Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Wrestling and Writing - Strangely Similar

I've been doing a lot of research on professional wrestling lately. Partly because I'm a huge fan and partly because I'm considering writing a book series about something related to it. I've been watching documentaries (which is something I love to do in general) about it and finding weird similarities between writing and professional wrestling.

For example, there are different levels of wrestling. There are those who sign up for wrestling events on their own, those who get a contract with indie wrestling companies, and those who sign up with big wrestling companies (like the WWE.) It reminded me a lot of self-publishing, indie publishing, and traditional publishing. Self-publishers have to pay for their own stuff (editors and book covers) and promote their own books, similar to how wrestlers who have no contract go out, buy their own costumes, fund their own schools/trainers/seminars, and sometimes get paid nothing or very little to wrestle. They make their own personas on stage, they have complete creative control (like self-published authors, which is why self-publishing appeals to me), but no backing from anybody. Indie wrestling companies are small and don't pay a ton, similar to indie publishing companies, they don't get as popular or as much exposure, but they get wrestling jobs on a regular basis and have some creative control. While when there's a big contract involved (think traditional publishing), they might get a ton of money (but not always, just like writers who sell a lot aren't always making a lot of money), except they have almost no creative control. Whatever the company says, goes, and sometimes people are pushed out of the way, not because they are bad, but because other, more popular wrestlers (think books as well, since this happens with books too) are getting all of the attention. Promotion stops and eventually they lose their jobs. Reminds me of some people I've heard of who have gotten contracts and been dropped for one reason or another by either the publishing company or agent and it's usually because of sales. In the wrestling world, it's whether the crowd is silent when you come out or whether they cheer and/or boo a lot.

There's a ton of wrestlers out there and only the very top few get contracts with the big companies. Like writing, it's very hard to make a living off of wrestling, regardless of what route you take and most of them have day jobs. They face regular rejection, turned away from even local matches because there isn't enough money. (Nope, that doesn't sound familiar at all or like the life of a writer at all, does it? Rejection is only our middle names.)

They also talk about practicing every day, studying the techniques, and also how every wrestler has a different style. It's an art form, I keep hearing them say and they talk about finding something that sounds strangely similar to a writer finding their "voice" when talking about the way they move naturally on stage. That every wrestler is unique and has to find what moves they do in a special way that expresses their personalities. It's their wrestling "voice."

In fact, I was watching Daniel Bryan, one of the top wrestlers in the WWE right now, doing a seminar in the documentary, The Wrestling Road Diaries. As he taught the students how to wrestle, he, himself compared it to writing:

"It's like being a writer. You know like, if you know the basic tools for writing, you adjust it as you go along and knowing the rules makes, allows you to break the rules and know what you're doing as you do it."

- Daniel Bryan when he was known as Bryan Danielson during his speech where he spoke about mastering the basics of wrestling before moving on and learning the showy moves.

When you hear them speak about their love of wrestling, they talk about sacrifices they've made, but how they do it out of love, even if they don't get paid. The passion in their voices reminded me a lot of writers and how we view our craft.

People think professional wrestling is fake. That it doesn't involve pain or work and that it's easy to get into. Wrestlers get offended by this after all they've done. They hate being judged for their "strange" lifestyle and meet a lot of people who don't get why they have a need to wrestle all the time. I've met people who think it's easy to write a bestseller. I laugh.

They sacrifice themselves to the point where a lot of them wind up in chronic pain the rest of their life and still miss doing it. Honestly, my heart went out to those people. What would it be like to get brain cancer or a stroke and lose the abilities to write? It would be horrible and that's what many of them suffer through.

In a similar way, people underestimate how hard it is to write a book. They don't understand why we lock ourselves in our rooms all the time, re-writing our chapters over and over again. They judge us for the things we write, but we can't stop doing it.

Writing and wrestling are obviously very different. One is dangerous and the other is not, but the fact that we are both entertainers opened my eyes to how often they struggle with similar things that I do and strive to be the very best in a world full of rejection just like me. We both take business risks, want to make a living off of our dream, and are likely to never get where we want to be.

Friday, August 24, 2012

What To Do When A Critique Partner Upsets You With Their Comments On Your Story

Every writer goes through moments where a critique effects them in a negative way. Whether they beat themselves up over it or get angry/defensive, it happens, especially when they are being pummeled with several at once. This is a hard industry and it takes a lot of humility to get through.

There is a right way and a wrong way to handle it when you get upset over these things. Here are some tips:

1. Wait before reacting

If you choose to respond to the person, it's better to do so when you're not consumed by emotions. It helps you behave more professionally and keeps you from being insulting or defensive. (Which can make you look very full of yourself, even when you're actually insecure.)

Not to mention that sometimes, after you think about a critique for awhile, you might decide that the person is actually right, even though your instincts fought against it at first. This has happened to me many times as I've improved as a writer. Sometimes it's hard to hear a critique, sometimes you weren't quite ready for it or overwhelmed by it (or maybe they worded it wrong), but over time, it starts making sense and you agree with it. Then you will feel like a bad person later if you yelled at them over something that eventually helped you.

2. Put their opinion into perspective

Critiquers are fellow writers usually. They sympathize with what you are going through. It may be hard to hear an opinion about something you've poured your heart into, but they wouldn't say it if they didn't believe in your manuscript.

I've given my manuscripts to people who didn't believe in them and didn't bother to read through even the first chapter. That's how you can tell they don't believe in it or don't care, they don't read it. If someone is actually reading through the whole thing, then they like it and support you.

