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May 2013

You Know You’re a Writer When…

SAMSUNGYou never outgrew your imaginary friends. In fact, they ended up moving into your college dorm room with you.

If it came down to choosing between books and oxygen, you would have to think about it.

You’re seriously bummed time travel hasn’t been invented yet, and you’re probably not going to get over it.

If you don’t write for a while your brain ends up feeling like a huge zit that needs to be popped.

You’ve gotten severe jet lag before, from visiting a planet that doesn’t exist.

You actually know what it’s like to experience paralyzing hand cramps from writing too hard and too long…on a regular basis.

While others fantasize about walking the red carpet, you fantasize about your photo on the back of a book jacket.

You’re a certified black belt in the art of procrastination.

When you hear the phrase, “a life well-lived,” you immediately think about finishing your novel.

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5 Best Writing Prompts

SAMSUNGTraditional writing prompts usually ask questions or state an opinion to get the writer arguing a point, or imagining some of the many possible answers. But most writers already have ideas, questions, and half-formed characters swirling around in their heads. What we really need are strategies to help us dive deep into our imaginations and pull out the glowing embers hiding in there.

Here’s my list of the 5 best (non-traditional) writing prompts.

Music
Make a playlist of anything you want—so long as it’s a little bit random. Google “songs about rain” or “songs about war” or even just add your favorite songs you’ve been listening to recently. Then set aside one hour some evening when you can be totally alone. Sit or lie down comfortably in a dark room and listen to your playlist. Do nothing but listen and let yourself drift.

How It Works
Being alone and in a dark room will cut down on distraction and enhance the effect of the music on you. Music stirs the emotions, and urges us to think in images instead of words. Powerful stuff for the creative writer. When your listening time is up, sit down with a pad of paper and jot down whatever came into your head as you were enjoying the songs.

Talking about Your Characters
Pick a friend or a member of your writing group and ask them if they would be willing to sit and ask you questions about your characters, and then let you ramble on about them when you get into the flow. You can do this exercise anywhere, as long as it’s one-on-one and uninterrupted.

How It Works
Talking about our characters out loud helps us unearth things about them that we never before suspected. And having an outside party ask questions spurs us to examine parts of them we hadn’t before discovered. Just make sure to keep a notepad with you as you do this exercise and write down the details so you don’t forget them later.

Taking a Shower
Have you ever noticed that you get some of the best ideas while you’re in the shower? What if you set the intention to focus on writing ideas before you even got in and started shampooing? Tape a note to the bathroom mirror to remind yourself to use shower-time as writing-idea-brainstorming-time.

How It Works
When our bodies are engaged in routine, mundane tasks that we’ve done repetitively so many times we could do them in our sleep, our minds tend to slip into the alpha state. Alpha is somewhere between sleeping and alert wakefulness. It’s the state you’re in when you’re daydreaming and it’s an extremely fertile ground for creativity. This is why you get so many good ideas in the shower, and this is why you should always put this time to good use.

People Watching
Go to the mall, or downtown to a busy intersection, and plop yourself down to watch everything that goes on. Spend 15 or 30 minutes, or even an hour if you’re really into it, but devote yourself to nothing but watching. Bring a notebook with you and record anything interesting that pops into your head about the people passing you by.

How It Works
As writers, we don’t need much to get our imaginations going. An old lady in a fur coat, a guy wearing a crazy hat, a kid with a pet turtle—anyone can be inspiration for the next character in our novel. You can take full advantage of this natural tendency to play detective by exposing yourself to large and diverse numbers of people in a short amount of time.

Drawing
This is another exercise to do alone, while you have some quiet time. You can use a notebook, or big sheets of paper, or post-it notes. And same goes for drawing implements—ink pens, crayons, color markers, anything goes. Whatever you prefer, sit down and start drawing anything that comes into your head. Then draw a story around it.

How It Works
A writer’s first choice of expression is usually words, but we are still creatively tied to our hands no matter how technologically advanced we become. Using your hands to tell a story through pictures gets your creativity engine up and running. The bright colors and whimsical playfulness help a lot too. Access your inner child to remind yourself how fun writing can be again.

Writing takes hard work and discipline, yes, but it also takes curiosity, spontaneity, and joyfulness. The goal of each of these exercises is to have fun. If you finish one of them and feel excited and full of delicious energy, then you did it right. If you weren’t able to fully surrender into it, then do it again.

Now go play!

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How to Build Your Agent List

SAMSUNGYou’ve finally done it! You finished your novel.

And then you revised it, and revised it again. Then you gave it out to first readers to get feedback. And then revised it again. You did a final-final spit-and-polish. And now you’re ready.

You are ready to start submitting queries to agents.

But how do you know who to submit to?

