4 ways NOT to start your book!

img_8699About two weeks ago, I attended Bookmarks Festival of Books & Authors. It was the first time I’d been, and I was only able to stay for a couple of hours. But it looked great from the little bit I saw! Besides showcasing local and national authors, the festival offered Slush Pile Live (Sponsored by the NC Writers’ Network) for aspiring writers to have their work critiqued. Well, the first 300 words of their work, anyway — anonymously by a panel of  agents and editors.

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I submitted my 300 words and waited, heart thumping, in the audience for them to randomly pick my work and tear it apart. They never got to mine. But I did learn a lot listening to them tear apart other people’s writing! Here are some tips I gleaned from the painful lessons of others. (Okay, they weren’t that cruel, really!)

  1. Don’t start a memoir with a date. So many submissions started with something like, “September 29, 1962” and then went on to describe events chronologically that weren’t super-exciting. A memoir should read like a novel, with character development. The first section should give the framework for that character’s journey, not just a list of dates and events.
  2. Don’t start a story with so much excitement that the rest of the story can’t possibly live up to that first scene. At least two of the entries started with really gripping, tense scenes. One involved a mystery intruder and a scream from inside the house — the tension was too much, a panelist said. The scream made the story “almost comical” (ouch!). The other started with a gripping car accident which then dwindled when the character just stood around watching the night sky!
  3. Don’t start with a boring topic. One submission described a bug in the sink. Another started with the character getting hugely excited about registering a copyright. The panelists didn’t want to hear the rest. The author has to establish why the reader should care about the story, one panelist explained. The first few sentences are a “microcosm” of the work, the other added.
  4. Don’t use flat language that tells instead of shows. The unpopular entries didn’t include sensory details to anchor the reader in the scene. They contained clichés and flat declarative sentences that didn’t show the character’s personality. The panelists liked a children’s book entry, told from the point of view of a little girl who’d been struck by lightning while she sat on a fence. The writing was full of color and funny words, specific to that character.

All the panelists had really great suggestions and insights about how to start a piece of writing. The key idea I took away from Slush Pile Live was that you only have a few seconds time to capture a reader’s (especially an agent’s or editor’s!) attention. Every detail and sentence counts. Don’t go off on tangents, and don’t include boring stuff that doesn’t really matter.

In my next post, I’ll write about a few of the authors I met at Bookmarks — dedicated writers who didn’t mind standing in the blinding sun for hours to meet new readers!

 

 

 

Showdown at the Mountain Retreat

I had the opportunity to participate in a “Barbie Project Runway” challenge recently! I recommend it to adults and children alike as a great way to incorporate design, engineering, and sewing skills into your creative practice. Plus, it’s fun!

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Preparations for the BRBs Runway Barbie Challenge

There were lots of trials before the showdown…and having Fiona as a competitor meant we had to censor Barbie’s attire to have a PG rating.

looking stylish!

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 Showdown!

DSCN0003 Raspberry Sorbet Barbie-layers of fabrics, patterns, flowers and topped with a pink sock hat-well done Fiona!

DSCN0002 Barbie on the bar-bee -Aussie Barbie sizzles in a saucy hat and cowboy boots getting ready to barbecue

Hail to the SHE Hail to the SHE- the first presidential Barbie dressed for her inaugural ball: this gal has a whole wardrobe ready for every occassion

DSCN0001 Tina-Sheena Barbie channeling the 80’s with highlights , tie dye top and animal print skirt..GRRRR!

DSCN0018 These boots for made for walking!Party Rock Barbie is in the building

DSCN0007 ‘Summer fun’ Barbie- classic and classy style but somehow has lost her shoes and is unable to stand up unaided

DSCN0006 Bo Ho Moma in psychedelic leggings and graphic print sock top with an unfortunate hand salute

DSCN0005 Blossom Barbie-better known as exhibitionist…

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Improve your odds and get published!

paperback-books-background (1)For the past few years, I’ve been attending a great writers’ conference in Raleigh, NC, hosted by the Triangle Association of Freelancers called Write Now! It’s a day-long event and includes an exceptional keynote speaker, great sessions, and lunch (not to mention a raffle) — all for only $69. These people really understand the concept of the “starving artist”!