They are teachers, not rivals. They make mistakes because they are not infallible and some of their advice might not be right for you, but they're just trying to help. You might see things wrong with their writing and think,"How dare they judge me when they can't do such and such right!" But the truth is they have different strengths and weaknesses than you and can help you be stronger in those areas as well. You're helping each other improve.

3. Communicate

If you don't express ahead of time that you're just looking for feedback on plot holes and not on characters or that you just want help with your grammar and don't care what they think about the depressing ending, then they might give you opinions on the wrong things, which will frustrate you and could cause an argument because of the misunderstanding. Good communication can give you the kind of critique you're looking for. It's better to discuss before anyone reads anything what both your expectations are.

4. Respect their opinion

There have been times when critique partners argued with me about critiques I gave them and convinced me of nothing. A critique is someone's personal reaction to your work. Whether it's an educated reaction or not, it was still the impression they got from your piece. And saying,"No, your reaction was wrong" isn't going to make them suddenly change their mind. In fact, you might make them angry with you.

I critiqued something for someone once and was given an e-mail back where they argued with every single point I made. Not one or two points, all of the points. I immediately realized that I wasted my time. Even if I was wrong like they said I was about everything, I still didn't help them, which means all my effort had been pointless. It made me wonder why I gave my opinion if this person didn't value opinions other than their own.

With critique partners, we're collecting reactions to a story as a whole, so we can get the information we need to receive more positive reactions once we're published. You don't have to change everything that they ask you to or agree with anything they say. I expect my critique partners to have different views of their (and my own) manuscripts than I do.

View it as a survey that they're filling out. You'll analyze the data later and make your decisions based on that information you collected. It is a scientific experiment about how the public might react to your work (based on a small sample of people you surveyed), not a debate over who is right or wrong. It will prepare you for the kind of negative reactions you might get to your work if you don't change what they ask you to. Even if you change nothing, that's more valuable than you'd think because it prepares you for some of the negative reviews you might receive.

5. Don't rant about it over social media

Let's say one of your critique partners says that you use too many adverbs and after you publish, you say,"Ha! She said I used too many adverbs, but look how many books I've sold. She was wrong." People will suddenly start looking for those adverbs and see if you're doing things as correctly as you say you are or if the critique partner was right. And you'll look conceited, like you think you can do no wrong, even though more likely than not, you'll view it as you trying to defend yourself.

6. Find a friend you can complain to

With a friend, you can actually let your guard down and be as whiny and immature as you need to be. You can even insult the person if you want to and it won't effect your career at all. By finding the right avenue to release your emotions into, you can still keep your professional image up while not being forced to hold everything in.

Because let's face it, no matter how mature we are, sometimes we need to rant.

7. Move on

If you're upset about a critique partner and something they said (or maybe many somethings) and feel like your writing isn't good enough for publishing, remember that we are all learning. You're not as bad as you think. If you were the worst writer in the world and there was no hope for you, then no one would be trying to help you. What they see is your potential and what you could be if you improve. Focus on that.

Writing is a craft that you can never perfect. There's always room as a writer to get better and challenge yourself. You never have to worry that the book you just wrote is the best book of your career because you'll write the next book using all the knowledge you learned from the previous one and do something even better.

It actually makes writing exciting because you can only achieve more and grow. Things will get better from here.


If you'd like to read more articles on writing like this, please go to my site: The New Writer's Guide To Writing, Publishing, And More.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Black Cats Are Good Luck

I was going to post this later, but I just found out that today, August 17th, is black cat appreciation day!


It hurts me to see the signs on animal shelters about black cats and how people kill them, particularly on Halloween because they view them as evil or bad luck. They are adopted the least often of any color of cat and are the most likely to be abused.

When I was in third grade, this girl brought her black cat for show and tell. Some of the other little girls stood terrified in the corner because of the whole "bad luck" stigma, but I was entranced by her shiny, dark fur. I thought she was beautiful and insisted that I must have a black cat of my own. My parents immediately said no.

I prayed very hard for a black cat every day. I grew-up in a Christian home. On a Wednesday night as I walked to the car to go to my church for a children's group, I found a little black kitten playing with my shoelace. It was love at first site.

"Can we keep her?" I asked my parents the way every child would in the same situation.

They didn't even bat an eyelash. "No," they said and threw her outside.

She clung to the door all night, mewing so cutely that she broke my parents' heart. We lived in a forest. If we left her out there, she could be eaten by coyotes, so we brought her in and she became a member of our family.

I named her Charlotte. I had a fascination with Charlotte's web, so I wanted my cat to be named after her. My Dad liked to call my cat "the spider" because of it. He'd say to me,"There's a giant black spider wanting to be pet in the living room. Should I go kill it?" It was a joke because I hate spiders and was always asking him to kill them. I knew he was really trying to tell me that my cat wanted attention. I'd run into the living room and hug my cat as she growled menacingly at me.

That's right. My cat was an angel. She'd howl and complain every time I held her. She'd stare at me in fury, insisting that I wasn't treating her like the Princess she was, while guests would come over and be terrified over the fact that my cat made noises louder than an engine with no muffler. She didn't scratch often, but she grumbled all day long.

But if I didn't hold her, she'd start appearing in every room my family traveled to. First we'd be in the kitchen and she'd be staring off bored out the window. Then we'd move into the living room and she'd be lying on the rocking chair. We'd go into the bedroom and she'd be napping at our feet. She had the power to teleport nonchalantly, so we'd give her the attention that she supposedly didn't want without having to ask.

