SYWTBAW

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This is a lesson to journalists, aspiring journalists, and anyone who is a writer or wants to be a writer.

Research and balance are important, whether you're writing fiction or a news piece. If you want people to take you seriously, to believe you and trust you to tell them something important, you have to do the legwork.

A little news channel called WNEP in Woosic, Pennsylvania, put up this story, about how some parents are concerned that an English teacher who has served for more than 20 years happens to write erotica for Ellora's Cave under the pen name Judy Mays. Concerned citizens are "disgusted" and want the teacher to quit.

I am trying very, very hard not to be mean, to say what I really think about these particular small-minded witch hunters who apparently have nothing better to do. I am holding back all the things I really want to rant about, including the state of sexual freedoms in America, the personal lives of citizens, the devaluation of our educators, the hypocrisy of Western morality, and a bunch of other things that would likely make me sound smarter than I actually am.

Instead, I will focus on the gatekeeper to this piece of utter nonsense: the news media.

Having trained as a journalist, I know that small town media outlets struggle to fill inches and broadcast minutes. I know that reporters work on tight deadlines and can't always get the interviews they need to complete their piece. I know that, especially if you're young and just starting out, it can be intimidating to interview difficult subjects, especially those who are being attacked.

But none of those are valid excuses in the end. People are smart, and they will call bullshit on you if you leave out key pieces of information. And when you come off as blatantly one-sided in a story like this one, you become less than laughable. You become a sham.

The journalist in question, Kena Vernon, was more likely out of time rather than biased. The edits were a little sloppy, the script poor. There are huge leaps of logic with little supporting evidence, and no confirmations from the author in question. With little more than a few clips off YouTube to support the whole story, she should have killed it. In the end, the piece came off as petty, petulant and malicious as the women gathered in the opening shot. And yet, WNEP still ran the piece at its full 1:42.

The backlash has been both heartwarming and cringeworthy. As of the writing of this post, more than 3400 people joined the Support Judy Mays Facebook page since it started at 2pm EST today. WNEP has garnered more than 200 comments on the story--many of them nasty--and people have been calling the station to complain.

If anything good has come out of this, it's that Mays's sales have likely jumped this afternoon: in a tweet, Ellora's Cave was pleased by the support for her.

Here's the thing, and I should haven't to point it out, but I will: There's a person involved. And when you tell a story you think is full of conflict, sensation, something sexy and attention grabbing, the moment you decide to single out and pick on ONE person, you MUST stop and decide if you've been fair and balanced and given that person an opportunity to rebut.

I know it might have been a rough day. No one would return your phone calls and you had two other pieces to finish editing. I know it was probably just a fluff piece to you anyhow, and dammit, those minutes needed filling!

Yeah, life as a broadcast journalist sucks. It's why I never became an actual journalist. But good reporters must hold themselves to a higher standard if they want to tell real, impactful stories. It is not enough to say you tried your best to get the story, but you'll have to go with what you've got. As Master Yoda so eloquently put it, "Do or do not. There is no try."

By only telling half a story, you subject all involved to hurt, ridicule, abuse--not just Judy, but all those parents who complained in the first place. You could be destroying many lives. And you will most certainly hurt your own career and tarnish your media outlet's reputation.

In the case of Judy Mays, WNEP made it very, very personal to a lot of people--writers, readers, publishers, editors, parents, students, coworkers...a lot of people.

Perhaps there are those at Local TV LLC who are smugly sitting back at the number of hits they're getting on their website. Bad publicity is better than no publicity, right? Those ad dollars have to come from somewhere. But just as bad writing will cull your readership, poor reporting will decimate your news-watching viewer ship.

Perhaps there are those who will say that people love these stories regardless--celebrities, scandals, car wrecks: we're all just cavemen waiting for the next bloodbath, and it's their mandate to "infotain" us. Well, hey, I love going to the zoo, but there's only so much shit-flinging and masturbation I'll put up with at the monkey cage.

So journalists and writers take note: research, balance and more importantly, decide whether or not you're actually telling an important story...or if you're just flinging poo.

</Rant over.>

Leave a comment and I'll randomly pick a winner for any one of Judy Mays's Ellora's Cave eBooks! Draw will take place May 2, 2011, 9 p.m. EST.

 

 

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The day I got The Call, I started writing the second book in my series. I knew they would want more—no one wants to be a one-hit wonder, after all. So I plotted, I planned, I pounded out 73,000 words in 5 months. I wrote a synopsis. I pitched. I submitted.

The proposal (and the third book, which I had already started) was rejected.

