Saturday, January 31, 2009

Random Stuff

Well, it is called "Random Jottings," so today you get a few random thoughts.

I recently posted about Twitter. I got into Twitter on the recommendation of my friend and colleague B. J. Hoff, and today B. J. posted about her current thoughts on the subject. Social networks can consume your life or be a nice way to keep up with a few friends. I have seen nothing that shows a presence there translates into increased sales, more speaking engagements, or any other tangible benefit other than what the name implies--social networking. Just my opinion, of course. And, by the way, don't be upset if you follow me on Twitter, but I don't follow you. I use it to keep up with a very small group of friends. Otherwise, it would consume my life, and that's busy enough already.

I'm also on FaceBook, again at the recommendation of other authors. Now there is definitely something that can take hold of your life and not let go. I've arranged it so that my "tweets" from Twitter are also posted on my FaceBook page, but don't expect to see me there a lot. On FaceBook, I was recently "tagged" by my agent and friend, Rachelle Gardner, in a game called "25 random things." I was supposed to post 25 random things about myself, then tag 25 other people. I don't respond to chain letters, I don't send money to Africa or Ireland in response to emails promising to make me a millionaire, and I don't "tag" people. But, to be a good sport, I did at least respond by posting such a list.

You may not be able to see my FaceBook page unless you join, so I'll close by sharing those 25 random things with you.

Here are 25 random things about me, some of which may actually be true:
1. I'm an only child (and act like it)
2. I grew up in a small town in Texas (and act like it)
3. I graduated from the University of North Texas (when it was North Texas State College)
4. I met my first wife when she was in nursing school on the campus of Southwestern Medical Center, where I was attending medical school.
5. I served almost three years in the Air Force as a medical officer.
6. I once knew how to speak Portuguese (but now only a few words).
7. My military service was in the Azores (thus, #6)
8. I've served as minister of music of a small Baptist congregation
9. I've sung with the Dallas Civic Chorus and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra
10. I played semi-pro baseball while I was in college
11. I could throw a curve ball, but couldn't hit one (thus, #12)
12. I never made it to the pros, but still love baseball
13. I can speak German
14. I'd love to go back to Germany, especially Freudenstadt in the Black Forest
15. My three children are each five years apart
16. I was in PTA for 22 years (see #15)
17. I never want to hear the phrase "PTA" again (see #16)
18. I lived for almost three decades in Duncanville, Texas
19. Duncanville is so small we couldn't afford a town drunk, we had to take turns.
20. I now live in Frisco, Texas, which is bigger (so I'm out of the rotation)
21. Kay and I drive Subarus--one apiece, each blue.
22. I won State in the Interscholastic League extemporaneous speech competition in 1953
23. I hate roller coasters and helicopters
24. My favorite color is blue. (see #21)
25. I don't "tag" other folks...but I forgive those who tag me.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

All A-Twitter

I was about to write this blog when I noticed that Rachelle Gardner had posted about it as well. Nevertheless, I decided to go ahead and let you know where I currently stand on the subject of Twitter. Perhaps inquiring minds want to know. Or not.

Everybody's tweeting, it seems. For those of you who've been in a cave in Kentucky for the past year or so, Twitter is the latest instrument on the social networking scene. If FaceBook is the opportunity to gossip over the back fence and keep up with your friends and neighbors (and half the civilized world, it seems at times), then Twitter is a quick "How ya' doin'?" as you pass on the street. Tweets (as Twitter posts are called) are limited to 140 characters. Not 140 words, but characters! It does teach one to keep their messages short, although I'm noticing a number of the folks that I follow circumventing this by posting second and third messages until they finish their thought. Sort of like "as I was saying, before I was so rudely interrupted."

There are a number of ways to manage Twitter on your computer. I started out using a free application called Twhirl, then switched to Tweetdeck (also free), and now have come back to Twhirl again. In my case, it was because I thought maybe Tweetdeck was slowing down my computer. Others have espoused one application or the other for varying reasons. For an excellent head-to-head comparison of the two, check out this post (from which the picture above was borrowed). It also has links to the two applications.