The vets saw her as a hell beast. Every time we'd come and pick her up, there would be warnings all over the cage about how she scratches and bites. I remember hearing a veterinarian approaching her cage once and cooing at her while her claws extended themselves and she hissed until she was spitting. I cooed in the same way and she started to purr. Charlotte was vocal about her opinions towards people.

She was loud in general. She'd meow all the time for cat food and treats, sometimes biting my Mom on the leg if she took too long to get her wet cat food. She was also loud when she sat in the window and stared out at birds. She thought she was a master of disguise and could trick the birds into thinking she was one of them. They'd start tweeting up a high pitched storm. My cat would listen carefully and start chirping along with them. She was actually very good at imitating the noises they made, except she usually put an "m" sound at the beginning of it. So instead of "tweet, tweet", she'd say "meet, meet". I regret never recording it to post on youtube.

My cat was one of my best friends. I got picked on a lot growing up, but I always knew she would be waiting for me on my bed when I got home from school. I'd pet her and sing to her. Sometimes I'd tell her about my day. She'd cheer me up.

It's how I knew my black cat wasn't bad luck. She was some of the best luck I'd ever had.

Years ago, my cat began to act strangely. She had always been terrified of water, but suddenly she was in love with it. She was falling asleep with her head in bowls of water and sitting inside the toilet and meowing at the water. We couldn't figure out what was wrong with her and why she'd cry so loudly.

We took her to the vet and found out that she had thyroid problems. She was unusually hyper for an older cat. She slept a lot, but would suddenly run around the house so quickly that she'd slide on the ground and fall onto her side when she tried to round corners. She made a galloping sound when she ran. Listening to her run, even when she'd jump on my face while I was laying on the couch because she was so hyper with her claws extended, brought a smile to my face.

Unfortunately, the reason she was so hyper was because she had an overactive thyroid. It was why she was nervous all the time and it would take a toll on her heart. We were given pills to feed to her and told to come in for a check-up every six months to make sure the dose was correct. Her personality stayed mostly the same, but she stopped meowing at water.

My cat was old and her fur was getting lots of tangles. She fought my mother whenever she tried to cut them out, so my Mom thought it would be a good idea to take her to the groomers. I wasn't so sure. My cat was nervous a lot and I was scared that going to the groomers would be too much for her. She insisted that it would be all right and that we needed to do this, so I said,"Okay."

The day my Mom took my cat to the groomers, she asked me to come over because she wanted to talk to me about it. They had tied my cat up at the groomers because she had been difficult (as always) to take care of and it turned out that she was so frightened by the visit that she collapsed on the table and went into cardiac arrest. The woman working on her did CPR, but it was too late. Charlotte was dead.

She cried as hard as we did. She said she had been grooming for twenty years and nothing like this had ever happened to her. We weren't angry with her. We didn't yell at her, but her place went out of business not too long after that. I worry that she felt too much guilt or fear over what happened to my cat and stopped grooming animals. We didn't want that to be the case. My cat had been getting sickly and skinny for awhile. We knew she might go soon anyway. We didn't want her to blame herself.

Because of my cat, Charlotte, and the good luck she brought into my life, I've made it a secret priority to bring that good luck into my novels by secretly writing her in. In my Spirit Speaker novel, one of the characters, Parmenia, raises several animals, accidentally, from the dead. One of them is a black cat. In my Medusa novel, Medusa travels to ancient Ethiopia. They have a bunch of gods there that resemble animals and one of those animals is a black cat. I also have an idea for a book series about necromancers where the main character has a pet that's a mixture of a black cat and a snake. And I have another story idea where the best friend of the main character is a single woman who lives with only her black cat. I find ways to subtly sneak black cats into many of my stories, but not all. If you keep your eyes open and read my novels, you'll be able to find each reference, but if you don't pay attention, you'll probably miss them because they're subtle.

Everything I write about isn't about me. Some of it is about other people I've known and experiences I've seen them having, but little bits and pieces of me sneak into my stories. This is one of them.

Do you have any little secrets or tributes like this that you add to your stories? Have you seen any in other novels?

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Meet Another (Death) Author

Today, we have a guest on our blog. Meet Valerie Laws.  Here's her post below:

Valerie Laws: a dark and deathly crime, a dark and rebellious comedy, two ebooks suitable for all ages but also young adult readers 16+.

My life has some strange and deathly stuff in it so it’s great to be here on the Death Author blog! As a novelist, I’ve learned from other areas of my writing which have led me to strange places. I am a Writer in Residence at a Pathology Museum which isn’t open to the public, but I have access there to human specimens of all ages with every kind of wound, disease and condition. I’ve worked with the medical students, and observed their human body dissection classes, helping to put the bodies out and put them away. I led a writing workshop in a dissection session using the cadavers as subjects, helping the medics of the future to have empathy for the people the bodies had once been. It’s incredible how complex and beautiful the human body is when you see it being gradually dissected. How densely everything is packed in there! I have another residency at a Brain Institute at a University, where I’ve been given guided tours round diseased and disordered brains with Alzheimer’s disease and other conditions, shown how to ‘read’ slices of brain and the abnormalities inside them. I love to work with scientists and pathologists, they are so generous with their time, spending hours teaching me about their areas of expertise. And I love to write about what I learn in my ‘CSI: Poetry’ where forms of death mix with poems on dating and sex, sadness, darkness and laughter mingled as they are in life. I love to perform my work and hear people laugh and cry.