I stared gut-wrenching, pizza-and-whiskey-binge-style failure in the face once more. How could this be? I'd just sold a book. Surely all those lessons I learned the first time around could only make me better! Surely I was destined to write something even more brilliant!

I wallowed. I put my completed MS aside and put the kibbosh on my third book. There was no point in continuing—it wasn't going to sell as it was. I had to purge the ideas, scrub the stories completely from my brain. (Whiskey and Red Dead Redemption helped a lot in this stage). I had to come up with something new. I was terrified.

Once I'd gotten over the despair, I went back and read my lovely and brilliant editor's extensive notes. The thoroughness and articulation of her thoughts reminded me of why she is a damn good editor. She wasn't wrong in her assessment: there were some rough spots, some contrivances, some areas where the story became predictable and, frankly, boring. I was trying too hard to give the reader what they want. I wasn't being true.

But once I understood this, how could I go about writing something new? Something not predictable? Something that would capture the imagination?

Hell, if I had the answers, I'd already be doing it instead of blogging right now...

If I have any iota of wisdom to share out of thie SYWTBAW bit, it's this: don't get complacent. Don't despair. I've said it before, I'll say it again—Keep moving forward. Just keep swimming.

Now, back to the idea cave...

 

Writing is easy:  All you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.

~Gene Fowler

 

 

 

 

3. In urgent moments, there isn't time to think.

It's easy to get caught up describing the sweeping emotions of a first kiss, or the hot and heavy action of a first...well, anything else. And as writers, we sometimes lose ourselves in the art of turning those huge emotions and life-changing moments into metaphors, comparing them to the rushing of tides and the swell of music.

I did this in my manuscript. Not all the time, but certainly at moments when the action alone would have carried the reader through.

Here's the thing: Sometimes, there's no need to describe anger "ripping through her" or fear "shafting through her heart like an icicle." Sometimes the reader needs room to experience the emotion on his or her own; to react to the moment and just feel what the character is feeling.

No need to compare it to sunshine and happy bunnies; no need to make it melodramatic. Just let it happen.

"Simple is often more poignant," my editor, Victoria Curran, writes. "The ideal is for the writing to serve the story and not call attention to the writer, which is why I cut back on the metaphoric language in more urgent moments where it seemed wrong for characters to be self-aware and comparing something they were seeing or feeling to something else. In these moments, pacing is usually more important than fresh imagery."

Now in editing, whenever I come across what my editor calls a "movement of emotion"--happiness bubbled through her, rage punched a fist through his chest, confusion wafted a fog through his brain--or I start using similies or metaphors to describe some character's reaction, I ask myself, does the reader get this? Have I built up the character, conflict and tension enough so that they understand exactly what the character is feeling at that moment?

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2. Take it out of the eyes, head and shoulders.

He smiled. She grinned. His eyes sparkled. Wariness crept into her eyes. Her mouth twitched. He shrugged. She lifted a shoulder. The corners of his mouth tautened into a grimace. Her brow furrowed. He waggled his eyebrows. She sucked in her cheeks. He frowned. Her lips pushed out mulishly. He pouted.

These are all great descriptors, but people are more than head and shoulders. Their body language extends beyond what they do in the most expressive parts of their features.

In my line edit, my editor noticed I frequently went back to the eyes and lips. It occurred to me as I made these corrections that I almost never look people directly in the face when speaking with them in real life. (I'm not being rude, I swear--it's an old childhood habit of deference.)

So I asked myself, whenever I was in the hero or heroine's POV, what would they notice if they weren't looking into their face? And how would the characters they were watching express themselves if they had no face?

He shuffled his feet. Her hands fluttered nervously. She never stopped moving. He held absolutely still. He punched the wall. She stamped her foot. She danced around. He straightened. His spine stiffened. She squared her shoulders. She took a deep breath. He sagged. She twisted a curl around a finger. He rubbed his temples. She shuffled her papers.

By making the actions specific, you can keep it out of the head and shoulders and give the narrative more depth and color.

Another easy fix? Adverbs. I know your writer's craft teacher says keep away from them, but used sparingly (aha!), adverbs can tell a reader what they need without drawing attention to complicated writing.

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If anyone ever says "romance books are never edited," I would like to reply to them with two very succinct and inappropriate words, possibly followed by a rude gesture.

Instead, I am countering with the first two pages of my line edit from Harlequin Superromance editor Victoria Curran.

At Harlequin, this is usually the first time an author gets to see their work after their revisions and submissions. It's at this stage that the editor has gone through the book line by line, judging every single sentence, cutting out the fat, questioning the plot, clearing up the language, and so forth, making notes along the way.