I've already made my feelings clear on the subject of over-communication and social networking, so I won't re-hash that subject. However, I will share my current thoughts about Twitter: I don't have time for this! At least not the way I started out. I learned early in the game that there are people who tweet twenty and thirty times a day, and if I followed them, I'd spend all day just reading their messages. I have decided that just because someone follows me, I don't have to reciprocate. Thus, I've limited the group I follow on Twitter to a couple of dozen people with whom I truly want to keep up.

Do I think Twitter increases my visibility as an author? I believe the jury is still out on that. Do I enjoy hearing from friends, some of whom I may only see once a year? Actually, I do. So, as long as I can keep the time and effort involved manageable, I'll probably continue to participate in Twitter. What about you? Feel free to leave me your thoughts...and I won't even limit you to 140 characters.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

"Use Your Words"...or Theirs

All of us have heard it. Limit your use of adjectives. Choose strong words that convey your meaning. Don't say 'He ran fast.' Say 'He sprinted.'

Today, as I read the news headlines, I saw this one. "Corning slashes up to 4900 jobs." Like most of you, I'm tired of reading bad news, so I let my eyes slide to the next story before I realized the headline writer was doing what we've been taught. Corning didn't lay off almost 5000 people, the company didn't cut that many jobs, they slashed their workforce by that number of people. Doesn't that verb convey a powerful image? Since I don't know anyone who works for Corning, I ordinarily wouldn't have any vested interest in this story except for the obvious effect this move will have on our already floundering economy. But after reading that headline, I went on to read the entire story. The headline writer hooked me. That's what we should do. Use strong verbs. Paint a word picture. Draw your reader in.

Watch the headlines, either on the web or in your local newspaper. Notice how many budgets get "trimmed" and extraneous items get "cut," while widespread reductions in the workforce are characterized by verbs like "slash." It's almost as though some of those people who write this stuff are trying to observe the same rules we "serious" writers do. Who'd have thought it?

And if you're looking for just the right word, may I once more recommend this tool that I've found particularly helpful.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Learn From Other Authors, But...

Frequent visitors to this site will recall my recurring advice for writers: read the work of other authors and learn from them. However, I think I need to append a coda to that song. Some things that have been published may not be the best examples for an aspiring writer. This is especially true when considering works that we consider "classics." You wouldn't dream of trying to mimic the style of William Shakespeare (or Frances Bacon, if you hold to that view) when writing a modern romance. Times change, styles change.

This was called to my attention recently when Kay forwarded to me a paragraph--actually just a sentence, a looooong sentence--from a classic work. That set me wondering what might happen if some of the authors of long ago had to submit their work nowadays. Let's have a look.

Dear Mr. DeFoe:

Thank you for submitting the manuscript for your novel, Robinson Crusoe (alternative title: Lost). I regret that we will not be able to accept it for publication. It is quite apparent that, if you are to move on as a writer, you must learn to express yourself more concisely. Simple declarative sentences in the active voice are necessary to keep the narrative flowing. For instance, consider this paragraph—or rather, this sentence—from your submission:

“He bade me observe it, and I should always find that the calamities of life were shared among the upper and lower part of mankind, but that the middle station had the fewest disasters, and was not exposed to so many vicissitudes as the higher or lower part of mankind; nay, they were not subjected to so many distempers and uneasinesses, either of body or mind, as those were who, by vicious living, luxury, and extravagances on the one hand, or by hard labour, want of necessaries, and mean or insufficient diet on the other hand, bring distemper upon themselves by the natural consequences of their way of living; that the middle station of life was calculated for all kind of virtue and all kind of enjoyments; that peace and plenty were the handmaids of a middle fortune; that temperance, moderation, quietness, health, society, all agreeable diversions, and all desirable pleasures, were the blessings attending the middle station of life; that this way men went silently and smoothly through 
the world, and comfortably out of it, not embarrassed with the labours of the hands or of the head, not sold to a life of slavery for daily bread, nor harassed with perplexed circumstances, which rob the soul of peace and the body of rest, nor enraged with the passion of envy, or the secret burning lust of ambition for great things; but, in easy circumstances, sliding gently through the world, and sensibly tasting the sweets of living, without the bitter; feeling that they are happy, and learning by every day's experience to know it more sensibly.”

