Thursday, September 30, 2010

Personality Type of your Character

I've been deep into researching my characters for my new project. Since my story explores the genetics of personality (in other words, which personality traits are inherited and which are more affected by environment), I've been spending a lot of time reading scientific journals, reviewing study data, and exploring psychological testing. I feel like I've been learning a new language.

In the course of researching, I came across a few web-based versions of the Myers-Briggs personality test (based on research by Karl Jung). This test breaks down personality into four main categories:
  1. Whether you get your energy from inside or outside sources (Extraverted or Introverted)
  2. How you taking in information (Sensing or iNtuitive )
  3. How you make decisions (Thinking or Feeling )
  4. How you operate on a day-to-day basis (Judging or Perceiving)
Based on these categories, there are 16 personality types. For example, ESTP means Extraverted, Sensing, Thinking, Perceiving and describes someone who is outgoing, perceptive, likes concrete problems to solve, and bases decisions more on logic than intuition.

I thought it would be interesting to take the test, answering the questions the way I thought my MC would answer. By reading the summary of her personality type, it gave me a little more parameters for her development. Although I would never develop a character based soley on this, but I did feel a bit more tuned into the psychology of my character (incidentally, she is IFSJ which means she is introverted, feeling, sensing and judging).

If you are interested in trying this out (either for yourself or your characters):
  • Similar Minds has a number of personality tests, including a short version of the test Jung here
  • The Personality Page, which has a lot of info, including career and relationship info relevant to the types. There's also a test, perhaps more complete than the free tests you can find) which is $5 per test.
  • A easy-to-use grid of learning styles based on the 16 types from SUNY Oswego here 
If you do give this a try for your characters, it would be great if you could stop back and report whether you found it useful.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

My Kingdom for a Mentor

In the past few weeks, I've seen a number of bloggers (self included) who have commented that they would pay an agent for career advice. If you watched the bidding for the agent meeting items in the Do the Write Thing for Nashville, it's pretty clear that people will pay a lot for some one on one time with an agent.

As writers, we are lucky that there are some great agent blogs out there to help us navigate through this increasingly-difficult industry. But what we're lacking is personal guidance. Yeah, we want to the agent to get us the book deal. But what we -- or at least, I -- want is an industry professional to help us decide what moves to make to help get that writing career.

There are a few reputable agents out there who do this, but not many. It does beg the question of how a writer would distinguish a 'real' agent from a predatory one. For myself, I would want advice from an active agent who has legitimate sales to good publishers, not someone who sets themselves up as an 'industry expert' even though there are no numbers to back up the claim.

But how would it work? How would an agent decide who to mentor? Would it work like a lawyer who accepts a case and charges by the hour (I think we're talking some big numbers too, like $200 per hour?) That puts us back into a new version of the query wars -- an application (complete with writing samples and a list of ideas) for consulting services. That would still leave people out in the cold, because you are looking at a whole new slush pile.

So what's in it for the agents? Many agents say they see queries for books/writers that they love but can't sell, so they have to pass (there's no money in it for them). But if they are earning income by helping a promising writer to develop their career, it could be a long-term payoff. The AAR says that agents cannot charge reading fees, but there is nothing in there to say that they can't charge consulting fees.

I'd love to hear your take on this. Would you pay an agent by the hour for some mentoring? How much would you be willing to pay?  Do you know of agents who do this? Or agents who've talked about this? If you have any links, put them in the comments and I'll include them here in the blog.

And in the absence of mentoring by an agent, we have turned to mentoring each other, which is one of the amazing things about this wonderful blogger world. If you haven't already, go check out The Bookshelf Muse's 1000 followers contest. She's offering to be a mentor!!!! 

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Blogfeast, San Antonio style

I hadn't planned on posting today but I found out about Angela McAllister's Food blogfest and just couldn't resist. Why don't you head over to Angela's and check out the other entries -- guaranteed to make you hungry!