As well as this, I have some hobbies which are suitable for a novelist such as myself, I collect skulls. To do this, you find dead birds or animals washed up on the beach (I live by the sea) or even as roadkill. You cut or pull off the head  and take it home. People give you strange looks! Then you leave it in your garden to be rotted and consumed by insects, and when they’ve cleaned out all the brains and flesh you boil the skull in bleach and there you have it, a beautiful natural object to keep as an ornament! I own a human spine which was thrown out by medical students, and I’ve written about that too. I know a lot about pain and human anatomy, I was very badly injured in a car smash some years ago and had lots of interesting fractures!

So when it comes to my fiction, all this feeds into it. I’ve written eleven books, in various genres, 10 of them in paperback, 2 in ebook format. My crime fiction is dark and yet funny. My first crime novel is THE ROTTING SPOT (http://amzn.to/RotSpotUS, $1.55, also on amazon.co.uk) and it has a skull collecting theme. My detective character Erica Bruce is a young homeopath fitness freak with borderline anorexia, not through vanity but through early trauma which left her determined to be in control of her fitness. She collects skulls and so does a mysterious character called The Skull Hunter. The book is about dark and terrible family secrets, when Erica’s friend goes missing. There are some very dark moments in the book but I won’t give away too much! Erica works with and against a Detective Inspector, Will, who is very handsome and fit but despises what she does for a living though he’s very much attracted to her. The book has won awards and five star reviews, and has cover quotes from famous crime novelists Val McDermid and Ann Cleeves (who both have series on TV). It came out in paperback and then the publisher let me put it on kindle myself as an indie version. It was hard work learning how to format the book for kindle! But it’s great learning new stuff about computers and books too. The book is set by the sea in North East England near the Scottish border. Erica is rebellious, young and determined, and goes into battle on behalf of those she thinks need help.

Here’s a sample from the ‘Skull Hunter’s Blog’:

‘Its not easy cutting off a head: sliding the blade between the cervical vertebrae, sly and slick as a credit card springing a lock. It might be a fresh kill, plump and juicy, the sinews stretchy and strong. Or it might be an old, seasoned corpse, the squatters moved in. Maggots. Those fast black spiders. Beetles, wandering through the delicate arches of bone like tourists through a cathedral. The eyes already gone. Sight and thought, first signs of life to go; eyes and brain, first parts cherry-picked by scavengers. Hell, a crow would take your living eyes, if it was sure you couldnt move. You know the way crows look at you? Now you know what theyre thinking. But youre a hunter, you’ve got to have that skull, even with the stench, the flies, and those sinews dried to flat dark ropes still stubbornly holding out. No, its not easy, cutting off a head. But someone was getting away with murder...’
I like strong female characters who are eccentric too. So my eleventh book, my first totally indie ebook, has a strong, daring young female heroine but a very different one. LYDIA BENNET’S BLOG - THE REAL STORY OF PRIDE & PREJUDICE (http://amzn.to/LBBUS, only $1.55, also on amazon.co.uk)  is Jane Austen’s most famous novel but told in the voice of the youngest Bennet sister, Lydia, a teenager who in the book behaves badly and is always being disapproved of by the ‘respectable’ characters like Lizzie Bennet. To me, Lydia Bennet is a very modern teenager although she lives in the early 1800s! Imagine if you had to wear bonnets and gloves and be polite all the time. You can’t get a job, or a decent education. You have to get married or you are scorned by everyone. You can’t marry the person you love if he’s not rich. A very limited and powerless life, but she is rebellious, clever, fashion mad, likes to flirt and have a good time, all things she’s not allowed in her own time and position in society. I’ve changed the whole book to make her the main character, who plots and plans to make sure she gets some fun, some power over her life, and gets her man, the ‘bad boy’ James Dean type character Wickham who she sets her heart on and also fancies like mad, rare in those days. I’ve made it a comedy as the other characters don’t realise what Lydia is doing, behind the scenes, organising the lives of her relatives to improve her family fortunes and achieve freedom for herself. This book I wrote at great speed because Lydia was ‘talking’ for herself as if in my ear, she uses modern teenage slang but I’ve invented 1800s meanings for it. She’s misunderstood and belittled but never gives in until she wins.  

Here’s how she introduces herself: ‘A Helpful Note for any Youth- or Coolness- Challenged Readers.

Well, me and my buddies on the Net are wayyy too cool to read or write those boring ladylike journals! That’s ‘buddies’ from ‘rosebuds’, we being young, sweet, innocent maidens (irony alert!). So we started to write our goss and news in our own style, in our‘buddies’ logs’ or ‘blogs’ for short, and pass them around our Network, or ‘the Net’. Geddit? Well it’s not rocketry science! But my publishers asked me to explain this, now it’s going to be a book. They also say I need a glossary. Excuse me? Like I need advice on hair conditioning from them! Anyway, I’ve written this the way me and my friends talk, so in case some of you readers out there don’t understand some of our like, lingo, I’ve explained some of the words as I go. Not all of them. FGS, it is 1814!
We begin when stuff started happening, way back in 1811, when I was fifteen but fabulous. Enjoy!’
This book found a literary agent who loved it but when he tried the usual publishers, they were shocked because Lydia mocks Darcy, the rich arrogant alpha male slightly older ‘chick lit’ readers and publisher’s editors tend to idolise! It’s a book young readers would identify with, though it’s quite sexy and erotic. So I published it myself as an indie ebook on kindle and also on smashwords so you can get it for all ebook readers. It’s had some great reviews so far on amazon.co.uk, and I’m hoping for the same on amazon.com.
I’ve just completed another crime novel featuring Erica and Will, and a mouthy teenage character who gets her own way among the murders! And I’ll be writing more about Lydia Bennet too, her life after Pride and Prejudice.
You can visit my website on www.valerielaws.co.uk where you’ll see I’m  famous for spray-painting poetry on live sheep, and follow me on Twitter as @ValerieLaws. Also find me on facebook.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