Building an agent list is the first step. Here’s how you do it…

List Your Must-Have’s
Must-haves include only the deal-breakers. “Accepts queries” is a must-have, for instance, because not all agents are accepting queries at all times. If an agent isn’t open to unsolicited queries, it’s obviously pointless to send them one. Another must-have is that the agent represents your category. If you’re shopping around a paranormal romance novel, don’t waste time on agents looking only for literary fiction.

List Your Nice-to-Have’s
This one will take a little more thinking on your part. Do you want an agent new to the field who’s aggressively building their client list? Or someone who’s got years of experience under their belt? Do you care if they’re male or female? Or where they are located? The relationship you’ll have with your agent is going to be a partnership. Ask yourself just as many questions about what you want as you would if you were looking for someone to date.

Add Anything that Gives You an Edge
Anything quirky, unusual or unconventional about your book should go on this list. If you’re writing experimental prose, for instance. Or if your novel is aimed at an LGBTQ audience. Or you’re the first person to do something amazing and you’ve written a memoir about it. Anything off-the-beaten path can be an advantage so make sure you get it on your list.

Now, using these criteria, you’re going to make these three lists:

A-List
B-List
C-List

Every agent that interests you will go on one of these lists.

Here’s how you know where they go:

A-List Agents meet:
All Must-Have’s
Most Nice-to-Have’s
If they are also looking for your particular quirky trait, they get an A-PLUS rating

B-List Agents meet:
All Must-Have’s
Some Nice-to-Have’s

C-List Agents meet:
All Must-Have criteria

Brainstorming your criteria and making your lists take time. However, once you have it all in place, it’s not that hard to add agents here and there as you do your research. When you start the querying process, you’ll really roll with your list on hand. And for those days when you’re feeling discouraged about looking for an agent, the list will take most of the work out of it for you. All you’ll have to do is send off the letter.

Make sure you know your category. Write an outstanding query letter. And then get started on researching agents and putting them into your lists. AgentQuery is particularly helpful in this process. Looking for an agent can be long and frustrating, but stay the course.

You will get there.

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Introverts, Empathy, and the Art of Creating Character

Blue WomanI am an introvert.

Growing up, I never would have admitted that. Up until a few years ago the label “introvert” pretty much meant socially awkward, shy, and kind of of dorky. And while I am also sometimes awkward, sometimes shy, and definitely a dork about certain things, when I say I’m an introvert I’m talking about something else entirely. Continue Reading

The Difference between a Job and a Calling

SAMSUNGMost of us have and/or need jobs. Jobs pay the bills and keep the lights on. But not everyone has a calling, or is even interested in finding out what it might be if they do.

Writers are different.

Almost all writers know they have a calling, and they know their calling is to write.

If you’re not sure of the difference, how can you tell?

Examine your reasons. And then explore your emotions.

Let’s use one of my fictional characters as an example:

Oliver is a writer by night. He writes dark fantasy novels about his hero, Octavio Sash, and his villain, the sinister Letitia von Campidonni. Oliver is passionate about world-building and battle scenes and he stays up late to get more pages down. By day, he works tech support for a corporate cable company. He sits in a call center and answers repetitive phone calls.

Here are Oliver’s reasons behind his choice to work tech support:

He needs to pay rent
He needs to pay all his other bills
He’s had tech support jobs before and so he already knows how to do it
Inertia

Here are Oliver’s emotions about working tech support:

Contentment (sometimes)
Frustration (sometimes)
Apathy (all the time)

You can see that if Oliver’s reasons and emotions were put on a graph, they would probably chart a steady line with a few tiny bumps here and there.

Now here are Oliver’s reasons behind his choice to write:

When he isn’t writing he feels like something important is missing from his life
He has always loved books and is naturally drawn to writing
Making up stories is something his brain does on its own, he can’t stop from doing it

Here are his emotions about writing:

Joy
Excitement
Accomplishment
Pride

…and a dozen others that can be summed up in just one word: Happiness.

If Oliver’s reasons and emotions about his writing were put on a graph, the line would go up and up and up.

Sometimes, too, the line would suddenly plunge down. That’s when Oliver falls into doubting himself or runs into seemingly impossible problems in his story. But when the line starts climbing up again, it climbs even higher than before. That’s because Oliver had to push himself beyond his boundaries, he had to grow, to stick with his calling.

A job that is “just a job” very rarely pushes us to grow. But our calling never stops pushing.

We all have bills to pay. I’m not suggesting you give up your day job. What I am suggesting is that you start giving your calling top priority. Your writing is the thing in your life that brings you joy, and excitement, and that delicious feeling of riding the line to the top of the graph. The most important thing you can do is feed it—with your love, your belief, your time and energy.

You will always find something else to do to pay the rent. You will never find another calling. Writing is it for you, you drew those cards. Own it. Start writing as if it’s the most important thing in your life.

Because it is.