The Benefits of Writing Conferences

Apr 25, 2010

It’s not every day you get to hob-nob with and take classes from great authors (Dan Wells, Aprilynne Pike, David Farland), agents and editors (Laura Rennert,Nephele Tempest, and Krista Marino), and tons of other fabulous authors and aspiring ones.

At Storymakers

Me and Kami, my sister-in-law, at Storymakers

Suffice it to say, the Storymakers Conference was AWESOME. With the Bootcamp critique groups in the morning, I was there for 12 hours a day. It rocked my socks off and squished my brains out.

The main things I got out of it? 1. My story sucks. 2. The reasons why my story sucks 3. How to rewrite my story without suckage.

It was simultaneously stimulating, exhausting, inspiring, fascinating, and a whole heck of a lot of fun. If you’ve always thought writing conferences weren’t worth the money, I’m going to tell you flat out that you’re WRONG. I got fabulous critiques on my first chapter from the fabulous Dan Wells (and some great group members) as well as professional agents and editors. I made friends with other writers struggling with the same things I am. I was taught, inspired and empowered by some fabulous teachers. I met those who have made it, and made it very well. And I came home on fire to be a better writer– and with the tools to do so.

My final words: Go to a conference, young man (and woman).

Did you ever wonder…about looking for aliens?

Apr 20, 2010

Contact by Carl SaganOne of my favorite movies (and books) of all time is Contact. The search for–and finding of– extraterrestrial life in that story is so different than in many sci fi classics. I remember the first time I saw the movie, I was fascinated to learn that SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) was a real organization. During my I-want-to-be-an-astronomer days, I thought nothing would be more thrilling than to work at SETI.

Well, that day has come.

Jill Tarter, director of the Center for SETI research, spoke recently on CNN about a new SETI project. This project “…empower[s] Earthlings everywhere to become active participants in the ultimate search for cosmic company.”

So…care to go find some aliens? Anyone on Earth can now go to SETIQuest, download a program, get signals from SETI’s radio telescopes, and start searching for ET. It’s still under development, but it’s SETI’s way of getting the common man to help in their quest for the common alien.

Now, I’m definitely geeking out about being able to look for aliens, but let’s take this on a writerly bent. Aliens are a naturally common facet of sci fi stories. This tech makes it possible for 10-year-old Larry to be the first contact for an alien species. That alone has about a million story possibilities. What if Larry doesn’t know he’s found the aliens, but the aliens realize he has? Do they contact him? Does anyone believe him? Does he become some kind of messiah figure to the aliens? To the Earthlings who believe him? Those are just a few (slightly stereotypical) thoughts on this issue.

Who’s got some better ideas out there?

5 Drafts: Tips for Conquering the Dreaded Rewrite

Apr 19, 2010

Harmattan sunsetThe first time I traveled to Ghana was in January, at the peak of the Harmattan season. For two months, strong winds blow across the Sahara desert and down to West Africa, blanketing the sky with a thick coat of dust. It gets everywhere– in the corners, in the wall cracks, in your elbow creases. Just sitting outside, you can taste the thick, dirty air you’re breathing and walk back in the house ready for a shower. It hovers over everything like a dense, brownish smog.
Post-Harmattan view

I lived on a hill in the suburbs of Cape Coast, a bustling city with a booming fishing industry. One morning, it rained, clearing the sky for the first time since I’d been there and signaling the end of the Harmattan. As I walked down the hill to catch a taxi into town, I stopped in amazement, gazing into the distance. I had a view of the ocean! I had lived on this hill for a month, and never once had I realized that the Gulf of Guinea sparkled just within my view.

I like to think that rewrites are kind of like the rain that clears the sky of Harmattan dust. As you draft and cut and rewrite, the rain falls and suddenly, hey, there’s a story hidden in there! A lot of writers fear the rewrite, but really, it’s where you shape the story out of all the muck you just threw down on your paper.

So, then. Once you’ve got that first draft down, how exactly do you make that story come to life?

First, JOIN A CRITIQUE GROUP. Just get someone else to look at your stuff and give you honest feedback. Having another eye, especially another writer’s eye, go over your work is a tremendous help.

Now, my rewrite process actually occurs in several stages. Because I’m a pantser/plotter hybrid, I tend to do some of my rewriting as an actual part of my first draft. I still consider that a first draft, though. One thing I’ve never tried that I think I want to before launching into my next rewrite is the shrunken manuscript technique to better diagnose weaknesses before I even start.

Once my draft is finished, I take it through several rewrites, focusing each time on separate things. Now, keep in mind, these aren’t cut and dry, and they can vary depending on the needs and weaknesses of the particular work. Sometimes I mix them up a bit. Generally, though, these are the things I focus on in each draft.