How My Piano Teacher Made Me A Better Author

"If it was two hundred years ago, I would snatch you bald-headed," my piano teacher told me lovingly. I hadn't practiced all week and she was referring to pulling my long hair as a punishment. "I'd have a ruler and slap you on the wrist."

Sounds like something that only a crazy piano teacher would say, right? She wasn't joking, yet my mother and I both agreed that she was the best piano teacher I ever had.

Why? Because she saw through me. She figured out that I used patterns and listened to my teachers playing songs and then imitated them later. I was music illiterate. I couldn't read one note, yet none of my other teachers had picked up on it because I was good at faking it.

She on the other hand made me do flash cards each week, where I recited the correct notes until I learned them all. I grumbled the entire time. She also made me practice and do wrist movements. I wasn't used to any of these things.

Worst of all, when I was fourteen years old, after a year of slacking off on practicing, she kicked me out. I cried hysterically the entire time she told me that she didn't feel comfortable taking my parents' money unless I actually put the effort into becoming a good piano player.

The next year, she gave me a second chance. My last chance, as she put it.

I made sure to practice regularly.

I used to compose music. Long before I wanted to be a writer, I wanted to be a composer. I imagined Beethoven and Mozart. Sometimes I compared myself to them because I also had started composing music when I was a small child. I would play my songs for friends and family. They'd say,"You've been practicing that song for awhile?" I'd go,"No, I wrote it!" Their mouths would drop open and they'd gasp. "You're kidding me!"

It was therapy to me. I could feel the music. Just writing about the songs flowing magically from my hands makes me long to go back to that time when I played piano regularly. I had bad days at school, I was rejected by my crush, I had fights with my parents, so on and so forth, but it would all go away the second I touched the keys.

I played the music for my piano teacher. She told me,"That was horrendous."

I gasped. Everyone else thought I was amazing!

"Sure, it's pretty," my teacher said. "But it's also cliche. You use chords and patterns that are very common in music. A truly creative piece would be more original."

She played songs by the great composers and showed me how they lulled you into thinking they were falling into a pattern and then surprised you. They played unexpected notes, got loud or quiet in dramatic places. Their music said more than mine did.

All my songs sounded the same. I always wrote in 4/4 time. I was boring.

I was so hurt. This music was my heart, my soul! I had poured all my feelings into it! Everyone else was impressed, why couldn't she be?

I went home and tried to apply her advice to my music, even though I knew she was wrong.  The results were exciting and stupendous.

She said to me the next week: "You know, I've never had a piano student who was as good at composing music as you are. It's why I'm hard on you. You're the only one who could be great."

I was floored. The teacher who told me my compositions were horrible and talked about pulling my hair until I was bald was actually complimenting me? It was enough for me to work even harder to get more of her approval.

And it taught me so much.

Once I started writing, I wasn't surprised by how much practice it took. You have to work on it every day, just like playing piano or you'll never be good at it. People think musicians get to a point where they can just sit down and play masterpieces with little thought or practice. The more effortless it sounds, the harder they worked on the piece. Same with writing. If you get lost in a story, you know that author worked their butt off to perfect it.

I also knew that those who applauded me didn't mean as much to me as those who criticized. We all need to be applauded every once in awhile. If we're not, then we'll get discouraged, but too much praise and we never improve. My piano teacher taught me that it was the harsh critiques that I should listen to the most closely. They would transform something I may have written that was okay into something great.

I miss my piano teachers sometimes. In every other area of my life, she was someone I could talk to and someone who I deeply looked up to. We lost contact and I'm pretty sure she tired of me and the things I put her through, but it doesn't change the fact that what she did started a ripple in my life that's changed and touched everything I've done. I will forever be thankful to my piano teacher and the slaps on the wrist she gave me.

Monday, August 6, 2012

How to write about fire accurately

This is one of those areas that I see misrepresented in fiction all the time. I do not have professional experience in dealing with fires, but since I've been evacuated several times due to forest fires and experienced my house burning down (someone I lived with died in that fire) and talked extensively about house fires with firemen and detectives, I know a thing or two. There's a bunch of myths I'd like to debunk, so that writers can portray these events more accurately. I'd rather no one else have to suffer through a fire to be able to write about it correctly.

Myth #1: Firemen rush into a house to save the people inside.

If someone is hanging out a window, screaming for help, then yes, they will help, but otherwise, if they're trapped inside, the likelihood of them even searching is slim to none, until the person is already dead.

This will sound heartless at first until you realize the logistics. There is no database out there that keeps track of how many people live in each house at any given time. They have no idea if you invited friends over or if you left to go to the grocery store. There's a lot of confusion over how many people there are inside while the whole thing is happening. Every firemen that enters a house while it's still on fire, risks their own life and there might be no one inside. They control the fire first and then they search for survivors or bodies.

