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Archive for April, 2009

What makes a book good?  Is it the proper use of punctuation or grammar?   Is it the plot line?  Is it the quippy one-liners spat out by the leading lady?   What makes a book good to you?

For me, it’s a combination of things.  First of all, the plot has to be something I’m interested in.  A good story, regardless of poor punctuation and grammar is still a good story.  Personality in the characters, people I can relate to are also important.  If I can somehow put myself in the shoes of the protagonist, or even the antagonist, I’m more likely to get involved in the story to a point where I won’t want to put it down. 

Puctuation and Grammar are not that important – to me – in the telling of a great story.  Does that mean that they’re not important?  Absolutely not.  Poor punctuation and grammar can be very distracting, even to the point where the reader can become so distracted that they put down the book.  Puctuation and Grammar are important, as far as ensuring your reader understands the point of the story; can follow along and not feel like they’re lost in a haze of missplaced comma’s and periods.

When I write, I am very conscientious of how the reader might feel.  I even take the time to read aloud what I have just written to make sure it flows just right.  I find myself bothered by other writers who don’t do the same.  There is a series of books out there that I am reading, and one of my biggest complaints is that the punctuation, and in some cases grammar and spelling, are getting in the way of the story.  What bothers me more, is that the book series is a New York Times Best Seller.  I find myself questioning, did the book sell so many because of the  popularity of its subject matter?  Or did people really find it that great that they spread the word and it sold like hot cakes? 

What makes a book good to you?  What is important to you, as the reader, when it comes to the telling of a great story?

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I joined a writer’s group about six months ago so that I could learn more about the writing process.  What I have discovered is more than any creative writing class could give me.

My writer’s group meets twice a month at the local library.  We go over various things, such as grammar, perspective, voice, creating unique and strong characters and setting as well as the whole publishing process.  We share our stories, our hard work and gain feedback from our peers.

I have discovered that while my work is not perfect, at least I am on the right path.  Joining a group where I have to read my work out loud to a circle of strangers was intimidating; still is intimidating in fact, but it has helped me more than any class could ever do.

Creative writing classes teach you how to properly build a story from beginning to end.  The group teaches how to do the same thing, but you also get the honest opinion of your peers, without having to pay for the class or worry about passing or failing.  If my story is awful – they tell me.  If my story is great – they tell me, and I get the opportunity to do the same for them.

Joining a creative writing group has been a very rewarding experience, and I highly recommend it to anyone who is interested in writing professionally.

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How many of you out there have written a query letter to an agent or publishing house only to be rejected?  I have done it more than once, and let me say this, “Queries are Hard!”

Nobody ever told me when I decided I wanted to become a writer that I’d have to be a salesperson too.  I figured that’s why you hired an agent.  The agent is your stand-in sales person.  They sell you to the publisher who then uses their marketing experts to sell you to the public.  Who would have guessed that you’d have to sell yourself.

So what, you may ask, is a writer to do?  Well, according to a favorite blog of mine by the staff at Bookends Literary Agency (http://bookendslitagency.blogspot.com/), the first step is to write a good query.  Not exactly an easy task.  I personally have written several, trashed them, and written more only to have them be rejected.  Now, the question is, is my query bad, or is my story bad.  Without feedback from an agent, how does one know?  Well, I’ll leave that to you – the reader.  Here is a query I have written for my book Jacob’s War.  Please comment and tell me what you, as the reader, think.

 

Dear [Insert Agent Here],

Jacob never truly experienced life until he graduated High School.

 

As a young boy, the untimely death of his parents left Jacob Lewis no choice but to move from his home in Los Angeles, California to live with his grandmother in a small town in northern Colorado.  His grandmother’s strict religious beliefs and hatred of the arts force Jacob to hide his passion for painting as well as his love and friendship with Jessica Stephens.  When Jessica is accepted into Art School, Jacob finds himself doing a little soul searching, that is until he discovers that his grandmother has enrolled him in Seminary School. 

 

Unwilling to waste his talents on someone else’s dream, Jacob decides he must find a way out.  He can follow in his father’s footsteps and join the US Army, or follow his heart and the love of his life into the unknown.  Jacob will discover that getting what you want isn’t always as easy as it sounds, and he will have to fight to remain true to himself.

 

Completed at approximately 68,000 words, Jacob’s War, is a contemporary women’s fiction piece that fits in with other books such as those written by Nicholas Sparks, but with a darker side that will leave the reader on the edge of their seat. 

 

Jacob’s War is a great story for anyone who is leaving home for the first time and venturing forth on their own; or anyone who remembers the hardships associated with finding your place in the world.  As a former student of the arts, and a native to the state of Colorado, I have had the privilege of seeing first hand the struggles that Jacob faces.  The increased interest in the art culture as well as the current battle between religion and society makes Jacob’s War a surefire hit.

