Wednesday, December 29, 2010

My Year in Writing--2010

Last year, for my last post of the year, I did this kind of cool (well, I thought it was, anyway), month by month look back on my year in writing to see how far I'd come. And ALL year I've been planning to do the same thing this year. But when I started to write the post I realized something: MANS was it boring. I spent so much time in Revision Hell it started to read like a broken record.

So instead, I'm still calling it my year in writing, but I'm going to focus on a bunch of other things that happened too. You'll thank me later.

Endings and Beginnings
After twelve previous drafts--yes, TWELVE--over the last seven months, I *finally* felt like draft thirteen was ready for me to type the two words I hadn't let myself type before--at least not together. "The End." I *might* have cried a little. And it was just in time because two weeks later I attended my first writer's conference. Not gonna lie, it was 3 of the most stressful days of my life. I didn't know anyone, and I had 5 pitches to agents and some of the other writers I met...well...let's just say they were less than friendly. But I SURVIVED. And walked away with 3 partial requests, a full request, and a conference choice award for my first chapter. Yeah, I was shocked too.

Stalling and then Twitter changes lives
After LOTS of going round and round on who to query and when to query and OMG-I'm-too-scared-to-query, my family, friends, and CPs ganged up on me with an epic Twitter campaign (#hitsend) and shoved me into the querying pool, kicking and screaming the whole way. Within 12 hours I had my first rejection, 2 partial requests and a full request from a partial--oh, and I still had ten chapters to finish line editing before I sent the full. It's amazing my head didn't explode.

After 2 roller coaster weeks of querying, my dream came true, and I got an offer of representation from my #1 Wish-List agent. Yeah, it was totally cool. She was traveling when I accepted her offer, so I had to wait 3 weeks to announce (I was too worried I'd get a "just kidding" email, so I wasn't going public until I had my contract in hand) and when I finally shared the news, the reaction and support was AMAZING. Such a high. I'll never forget it. And then...reality set in, when I got my first Laura Rennert revision letter. It was LONG. And thorough. And full of amazing ideas. And OMG SO SCARY! 

Self Doubt, Drama, and Re-Grouping
I started out the month pretty much paralyzed with fear. Wondering what would happen if I couldn't nail the revision (would I lose my agent and have to flee the country for the shame of it?). Wondering where to even start on her notes. Doubting I was good enough. (Incidentally, this was when the revision-is-stressful diet kicked in). And as if that wasn't fun enough, some things in my personal life became...well, let's just say drama-filled. Not gonna lie, it was a tough month. I took a few weeks off blogging. I lost some weight. But by the end of it I knew who my real friends were, what I needed to do with my draft, and I had finally started tackling the revision.

Full steam ahead
Here's where the writing part becomes repetitive (*coughs* Revision *coughs*). But somewhere in the midst of that, I got an email from a friend saying, "Hey, I want to plan an online writer's conference. You in?" (well, okay, she was more articulate than that, but I'm too lazy to go back and find her actual wording) And I of course said, YES. Even though I had NO idea how in the heck we were going to do that.

Slogging through
WriteOnCon was slowly becoming a REAL THING (hey, it even had a name!) and even though I still didn't really understand how any of it was going to work, we were contacting agents/authors to participate--and they were saying YES! Wheels were in motion. Hundreds and hundreds of emails were being sent and group chats were being held and websites were being built and life was pretty much insane.

The tough month and the sekrit to keeping the joy.
July was an INSANE month. Comic Con. SCBWI LA. WriteOnCon planning. Oh yes, also more revision. And I'll confess, I was getting burned out. BIGTIME. A friend who knew my struggles suggested I start another project to give me a change of pace, and I wanted to laugh. I was SO busy already, when would I have time for that? But when I was out of town with my husband for our anniversary I couldn't sleep (insomnia sucks) so I grabbed my laptop. I'd planned to get some work done, but my heart just wasn't in it. So on a total whim I opened a new, blank document and wrote from this new voice that had been hanging out in my head--a new character with a new story I hadn't planned on telling. And it was a revelation. I only wrote 6 pages but they were the best 6 pages I'd written in a long time--not because they were perfect (if only...), but because they were FUN. My sekrit project was born, and ever since, whenever I need a break or to fall back in love with writing, I spend some time with it. It's like therapy in a draft.

Everything was down to the wire. Faculty were being added. Some were dropping out. Then some who'd dropped out wanted back in. And the emails. Oh, the emails. It's amazing gmail didn't close my accounts. And just when I thought it couldn't get any crazier, it was CONFERENCE TIME. Longest three days EVER. Between Error 403 (I *still* have nightmares about that) and keeping up with the forums and the emails and moderating events and everything else, I pretty much didn't eat or sleep the entire time. But it was SO worth it. Not just because we reached so many more thousands of people than we expected. Not just because Publishers Weekly ran a story on us. But mainly because here was this HUGE thing we'd done that helped a whole lot of people, and it had all come from a few vague ideas and a ton of email. Anything really is possible if you set your mind to it. Who knew?

Back to normal--or not
Just when I thought life would calm down, WriteOnCon came back for more. We got so many emails from people who were sad they'd missed the conference, we decided to hold monthly live events. And whilst we were scrambling to organize those, we found out the only way to avoid another Error 403 was to switch to a different web hosting company--and it was expensive. Cue scrambling to put together an epic fundraiser. Cue hundreds more emails. But that's okay. I happen to love email. And the fundraiser and live events were another huge success.