But before you go, here's my own entry, taken from "La Luna," the serial short fiction that ran in Woman's Weekly in the UK from August 10-August 31. The story is about Serina, the chef/owner of a restaurant on San Antonio's Riverwalk.

Soon she was weeping over piles of chopped onions, though she smiled broadly and hummed “Celito Lindo” in absence of the mariachis. The pork simmered in its red chile sauce, raising a fragrant haze in the kitchen. She lost herself in the preparation, soaking the dried corn husks, roasting peppers, grating the potato-like jicama for the slaw.

When the meat was ready, she began making the tamales. She spread the fluffy corn masa on the softened husk, topping it with a large dollop of shredded pork, and rolling it together so the meat was enclosed like a prize within the package. She tied it shut with a strip of corn husk and started on the next. Though pyramids of tamales grew before her, it would take her another hour to finish them all. With the back of her hand, she brushed away a loose strand of hair and stretched her back, remembering the tamaladas at Christmas time, the traditional tamale-making party where her mother and aunts and grandmother would roll up their sleeves and make hundreds of tamales for the holidays. She smiled to think of the contests to see who could make the most, the laughter when someone was caught out for skimping on the filling or splitting a husk. In face of those memories, Serina’s kitchen seemed very empty, the only sound the rain pinging on the metal vent above the stove. She shoved the pang of loneliness away and continued her tasks, stopping only briefly to flick on the radio to drown out the silence.

The group arrived early, shaking the rain of jackets and umbrellas. Serina noted immediately the absence of any women in the party and chided herself for feeling relieved; she’d secretly feared Eric would bring a date. Once the guests were settled with their drinks, however, she almost wished for the presence of another woman to dilute their attentions. The men – some very young, some older, all charming – were quick to wink, touch her arm, even pat her hip as she walked by. To occupy their hands and thoughts, she quickly brought out the first course of squash soup with roasted corn and poblanos, crowned with a complicated nest of tortilla strips.

The wine began to flow and with each course – chile-fried Gulf oysters, mesquite-grilled prawns on jicama-mango slaw – the men grew louder and more effusive in their complements. At Eric’s pressing, she bent her own rule and joined them in a glass of Argentine Zinfandel, as red and rich as liquid rubies. When the tamales were unwrapped like gifts at Christmas, the men broke into applause and Serina finally fled to the kitchen, her face aflame and heart afire from pleasure of a meal so well appreciated.
What can I say? I love the food of San Antonio!

So now go check out Angela at Jaded Love Junkie and all the other entries. I'm going to do the same, but first I need some breakfast. All this food talk has made my stomach rumble.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Switching Teams

I had years to stew on my first novel, The Shadow Scribe. Decades actually. I would say that I had about 50% of it written in my head before I ever put it on paper. I knew the characters, the setting was crystal clear, the plot defined. I considered myself the ultimate plotter, with every chapter outlined before I ever started writing.
In contrast, my new idea is just that -- an idea. My plot diagram is complete (I use Aristotle’s Incline which I learned from Robert Ray’s The Weekend Novelist  but I also like the Screenplay Structure method) but when I try to outline it, I find myself writing things like “stuff happens here.”
I know that it is the kind of story that can only evolve as I write. Which means that I am about to have my first experience as a pantser. GASP! Some nights, I lay awake paralyzed by fear. What if I can't write it? What if it fizzles out?
But I also have moments of real optimism. I have no preconceived ideas of exactly how this story will go. I know my first novel is weaker because I could only imagine one way to write it. While I’m nervous about switching teams from plotter to pantser, I’m excited too.
There are lots of posts out there on plotters vs pantsers (like this excellent one by Roni at *Fiction Groupie*) so I’m not going to get into the definitions. But what I want to know is: Have you ever switched teams (plotter to pantser or pantser to plotter)? Do you ever wish you were one instead of the other?

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Am I for real?