Last year, the keynote speaker at Write Now! was author David Morrell (you can see my write-up here), author of countless thrillers and a fabulous speaker. This year, Brian Klems, the online editor of WritersDigest.com, gave us all great advice to help win over literary agents. He gave us a whole list of practical tips to help stack the deck in our favor. As well as working for Writer’s Digest, Klems also edits books for a living and has had his own book published (Oh Boy, You’re Having a Girl: A Dad’s Survival Guide to Raising Daughters), so he knows a thing or two…

Here are a few of my favorite tips that Klems shared in his keynote speech and also in his workshop about “writing like a pro”:

  • Make sure your manuscript is typo-free. This sounds obvious, right? But according to Brian, spelling your character’s name three different ways and getting “they’re, their, and there” mixed up are signs to an agent that you’re unprofessional, lazy, and not in it for the long haul. Yikes!
  • Get to know agents by doing your research first. Before he started pitching his book, Klems first made a list of traits he wanted in an agent. He or she would have to have children because the book was about being a parent, the ability to purchase TV rights, represent his book’s genre, and have a similar sense of humor as Klems. He thoroughly researched three agents (THREE!!), getting to know their interests and who their clients were. The third one he queried took on his book. The moral of the story? Quality not quantity!
  • Have more than one idea. Agents love lots of ideas, Klems said. If you get the opportunity to talk to an agent or editor, make the most of it. If he or she doesn’t like your first pitch, try another. Come prepared to pitch any ideas you have when you have the chance.
  • Hire an editor to help you with your query letter. You only get one chance to impress an agent, so give the query everything you’ve got, Klems said. (Especially if you only send out three!)

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  • Be kind, useful, and network. Never badmouth an agent or author online; the publishing world isn’t that big, and who wants to work with a writer they perceive as being negative? Be useful by following agents and authors on social networks like Twitter and sharing their Tweets and other valuable information. Be an advocate for writers you admire — write positive reviews for them — and network with other writers. You may find your next beta readers, and maybe they’ll have a connection with magazines or agents.

I’ll post more great tips I learned at the conference in the next couple of weeks, so stay tuned! And feel free to share any advice you’ve learned about improving your odds of getting published.

 

Freedom on Freemont Street

A couple of weeks ago I visited Las Vegas with my husband. It was my third or fourth trip, and I always approach the city with mixed feelings. On the one hand, you can’t beat the place for glitzy distraction — who can feel anxious or annoyed when watching strings of water shoot through the air in time to “Luck Be a Lady Tonight” at the fountain in front of the Bellagio Hotel? Who can’t feel a certain weird admiration at the giant slot machine on Freemont Street and its attached zip lines high above where people fly through the air like super heroes?

IMG_7745On the other hand, the discrepancy between the ridiculous wealth on “The Strip” and the bone-crushing poverty in other areas of the city, such as the streets surrounding Freemont (the “old” strip) is pretty hard to take. While tourists dine at the all-you-can-eat lobster buffet at Caesar’s Palace, Vietnam Veterans make roses out of palm leafs to sell for around $2. I felt really depressed as we drove down one downtown street, where abandoned motels stood gated and decrepit, their windows boarded with ply wood or painted black. Every now and then someone pushing a shopping cart full of clothes and blankets would appear at an intersection, waiting to cross the street. “You get the feeling that people really struggle in Vegas,” said my husband.

But when I visited Container Park, which is just down the road from Freemont, I felt a little bit more hopefull. Created from repurposed shipping containers and locally-made “Xtreme Cubes,” the shopping center is only about two years old. I went into “Art Box,” a store selling creations by local artists, and bought a Dr. Who-inspired necklace for my mum made by the owner’s wife (Kellie Kroplinski).

Outside Container Park is a metal heart covered with locks (likely inspired by the Paris bridge) by artist Nova May.

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And in front of Container Park is a giant praying mantis that can shoot fire:

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And in the surrounding streets, I discovered a bunch of really interesting murals. I haven’t been able to find out much about who painted them or why, but I believe they are part of the Las Vegas Centennial celebration of 2005, which invited public and private businesses to host murals throughout the city. Here are a few of my favorites…

Las Vegas mural     Las Vegas mural

Las Vegas mural     Las Vegas mural

These murals and Container Park really saved Vegas for me, adding another layer to an otherwise pretty obvious city. If Las Vegas can create art as beautiful and wacky as the murals and a place as unique as Art Box, it must have something pretty special going for it!

Become a better creative writer with online classes!

Online creative writing classes at www.writingclasses.co.uk start today, but the first week is orientation, so you still have time to sign up! I know this because I’ve taken classes, and I used to tutor Creative Writing 1, Novel Writing 1, and (formerly) Intro. to Magazine Writing at the Edinburgh-based online school.