 

If you are interested in reading Jacob’s War, I will be happy to forward it to you.  Thank you for your time, and I look forward to your response.

 

Sincerely,
Jennifer Harrison

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The sun shone bright in the sky overhead, like midday before the gunfight in one of those old westerns.  As I looked around, I could even see tumbleweeds blowing across the open road.  Golden fields stretched as far as the eye could see on either side of that road, and I had no idea where I was. 

 

With my arms crossed over my chest, I looked both ways and not knowing where to go, I began to walk.  I could feel blood trickling down my forehead.  I even felt it stop when the wind blew, pushing it up and into my hair. 

There were no cars anywhere, no signs of life, unless you counted me, and the empty road that was clearly paved by someone.  My feet ached, but somehow, something told me I had to keep on walking. 

 

I looked down the length of my body.  My sundress was torn; my legs were bare and skinned.  I raised my hands to my face and could see cuts across my palms.  My arms ached, and they too were covered in deep wounds, though luckily they had stopped bleeding.

 

I watched as the sun overhead moved across the sky, from being directly overhead, to being almost behind me.  I tried to remember what that meant, but there was nothing.  No memory of anything other than what it was.  Which way was I walking, I had nothing but the hope that it was toward somewhere.

 

I kept moving, my legs, my feet, aching more and more, begging and pleading with me to stop.  I felt like I was in a dream, but you can’t hurt in dreams, can you?  I remember something about pinching yourself to know for sure if you’re dreaming or not.  If you felt pain, you couldn’t possibly be dreaming.  I pinched myself, and it hurt.

 

I looked around again, and still there was no one in sight.  How long had I been walking?  I didn’t know.  The only thing I did know was that I had to go on, to keep moving, but to where?  Where was I?  How did I get out here?  My mind was filling with questions I didn’t have the answer to.  

 

The golden fields stretched for what must be miles on either side of me.  There were no buildings in sight, not a single landmark to tell me how far I had come.  There was not even a sign of a town or even a rest area.I passed another mile-marker sign, at least I assume that’s what it was, but I lost track of how many I had passed along the way.

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Writing allows you to create a story in which anything you want to happen can and will happen.  But what if your characters take over the story and begin doing what they want to do?  Seems pretty unbelievable, right?  Or perhaps the word you would use is impossible.  But is it?  Is it impossible for characters to take over a story and write it their way?

I have spoken to different authors about the methods in which they write.  Most will actually sit down, and create an outline from beginning to end, with all the stuff in the middle.  They plan everything out, from the moment the character enters the room, to the moment they save the world.  They create character outlines, summaries and detailed notebooks with everything you ever wanted to know about a character, whether or not that information would be included in the book.  Even the famous J.K. Rowling did this – remember the mania over the “Dumbledore is gay” statement?  A simple fact that only she knew, and yet it impacted the entire reading community when it came out.

The characters created by the “outlining” authors have no room to stray from their set path.  They are told where to go and what to do and there is no room left for discussion.  But what about the other writers.  The writers who sit down without a plan.  The ones who just put pen to paper and write.  Can their characters stray?  Yes, yes they can.  And they do.

I was a firm believer in creating an outline, writing a plot summary, planning out every detail of my characters before I even wrote the first line of my story.  Sure, it would take me months of planning before I was ready to write, but that was what made the writing easier, right?  I could sit down, my outline in front of me and I always knew what was going to happen next.  Everything was going great, until one of my characters decided she didn’t want to go to the dance.  She didn’t want to wear that dress.  I had to ask myself, “She can’t do that, can she?”

The story became a struggle, and I had to force my character into the long lavendar gown.  I had to force her to take those few steps over the threshold and into the gymnasium where the school dance was being held.  Why did I have to do this?  Because somehow, she got it in her head that there was something else, something more important to be done at that moment.

I began doing some research, trying to find out if I had actually lost my mind, or if this sort of thing had happened to other writers as well, and wouldn’t you know it, I wasn’t alone.  Even the great author Laurell K. Hamilton as mentioned how her character Anita Blake would refuse her “help” and go about things her own way.  The characters know where they’re going, what they’re going to do, and will do it whether you give them permission to or not.  The characters make up the story as they go, and if ever they get stuck, they rely upon the imagination of their creator – the writer.

Writers using this second method often times turn out stories far different from their original idea.  And, while writing like this can be difficult, looking into a dark pit and not knowing where you’ll end up, it’s adventurous and exciting.  Who knew that writing a book could be as much fun as reading one – especially when, as the writer, you don’t know what’s going to happen next.