Bystanders and witnesses (who helped combat the fire and tried to figure out if anyone was trapped inside) saw no signs of life while they screamed through the windows asking if there was anyone was trapped when my house was on fire. Our neighbor was the one who called 9-1-1. They thought the house was empty, until my boyfriend and I arrived, told the firemen how many people lived there and who we thought was at the house at the time and they found a body of a woman and a dog. Until then, they knew nothing.

Myth #2: The only danger of being trapped in a house that's on fire is of burning to death.

I see this a lot on television and in books, when in reality, people who die in house fires rarely burn to death. Their bodies may have burned after they are dead, but it's not usually the cause of death. My boyfriend's mom died due to asphyxiation from lack of oxygen.

A lot of people don't realize the amount of smoke that's in a house fire. I see it all the time on television, half the room is burning up, but the character can still see the whole thing clearly. This is not reality at all, as anyone who has burned something in the oven can tell you. Even a small fire, like that, can fill the whole house with smoke (which is why we need things like chimneys for lighting fires in our fireplace.) Oxygen feeds fires, so it will suck up all the air in a room if there's enough of it, replace it with smoke, and make it literally impossible to breath. This is how the majority of people die in a fire.

And even if that wasn't the case, temperatures in a house that's on fire can reach ridiculous heights. My boyfriend and I's room was spared from the flames, but it was still destroyed. It was two thousand degrees inside my house and everything made of plastic melted. Clothing with delicate fabrics were destroyed. Smoke from the fire damaged everything. I can just imagine what those kind of temperatures could do to a person.

There's also the danger of falling debris and an unstable building. When a fireman went searching for my boyfriend's mom's body, he fell through our living room floor and into the cement garage below. He was injured.

And that leads me to . . . .

Myth #3: It's a good idea to run into the house and save someone you know is inside.

This is a horrible idea, even though people do it on television all the time. Not only are there the dangers of asphyxiation, falling debris, and being overwhelmed by the heat of the house, even if you never encounter the flame, but there's also the fact that you can see nothing. The smoke will be too thick for you to see through and will irritate your eyes. So it's very difficult to find anyone or anything, even if you know already where its located.

I hate when people saunter into a house as if it's nothing on TV while it's on fire. In real life, you have to crawl on your hands and knees (because less smoke and more oxygen is present near the ground) and cover your mouth with a wet rag and even if you do that, you're putting a huge risk on your life.

We don't know what my boyfriend's mom was doing exactly when she died. Our guess was that she was trying to save our crippled dog that she loved. She died a few feet away from the back door, likely too dizzy from lack of oxygen and blinded by the smoke to have any idea where she was standing.

According to the firemen, she was up and walking around the house longer than most people are. She probably could have gotten out of the house if it had been her sole focus. But because of television programs, she probably thought she could grab the dog and leave easily. Unfortunately, the dog was so frightened it bit several people (unlike her, my dog died on the front porch and bit one of the witnesses that tried to help her) and probably gave her a lot of difficulty on top of everything else. Rescuing a pet from a house fire isn't easy. They are panicked like everyone else and they will fight you.

I resent television shows, movies, and books for making the rescuing process seem so easy. Maybe she wouldn't have tried it if she had been correctly informed. But that's kind of wishful thinking, since she was the kind of woman who would risk her life for those she loves regardless.

Myth #4: During a house fire, the whole house usually burns down.

My whole house was destroyed, but according to the firemen I talked to, my situation was extremely rare. Usually house fires occur in only one room of a house and are put out before they get too far. Fires don't generally spread very fast, unless they have an accelerant causing them to do so.

But even if only one room in your house burns up because of the smoke damage it causes, it's usually unlivable to be in for awhile.

Also, cement, certain metals, and bricks can't burn. When a forest fire ripped through several houses in my area, chimneys and the foundations of the house still remained. Our whole garage was unharmed because it was made of solid cement. So writing about a house burning to the ground with nothing left but ash isn't realistic.

Myth #5: The only people who show up to put out a house fire are firemen.

It's ridiculous the amount of cars and trucks that were surrounding my house when I approached it. There were all kinds of people there: firemen, policemen, the red cross (to give us jackets and a meal),  gas men to turn off our gas, the electric company to turn off our electricity, a pastor to comfort us, an insurance company that refused to respect our privacy and tried to sell us stuff while we were crying, reporters taking pictures, animal control to remove the body of the dog, the coroner to remove my boyfriend's mom's body. I'm pretty sure I forgot some people and absolutely none of them will leave you alone. Most of them are nice (a police woman held me and talked to me gently when I screamed at the top of my lungs at seeing the house), but the reporters and insurance people are rude.

If your character comes home to a tragedy or enters a disaster area of any kind, it's unrealistic to write that only police men and/or paramedics showed up. Depending on if there are dead bodies or gas lines at risk, there could be a lot of other types of people there.

Myth #6: A fire can burn the same area twice immediately.

After a house has been rebuilt or foliage and trees have had a chance to re-grow, yes, the area can be burned again, but until that time, it's not possible. In fact, when dealing with forest fires, firemen usually burn the surrounding area to create borders that will stop the fire once it approaches. It's where the term "fight fire with fire" comes from. A heavily burned area can not be burned again. Fires are usually contained when they are surrounded by burnt forest. and therefore unable to spread any further.

Myth #7: As long as everyone makes it out of the house safely, your problems are over.