The Blue Suitcase
Director Marianne’s  historical novel

 

If you’re interested in creative writing — whether as a complete beginner or as an experienced writer who just needs a little boost — these are great classes! The tutors are so positive, and the notes and exercises help stretch your brain and get the creative thoughts zooming! Each course is 10 weeks, and you post writing assignments in public folders and comment on each others’ work. Students come from all corners of the globe — India, Scotland, England, Spain, Hong Kong, Dubai…

Anyway, I am still working away on The Rain Catcher and hope to post another snippet soon. Thanks to everyone who reads and supports my blog!

The Rain Catcher, Snippet 7

The Rain Catcher - High Resolutoin

After replacing the mangled tire with the spare “donut,” Mom and Aunt Claire had an argument about which road to take. Aunt Claire wanted to keep going straight, but Mom wanted to take a detour to a place called “Rest and Be Thankful,” where Great Auntie Fiona used to take them to when they were kids. She said that the pendulum had answered “Yes” when she asked it if the detour would bring us “good fortune.”

“Are you bonkers? It’ll add at least an hour to our trip,” Aunt Claire cried.

“Um…don’t we need to get a real tire soon? Those donut tires are just for emergencies.” Ever since I was tall enough to reach the clutch, Dad had drilled the basics of road safety into my brain.

“Doughnuts? What’s she talking about?” Aunt Claire jerked her head in my direction.”

“The spare tire, Claire,” Mom explained. “That’s what they call it in America.”

“Pffff! We don’t have time for all that. We need to get a move on.”

“I thought we were sightseeing,” I said. “Why are we in such a hurry?”

As usual, they ignored my question.

“All I know is, we don’t want to go against fortune. We need to stop at Rest and Be Thankful.” Mom folded her arms. I guessed that was the sign that nothing Aunt Claire said would make any difference because she groaned and turned left at the next intersection onto “Old Military Road.” She must have seen me staring at the sign.

“The soldiers who built the old road called the place we’re going to Rest and Be Thankful because the climb was so steep that they were thankful to have a place to stop and rest afterward,” Aunt Claire said.

“Is it? I didn’t know that?” Mom wove her hair into a long braid with her broad-knuckled fingers. I have Dad’s slim fingers, thankfully.

“Just because you did a year of art college doesn’t mean you’re the genius of the family!” Aunt Claire jerked the steering wheel as she maneuvered around a sharp bend in the two-lane road.

“Did you go to college, Aunt Claire?”

She huffed. “I did nursing for a while, but … it wasn’t really for me.”

“Mavis didn’t like it,” Mom sneered.

“Mavis? Ewan’s mom? What does she have to do with it?”

“Exactly!” I felt glad that Mom agreed with me but also a little sorry for Aunt Claire, who sank down into her seat.

“It didn’t work out, that’s all,” she said. No one spoke for a while. We rounded a bend, and the trees opened up to reveal a beautiful valley.

“Wow!” I rolled the window down, enjoying the feel of wind brushing against my face after being in the stuffy, burnt-rubber-dead-cat smelling car for what felt like hours.

Aunt Claire parked at a small overlook, and we got out and stretched. Grassy hills with purple flowers spread before us, and a little stream trickled through the middle. The wind pushed clouds across the sky, and the valley grew dark, then light, as if giant fingers played across the sun.

“Just breathe in that air!” Mom closed her eyes and took a deep breath. I copied her, breathing until my nostrils stung with the chill. I smelled grass, damp and mossy, and the icy water in the stream (which I imagined tasted like peppermint). When I opened my eyes, the view looked brighter, as if someone had poured cold water over everything, washing away the dust and old faded colors.

“I wish I lived here,” I said. “Then I could see this view every day!”

Mom stood with her face to the sun, her eyes still eyes closed. Aunt Claire sat on the grass, still wearing her sunglasses, legs tucked under her. She plucked a blade of grass and chewed on it like I’ve seen Granddad do. He lives on a farm in Mebane that his family used to own. Granddad still plants tobacco. He lets the leaves grow bigger and bigger until Dad gets tired of looking at the overgrown field and hauls out the tractor. Then Dad and I help Granddad hang the tobacco leaves in the barn and hose them down to get rid of all the bugs and dirt.

The leaves dry in the barn for about two weeks, and then Granddad sticks the leaves in the old pottery kiln Grannny made back when she was still alive. He bakes them for days and days – I don’t even know how long – and then he sells the tobacco at the farmer’s market and to old-timers who live near him and make their own cigarettes. Sometimes, a lady from Asheville buys the leaves to make dolls and wreaths out of them. He’s pretty busy, my Granddad.

