Helping Writers Find Their Voice

Today I have a very special book recommendation: Writing Is My Drink by Theo Pauline Nestor. This book is equal parts inspiration and instruction, an excellent resource for novelists.

I was lucky enough to receive an ARC of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. And I can say, honestly, this book needs to be in your home library, in your personal writer's arsenal, at the ready in your writing space.

If you have ever struggled with finding your author voice, this book will change the way you write. What are you trying to say as an author? What is the point of your storytelling? We all have a reason for choosing to write what we choose to write. What is the legacy of words you want to leave behind, and how do you convey it in your writing?

In Writing Is My Drink, the author's own journey of discovering her voice helped me realize my own fears of writing too honestly. And it is not until you let go of those fears that your true voice can shine. In addition to sharing her personal ups and downs, each chapter ends with a list of writing exercises like no other I've seen in any writing craft books.

It's simply called "Try This."

Exactly--just give it a try and see what results. I love that mantra. The whole idea of this book is that too many of us are writing too safely, without even realizing it. TAKE A RISK and be honest with yourself. Be honest in your work.

The way the advice in this book is presented, in the style of a memoir with a touch of humor, makes it a fun and easy read, enabling the reader to digest it more readily than a textbook style craft book.

My favorite quote (checked against the final copy) is from chapter 8, "Find Your Tribe; Find Your Voice":

I wanted to understand my own experience, and I wanted to know that it was worthy of articulating, of being made into literature, that my desires and fears could be the arc a story climbs and falls on.

Is that not why most, if not all, of us have taken up this call to writing fiction? We write to be published, in hopes that our stories will in some way connect with the people who read them, but we first write whatever it is we write for our own therapy. And there is no shame is admitting this. In fact, I believe it is a necessary step in the writing process that every successful author has taken at some point.

If you are ready to dig deeper within yourself and take your writing to the next level of amazing, or even if you are just starting your writing journey, I highly encourage you to read and study Writing Is My Drink by Theo Pauline Nestor.

_____

About the author:

Theo Pauline Nestor is the author of the memoir How to Sleep Alone in a King-Size Bed, which was selected as a "Target Breakout Book." Her work has been published in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, and numerous other places. An award-winning writing instructor, Nestor is also a founder of the Wild Mountain Memoir Retreat and the Black Mesa Writers' Intensive. Her blog lives at WritingIsMyDrink.com.

(you can also connect with her on Twitter and Facebook)

_____

About the book:



release date: November 5, 2013
publisher: Simon & Schuster
available wherever books are sold
trade paperback and ebook formats
add it to your Goodreads shelf

Sharing her combined experiences as a daughter, graddaughter, wife, mother, friend, student, teacher, and everything in between, in WRITING IS MY DRINK: A Writer's Story of Finding Her Voice (and a Guide to How You Can Too), celebrated blogger and award-winning instructor Theo Pauline Nestor shows aspiring (and even seasoned) writers how they can use their own stories to unlock their writing potential, at any point in their lives. Whether you're aiming for a New York Times bestseller or a short, personal essay to share with family and friends, this book - part memoir, part writing guide - show you how, and provides plenty of laughs, tears, and aha moments along the way.

(description quoted from publisher's press release)

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Defining the Potential for Conflict In Your Premise

In my experience, the most effective way to define your basic premise is with a logline, a one-sentence description that presents the main conflict. Loglines can use generic wording and still get the point across, because generic does not mean vague. In fact, the less flowery your prose in any pitch, whether it be a logline or a query letter or a jacket blurb, the better. Readers prefer the idea of your story to be immediately clear so they can make a quick decision on whether or not it's their cup of tea.

A logline that is too detailed will not work. Unnecessary details distract the reader from the main point. If the potential for conflict in the story that your logline presents can be quickly discerned, it's detailed enough. You don't even need the characters' names.

So how do you show a story's conflict potential?

A conflict is a battle between two opposing forces. Two opposing forces in a novel do not necessarily have to be two people, a good guy and a bad guy. The protagonist is usually a person or a group of people. The antagonist can be a person or a group of people OR nature, inner demons, expectations of society, etc.

The type of conflict you need to use is individual to the story. For example, in a contemporary romance, the protagonist is the hero and heroine (not one or the other), while the antagonist is whatever works against them to keep them apart. The basic concept of any romance is "will they fall in love, despite the odds, and be together at the end?"

Your premise ("concept" meaning the basic storyline you choose to build a premise on--for example, boy meets girl--and "premise" meaning the unique story you present with specific characters and a specific conflict) is then built upon the core conflict of two opposing forces.

To define your conflict, first determine how these two forces are opposing each other.

How?

Give both the protagonist and the antagonist a goal. The easiest way to create conflict with this is to either give them the same goal, in which only one can achieve it, or make their goals direct opposites. In either situation, the potential for conflict is clear without much explanation.