Not all line edits are as extensive as mine, but what I learned from it will ultimately make me a better Superromance writer.

Copyright © 2011 by Vicki So. Permission to reproduce text granted by Harlequin Books S.A.

Note the original title: Fighting for Her Love. It has now been changed to Her Son's Hero. Lesson the first: Don't get married to your title, because it will likely change. The editors usually sit down with lists the authors came up with, and then come up with other suggestions and ideas. (I really liked one suggestion by my co-worker: Martial Hearts. Too bad--guess I'll have to save it for another book.)

Over the next little while, I'm going to share the gems I learned from going through this excruciating process. Because there's nothing quite like rehashing your own mistakes to make you learn from them. Hopefully, you'll learn from my mistakes, too.

Note: not everything I say here applies across the board. Every genre, sub-genre and series has their own unique style. Superromance deals with contemporary category series romance with a strict focus on the romantic conflict. On top of that, everyone has their own voice and style, so nothing is either right or wrong--it's just what I learned.

1. Resist the Urge to Explain

I apparently went a little too far in explaining the hows and whys of a lot of actions, instead of letting the actions tell the story. Essentially, this is what "show, don't tell" is supposed to achieve. In the above pages, I went too far to explain why bigger boys were chasing a littler boy, hooting and laughing all the way. If you're watching this scene unfold, you can make your own conjectures pretty quickly. The book was peppered with RUE remarks.

So, now when I start describing a scene and add on a clause that begins with "because" or "to do this" or "in this way," I stop and ask myself: Is this really necessary? Can the reader make that conjecture from what happens next?

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I discovered a habit of mine that's really started to drive me crazy. It seems like I do it a lot. I feel like I do it without even knowing it.

I'm going to call it Seeming and Feeling.

Ever write a sentence like this:

He felt the dagger slide into his flesh. It seemed like time slowed as he felt his life bleed from him.

This is a graphic, powerful scene. But when things only seem and feel like something, they cease to engage the reader in the moment, and it jars the reader's suspension of disbelief.
What if we changed the description so that things aren't just seeming or feeling a certain way, but simply are?

The dagger slid into his flesh, inch by agonizing inch. Time slowed as he watched his lifeblood pour from the gaping wound, soaking through his shirt, wetting the dusty ground.

Removing the feeling and seeming from the sentence gives the reader immediacy and closes up the distance between what the character is experiencing and what the reader is witnessing.

Of course, there are places for feelings: in similes and metaphors, they work all right.
He felt as though his hands were on fire.
She felt like her head was about to explode.
But often, it's better to find a strong way to describe a strong experience.
Your homework:
Can you think of a way to rewrite the above sentences to make them stand out without seeming or feeling? (You can make up any situation you like around these sentences.)

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My eyes droop. My head feels swollen and numb, like I've been stung by a giant bee. I've been staring at my WIP and realize I've spent the past week stuck on the same sentence, unable to push forward.

Writer's block is the bane of all professional and wannabe professional (i.e. paid) writers. You've probably had those days where you're staring at a blank screen, willing the words to magically appear even though you feel more like you're ready to regurgitate word salad all over your monitor.

The Block might come in a different form: you come to a stage in your writing where you just don't know what else to say. Your characters stare blankly back at you, stuck in plot limbo, waiting, picking their noses, or otherwise trudging through the monotony of a regular day in their world. Your writing becomes a laundry list of things they did that day.

Or perhaps you've been obsessing over one particular scene; something's not right; something sounds off; you don't like this scene, but it needs to be there and AUUUUUGHHHHH!!!!

Pretty much all of these scenarios end with that last drawn-out cry of frustration.

So here's the cure:

Stop writing. Just for a while. Take a break. A hiatus. If you've been pounding the keyboard for weeks with no real forward momentum, it's time to find your muse, relax, recharge, and start fresh when you're ready to tackle the challenge.

Things to do to inspire you:

1. Read something fun. If you're already doing this, and have ten bookmarks in ten different books, you might want to shift your focus and find something you WANT to read. Try to read it purely for enjoyment--don't go looking for things you're not doing, or find ways to make what you're writing more like the book. Just lose yourself in the text.

2. Watch a movie you've always wanted to see. Even if no one else will watch it with you, grab the DVD or get those movie tickets and buy yourself a nice big tub of popcorn and indulge yourself. TV is also an excellent way to rest your brain and passively receive information and entertainment. And video games count!