How much better to say, “He reminded me that calamities most often seem to befall the upper and lower classes. On the other hand, those fortunate souls in the middle class seem to sail through life relatively untouched.”

I wish you success in finding a publisher for your work. In the meantime, perhaps you should consider attendance at a writers’ conference, combined with careful study of the books on writing contained in the enclosed list.

Your obedient servant,

Elijah J. Quillfeather
Chief Fiction Acquisitions Editor
Mugwump Press Ltd.

So, let me amend my advice. Read extensively. Use the experience to decide what elements you'd like to include in your writing...and what you'd like to avoid.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Follow The Leader

There are probably a million (or, according to my friend and colleague, D’Ann Mateer, five bazillion) blogs out there. Many of them are by and/or for writers. Writing is a lonely occupation. I’ve always loved this quotation from Meg Chittenden that sums it up pretty well: "Some people hear voices when no one's around. They are called mad, and sit in a room all day and stare at the walls. Others are called writers, and they do pretty much the same thing."

With the advent of the Internet, writers can experience a sense of community without ever leaving their home. I believe this explains the popularity of forums that I consider the equivalent of the old-fashioned conversation over the back fence: loops (like the ACFW loop), groups (such as Writer’s Edge), social networks (Facebook, Twitter, and others), and blogs (too numerous to count). These are all great ways to stay in touch, and I participate in some of them myself. But be warned that everything you read there may not qualify as expert instruction in the art and craft of writing. I frequently have to warn friends that the medical information they've seen on the Internet isn't necessarily reliable. The same holds with writing (and, presumably, other things like calf roping, car repair, and making wine in your basement).

I wanted to call your attention to a few blogs and web sites that I think offer valuable advice and instruction for writers. There are two reasons I consider these sites worth reading: I agree with most of what they say, and these folks have demonstrated their expertise by having their book(s) published or being a successful agent. The list isn’t exhaustive, and if I’ve left your site off, please accept my apologies. These are just a few of my own favorites.

I’ll start with CBA Rants and Ramblings, by my agent, Rachelle Gardner. Rachelle’s posts have addressed the entire spectrum of writing and publishing. Check out the sidebar index to read about queries, proposals, relationships with agents, and so many, many more things. No wonder her web site has been named one of the top 101 for writers by Writer’s Digest.

Agent Chip MacGregor offers advice and opinions on the world of writing and publishing at his web site. In addition, there’s a little tab for “publishing resources” hidden off to the side that gives a goldmine of information about queries, proposals, etc. I think Chip enjoys presenting a gruff image occasionally, but he’s really a nice guy.

Randy (I’m just your normal quantum physicist) Ingermanson is the author of the Advanced Fiction Writing blog. Randy’s currently in the midst of an exercise to distill the gist of the plot of Star Wars down to a single sentence, a single paragraph, etc. He offers excellent advice, and I always learn something when I read his blog. Don’t miss the tab at the top for other resources he offers.

Mary DeMuth has a very nice blog, So You Want To Be Published, in which she offers tips and critiques, has great interviews and guest blogs from others in the publishing industry, and in general offers help and encouragement for those of us struggling along this road.

Speculative fiction guru Jeff Gerke holds forth at Where The Map Ends. In addition to links to his press, Marcher Lord, Jeff has some extremely good teaching material. This is stuff that I’ve had to pay the registration fee at conferences to hear. On the blog, he gives it away for free. Take advantage of it.

My friend and colleague, Dr. Michael Palmer, has a web site that, in addition to information about his books (such as First Patient) contains a tab to a section on tips for writers. Worth a visit.

In a similar fashion, author and former astronaut candidate, Austin Boyd, has a tab on his web site that details his writing journey and provides helpful tips for writers.

The list could be even longer, but you get the idea. The people I’ve mentioned have proven themselves in a profession where it’s difficult to do so. In my opinion, that gives considerable weight to the writing tips they’re kind enough to pass on. I guess it’s kind of like the picture above. (If you skipped the printing on the back of the tee shirt, go back and read it). If I see a person on the street running away, I’m going to think about doing the same thing. But if I see a bomb squad member running, I may pass him on the backstretch.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

"I'd Like To Thank Everyone...."