A protagonist's starting goal is directly related to preserving his self-concept (more about that here). If the antagonist is a person, his goal should also be directly related to preserving his self-concept. To emphasize, consider this point from SF author Ben Bova:

There are no villains cackling and rubbing their hands in glee as they contemplate their evil deeds. There are only people with problems, struggling to solve them. Just as your protagonist is struggling to solve her problems, your antagonist is struggling to solve his. It's all a matter of viewpoint.

And to emphasize even further, here is an example:

In PITCH BLACK the goal of the protagonist (a group of marooned space travelers) is to get off the planet alive. The goal of the antagonist (carnivorous creatures native to the planet) is to feed on whatever they can find. Both goals involve survival, which is a primal need so it is easily understood. They actually have the same goal--to survive--but since the aliens want to eat the people, their goals oppose each other. This creates the conflict of the story. Just with that little bit of information above you can see the potential for conflict that can be stretched through the length of an entire plot.

It doesn't take much detail to convey a story's potential for conflict.

So what is the point of all this?

As an author, when I first start brainstorming a project, I have to find its core conflict in the basic premise before I can even write one word on one page. Without this conflict, there is no story. But it can't be just any conflict. It has to have the potential to fill a plot. You can write about a lot of "things" happening, but events alone do not make a plot. The conflict has story potential when the plot events revolve around two opposing forces each striving for a goal they feel is vital for them to achieve.

As an editor, I look for conflict potential in the author's pitch. A query letter doesn't have to be perfect for me to see this. But 9 times out of 10 (not official stats), if the author cannot define the basic conflict between protagonist and antagonist, the manuscript tends to wander without purpose. In the example of romance, the pitch must include a strong, opposing force that keeps the hero and heroine apart through the middle of the story. Without that, there is no potential for conflict.

The same is true of every story you write, any genre, any type. Without conflict, there is no story. Defining the potential for conflict in your premise is a necessary building block toward successful storytelling.

Happy writing,
~Lydia

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Why Settle for Average? (or, How My Physical Therapist is Helping Me Become a Better Author)

Hey there. So nice to see you again. Please excuse the lengthiness of this post, but methinks we have some catching up to do.

A lot of you have asked me, privately, where the heck I've been lately. And even more of you have wondered about it in silence, I'm sure. Suddenly I cut back my blogging and tweeting and facebook...ing, dramatically, and I mention a thing or two about some kind of physical therapy I'm doing, and those of you who didn't freak out were at least scratching your heads.

First, let me apologize for freaking you out. Let me clarify that I'm okay. Mostly. I'm sorry if you were worried--that was not my intent when I quietly slipped away from the public eye. My intent was to focus on more important things, but in doing so I forgot that there are a crap-ton of people out there, all over the world, that care about me.

Thanks for reminding me that you care. I love you all to the moon.

The explanation for all of this is neither easy nor succinct. It started with some problems in my shoulder that would not go away. I was in a lot of pain. My hand was tingling, going numb. This is not normal (obviously), and I knew I couldn't just keep treating it with medication but for some reason that's what I kept doing. For months. And months. Then the pain got so bad in August that I went back to my doctor and she referred me to a physical therapist.

This scared the ever-living snot out of me.

Fortunately, the place she referred me to is not so scary. It's actually fun. And informative. I'm learning and improving. I met my physical therapist (henceforth known as my PT) exactly 2 weeks ago, and in that 2 weeks I feel like a completely new person. But I don't mean physically, because physically I still have a long way to go. I mean my outlook has changed, and that makes all the difference.

Today is my 35th birthday. This is a milestone birthday for me. I finally feel like I know what I'm doing, I know what I want to do, and I know what to never repeat. Yet, during my initial consultation with my PT, he asked me what my life goals were, and I couldn't answer. I passed off the question with something lame, like, "Right now I'm just surviving."

Which isn't a false statement. But it also isn't entirely true.

September is the month that I usually reset myself, and this year I embarked on the biggest reset of my life. Fall is my favorite season. It refreshes me. I like to set new goals in September that carry me through the doldrums of the coming winter. When we're talking about short-term goals, I can answer that up and down and all around. But long-term goals? I get stupid and tongue-tied when people ask me about my future.

Part of the reason is that I feel lucky to have survived this long, and most of the time I'm content to just take things day by day. Who cares about 5 years from now, or 50 years from now, I'm focused on the next 5 days, 5 weeks, maybe 5 months. But as my life (hopefully) veers away from the hard times, toward (hopefully) better times, my viewpoint needs to change with it. It's time for me to start thinking more of the long road ahead.

I realized this when my PT said, "You've only lived a third of your life. You're too young to be feeling like you have only a third of it left."