3. Go for a walk/run/jog/bike ride/public transit adventure/etc. I find that forward motion always gets my creative juices going, which is why I end up writing on the bus so frequently.

4. Go somewhere you haven't been before or want to revisit and look for new things about these places. Look around, and especially look up: new perspectives get your brain into gear. Go into that store you pass all the time but never enter. Sit on that bench you always pass on the way home.

There are innumerable ways to recharge, but the important thing about getting around writer's block is to 1) assess the situation and come back to it when you're up to the challenge; and 2) More important, CONFRONT THE BLOCK AND PUSH THROUGH WHEN YOU HAVE THE STRENGTH.

Give yourself time to rest, a vacation from your WIP, and sometimes the Block will disappear on its own.

So far, I've espoused the virtues of plowing ahead and writing as much as possible to fill your daily word counts. I've tried to explain the necessity for not looking back while in the midst of a MS.

Now I'm going to backtrack.

Why? Because like so many things, sometimes you need to know where you've been in order to know where you're going.

In my current WIP, I'd plotted out most of the major themes, turning points, and so forth, but I'd started my first 40,000 words in such a hurry, I could no longer remember what I'd written or where I was going with some of the paragraphs.

After an enlightening critique group session with the fabulous ladies at the Toronto Romance Writers, I decided to go back and change the narrative voice from third to first person perspective*. That task in itself loomed large for me--it meant I'd have to read everything I'd just written.

I didn't like that prospect.

But I did it anyhow. And wow, did I end up rewriting and cutting and editing it down. But by doing so, I'd cut through the tangled plot I'd got stuck in. I eliminated all the unnecessary world-building bits, expanded on the things that were important--like emotion, characterization, and story details--and slimmed down the whole tale to a much more manageable book.

It wasn't easy. But it was wholly worthwhile. Now that I can see what's behind me, the path ahead is clear.

So when you do get stuck in your writing, and you're mired in the details of your plot or world, go back and read over what you've written. Don't despair over the quality, but do map out where you've been. Did you write stuff you can't remember? The reader probably won't remember it, either. Were you going someplace with this paragraph about some trivial detail? No? File it under "save me for later."

Weed out the dead matter and your creative garden will flourish!

(Okay, I realize the metaphor got mixed along the way from roads to gardens...but that's how editing works!)

*A word on POVs to come.

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It's February!

Remember that commitment at the beginning of the year you made to yourself to write that book? Well, I hope you're still clinging vigorously to that resolution. It's been nearly 6 weeks since New Year's Day and it's right around now that most resolutions fall by the wayside.

If you're adhering to some kind of writing plan--working away on your word count, spending time every day (or at least every other day...once a week...or whenever you find yourself with a spare moment)--good on you. That path is a sometimes treacherous one...and one that is often inhabited by the dreaded plot bunny.

Plot bunnies are the plague of the busy writer. They can strike at any time and consume your thoughts, your energy, and your precious, precious time.

It's all too easy to submit to these voracious beasts, especially if you're in a rut with your current WIP. The lure of a new story, the potential for fresh characters and a new start...they're all too easy to pursue, right up until the next plot bunny latches on with its gruesome fangs.

But you can manage these beasts. Not only can they be caught and domesticated; they can become productive sources of ideas and creativity in the future.

Follow these steps for successful plot bunny husbandry:

1. Capture the plot bunny.
When inspiration strikes, write whatever the main idea is down. Plot bunnies can strike anywhere and anytime, so keep a notebook and pen on you wherever you go (if you aren't carrying one already).

2. Feed the plot bunny.
Give yourself some time to tame the little beast by assuaging its desires: give it a little room and flesh it out. But don't spoil the thing by devoting every waking moment of your time trying to make it into some bloated beast of a project. Some of these plot bunnies are shallow and short-lived, so there's no sense in trying to wring it of everything it's got.

3. Leave the plot bunny.
Seems counter-intuitive to abandon the poor creature after you've done so much for it, doesn't it? But there's a simple and harsh reason for this: only the strongest plot bunny will survive, and, let's face it, with plot bunnies overrunning you as it is, letting the stock cull itself will ultimately mean a better crop of stories.

4. Breed the plot bunnies.
Even the strongest plots need a little love, and even if they've gotten this far, they ultimately may not survive on their own. Why not marry your ideas together to produce the super plot bunny? What you get may surprise and delight you.

5. Kill, gut, skin, dry and store your plot bunnies.
All plot bunnies, dead or thriving, should be kept in notebooks or binders or whatever system it is you keep for roving ideas. With proper preservation and storage, they will last indefinitely. You never know when you might need them!