What goes around…

I’ve spent nights racking my brain for an original idea, knowing that it’s in there, deep, trapped like a dust bunny between synapsis.

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And then it comes to me: that never-been-done-before original idea. And, with vigor, I share it with my husband or my bestest writing buddies, and they’re like, “Oh, cool. So, like the Hunger Games then? ” After a few defensive rounds of, you’re not getting it, and let me explain it one more time, I realize they’re right. It’s the same story, with different characters.

A wise man once said, “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” Yeah, that Solomon guy was the bomb. A lot of experts agree with old Solomon. They theorize that there are really only a handful of plots out there. The idea that we keep telling the same stories with new twists and different characters has been around for a while. But this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s human nature to want to read familiar stories. We like stories we can identify with. This doesn’t mean the story is filled with things we’ve experienced ourselves or events that remind us of someone else’s experiences. It just means that some element of the story is relatable, or is something we can connect with on some sort of empathetic level. Generally, we can find something to connect with in even the most far-fetched stories. We love to read things that make us go, “Me too!”

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In my previous post, A FORMULA FOR A BEST SELLER?, I reference Vulture.com, a site that breaks basic plots into categories like impostors or forbidden love and then explains the plot devices within the story line. Using the works of  William Wallace Cook’s Plotto,  Christopher Booker’s The Basic Seven Plots, and Ronald B. Tobias’s 20 Master Plots, the claim is made that there are really only around eighty fictional plots out there. Other experts in literature claim there are as few as twenty. I suppose it depends on how broad or narrow a lens you’re viewing the plot from. I mean, something like the idea of survival could probably be identified in most stories. It’s interesting, however, to look through the list and see where the stories you’ve created fit.

Regardless of whether you think there are infinite plots or a handful of recycled ones, one thing can be certain. Themes do resurface, because humanity goes through cycles. It’s important to understand this as an author. Understanding plots can make us better, more effective writers and might even enable us to create stories that profoundly impact hearts.

Now, that’s a thought.

YOU USED TO BE SO AWESOME

Remember when you used to do random scavenger hunts for your coworkers? And remember when you used to have people over for movie nights and you used to make all these fun little finger foods. Oh! Oh! And remember how you decorated the break room to look like a tiki lounge that one time.

You used to be so awesome.

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No one has actually said these things about me. I don’t think. But I’ve been thinking them lately. Like recently: I teach science at a tiny school district in the heart of the country. Once a quarter, each of the middle school teachers is responsible for decorating a bulletin board. This is what I came up with this quarter.

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It’s cute, and clever, I’ll admit. But it doesn’t really meet the mark when I’m capable of this:

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Superheroes in acrylic on un-stretched canvas. -by Margie Brimer

As I stood in the hallway, cradling my chin in my hand to ponder my sub-par bulletin board, I started to wonder. When did I stop being awesome? But this still small voice inside me started to speak, and in the hallway left in the eerie quietness that all public institutions bear when empty, I listened. And here’s what I heard: I’m still awesome. My awesomeness has just shifted. And it will continue to shift. There was a time when I was a rockin’ momma. I did crafts with my kids DAILY! We went to petting zoos and camping and carnivals and the zoo and museums. We had picnics and went to the park all the time. I don’t do that stuff with my kids any more. And in the process of beating myself up over it, I realized I don’t do that stuff any more because my kids are teenagers, and they don’t LIKE that stuff any more. So I have to evolve and shift my awesomeness elsewhere. Think of it as the awesomeness Cupid Shuffle.

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There are seasons in our lives. Lysa Terkeurst embodies this concept so well with this quote: “Like a tree, a woman can’t carry the weight of two seasons simultaneously. In the violent struggle of trying, she’ll miss every bit of joy each season promises to bring.” -The Best Yes. We can’t bear the weight of the leaves of spring and the snow of winter simultaneously. Knowing this is freedom. Freedom from the self-imposed and sometimes others-imposed expectations for us to keep doing all the awesome things we’ve always done while taking on more awesomeness.

As I stood in that quiet hallway, I realized this: I am still awesome. While I haven’t recently hosted a literature festival for 500 students, or won a float contest in a parade, or redecorated the entire house again, I have a book on submission. I’m teaching some awesome kids and we’re doing the coolest projects. And I’m playing in a rocking worship band twice a week. That’s enough for right now.

I hope you can take joy in looking back on the seasons you’ve had the pleasure of taking part in, and you can bring yourself to let go of your leaves when it’s time to enter another season. Know this: You are awesome. You always have been, and you always will be.

 

But I don’t wanna write!

