Writing Naked, Breaking Out of Your Comfort Zone!

We write, picking each word carefully. We highlight/delete, chose more precious words, rewrite and rewrite and then after months, years, maybe even decades, it’s still not everything we know it can be.

We might start working on something else, thinking time and distance might give us new perspective, and while that may be helpful, we might also want to get in touch with our inner Freud. What are we over looking, not just in the story but inside ourselves?

I’m currently doing revisions and having that feeling that the story could be great. Not just good, but something really special. But it’s missing something. My agent was able to put her finger on it.

Overtime, I’ve gotten too close to my main character and too protective. Characters in stories get hurt. Sometimes a little. Sometimes a lot. I’d built a safety net beneath her, and I was making certain she stayed over it. In short, I started controlling the character instead of letting her go where she needs to go, even if it’s somewhere I’m not particularly comfortable with.

As artists, we have to be honest in our writing, and that means letting the characters tell their stories. They may go somewhere we’re not comfortable. We may have to strip down our barriers, our emotions, maybe even our values, to keep it honest and real. We may have to write naked, figuratively speaking — especially if you have children or nosey neighbors!

In short, we have to lose ourselves enough to let the muse use us, to let the characters use us. But we also have to know where our comfort zones are, and we have to be wiling to step out of them, if that’s where our characters take us.

Zombies and other Antagonists!

The other day I was meeting with some fellow teachers and writers and the topic of zombies came up, particularly why people seem to love them so much. I started thinking about the flesh-eating, walking dead who make squishy sounds when they’re killed and why we do seem to love them. And yes, in case you’re wondering, I am one of the many Walking Dead fans currently going through squishy, gory, skull-stomping withdrawal!

I think we love zombies because in a world with many shades of gray, zombies are easy. They’re bad. They want to eat us. They don’t feel any emotion or seem to feel any pain. As a matter of fact, killing them seems more like an act of mercy than cruelty. So often in society we’re not quite sure who’s good and who’s bad. Do we trust the person who pulled over to help us with our flat tire, or the person claiming to have a flat and needing to use our phone? Do we trust the ice cream truck driver who has the eerie sign tacked to the side of the truck that reads Beware Children or our neighbor who spends countless hours in the garage each night, with the door shut.

We like zombies because they’re scary and clear cut. But what about in our writing? Do readers like villains who are just plain bad?

There may be something comforting in the serial killing psychopath hiding behind the shower curtain, but as writers, we have to beware the Disney-ish bad guys who are all bad.

For one, readers can see them coming a mile away. And two, they can be boring and cartoonish. Three, complex characters tend to be more interesting.

My favorite “bad guy” from any movie is Russell Crowe’s portrayal of the murderous cowboy in 310 to Yuma.  He was SO bad, but there was something likable about the guy. You never doubted that he was a ruthless killer, but you started to doubt whether or not he was a heartless killer. It caused a complexity that was intriguing because you’re cheering on the protagonist but…you kind of want the bad guy to get away too.

I suppose in writing, there is room for the 100% evil bad guys — the Cruella Deville’s of the world. But if we’re going for a realistic feel to our writing, the reality is that most people aren’t all good or all bad. There truly are a hundred shades of gray, maybe a thousand. So beware what kind of villains to write about, and don’t take the garbage out after dark. You never know what’s going on behind the neighbor’s garage door.

Here’s the pitch!

I know that it’s hard to think about spring when the wind is howling and for some of us, the snow is blowing. But spring will come and that means writing conferences! While you can find lots of helpful information online about query writing, conference pitching is something that could use more attention.

Agents receive hundreds of queries a week. Depending on the agency, maybe even thousands. Since bribery is frowned upon, especially money and certified letters saying you’ll give up a kidney to any of their family members who might need one if they’ll just read your manuscript, it’s difficult to get the agent’s attention.

That’s where conferences come in. If the conference allows pitching sessions to agents, and to be honest I always chose to spend my money at conferences that did, then this is the perfect opportunity to have an agent’s complete attention. So what’s the best way to pitch your work?

Rehearse. Think of pitching your book like an audition. You wouldn’t go to an audition without preparing, and pitching is no different. Most of you have probably heard the elevator analogy, where you imagine that you happen to find yourself on an elevator with the agent of your dreams. You have at most three or four floors to convince the agent that he or she should read your manuscript. What do you say?

I remember going to the OWFI conference some years ago. My husband and I went down the night before and stayed in eco-friendly hotel room. That basically meant the room was the size of a closet and the air conditioner, which sounded like a lawn motor, was up against the bed. I didn’t sleep all night and to make matters worse, I hadn’t practiced my pitch. For some reason I thought I knew the book well enough and thought that a spontaneous pitch would sound fresh.

It was a disaster. Especially when the agent, who was trying to be very polite, started asking questions that, to my amazement, I couldn’t answer. How could I not have answers to questions about my own book? But I was so frustrated because I knew it wasn’t going well, and I knew I’d blown the opportunity.