My friend and colleague, multi-talented Crystal Laine Miller has awarded my blog the "Premio Dardos" designation. Here's what that award signifies:
"This award 'acknowledges the values that every Blogger displays in their effort to transmit cultural, ethical, literary, and personal values with each message they write.'"

I'm supposed to pass this award on to fifteen other bloggers. There's no problem in finding that many who deserve it, but please allow me to make one small change. I'm going to wait and incorporate it into my originally planned post listing a number of blogs and web sites that provide helpful tips and insight for writers. Stay tuned for that one, coming up soon.

And once more, my thanks to Crystal for the award.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Pray For Our Leaders And Our Nation

The passage that comes to mind today is this:
"I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone— for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness."
Regardless of your politics or personal views, I hope you'll pray for our leaders and our nations today--and every day.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Queries: The Good, The Bad, and the Downright Laughable

For those of you unfamiliar with the publishing industry, the process of getting a book published begins with a query letter. In the past, these went to editors and were designed to make them want to see a full proposal for the work, maybe even the full manuscript. Now that most publishing houses don't accept unsolicited queries from authors, these queries go to agents, coming from writers who are seeking representation for their work.

What does a query contain? And, just as important, what shouldn't it? Rather than giving my own opinion, let me refer you to a couple of professionals. My agent, Rachelle Gardner of WordServe Literary, has a great post today on how not to impress an agent with your query. The style of this post reminds me of the legendary Miss Snark, an agent who wrote under that pseudonym and dispensed lots of useful advice liberally laced with humor and satire. I think you'll enjoy reading it.

Now, if you'd like an example of a great query letter, check out this post from Jessica Faust at Bookends LLC Agency. She uses a query from one of her clients to suggest the right way to go about this process.

I'll add a comment to one point Rachelle makes. Don't EVER, EVER, EVER ask an agent or editor to open an attachment unless they have requested it. Even then, check what you send with your own anti-virus software--you do have that on your computer, don't you?--before sending it. Nothing says "I never want to hear from you again" like opening an attachment and seeing your computer freeze or display the Blue Screen of Death. Oh, and remember to back up your hard disk regularly. Got it? Good. Enough advice for now.

Friday, January 16, 2009

The "What If?" and the "But If?" In Writing

I've been doing some thinking about things I've learned in my writing journey. A couple of these important lessons are the "what if?" and the "but if?" concepts. Let me explain.

The "what if?" is the nidus of every novel ever written. I heard this early on from one of the masters, Alton Gansky, who told his class he kept a file of "what if?" questions. Those questions were the basis for his novels. For example, "what if the entire population of a secret military installation suddenly disappeared?" Far-fetched? Not to Al. He turned that simple "what if?" into Vanished.

My first novel was the result of a conversation with editor Gary Terashita. At my first writers' conference, Gary discovered that I was, like him, a baseball fan. When he found out that I'd played semi-pro baseball and had attended a number of major league fantasy camps, he threw out an offhand remark: "Why don't you write a novel about a doctor who's a failed baseball player?" Okay, so what if a guy drops out of pre-med to play baseball, doesn't make it, then after getting his degree he gets another chance and has to make a choice between the career he wanted and the one he has? I wrote it and it garnered a lot of "almosts." I still have it on my computer, and someday I plan to rework it and try again. But "what if?" is a useful tool for authors of fiction. Since finding a unique hook is one of the hardest parts of writing for me, I still struggle with my "what if?"

Then there's the "but if?" view. I had this drilled into me by Jeff Gerke when he was a fiction editor at NavPress. I sat down at Mount Hermon to pitch my novel to Jeff, who proceeded to drive me crazy by continuing to ask, "But what if he doesn't get what he wants? What's at stake?" It took me a long time to learn the lesson Jeff was trying to teach. There's always got to be conflict at the heart of a novel, that what drives it is the other fork in the road, the "but if this or that doesn't happen, what's at stake?"