Last week, when I sat down with my son’s teacher to discuss the upcoming year, I mentioned that since I worked from home, I was available to help in the classroom if she ever needed it. “What do you do?” she asked. “I’m a writer,” I replied, cringing a little because I feel like I’m lying when I say this. Her eyes lit up. “Really? That’s excellent. We’re doing a whole unit on authors and writing right now! Maybe you could come talk to the class?” And even though I felt like a total fraud, I said I would.
Am I scared? Hell, yes.
Not only do I have to control twenty 3rd graders for thirty minutes, but I have to face that room full of nine-year-olds and act like I’ve got some reason for being there. I feel like I’ve got to prove to them and the teacher that I’m legit.
Sure, I’m a core contributor of fiction for a magazine and I do some non-fiction content development (and these things help pay the bills), but so far, the book thing hasn’t happened. And for some reason, I find it difficult to believe I’m a real writer in the world’s eyes because I don’t have the agent, the book deal, the name recognition. In fact, I've stopped mentioning that I'm working on a novel because I don't want to deal with the "When's your book being published?" issue.
So my question is this – when does a writer become a “real” writer? When you get paid for something? The first time you get something published? When you quit your job to write full time? When you make sacrifices so that you can write?
Do you tell people you are a writer? What's the reaction?
And on another note, if you have any suggestions for my 3rd grade debut next week, I’d love to hear them. I plan on showing a photo prompt, and then going around the room letting them take turns giving me characters, setting, problem (conflict), the events, and the solution. When we’re done, I’ll read their story back to them. Thoughts?

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

What to write, what to write...

I stressed a lot about what my next novel project would be. I have no shortage of ideas – actually, it’s just the opposite. My ideas run the gamut of genres, including YA, MG, historical, paranormal, women’s fiction, sci fi, and literary. And as we all know, some genres are a tougher sell than others.

Every agent and writer blog out there will warn you against writing to pursue a trend, or even to pursue publication. They all say that you should write the book that moves you and write the best version of it possible. Great advice, to be sure.

But I do think there is something to be said for picking your projects wisely. For instance, most editors and agents are saying that the vampires are played out. So would it be wise to start a vampire novel now, knowing that by the time you finish it, the market will have moved on? If that is what you are compelled to write, then do it. But don’t expect that professional success with that book will be easy (granted, nothing about this business is easy).

Maybe you’ve heard the expression, “Marry for love, not money, but have the sense to fall in love with a rich man (or woman).” I think this applies to writing, too. If you want to be a professional writer, I think you must look at your projects pragmatically. All things being equal (meaning if you have three projects in mind that you are equally passionate about), you should pursue the project that has the most commercial viability. In the end, a book is a product and you want to produce a product people want to buy.

I write because I love to, but I also want to make a career out of it. So this is where the stress came in. I went round and round trying to decide which project had the most commercial promise. (I swear I would pay an agent right now to give me career advice on this subject!) I made pro and con lists, bored my husband stupid with endless speculation, traded countless emails with a writer friend, and lost a lot of sleep before finally coming to a conclusion.

In the end, passion for the story was the first criteria, and market was the second. I hated making the decision (I always second guess myself) but I feel good about it now. I can tell you I decided to pursue the literary fiction project, but beyond that I'll not say anything else about it yet. I'm not trying to be coy, just a little bit superstitious. Once I get past the research stage and into the writing, I'll be more comfortable talking about it.

Any thoughts on choosing a project based on commercial viability? Did you consider the markets when you started on a project?

Thursday, September 9, 2010

The Blame Game

As you may have read yesterday, I had a bit of a crisis where my editor came back and asked me to change the ending of one of my story segments. I spent a good part of the day pouting because it was one of the parts that I thought really worked.

But then I reminded myself that I am a professional writer, which means that I am NOT ALLOWED to fall back on that idea that if a reader doesn't think something works, then it must be the reader's fault. I'm sorry, but that thinking is for amateurs.