I didn’t tell Mom any of this; she looked too thoughtful on the hillside, her braid bobbing in the wind. I thought about what my life would be if we’d stayed in Scotland instead of moving to North Carolina when I was three. Would we live in a tiny flat like Mom, or would Dad have bought something bigger with its own yard? Did they even have private yards over here?

One thing was for sure – I’d have to wear a school uniform.

Aunt Claire groaned. “I’m knackered! Let’s get a bacon roll and a cup of tea.”

“What’s a bacon roll?” I ran to keep up as she marched toward a van parked at the side of the overlook. I hadn’t noticed before, but it was actually a tiny cafe out here in the middle of nowhere!

Mom strolled behind us. “Your Great Auntie Fiona used to take us here on Sundays in her old banger.”

“What’s an old banger?”

“It’s an old car. The rust had worn through the floor, and the car got puddles when it rained.”

“Why didn’t she buy a new one?”

“We’re not rich like you Americans!” Aunt Claire snapped.

I frowned. “We’re not rich.” Dad has an old truck, too, but he’d get it fixed if holes started to wear in the floor.

We reached the tea van, and Mom started digging in her bag. “Oh, I need to stop by a bank. I’ve no cash.”

Aunt Claire folded her arms but didn’t say anything.

“I have some money,” I piped up.

“No, I’ll pay,” Aunt Claire said, holding up a hand. “Liz can pay me back later. She’s due.”

We sat on the grass eating bacon rolls (Delicious! Rolls are like floury hamburger buns but with more flavor, and Scottish bacon is juicy and thick like Canadian ham.)

“Ewan was born here,” Aunt Claire said, her mouth full of food.

“Really?” Mom leaned forward to look at her sister. I sat in the middle, stuffing my face; I hadn’t realized how hungry I was. Even though we’d left Edinburgh super-early, the flat tire and tea stops had slowed us down, and it was nearly lunchtime.

“Aye, Mavis was eight months pregnant when she and Eddie drove up here for a picnic. That was before they were married, and before Eddie drank himself to death, obviously.”

I glanced at my aunt. People didn’t say stuff like “drank themselves to death” in front of me in North Carolina. Dad was careful about what I watched on TV (which is aggravating when all my friends are allowed to watch “Saturday Night Live,” and I’m not!). He doesn’t even want me to watch “The People’s Court” when I’m home sick.

“They hit a bump, and her water broke,” Aunt Claire continued. I winced, hoping she wasn’t going to go in to a lot of details about fluids and umbilical cords. In health class, the teacher showed us a movie about the beauty of childbirth. I missed the actual “beauty” part because my eyes had been closed the whole time.

“So, Eddie parked here, bought two cups of tea and a bacon roll from the van, and by that time Ewan had made his grand entrance.”

“Good grief!” Mom slapped her forehead. “He was eating a bacon roll while Mavis was giving birth?”

“Sort of tells you the kind of person he was…”

“I can see why Mavis is the way she is,” Mom said. “That must’ve been quite traumatic.”

Aunt Claire brushed crumbs off her jeans and stood up. “We’d better start movin’, folks,” she said in a fake American accent, winking at me.

“Is that supposed to be American?”

She laughed – the first time I’d heard her laugh – and patted me on the back.

On the way back to the car, we stopped to listen to a bagpiper who’d appeared a few feet away from the tea van. His face swelled as he blew into the pipes and squinted against the wind.

“That’s ‘Flower of Scotland’.” Mom threw a pound coin into the cap by the piper’s foot.

“I thought you didn’t have any cash,” Aunt Claire cried.

Mom hurried toward the car, apparently not hearing her sister. “Time waits for no man!”

“Hmmph!” Aunt Claire stomped toward the car, her good mood trampled like the muddy ground under our feet. A few minutes down the road, Aunt Claire’s cellphone began to buzz. Mom and I held our breaths as she wedged the cell phone between her chin and shoulder and tried to steer and shift gears at the same time. The car wobbled over to the wrong side of the road for a few seconds. I closed my eyes.

“Mavis? I have no idea where he is. Don’t phone me again.” Aunt Claire threw the phone behind her; it bounced off my seat and landed on the floor.

“What did she want?” I asked, curious.

“None of your business!” Mum and Aunt Claire barked at the same time. Jeez!