Now, I often joke that I'm "old" but I know I'm not actually old. Yet it still took hearing a stranger say it to my face to realize just how much life I have left. How do I want to spend those years? Not in pain. Not stiff and sore. Not hunched over, leaning on a cane. Not popping pill after pill after pill just to get through the day.

But let's back up for a minute. Before my PT even asked me about my life goals, he told me the reason I'm having these problems. It isn't just a shoulder problem. It's a spine problem. The issues with my shoulder are a side effect of something much more serious.

I'm pretty sure my face went fifteen shades of awful when he said this.

My mother has had 2 back surgeries in the last 20 years, with the possibility of more in the future, depending on how long she lives. I love my mother, and I take it as a compliment when people say how much I look like her and act like her--she is intelligent, driven, beautiful, fun, everything I would ever want to be--but the one thing she is not is healthy. I can't even list all the things she has wrong with her, and her back problems are the worst of them.

I do not want my mother's back. She was wheelchair-bound before her last surgery. So to hear that my own spinal issues are so bad that I could be headed for surgery if I don't fix them now was more than a little frightening.

My PT asked me what I do every day. I said, "I'm a writer."

"That explains why you're slouching," he said. And then he did a perfect imitation of me sitting at my laptop, slouched over the keyboard, typing away all day.

"Oh," I muttered and tried to straighten myself, but I had no idea what I was doing, not yet. By the time I left that day, two weeks ago, I was much more self-aware. The main thing being...

Posture posture posture. If you're a writer, especially, always be aware of your posture. While sitting, while standing, while walking, while driving, ALL THE TIME. It wasn't until my PT lifted this crooked wool from my eyes that I realized just how much I was slouching and twisting myself out of sync ALL THE TIME.

I even did this head tilt thing while I was listening to him explain all the wonders of the human spine. I mean, my ear was practically touching my shoulder--because that somehow helps me listen better? I honestly didn't realize my head was tilted at all until he stopped mid-sentence, looking right at me with this funny little quirk of a smile, and straightened my head for me.

"Don't do that," he said. "Keep your chin up, head straight, shoulders back."

"Okay. Sorry. I didn't know I was doing that."

And that's the point. I didn't know I was doing all these wrong things, every day for years and years and years, and not doing the right things to readjust when necessary, and it was slowly ruining my entire body. Then one day my shoulder feels like a knife is driving through it and my hand is going numb and I have no idea why why WHY?

But really, I did this to myself. I can't blame anyone else for the choices I make, even if they are made in ignorance. The good news is, my PT is now helping me fix myself. I'm in bad shape, yes, but I'm not unfixable. He started by showing me how to sit and stand properly. He even showed me how to read a book properly, something I've been doing wrong since I was 4 years old. And then he showed me the stretches...

I am not going to get into the specifics of the physical part of my therapy. But every time I see my PT he says something that nudges me a little further along the positive track. It is never anything groundbreaking in the broad scheme of things. However, as it relates to me and where I am in life and what I'm doing, completely changing course at age 35, developing new habits that will be with me forever... it's exactly what I need to hear.

The last time I was in, a week ago, I started doing a new set of stretches with the giant rubberband that feels like it's going to rip my arm right out of the socket. What I love about my routine is that it's not really supposed to hurt, BUT it's not supposed to be comfortable either.

I was standing there with my left arm pulled behind me in a way that it's never been forced to stretch before, and I tend to make faces when I'm pushed beyond my comfort zone. My PT knows when I feel discomfort because it is literally written all over my face. So when I *don't* make a face, he knows I can stretch more.

This was one of those times. I stepped forward to increase the tension and my face didn't so much as twitch.

"How does that feel?" he said, already knowing the answer.

I said, "It feels okay."

"Go a little bit farther, then."

So I did. And I made a face. And he laughed.

Then he said some other stuff that I don't remember because after that he said, "Why settle for average?"

And that's what I remember most. This statement made me forget almost everything else he said that day because it struck me so hard: Go farther. Why settle for average?

That can be applied to so many things. Stretching, writing, and most importantly, LIFE.

When I put all of this together, it helps me become a better me, which helps me become a better author.

1. Posture, every day, always.

2. Reach for long-term goals, not just short-term goals.

3. Push beyond the comfort zone. Why settle for average?

This is my life now, every part of it.

I have a lot of weeks of therapy ahead, but my PT claims I'll be a new woman on the other side of it. After that, maintenance. Forever. I have no idea when I'll be able to post regularly again, and I've officially gone on hiatus from tweeting and blogging for Writer Unboxed through the end of this year.

In the meantime I'm still working on my novels because that's the priority, and I'm still editing with Entangled. This is all behind-the-scenes work, though, so while it might seem like I've disappeared from the publishing world, I really haven't. And I sincerely appreciate all of your support both publicly and privately as I go through this transition toward a better me.