How is it that sometimes the very thing we love to do most, we just flat out don’t want to do. This seems impossible, like not wanting chocolate or ice cream. Like waking up one day and just saying, I don’t like coffee anymore. I’m just not going to drink a cup today. But it happens. Sometimes, we just don’t want to write.

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Sometimes we just don’t want to write.

For a host of reasons, we find ourselves just not in the mood. The reasons can range from our mental state to our plot. Here are a few reasons that make it hard for me to write. Sometimes, a lot of times, when I face the problem, I just plain and simple choose not to write, but when I know I’m not going to have time in the future or I have a deadline, I have a few solutions I fall back on to solve the problem.

Problem: A FUZZY HEAD

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A fuzzy head. Get it?

When I can’t think clearly, it’s usually due to fatique. I have the most time to write after I get home from teaching middle school students all day. But after spending my day explaining the kinetic theory to kids who’d rather be playing Clash of Whozits and Snap-a-whating each other on their phones, my head can be a bit fuzzy. I don’t know about you, but I need a clear mind to write.

Solution: A nap and some coffee. Write outside. A nap. A shower. A nap.

Problem: A case of the I-stinks

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Sometimes, I just get down on myself as a writer. It might be from reading my own first draft. It might be from reading a published work that is so phenominal that it makes me realize how pitiful my own work is. It might be from seeing so many other friends succeeding and feeling like I might not ever achieve that. Whatever the reason, this can make it hard to write.

Solution: Get out some of your favorite things you’ve written and read them again to remind yourself that you have written good things. Call a friend. A good friend and talk it out. Read something you love, written by someone else, and identify the things you do that are similar. Also, identify the things you could do that will improve your writing. Finally, identify that knowing that you CAN improve is a sign of a good writer.

Problem: A disconnect from your story

Sometimes I’m just not feeling it anymore. I’ve lost that lovin feeling, and it prevents me from wanting to keep writing.

Solution: Court your characters, get to know them again. Do character developing activities to get to know more about them. Sometimes I even change their names and appearances to help myself think of them from a different angle.

Problem: A better idea

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Changes can feel insurmountable

Every once in a while, I’ll be about half way through my story and I’ll realize that there’s a better way of writing it. Starting over seems so insurmountable that it just makes me want to quit.

Solution: Sleep on the changes. If they still feel right later, then they are worth making. None of us want to put out less than our best work. Take a break. Work on something else and come back with the idea of tackling this as a new book. Tackle it in small chunks and reward yourself for meeting goals.

Do you have other solutions to these problems? Do you have other problems besides these that cause you to stop writing? Please share!

A Formula For Best Sellers?

I’m #blessed. No for real. Thanks to the lovely Natalie C. Parker, author of BEHOLD THE BONES, I’ve been connected with some lovely  FAN-STINKIN-NOMENAL (it’s a word now) authors who are in the same stage of agented writing as myself.

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Novels by the wonderful Natalie C. Parker


This group of girls bonded almost instantly. We now refer to ourselves as the YAAMY Bears — it’s a yam thang — and find ourselves posting yam memes and GIFs at random. But best of all, we are sharing our journeys. This stage of writing can be awkward and lonely because you’re not sharing the same path with authors seeking representation anymore, but you’re not a published author either. Natalie has given us a tribe, shoulders to cry on, people to celebrate with, and I think I can speak for everyone in the group when I say…

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All that being said, I found myself typing out this long message to the girls on one of our many forums at 2:30 in the morning. It’s been on my mind since then, so I thought I’d see what you thought. Is there a formula for a best seller?

Writing the secret formula
I went to MidWest Writers this summer and attended a wonderful session on how to edit a best seller, and here’s what I took away from it:

The conference speaker talked about plot beats which, at the time, I knew nothing about. So, for those of you who were like me, beats are like the rhythm of a song. It’s steady, then it crescendos then it resolves. There is a common rhythm or set of beats found in nearly all the bestseller and blockbuster movies and the formula goes like this:

1. Slice of Life – This is where you start. You give the reader a sense of who the MC is, where they are from and what is meaningful to them. This can happen in the first few words. It can also occur over the course of a few pages. Giving your MC little obstacles to overcome (even big ones, though you don’t generally want to jump in with too much heart pounding action until the reader knows why they should care about the character) helps the reader to get a feel for how they react to things. Do they fume at traffic jams or are they chill? Do they cuss when they stub their toe? That kind of thing.

2. Inciting Incident – What is the thing that starts the sweater to unraveling (Oh Geez! Weezer’s sweater song is in my head now!) But IDENTIFY IT. Call it by name, for your own benefit. This helped me so much just to know what this was, because then I knew where it should fit in my MS.