  • Plot elements (try/fail cycle, rhythm and pacing, climax, plot points and structure, rehashes, foreshadowing, etc.)

This is where I do a great deal of actual chopping, rewriting, cutting, and pasting. I start with the story as a whole, figuring out what needs to go, what needs to be added, where I need to change the pace, where I should be foreshadowing, etc. This can be quite a long process, and is usually drawn out through subsequent drafts. A lot of times, I’ll look at individual problem scenes here too, and analyze for the same things within the scene.


  • World building (descriptions, society, religion, clear view of setting, world feels real)
  • characterization (strong, proactive, unique, memorable, act within their character, differentiated from other characters)
  • character relationships (show ups/downs in relationship, each scene is a new interaction or moment of discovering more of that character)

This is another very large draft. These things are all interrelated (I tend to think of world-building as characterizing the setting), and I take the time to make sure all of the above are taken care of. Sometimes I’ll do multiple mini drafts, where I focus on one single character who I’m having problems with, or a specific relationship that needs tweaking. This is one that I take on first with a whole-novel view (do they follow a good growth arc?) as well as a scene-by-scene view (do these characters interact exactly the same in this scene as they did three scenes ago?). Like I said, it’s a big draft that can incorporate some elements of plot already mentioned, as well as some of the following elements.


  • show, don’t tell (descriptions, feelings)
  • sentence structure/flow and word choice
  • tight dialogue
  • voice/viewpoint unique and error free (includes dialogue)

As I mentioned, some of these things, such as dialogue and voice/viewpoint get taken care of as I do my character drafts (or even in plot, if I’m working on pacing, for example). I go over them again, however, just to make sure things flow. I often kind of gloss over details in my first draft, using a lot of “telling.” This is where I fix that, if it hasn’t already been taken care of in, say, the world-building fixes.

After this, I LET IT SIT for several days to even weeks. (Especially if I’m thoroughly sick of the whole process.) This is imperative for the last draft to be what it needs to be, and for the book to be as good as it can be.

This is usually a good point for alpha readers to come in. The book is better, but now I want to know, once again, what works and doesn’t for the actual reader. Once I’ve gotten their feedback, I can incorporate any of it I want in the last draft.


  • Everything

In this, I take the comments from alpha readers, as well as my own feelings on everything already discussed, and make any final changes. This is often a much more painstaking draft, getting down into nitty-gritty details. This is also a good place to do a copy edit, looking for typos, spelling errors, inconsistencies like changing eye color, etc.

Oh wait, did I say final draft? I lied. Although, I guess the last one isn’t really a rewrite. Again, LET THE WORK SIT for a little bit. Then, go back and do another read-through and make any final adjustments.

And boom! Finally, the book is done, and the story has finally been revealed in all its glory. (Until the agents and editors get their hands on it, that is.)

So what’s your rewrite process? What scares you about rewriting? Let’s discuss!

The Muse-Fish

Apr 14, 2010

You hear a lot from writers about their muses. The word muse conjures up images of some formless, mystical creature that comes down with a magic wand and –bwang!– the writer is inspired. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not over here knocking muses. It’s very true that sometimes, something just hits you and away your fingers fly. However, if you hang around forever waiting for that bwang moment, you might never finish that book. Writing, or at least writing well, is hard, day-to-day work. That’s just a fact of life.

However, inspiration struck in the fish aisle of PetsMart yesterday as I watched the mesmerized look on my son’s face. I didn’t need a muse…I needed a muse-fish! A relaxation-inducing, thought-provoking, idea-inspiring muse-fish. And so, despite my husband’s eye-rolling, I carefully examined the rows of beta fish, and we arrived home with a pretty little crowntail beta. He sits right next to my writing area, to do all that -inducing, -provoking, and -inspiring stuff a muse-fish does when you take a break to watch him beta fish

He has been christened Tennyson. Because with a name like that, he’s got to be inspiring.

Did You Ever Wonder...

Apr 13, 2010

I was sitting at my desk at work the other day, staring woodenly at the apple on my Apple, and I began to wonder. Who the devil took a bite out of that apple? Is it symbolic? Is Apple trying to hint that they’re the Eden of computers? Did some marketing guy decide a whole apple just wasn’t a good enough logo? I suppose we’ll never know, but it got me wondering on more important issues, most of which I have forgotten by now. All this wondering gave me an idea.

Why not post a weekly blog about bizarre things in science we can wonder about to give the sci fi writer in all of us a little boost?

Each week, I’ll link to some kind of article of actual science– any kind of science. Then I’ll ask a few questions or make a few observations. From there, it’s up to you! Run with it, dance with it, throw it away, or write about it. If you’re up to sharing, comment about it on the blog.

So here’s the first DYEW: Did you ever wonder what memories are made of?