Love and hugs,
~Lydia

Monday, August 26, 2013

3 Ways to Simplify Your Writing Life

Today I'm at Write It Sideways talking about how to reduce your daily stress as a career author. Check it out HERE.

And if you missed my monthly Writer Unboxed Twitter roundup on Saturday, click HERE.

Thanks in advance. Have a great week, everyone!

~Lydia

Monday, August 19, 2013

Write. Learn. Destroy.

Last week I did something that I'd never done before. I wrote a story. It was about 20,000 words. I did not edit this story. I had no real reason to write it other than that I felt like writing it, and writing it was fun. Never once did I entertain the thought of getting it published. And as soon as the story was done, I read through it once (and realized it was actually a pretty good story)...

and then I deleted every word of it. Gone. Forever. Except the parts still floating in my memory.

You might be thinking, what is wrong with you? Why would you destroy something you created? Why didn't you get it published? Why why why! The answer is simple:

You don't have to publish everything you write, even if it is good work.

and

There is something very freeing about destroying what you write, especially if it is good work.

Many of us began writing stories in childhood. Back then it was fun. It was an escape. Then you grow up and realize, I am pretty good at this, why shouldn't I have something published? And then you do get stuff published because other people agree you are good at this. And then you make some money and you realize, I could make a career out of this. And then you do make a career out of it and you think this means that every story you write henceforth must be of publishable quality and must be published.

I'm here to tell you you're wrong. You do not have to get something published just because you wrote it, just because you have the skills to shape it into something of publishable quality. You do not have to even save a story just because you wrote it. Here is why you shouldn't:


Writing a story knowing you will never get it published releases you from shackles you didn't even know you were wearing.

I told myself, "No matter how good (or workable) this thing turns out, I will not publish it." In that instant, a weight of mental stress lifted off of me that was so heavy it almost felt physical. I could breathe again. I could write without fences. I could write whatever I wanted to and it didn't matter because I was the only one who would ever EVER see it.

The result? I found my author voice again. It had been buried under the stress and worry of possibly doing something wrong. The words flowed freely and the story came out lightning fast. 20K in 2 days. I can't remember the last time I could say that, if ever.

I also reaffirmed that my most favorite thing to write is contemporary romance. That is what my storytelling inclinations leaned toward when I told myself, "Write whatever you want to." Something else I learned? That even when I don't pre-plot a darn thing, my natural storytelling inclination follows basic structure. I applied structural turning points to an unplanned first draft without even thinking about it. This reaffirmed that my way of pre-plotting with a certain structure is the right process for me.

When you finish a book, it's an amazing accomplishment. The pursuit of publication turns that accomplishment into a job and suddenly you are shackled to this idea of other people falling in love with your work, and shackled to this book because the publishing process is long and slow. I am not suggesting you give up on your dreams, or that you give up on your stories, not all of them.

But just once, write something that you know will be for your eyes only, and just see what happens. You might learn something about yourself and your writing process that you didn't know before, and you might reaffirm something you already knew.

Then, ensure that it is only your eyes that see this lovely story that has taught you so much, by destroying it as soon as it's finished.


Destroying good work has a way of building your confidence.

As writers we often joke (or maybe not joke) that when we write something we feel is sub-par we want to burn it. The natural inclination is to destroy something you view as a failure. But if it is something you view as a success, the natural instinct is to cherish it and protect it. And that's fine, most of the time.

But just once, try writing something--a complete story--that you know is good and then deleting every trace of it. What does this teach you? That you have the power to write something this good again in its absence. That you do not have to cling to every word. You wrote well once, you can write well again. It came from your head, the same place the next story will come from.

Sometimes I think we get too attached to our good work, and this can hold us back from creating better work. You CAN and you WILL produce something of quality again, so it's okay to let this one go. The next one might even be better because you didn't linger on this one. You wrote, you deleted, you moved on, you wrote again.

The story I wrote is still in my head. I could write it again if I wanted to, but I won't. There were a lot of good lines in it. It was a Good Story. And I am not going sit here and tell you that destroying it was easy. That was probably one of the hardest things I've ever done in my writer life. But once I committed to it, and then deleted it, the mental boost that followed was so strong that I actually laughed out loud.

It built up my confidence, and this confidence helped me when I returned to working on my story that I do want to get published.

And perhaps most importantly, it reminded me that whether or not something I write gets published is first MY decision, no one else's. It gave me back a sense of control in a career where you have very little control over your own work once you place it into someone else's hands--your agent, your editor, the general reading public. It begins with YOU deciding the fate of any given piece of work you create.

This whole exercise felt like a mental readjustment. I think we need those every so often to maintain balance in our writing pursuits. Fiction writing is a creative endeavor, and sometimes we forget this and make it too clinical.

So go ahead and write something just for you, just because, and see where it takes you both in the story and in real life.

~Lydia