3. Act 2 – Decision Time: This is when your MC has to make a decision about that Inciting Incident. Are they going to run away from home, get a divorce, find a new job? BUT in most best sellers, the FIRST response to that decision is no. No, I’m not going to do what I should, or what’s hard, or what makes sense. This helps build tension and sets pace! Then give it time and resolve it so your MC can be on his or her merry way with the plot.

4. Establish Flaws – This is where we see that the MC maybe doesn’t have it all together and isn’t quite as perfect as we all thought she was. You don’t have to give everything away, but maybe we start seeing some weaknesses or some unlikable things here. This way we’ve given the reader a chance to fall in love with the MC before we show her butt. Sort of like in dating and marriage. LOL This is also a great place to trickle in clues if you are dealing with an unreliable character.

5. Fun and Games – This is where I struggle, because I write such dark stuff. I don’t know how this bubbly preacher’s kid turned Edgar Allan Poe but whatevs. (P.S. if you write humor PLEASE do a post on that!) Anywho, fun and games doesn’t have to be bubbly or even funny, but this is where your romance typically happens. Your MC discovers they are in love. Or, if there is no romance, some of the lighter things in the novel are happening here. This is all for build and pace. Your chugging up the hill of that roller coaster, about to give your readers that my-stomach-just-fell-into-my-shoes feeling.

6. Mid-Point – This is the middle of your story. I know, deep, right? Things are starting to pull together and come to a head.

7. Bad Guys Close In – This is where your MC is getting backed into a corner by some situation or protagonist. They’re feeling a little hopeless here.

8. All is Lost – Giving your MC a situation they can’t possibly get out of is a pretty big theme in best sellers. There’s no way this can end up good for anyone as far as the reader can tell.

9. Dark Night of Soul – Things are moving quickly now. Your character recognizes that without sacrificing, there is no way out of this situation. Or maybe they don’t recognize it, but the reader does. This takes on all forms. In Jerry MaGuire, his career is on the line, in Twilight (forgive me) it’s Edward or Jacob, or Renesmee, or herself or Edward. Your MC can linger here for a moment to help solidify for the reader the stakes that are at risk. Remember this takes on so many different forms. Your story may be man against nature, or man against community. It still fits.

10. Climax — This is where the volcano explodes. The battle scene, the escape, the divorce, the throw down. The ugly.

11. Closing Image – Here’s your resolution, and my favorite: Bookends. This is where you take a theme that you started the book with, and you end with it. You give your reader a sense of closure with a profound idea, a loose end or a phrase used earlier and trickled throughout the book. In Jerry MaGuire it was a phrase: You complete me. In Twilight it was the theme that Edward could never read Bella’s thoughts and then she allowed him to.

For Pacing: The speaker suggested asking a beta reader to put a note in every place they got pulled away from reading to do something else by anything other than an earthquake or medical emergency. Those are probably your places where the book lulls. She suggested giving the character a minor conflict in those areas that doesn’t muddle up the plot or add too many new elements to the theme. It can be something she is already dealing with that happens to raise it’s ugly head again.

Also another REALLY  interesting resource is the Plot Library. Apparently, there are only like a few plots out there since the beginning of time and every story can fit into one of these plot lines. I thought it was fun to look through them and see which one my book and my favorite books fit into!

Is there really a formula for a best seller? Who knows. Most will agree that, like any art form, there’s no right or wrong way to write a book. But, that being said, even as an artist, I need to know how shading works. I need to know that if I’m trying to paint realism, if that’s my goal, then if the sun is on the right side of an object, the shadows will only be on the left side. This is a guide. It helped me organize my writing and identify the pieces that WERE ALREADY THERE! I don’t necessarily use this until I’m in the editing process. I don’t hold to this formula while I’m writing. I use it to sort it out afterwards. Maybe organized writing is the key to a best seller, maybe it’s something else entirely, but identifying these spots in my writing helps ME better understand it. I hope you can get something out of this too.

No Writer is an Island

I was a little sheltered as a kid. Okay, I was a LOT sheltered as a kid. I was home schooled. I went to the theater for the first time at the age of fifteen, wasn’t allowed to go to sleep overs, use swimming pools, wear swimming suits or say fart. Pootie was an acceptable replacement, though. (POOTIE??? How is that any better? It’s not MOM! It’s not! Lol! Love you, Momma.) My entertainment was limited to black and white reruns of the Dick Van Dike show, Perry Mason and Lucile Ball. We were allowed to watch AMC, so the classics became my reality. In my head, I started talking in short burst like the main characters in those black and white detective shows and ending everything with, ya see? One of my favorite movies was NO MAN IS AN ISLAND, a 1962 war movie starring Jeffery Hunter.

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The main character in the movie was an escaped POW being hunted. He was helped by many villagers as he made his way across the country to freedom. The point of the movie was that, though he was alone, he couldn’t have done it on his own. It’s the same for us.