Let me repeat that, because I think it is a critical idea that separates good writers from bad:

If your reader doesn't understand something in your story, it is YOUR fault as the writer, not their fault as the reader.

If you reader doesn't think something works, it means you have failed to communicate motivation, action, something. Just to make things complicated, sometimes what a reader says doesn't work isn't always the problem. They just know something is wrong, but can't put their finger on it and may give vague feedback that doesn't always make sense. This is where having savvy critique partners (who are writers, not just readers) who can put it in the language of the craft is essential.

For example, a reader may say "I didn't like it when Jane jumped out of the car." What didn't your reader like? The action? The timing? What Jane said when she threw herself out? Your knee-jerk reaction might be "But I can't cut that scene! It's critical to the action!"

When the problem is verbalized by a writer, it becomes clearer. "I don't think you've clearly shown Jane's motivation to jump out the car." Suddenly, you know how to fix the problem -- no, wait -- you know how to make your story BETTER. Your reader was right.

Remember, this is not the blame game. You cannot blame the reader for your mistakes as a writer.

The good news is that if you can accept this truth, it shows that you are a good enough writer to identify and fix your issues.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

A cry for help

Remember how I mentioned that I blog because I want to find critique partners and beta readers? (I promised to do a post on that when I my WIP was closer to that stage.)

Remember how I posted on the importance of cliffhanger endings in a serial?

Yeah, those two things just came crashing together.

I just got the word on my latest serial from the editor: they love the writing, but don't like the ending of part 1 and want me to change it.

I don't quite agree with the assessment but recognize that the editor knows her market best and therefore will do as they request. Trouble is, I'm having a bit of trouble breaking away from what I've written and seeing it in a fresh light.

So, I'm desperate for a critique partner like RIGHT NOW.

The story is written for a British woman's magazine, target audience of 30-60 year old women. There are three parts, around 11 pages each. I am seeking someone with experience in writing (and of course, reading) women's fiction to read it and give me some feedback that might help me think in a new direction. I was hoping for feedback fairly quickly.

As this is on spec for a publication, I am unable to post it. I have, however, added a new tab that has one of my shorter pieces (The Way to a Man's Heart -- 1700 words) that ran in the same magazine a few years back. Take a look... if you like my style and might be willing to help me out with some feedback on the new piece, drop me an email and we can discuss the details further. I will be happy to return the favor sometime (I am a former editor and have critiqued quite a bit).


Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Commenting on Comments

It's official. I've doubled my follower count in four days. Now I'm feeling performance anxiety!

There are several posts on comments today (go see Jenn's at Unedited or Elana's), which tells me this is a subject that people think about A LOT.  I've been thinking about it too and I decided it is best for me to be upfront and honest about how I deal with comments on my blog, so that everyone understands how I work.

I read EVERY single comment I get on my blog. Twice actually. I get them in my email inbox and I look at my blog (way too often). Frankly, my self-esteem is tied a little too closely to how many comments I get. If I don't get any, I shrivel a little bit and wonder why no one likes me. If I get a lot, I feel like making an Oscar speech (You like me! You really really like me!).

I don't email responses to commenters. I know that maybe I should but I spend too much time on email and blogging as it is (at the cost of writing) so I have to draw the line somewhere. I don't respond to every single comment I get. I don't expect every blogger to respond to my comments. To be honest, I find the long lists of individual replies can get a bit tedious for both the readers and the writer and it feels a littled forced to me.

I try to leave general responses at intervals in the comments so people know I'm around. And I sometimes respond to individuals if what they've said needs a response. I do try to visit and comment on the blog of anyone who comments at mine.

I have made one change to my process, though. Up until today, I didn't list my email on my profile. I do now. Sometimes, I'll read a post on someone's blog and it makes me want to have a deeper, non-public conversation, like by email. Usually, I lack the guts to reach out and contact the person (afraid of rejection I guess? Or I feel like I'm crossing a line?) If you ever want to discuss anything with me -- like writing or querying (especially stuff like rejection which I don't really talk about on a public blog even though I have LOTS of experience with it), please email me. That's why I'm here.