Later, editor Steve Barclift pointed me to the book, The Writer's Journey, by Vogler, which does a great job of comparing the arc of a modern novel with a mythic journey. The "but if?" corresponds to the prize at the end of the hero's quest in mythology and the enemy/peril he has to overcome. And as I read novel after novel, I was amazed to find that analogy holding true.
In my later work, I've made sure that there are two things--a prize and a peril. That's the important fork in the road, the "but if?"

These are a couple of lessons I've learned along my road to writing. I plan to post more later. Meanwhile, feel free to let me know the lessons you've found most helpful in your own writing journey.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Success Is Not The Default Position

The road to publication is narrow, winding, and long, and it begins with that little one-page distillation of what you want to write, your qualifications to do so, and why someone should represent you or publish the work. So much hinges on this document, the query, yet there's not a good way around it. Literary agent Nathan Bransford addresses this in an excellent post. One of the points that Nathan makes is profound: "Success is not the default." It's tough to get published, and once that goal is achieved, it's sometimes even tougher to repeat.

Another literary agent, Jessica Faust, has addressed how an author's behavior may affect a publisher's willingness to give a contract for a second and third book. This is especially problematic in light of today's economy. If you don't mind some of Jessica's rather direct language, you'll find this post interesting and (if you're a writer) instructive.

Is there a point to this? Yes, and it's those words of Nathan's. Success is not the default position. Everyone who sets out to write a book won't succeed. But every positive step taken along the way should be celebrated, because it sets you above all those who never even tried. Development of a concept, putting the words down, editing them, re-editing, writing the dreaded synopsis, crafting a killer query letter, pouring your heart into a proposal, trying time after time to win the favor of an agent, reading replies from editors that "this isn't right for us." Every time you go through a step, you've accomplished something. You've matured. You've changed. You've moved ahead.

If you're an aspiring writer, I hope you'll take heart and be encouraged. If you're published, I trust you're continuing to strive for improvement in your next work. And if you just enjoy reading, I hope you appreciate what it took for those words to appear on the page. It was a long road. And success was not the default position.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Too Much Communication?

Okay, I'm about to show my age. When I was growing up in my little North Texas hometown, we picked up the phone, turned a crank and asked the operator (we called her "Central") to connect us with a number. Ours was "246"; the local soda fountain, run by Frank Green, had "100," which he always pronounced "one naughty nought." My point? There was a human touch involved in the communication process. But it also required some effort. We called when we really needed to.

Skip ahead six or seven decades and consider how we communicate. We email. We text. We "Tweet" and post on our FaceBook pages. We make calls on our cell phones and iPhones and Blackberries. Watch the cars around you the next time you're driving home and see how many of the drivers are talking on a cell phone. Communication is easy. Press a button, click on an icon, sometimes just speak the right words and your voice recognition software responds. It's effortless, frequent, and many times thoughtless. The result is what I call communication pollution.

I know of one situation where a person eventually lost their job because they thought they were sending an email to one individual, but instead it went to a bunch of folks and many of them took exception to the content. I joined FaceBook and Twitter because I kept hearing this advice that authors need to achieve name recognition, and this was a good way to do it. But recently I've seen several instances of someone hacking into a FaceBook or Twitter account and posting questionable messages in the name of a high-profile person.

Some people use the opportunity to post on the Internet (blog, web site, email, Twitter, FaceBook, you name it) when they really don't have anything of consequence to say. I've begun to severely limit the number of people whose posts ("Tweets") I follow on Twitter, weeding out the ones who post 15 to 20 times a day--and this is no exaggeration. Hey, if I wanted to know that they're grocery shopping, I'd follow them around.

So why do I still email and Twitter? I use electronic communication to keep in touch with a small circle of friends, many of them in the publishing profession. These are folks I only see once a year or so, and I enjoy this chance to keep our friendship fresh. But I try to do it in moderation.

Now, lest you think I'm a saint, Kay and I have offices that are maybe 100 feet apart where we sit at our respective computers--and send emails back and forth! And, in case it's more urgent, we have a wireless intercom system that connects us for instant communication. See, I'm hooked as well. But I still would like to plead for a little more sanity, and ask that we all think twice before we push that button or click that tab.