No writer is an island.

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Yes, you are unique.

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Yes, you have worked hard.

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And your work is entirely a product of your dedication and talent.

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However, you could not, and cannot, do this on your own. As unique as you wish yourself to be, you are a piece of a puzzle.

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You need other people. We all do. In the beginning process when we’re critiquing one another’s work. In the middle when we are supporting one another through the rejections. In the new beginnings when we find representation and pursue publication. And, contrary to popular belief, we need one another more than ever after publication. It’s the people on the street, on their laptops and cell phones and around water coolers that sell books. It’s other authors on the same path. These are the people we need. So how do we ask for help and rely on these people without being a burden?

There’s an old adage I learned during my sheltered upbringing:

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Sow encouragement, time, energy and finances into someone else’s life and someone — maybe not the exact individual you helped, but someone — will sow into you.

So, while islands are lovely places (my latest thriller takes place primarily on an island so I’m partial), we have to reach out, for our own success, for the success of others, but mostly because that’s our purpose. Look around. Nothing on this planet is created to survive without being connected. How are we any different?

Getting the Call

There is nothing more surreal than a realized dream.

Nothing.

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I’ve dreamed of so many little things: the day I get to change my Twitter bio to say “repped by _____”, or the moment I get to post the announcement, “Guess what everybody! I’ve signed with ____.” I wondered if the real moment would be as gut tinglingly thrilling as in my daydreams.

And it was.

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In December of 2015, over Christmas break, I wrote my fifth book, and my first thriller. It gushed out of me, a lake from a leaking dam. It was different than anything I’d ever written. This main character had no traces of me in her. She was someone I didn’t know, someone I’d discovered, and gotten to know. I was scared of her and mesmerized by her, and felt for her.

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Me and my new imaginary friend.

I didn’t want to query this book right away, which was out of character for me. I’m usually dying to get it out there when it’s done. Years of writing was finally starting to mature me though, so I waited. After taking my time to polish, I decided to start querying seriously in April, 2016. By May I had serious interest. I received phone calls from agents in June. Things were happening. For real. I couldn’t believe it. Not long after, I saw a pitch contest on Twitter. I hadn’t planned on entering it, but I make a habit of always having pitches in my back pocket, ready to go if needed. It was a busy day, and I didn’t have time to tweet all day, so I just put one tweet out.

One tweet.

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It received attention from a few more agents that would later result in some wonderful conversations with real, beautiful, talented people. Offers of representation came in July. Was this really happening? Yes, in fact, it was. But a strange thing occurred. Something I didn’t expect. Something that sort of sucked a little bit of the joy out of the process for me. The decision. I didn’t realize how emotionally connected I would become to the people who showed interest in my manuscript. They were so encouraging and they believed in my work. They believed in me! They had ideas and visions for the future. My decision meant I would be ending those dreams for someone. I don’t know how agents make these kinds of stress-filled decisions on a daily basis. I’m in awe of what they do.

giphy (2) After much consideration, many late night talks and drives with my other half, my husband and I made a decision. A beautiful decision. I would be represented by Sharon Pelletier of Dystel and Goderich Literary Management in New York.

I am thrilled about the journey ahead. I’ve done a lot of thinking about what made this book more successful than the others I’ve written. I hope that maybe some of my reflection will help other authors out there on the same journey. Here are the factors, beyond the fact that lots of reading and writing and time have grown me as a writer, that I believe helped this time around. Timing. I’ve always hated when other authors mention this, because it takes the control out of my hands. But sometimes it’s a right time/right place scenario that comes into play. Marketability. I love every single one of my stories, but I think the plot for this one is timely for the market, and that helps.  A concise pitch. For once, (thank you Jesus!) I was able to boil my whole book down to a single, hard hitting sentence. I believe, initially, this is what resulted in ten full requests right off the the bat. A good way to get your creative juices flowing in this direction is to look at the insides of book jackets to see how they describe their books. Apply it to your work, and let it inspire you! Waiting until it’s ready. Agents are always reading, always considering work. Getting yours out there faster doesn’t ensure you’ll get an agent. Good, polished writing will do that.  And finally, networking. If you’re not on social media like Twitter, you’re missing out on entire writing communities that can be very helpful to your work and connect you with wonderful people. Writers conferences, online contests, and Facebook writer’s groups are all ways you can hone your work. I told someone the other day who was just starting this journey to think of it like college. You put four to five, maybe more, good years of hard work in to learn a skill so you can do it well. Expect to do the same thing in writing, before you make it to the next level. Then you’re not setting yourself up for disappointment, and the journey can be quite thrilling. It has been for me, and I can’t wait for what’s ahead.

Come with me!!