Dealing with the aftermath of a fire (even if you don't have someone close to you who died) can be just as difficult, if not harder than dealing with the fire itself. More than just emotions being high (people do and say things they don't mean).

The government gives you some help, but it's no more than a few days' worth of hotel rooms or a few meals and a couple of salvation army clothes at the most. That's not enough time to save up for a new house, let alone rebuild one, so mostly, you're left on your own. Not only that, but the money they give you, they track. I was told by them specifically that someone in a similar situation to ours, tried to buy a computer using the money and that they got angry at him for it. This upset me a lot because we had been stripped of all our possessions. We were not going to buy new computers with the money, but so what if we were? We lost our house and all our stuff. Is it really so horrible what we do with the money regardless of what it is spent on? I'm still trying to replace all the stuff I lost in the fire and my job (writing) actually depends on me having a working computer.

There's homelessness to deal with (you have to have some really supportive people in your life or a lot of money or you're going to be sleeping in the car), depression, and the sudden feeling that you are a million times poorer than you ever were before. You're stuck in one set of clothing and you know you smell like smoke and B.O. from not showering and sitting in front of the house for hours while you deal with the tragedy.

Not only that, but I got to be the subject of cruel gossip as well. I overheard a woman talking about my house and claiming that the cause of the fire was drugs with disgust in her voice like we deserved what happened to us. I've never been so angry before in my life. If it had been drugs, the dogs that sniffed our house would have found it and we would have been arrested. That didn't happen.

Myth #8: The firemen/detectives always know what happened later.

They walked through our house several times, got dogs to sniff for accelerants, and talked to eye witnesses, took pictures, but we still, to this day, have no idea how the fire started. The evidence of what happened burned up, the dogs found nothing, and the eye witnesses saw nothing. It's difficult not to get a resolution, but it happens during tragedies all the time.

We don't even know what my boyfriend's mom was thinking during her last moments or what she was doing. It's all a guess. Which is why if a character in one of your stories dies without leaving a note of his or her thoughts, then no one living is going to know exactly what he or she was thinking when it happened. It's a big mystery.

We will never know why my boyfriend's Mom didn't leave the house for sure. If she was panicked or angry at us for not being there. If she thought she could make it out. Only she knows/knew those things.

Myth #9: People help you go through your stuff once it's safe to go inside.

I've seen this happen so much on television that I thought this was the case. It's not true. They taped up our house, told us it was dangerous to go inside, and when we asked if someone would assist us going through the rubble, our requests were ignored. We waited for awhile before going in because the police tape was still on our house for a long time. We figured we had time to think about it. After all, a firemen fell through our living room, it wasn't a good idea to just rush in. We were wrong. What did survive the fire wasn't there anymore because our house had been robbed of what few possessions we had left. One day, we were looking through the window at our bedroom and seeing the drawers all neat and tidy like we left them and the next everything was flung around. I remember being so angry about it and screaming swear words, but people read about tragedies like this in the newspaper and see no locks on the house and decide to take advantage.

The whole thing is a gamble. You must decide whether it's more likely that you'll get hurt in your house and you shouldn't go inside or that it's worth the risk. And there's this constant paranoia that people will see you going through your house and assume you are one of the robbers.

Everyone who drives by stares and some people even stop or yell things at you. It makes you feel vulnerable having that house out in the open, like people can see your pain and enjoy watching it. I know that's not the case....for most people, but it still didn't feel good.

Myth #10: You have to touch a fire to be burned.

So untrue. Fires create heat and if you get enough of it, it can be hot enough to seriously injure a person. If your characters in your book are near to lava or something huge like a house burning down, they are going to feel the heat and might even have ashes raining down on them.

Whenever we had forest fires in our area, ashes would fall down from the sky like it was raining.


And if you're curious, since I've been evacuated because of forest fires on several occasions, it can be done in numerous ways. Sometimes it happens through word of mouth, your neighbors always know something and one of them has connections with fire men in some way, so when you see them pack, you'll know it's time to go and they'll probably knock on your door and let you know.

Other times, they call you on the phone with a message from the government or have police men drive by with blow horns telling you that you need to leave.

And other times, you were gone from the house and find out about the fire when you are on the way home and are stopped at a check point where police men tell you that you aren't allowed to enter the area because you are either evacuated or about to be evacuated. They usually let you go by to grab a few things quickly or escort you down to your house if you are a resident.

And another FYI, the smell of smoke is horrible and super strong. It gets in your clothes when you're near the house, it makes you cough, and debris gets on your clothes while you're going through the remains. It reminds me of the smell of smoked turkey, which I now find unappetizing because it reminds me of bad experiences.

Friday, August 3, 2012

How to shorten the length of your novel without cutting entire scenes

I've been coming across a lot of people lately who wrote manuscripts with a word count of well over what they want it to be who are worried about their manuscript being rejected. Here are some ways to shorten your manuscript without cutting any scenes out of it. You'll be surprised by how many words you remove.

1. Make your descriptions more precise.

This is a mistake I've committed on occasion before. More words aren't always better.

For example, saying . . . . . . a sour citrus fruit, shaped like a football and yellow in color, isn't better than just calling it a lemon. The second "description", even though it is only one word, creates a more vivid picture and it's more precise.

2. Cut out all or most adverbs.

You've probably heard this a lot, but it's true. Most adverbs add nothing to a sentence.

"She tiptoed quietly."

Since tiptoes are always quiet, this means nothing.

"She yelled angrily."