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I never gave much thought to Point of View, Tense or even Voice until I started editing my own work.  After all, a great writer just has to sit down with a good idea and write, right?  Wrong.

It took me a few edits to fully realize that writing is hard work.  You take for granted all the work that went into the crafting of each and every book on the shelf in the local library.  The hours of painstaking work put into each book in the book store.  Even the bad books (the books we’d disregard without a second’s hesitation) took a lot of time and effort.  Blood, sweat and tears as my father would say.

I never thought a story could/should be written from a first person point of view.  To me, it was arrogant and pushy.  I always wrote in the third person, i.e. “Jane looked down at the pillow she was holding. ”  Third person let me see the world from the shoulder of whomever I needed in order to tell the story to it’s fullest extent.  It allowed me to distance myself from the characters and let them do stupid things without me feeling the need to interfere.  The problem, however, is that it did not allow me to fully “feel” the characters; to give them the emotion they needed.  Readers could not connect with Jane because she had no depth, no soul.

I rewrote Remembering Jane from the first person perspective, though it was painful at first.  I felt strange, as though I were trying to be somebody or something I wasn’t.  It felt as though I was forcing my thoughts and my opinions on the characters in my story, but I made myself continue.  I had to find a way to breathe life into my characters, otherwise they’d remain as flat as paper dolls and be just as easily discarded.

One draft down, and already, Jane was becomming more real.  She has personality, thoughts, feelings, wants and desires.  Reading through it a second, third and even fourth time, I realized that writing in the first person wasn’t arrogant after all.  By using “I,” I was able to put myself into her shoes and give her the feelings and emotions necessary for her to continue on, to make the decisions she needed, and face the problems that arose throughout the story.

Remembering Jane is still far from done.  There are other factors to consider in her story, such as the voice and tone as well as the tense used when telling it.  I once thought writing was easy, that books were written in a matter of weeks.  Who knew that simply jotting the story down would take a few months, and then editing would take several more (and I’m not even talking about the months/years it takes to find a publisher willing to take a risk). 

Writing is hard work.  It is a job, a job I love (though sometimes I desperately feel like quitting).  It takes passion and dedication and more importantly – the support of those around you to keep on going.

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After writing Remembering Jane, I wanted to get it published.  After all, isn’t that the point of writing – to get published so others can read your amazing work?  I didn’t know what the best route was, so I contacted Random House.  Within a day or two, they had replied to my inquiries with a simple suggestion.  Check out the Writers Market. 

I had absolutely no idea what they were talking about, so I did the obvious thing.  I googled it.  A long drive downtown and fourty five dollars later, I had myself a shiny new copy of The Writers Market – an awesome book.  I flipped through it, not even sure where to begin.  This single book contained everything I needed in order to get myself published (or so I thought).  I went first to the lists of publishers out there and immediately began jotting down their requirements.

I bought a roll of stamps and some of those giant yellow envelopes and began sending off queries and sample chapters.  I marked my calendar with the dates I expected to have responses by, and sat back anxiously awaiting what I knew for sure would be success. 

A few weeks passed, and I received that first rejection letter.  Okay, that stung a little, but everyone gets rejected at least once.  Even Stephen King wasn’t immune to the “No Thanks” from a publisher or two. 

Then I received another and then another “No.”  All in the form of a standard “Form Rejection Letter.”  Clearly I had done something wrong.  Not all publishers could say “No” to a surefire success. 

I pulled up my book and read through it.  Wow, it was amazing how after only a few months, I had forgotten a lot of what I had written, and what’s worse, it wasn’t written all that well.   Sure, it was still a good story, but there were so many things that could be better.

So now what, I asked myself.  What do you do when you receive countless “No’s” from publishers regarding something you poured your heart into?  You keep on trying.  I’m not sure if that’s the right answer or not – but it was for me. 

I had moved onto another story, trying to keep my nerves from taking over me as I awaited the remaining rejections from publishers that I knew were coming.  I decided now was the time to focus on something different and I could go back and work on “Jane” again in the future.  The time away would gain me some perspective. 

After a year away from “Jane,” I think I’m ready to go back.  As I read through it now, I find it even worse than I had a year ago.  I guess that means my writing is getting better.  It’s true what they say, practice makes perfect, and with each new story I write, I find my skills a little more sharp, a little more intact. 

I saved each of the rejection letters I received in my attempt to publish Remembering Jane.  They serve as a reminder that even though my friends and family may tell me my story belongs on a shelf in the book store, there are many out there – the many who hold all the cards – and they have a very different opinion.  One much more critical and hard to stomach.

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