In case you think I'm the only person who feels this way, check out this great article. And let me emphasize that I'm not suggesting an end to electronic communication, just moderation in using it. I guess asking everyone to log off would sort of defeat the purpose of my blogging, wouldn't it? And surely you folks wouldn't...get your finger away from that button. Don't. Please don't. I'm--

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Editing And Rewriting: "It Ain't Over 'Till It's Over"

For any of you who think that once you sign a book contract and send the manuscript to your publisher the process ends, this might be a shock for you. There's more...much more. Unless your name is Tom Clancy, there'll be edits and rewriting. There are rumors in the industry that Clancy has a clause in his contract that essentially guarantees the publication of his manuscripts without any editing. But I'm not Tom Clancy, so I have some work to do.

In the current Writer Unboxed, Juliet Marillier blogs about the structural rewriting that she's having to do for her current novel. That may involve cutting scenes, adding others, changing character arc, and in general performing an overhaul on a manuscript that the author undoubtedly thought was perfect when he/she submitted it. Tough, but the end result is supposed to be a tighter story and a better read. And that's what every novelist wants.

Monday, January 05, 2009

Good Advice For The New Year

I don't really do formal New Year's Resolutions any more. Instead, I generally trot out the same ones I used the year before, dust them off, and vow to do better. Sometimes I do. Often I don't. But the beginning of a new year is always a good opportunity to take a close look at ourselves and consider the changes we want to make. And it's often helpful to see what kind of advice others may have for us. Here are a couple of pieces you may find helpful.

For writers, BJ Hoff has posted an excellent piece about the mistakes a writer can't afford to make. I found myself going "amen" as I read each section. This is one that's worth printing off and re-reading from time to time.

Our pastor, Dr. Chuck Swindoll, had some great advice for us yesterday. He listed "five ways to have a miserable year." They are:
1.) Worry a lot
2.) Plan to get rich
3.) Compare yourself with others
4.) Lengthen your list of enemies
5.) Set unrealistically high expectations

I've been guilty of all of those things at one time or another. I suspect perhaps you have, as well. This year, I'm going to try to do better. Maybe that's enough of a resolution. Maybe it's one I can keep.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Reading and Writing

My favorite Bible verse during college and medical school was Ecclesiastes 12:12. It seemed to me that there was no end to the books I had to study, and the process certainly wearied my flesh. Then, irony of ironies, after I completed my medical training, it wasn't long until I began to write. During my medical career I produced over 100 professional papers, wrote numerous textbook chapters, and edited or wrote eight best-selling medical textbooks. All that reading and study had prepared me to write.

Has this carried over into my non-medical writing? You bet it has. I've been a voracious reader of fiction for over half a century. So, when I had to learn how to end a chapter making the reader want to turn the page, I'd already learned from some of the best: Robert B. Parker, Agatha Christie, Raymond Chandler, Earl Stanley Gardner, Lawrence Block, John Grisham, Michael Connelly, Donald Westlake and a host of others. Then I began to read Christian fiction, and the list expanded: James Scott Bell, Brandilyn Collins, Brandt Dodson, Alton Gansky, Terri Blackstock, and many, many more. I've learned through the example of others.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: Part of the process of learning to write is reading--good books for their example, even bad books to demonstrate things to avoid. The English lexicographer Samuel Johnson said it very well: "The greatest part of a writer's time is spent reading, in order to write; a man will turn over half a library to make one book."

If you're a writer and you haven't closed out your New Year's resolutions yet, please add reading to the list. I commend it to you highly.

Let me add one sad note here. Donald Westlake passed away this week. Westlake was a prolific writer, producing more than 90 books over a career spanning half a century. He wrote under his own name and a number of pen names, choosing to do so because he was afraid people couldn't believe he could write that fast. Westlake's work exemplifies the other activity I would emphasize for writers--write! Read to learn how it's done, then write and keep writing until you get it right.

I wish for all my readers a wonderful 2009, and for the as-yet-unpublished writers among you, may this be the year when you get "the call."