Conferences aren’t cheap, and they don’t come around that often, especially if you live in the midwest. A few years later I attended a pitching competition, and I was determined to have a positive experience. I practiced writing a pitch that I thought would make people HAVE to read the book.

I timed myself, trimmed down the words that weren’t as powerful and practiced emphasizing the words that were. I practiced and practiced and even though we were allowed to read our pitches, I kept eye contact with the panel of judges. At the one minute mark, I had one word left of the pitch and even though I was out of time, I blurted it out. “Corpse!”

These are the months to start researching conferences and preparing for them. This is your work. This is what you’ve spent countless hours to create. Take the time to prepare yourself. Your work deserves it.

Below is the pitch I gave for Deadly Design, the pitch that led to me getting my wonderful agent. I’m especially fond of that last word!

Connor and Kyle are identical twins. Having been genetically modified, both are extremely handsome, athletic, and intelligent. They were also born two years apart. Due to their parents’ fear of yet another miscarriage, Connor was born, while Kyle stayed behind, frozen in a fertility lab.

Connor’s perfect; he’s a track star, quarterback of the football team, valedictorian of the senior class, and Kyle’s good at video games. How can he compete with his older brother? Being born second meant he lost the coin toss. That is until children born at the Genesis Fertility Labs start dying on their eighteenth birthdays.

Now Kyle has two years to find the mysterious doctor who created them. Two years to solve the mystery in his DNA before he becomes yet another athletic, intelligent, blue-eyed corpse.

Confession

Okay, yesterday I posted about why writers write. And the truth is I had intended to go somewhere a little different with it, but as you may have noticed, I try to be very positive and upbeat in these posts.

The truth is the reasons we write sometimes change. At first, we may write to prove to ourselves that we can. Then to prove to others that our work means something and that it’s good enough to be read. Good enough to be published.

Validation of what we love is often what drives us, but things can change.

Writing has always been something I love. Even when I was little and could barely put words together, I was dreaming up stories and scribbling them in notebooks. But now there’s something that I love more than writing: my children. And one of them has been diagnosed with a pretty sucky disease.  He’s an awesome, strong, young man, and I know his life will be fulfilling and wonderful. I know he’ll reach his goals, but I know they’ll be hard fought for. And more than anything, I know that I want to be there for him if and when he needs me.

Does this mean I love writing less? Absolutely not. If anything, I love it more. I need it more. I need it to keep me brave and strong. I need it to exorcise the demons that come to roost inside of me. And I need it to feel like I can have power over what happens in the worlds that I create, if not in this world.

Sorry this isn’t as upbeat and positive as usual, but as writers, we have to keep it real.

Why We Write?

Right now, I’m supposed to working on rewrites of a novel I promised I would have to my agent before January 1st. Well, it’s New Year’s Eve and I’m not quite done, but I wanted to take a moment to talk about why we write.

Some say writers write because they have to. Because we’re wired with so many thoughts and emotions that if we don’t release them, we’ll explode, but instead of our bloody guts oozing down walls and clinging to the ceiling fans, it will be emotions — happy faces, sad faces, anguish like even Van Gogh couldn’t capture — painted on the walls and the ceilings.

I don’t know if I totally agree with that theory, although I love the romanticism of it. The idea that no matter what, we writers will find the strength and the courage to write.

Knowing why we do something is important. Life is short. We are sadly reminded of that fact each day. Another plane goes down, a friend dies unexpectedly, a relative gets a tough diagnosis. Or maybe we do.

So why do we spend what precious time we have on this earth, writing the stories of people who live only in the realm of our imaginations?

Is it because of our mortality? Is it because if our dreams come true, someday when we’re long in the ground, someone will be scanning the books on a library shelf and pick up the bound pages we created? They will read our words and somehow our thin, decomposing lips will curve into a smile.

Is it because, and God help us if it is, we believe we’ll make a lot of money. That our books will sell and we’ll have enough money to buy our freedom from the mundane lives we feel trapped in, lives spent behind desks or in front of classrooms or chained to factory or fast food counters?

I remember thinking that I’ll get published and I’ll be able to stay home with my babies and write. Hmmmm. My babies aren’t babies anymore. By the time I got my book deal for Deadly Design, my youngest was already proficient in “that’s what she said” jokes.

Why do we write?

Maybe it’s all the above. Maybe it’s none of the above.

Maybe it falls in the same category as why humankind felt compelled to learn how to fly or why people risk their lives to climb Mt. Everest. Maybe there’s just something in us.

Maybe it doesn’t matter.

All I know is that the world, even for all it’s beauty, would be a dull place if it weren’t for the stories. Awww. The stories. Maybe we don’t write because we have to write or because we dream of fame and fortune. Maybe we write because the stories have to be told.

Well, speaking of stories, I should get back to work. There are so many stories forming like new galaxies out in the universe. So let’s all get to work.

May 2015 give birth to many, many stories.