What fascinated me the most in this article is the idea of making someone forget a specific frightening thing. If we can make someone forget about trauma in their past, should we? Would we be morally obligated to do so if we could, or morally obligated not to? How would it change someone’s life if they forgot a key moment that had shaped them into who they are? Would they forget the event, or just the fear of the event? If the entirety of society no longer remembered horrible things that had happened to them, would that mean even more horrible things kept happening because no one remembered them?

Lots of questions, lots of answers to explore…so get wondering, and get writing!

It's in my Blood

Apr 9, 2010

In talking with my co-workers the other day, I rediscovered something about myself.

I’m a complete nerd.

We were all dreamily reminiscing of the days of childhood, when we ran carefree through parks, rejoiced in staying up until 10 pm to play nightgames, relished summers spent creating science experiments…oh wait. That last one was just me. Both of my office mates stared at me when I brought up the hours I spent hovering over my microscope, creating light-reflecting prisms, and consulting star charts so I could find Mars with my telescope. The looks on their faces asked, and at ten years old, you found this FUN?

Why yes, yes I did. I gave them an awkward smile, and the conversation turned back to sleepovers and swimming pools– the things normal kids did during their childhood. Of course, I did those too. I recall one sleepover where I read my friend a story about a girl being abducted by aliens…hm. Maybe that explains why we didn’t stay friends.

For the longest time growing up, I wanted to be a scientist. An astronaut, a marine biologist, a geneticist. It wasn’t until I was in college as a microbiology major that I realized as much as I loved science, I loved the things I could write about science more. I loved learning fascinating facts– but I loved extrapolating those facts into “what if” scenarios more.

I also learned that I love the fascinating and bizarre things in science, but more than that, I love figuring out how they affect us. What does the discovery of an animal that has assimilated plant DNA mean for society? For an individual person? For that specific person that might become my main character? It might mean nothing, or it might mean a lot. That’s what I really love getting at. And so, I’m a sci fi writer– it’s just in my blood.

What about you? What attracts you to the genre you write in? What is it that makes you passionate about what you write?

Weaving the Story

Apr 6, 2010

Over on Guide to Literary Agents, Agent Cameron McClure of Donald Maas had this to say about what stands out from the slush:

“‘Good writing’ and ‘voice’ are high on the list, as is a strong plot, original premise, both internal and external character conflicts, and a sense of suspense or narrative momentum… In the last couple of weeks, I’ve seen a lot of superb writing with unique narrative voices, but weak overall storylines. What I’m looking for are projects that incorporate all of these elements.”

There are so many books, websites, and blogs out there that are helpful to writers. We read, we practice, and we focus on those things we’ve heard often that publishers and agents are looking for: good writing, and voice. And those are absolutely key! But the whole POINT of creative non-fiction is to tell a story of some kind. If we miss the boat on that one, no one is ever going to read what we write.

So how, then, do you write a tightly woven storyline? Here are some basics. First of all, keep in mind that a great idea does not equal a great story. You may have the idea of the century, but you can destroy it if it doesn’t have a storyline. Second, you need a character– a realistic person who actually WANTS something, and is DOING something to get it. Third, don’t be afraid to use a formula! And by formula, I don’t mean using a formulaic plot. I mean using the whole first-second-third act/story arcs/try-fail cycle ideas. Your readers will expect the type of coherent story that comes out of these cycles, so give it to them. There are plenty of places on the web to get an idea of how to do this.

Often, you will have to do a bit of outlining to get this right. I know, groans are sounding from all of us dedicated discovery writers. What’s a non-outline-friendly writer to do? I hate to break it to you, but you may just have to do a bit of it anyway. This doesn’t necessarily mean you have to do it right off. I usually start with a very broad outline of the story. I know the major plot points, the basics of the world, and the essentials of my characters (and I write it all down so I don’t forget!). Then, I start writing. I discover things about the plot, characters, and world that surprise me. I ramble. I even let the story meander into unknown areas. Usually, I hit a point about halfway through where I don’t know where to meander to anymore. This means it’s time for a tighter plot outline. I go in, and I write much more detail, even over what I’ve already written. Now that I have a better idea of what my story is about, it’s much easier to give a tighter storyline. Then I can keep writing, and go back and revise what I’ve already got down.

I may go through this discovery/outline/discovery cycle a few times before I can finish a story. Once it’s done, I go revise again. And again. Even though I’ve tightened it up, it still needs a lot more tweaking, cutting, world-building, character-enhancing, and reorganization before the storyline flows along a tightly-crafted line. This is what revising is for! (Which is a topic for a related post.)

So remember, an awesome writer with a distinct voice who has a great idea but can’t tell a story worth beans is a writer who will remain unpublished.

Anyone else want to share their process or ideas for creating a well-woven storyline?

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