Comments? Do commenting expectations stress you out as a blogger? Have you ever stopped following a blog because you felt abandoned in the comments section?

Monday, September 6, 2010

So I opened my inbox and found...

When we last left our hero, she had 56 followers. She opened her inbox and found it flooded with comments from lovely new blog friends. And when she returned to her blog, found she had 108 followers!!!

And that's about as much writing about myself in the third person as I can stomach.

That's right. In three days, I have gained 52 new followers. And it is all thanks to the fantastic KarenG at Coming Down the Mountain. Karen, thank you so much for hosting the Blog BBQ. I've got so many great new followers and I am now following lots of new interesting blogs. I'm sure I speak for everyone reading this when I say you have done us all a great favor by helping us connect.

I'm working through my new list of friends and promise to visit everyone who's joined me here. It may take a little while but I'll get there.

So, wow. 108. That means I'm going to have to step up my game here. More regular postings. And maybe even a contest to celebrate. More details soon.

I am in awe of people (like the incomparable Elana Johnson) who have hundreds and even thousands of followers. I must admit, I don't aspire to this. I know that for people writing YA, blogging is an essential tool for connecting with readers. I don't write YA and therefore I honestly don't think blogging will help me connect with thousands of potential readers (some, yes, but not to the level of YA).

I blog for a few very specific reasons. At first, I blogged because I thought I was supposed to. And then I blogged because I got a little obsessed by it. And now, I'm blogging because I've met some great people and want to form relationships with other writerly types. One of my main goals for blogging is to find some good crit partners and beta readers (a post on that is definitely in the works). I'm also about to start a new project and I think blogging about my process as I go may help me to crystalize my thinking.

Think back to when you started blogging. What were your reasons for blogging? Have they changed since you started? This isn't a rhetorical question...I'm genuinely curious.

Anyway, thanks for joining me. And keep watching this space for contest details...

Friday, September 3, 2010

When we last left our hero...

Endings are important. This is a universal truth, right? But I'm going to step out a limb and say that the how your chapters end is more important than how your book ends. Why? Because while the end of your book impacts how the readers think about your book in total, it is how your chapters end that will keep your readers reading.

As novelists, we all want to write the book that has the reader saying over the watercooler, "I was up reading until 4 in the morning! I just couldn't put it down!"

My day job is writing serial fiction for a woman's magazine. Each story is three or four parts, 3800 words each. Each part must end in a way that makes the reader want to come back for more. The stakes are high here. The reader has to be so drawn in that they will think about it all week, go to the store, and shell out a few more bucks for the next issue so they can read what happens next.

The cliffhanger (named for the 1930s episodic movies where the hero was literally dangling from a cliff when the credits went down -- check out the Wiki link here) is so important for serials that I write the endings first. When I pitch a new idea to the editor, it is the overall story and the part endings that I pitch. Because if the endings don't work, the serial won't either.

This is a valuable technique for novelists. Every chapter needs to end in a way that makes the reader want to turn the page. Unfortunately, I learned this too late for my last project, where I structured that novel so that each chapter ended when my MC was going to bed. Looking back now, I see that was just an invitation for the reader to put down the book at the end of a chapter. The last thing you want is for your reader to say, "Nothing exciting is happening now, so this is a good spot for me to stop reading."

You don't have to leave your characters dangling off a cliff at the end of each chapter. Not every cliffhanger is mortal peril. It can end with a choice, a question, the prelude to a fight...anything has your reader wondering -- or even better, DEMANDING -- to know what happens next.

And that's why endings are..wait... excuse me a minute, there's an email in my inbox. I don't believe it! It's...

What does our hero find? Tune in next blog post to find out!