Since I hope that the author is showing through the hostile body language of the character and insults they are probably spewing that they are angry, then "angrily" becomes unnecessary as well.

3. Learn to recognize filler words. You can tell a word is a filler word if you take it out of the sentence and the sentence still retains the same meaning. (Below are a few examples, but there are more out there.)


This could be added to any sentence in your story. It often gets meaninglessly added to things.

Here's an example of dialogue:

"Tell me where you went!" She stamped her foot angrily.

"I went to the grocery store! Don't be mad!"

Could become:

"(Just) tell me where you went!" She stamped her foot angrily as she (just) waited for the answer.

"I (just) went to the grocery store! (Just) Don't be mad!"

See? Add it to any sentence and the sentence still has the same meaning. A lot of times the word "just" is filler. Every word you write should count.

Ever So

I see writers using this phrase a lot.

"She tiptoed ever so softly."

"She spoke ever so sweetly."

It's the equivalent of writing "very." But it sounds more whimsical.

"She tiptoed very softly"

"She spoke very sweetly."

But it's just as meaningless.


I see a lot of writers using these words when something actually is something.

"She had wings and her skin sparkled. Flower petals twirled in the air surrounding her. It seemed like she was a fairy."

Did it just seem like she was a fairy or was she actually a fairy and the character was discovering it at that moment?

"She had wings and her skin sparkled. Flower petals twirled in the air surrounding her. She was a fairy.


"Substitute "damn" every time you're inclined to write "very"; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be." - Mark Twain

He said it better than I could.

Kind of/Sort of/Somewhat

It makes the writer sound unsure of themselves and often is used when someone is something and not just sort of something.

For instance . . .

"She was sort of angry."

Should be . . . .

"She was angry."

Maybe she's not foaming at the mouth, incoherent babbling, ready to kill everyone that speaks to her angry, but she's still angry. Even if someone is only a tiny bit angry, they are still angry. Use the actions of the character to show just how angry she is. If she forgives quickly, we realize that she wasn't that angry. If she takes out a gun and points it at another characters head, then we know she's raging.

(I won't even get into the fact right now that stating someone is angry is telling and not showing, but you understand my example, so that's all that matters.)


Not always, but back, up, and down are often used when unnecessary.

"She fell down."

Usually when people fall, they go down, not up, so it's redundant to write the direction as well.


"I couldn't even tell!"

It's similar to very. Do you need the even or does "I couldn't tell" work fine on its own?


"She went to the park at City Square."

Could easily be . . .

"She went to City Square Park."

It has the same meaning, but it's one less word.


I see people misuse these all the time.

"She began to laugh" is a common one.

What is beginning to laugh? What does it sound like? Is there such a thing as almost laughing? No, people either laugh or they don't, so "She laughed" will suffice.

While . . . .

"She started the car."

Would be an example of when "began/start" works fine and makes sense. Just make sure you're using it in the appropriate places.

4. Cut adjectives

After one or two are used to describe something they usually lose all meaning.

"She was pretty, popular, blond, ambitious, crazy, sexy......"

And sometimes you're showing something already through a characters actions, so you don't need to use an adjective to describe it.

"The angry child threw a tantrum."

Since happy children do not have tantrums, it's redundant to say "angry."

5. Don't repeat yourself for emphasis

I see writers doing this a lot and I say: If you didn't say it right the first time, then you didn't say it right at all.

"She was a very mean person. I mean, truly hateful."

All you really need to say there is "She's a mean person." If it's not enough then you either need to show and not tell to make your point by showing your character doing something mean for instance or need to word it in a different way. The more you repeat something, the less meaning the words actually have.

6. Passive Voice

You've probably heard about "was" and using other verbs as often as possible in its place. The sentences come out stronger and more precise, but passive voice is more than that.

It's about making the reader experience the things your character does directly, instead of filtered through your characters senses.

"I could feel the cold wind blowing on my face."

Should be . . .

"Cold wind blew on my face."

And . . . .

"I could see the millions of stars in the sky glittering at me."

Should be "Millions of stars in the sky glittered."

It makes the sentences more immediate (and also shorter!)

7. Shorten Conversation

Conversation in literature isn't the same as conversation in real life. In books, every bit of dialogue should further the story in some way, while in real life, there's a lot of . . . . .

"Hey, how are you?"

"I'm good. How about you?"

"Kind of bored, you know?"

"I totally get what you mean."

And repeating of one's self as well . . . . .

"It was massive. Huge! I was so scared that I was almost peeing my pants. You have no idea how terrified I was."

Book conversation is an abbreviation of all of that. It's how books are in general, an abbreviation of a character's life. We don't write down every time they use the rest room or write in detail about how many times they had to stir the pudding to keep it from burning on the stove top. Dialogue is the same way. We know the characters are experiencing all those things and saying all those things, but they won't be included in the book because they're boring to read about.

8. Explaining

Sometimes writers get terrified a reader won't get something unless they explain it, so they write out an explanation.

Some explanations are okay (like if your character is just putting together the pieces of something), but not all are. Not all people will get everything you write, but that doesn't mean you should explain it because it's talking down to your readers and it makes all the actions created in the scene lose their meaning.

For instance, I wrote in one of my novels once that a character "made a v-shape with two fingers and licked the air between it" as a mocking gesture towards someone of what they did to their wife. Someone read it and thought I was talking about a character flipping another character off. That wasn't it at all and even though there are people who won't get what that means, if I explain it in the book, it will cheapen the moment.