October, November, December
Group blogs, more of the same, and finally--a routine!
Funny thing about being super insanely busy for an extended period of time: it starts to feel normal. And then it IS normal. I finally figured out a way to organize my time so that I can answer all my emails, organize the live events, revise, work on ze sekrit project when I need to, blog, play on Twitter, and occasionally eat and sleep see my husband. So I figured, why not join a couple of group blogs??? ;) But hey, I'm kind of a pro at juggling now. I don't even really feel it. And hopefully between that and the fact that I am FINALLY getting close with my writing, here's hoping 2011 will be the year I sell my first book. Only time will tell.

*Phew* So there you have it, my year in revising/querying/signing-with-an-agent/blogging/planning-an-online-writer's conference/stressing/not-eating-or-sleeping-enough/surviving-drama and oh yeah, WRITING! Sure, I've had some ups and downs. But I've always moved forward.

And I do want to add one more thing. This year I have made some of the most amazing, supportive writer-friends ever. I seriously don't know how I survived without them, and with their help I know I can handle anything this crazy publishing business throws at me as I continue to chase my dream. Bring it on 2011. I'm ready!

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Author Voice--Shannon Style

Okay, ever since I talked about Finding Your Character's Voice in last week's Shannon Style post, I've been trying to figure out how to talk about the vague, indescribable concept of Author Voice, and how I found mine.  And I'm still not sure I've really figured out how to properly cover the topic, but I'm going to give it a try. (heh--not exactly a ringing endorsement for this post, but go with me here) :)

So, first of all, what is author voice, and how is it different from character voice?

Basically it's your style of writing--the way you put words on the page and the way you tell the story that is uniquely yours. It's something that will cross over from project to project, regardless of whether you're using the same characters or writing in the same genre or POV.

Some projects will showcase it more than others, but it still has to be there to some degree. And if you've ever read a draft that fell a little flat, I guarantee you it's because that writer hasn't quite figured out how to inject their voice into the story. For me it's the single most defining element of "good writing," and is the reason writers are able to become career authors. If they have a good "voice" their readers will keep coming back for more, no matter what the story.

Which is hard, because voice isn't something anyone can teach you. It has to come from you. You can learn all the tools of writing: plot fundamentals and grammatical rules, and whatnot. But in the end, the way you use and consciously break those is your voice, and no one can tell you what your voice is. You have to find it on your own.

Think of it like learning to draw. You can study rules of proportion and learn how to play with line and shading and color. But the way you choose to use those tools when you draw is uniquely your style. Van Gogh didn't draw the same way Picasso did. And no one should put words on paper quite the same way you do.

It took me five or six drafts of my current MS to find my voice, and each of the many revisions I've done after that has refined that voice. And I can tell that my voice will continue to evolve with every word I write. Which really is the plain and simple secret with voice. You have to write.

There's no shortcut. No exercise you can do to quickly and easily find your voice. No questionnaire that will lead you straight to it. They say every writer has to purge a million bad words to get to any halfway decent ones, and that is mostly because it will probably take you at least that many to find your voice.

That being said, I do think it *helps* to study voice in other books. I can't say this enough: writers need to be readers. Pay attention to the different "voices" authors use when you read. Which ones are you drawn to? Which ones remind you a little of the way you write? Then analyze them, break them down to figure out what gives them their particular voice. Understanding how they do what they do can help you find your own voice.

Really, it comes down to your own personal taste and preferences. Going back to the art analogy, my style of drawing is very precise, very dramatic, and extremely detailed. Why? Because that's what I personally find appealing to look at. I'm not about loose, rough, free lines and muted colors. I like, clean, sharp lines, dark blacks, extreme whites, and lots of meticulous detail. Does that make me right and other artists who do the opposite wrong? Of course not. But it's my taste, and that's what I strive for when I sit down to draw.

When it comes to writing, I have my own tastes and preferences as well. Personally I love the rhythm of words. So I love to break up sentences into fragments--or to connect sentences with em dashes. I love shorter paragraphs. Single sentence paragraphs. I like to avoid dialogue tags whenever possible, because they feel like they interrupt the flow of a conversation. And I like to give the scenes plenty of emotional "beats." I'm also a HUGE fan of humor--I'm pretty much incapable of taking a scene 100% seriously--and I'm not a fan of heavy description so I tend to break it up and scatter it around.

I'm sure there's more to it than that, but those are--to me--the most defining elements of my "voice." I never consciously sat down and said: I'm going to write with fragmented sentences and use a lot of humor and write around dialogue tags. It's just the method I fell into as I wrote and rewrote and rewrote again and again.

And you'll find yours the more you write, write, write.

It also helps to do what I just did in this post. Find the right words to describe and define your voice. The more you analyze your writing and think about your style, the more you'll figure out what you do and don't do when you're writing. Take a few minutes and try to come up with 2 or 3 sentences that describe the essence of your voice. Then reread a couple of your chapters and see if you're really doing what you think you're doing. Can really show you where you need to polish.

I have heard of a couple of other exercises to help you find your voice, but I've never done them so I have no idea if they really help. One is to write in present tense for a while, because apparently it's easier to be "voicey." I've also heard it can help to rewrite the same chapter in an opposite POV (switching from 1st to 3rd or vice versa) and comparing what stylistic elements stay the same in each version. You are welcome to try them--and if you do let me know if they work.

But personally I don't think you can short-cut your way around this. Sure, some people just have a natural gift for having a very strong voice, and have it in even their earliest MS's. (It's hard not to hate those people...) The rest of us have to write and write and revise and rewrite and repeat with project after project until we finally figure it out. But it's worth the effort. Nothing makes your book stand out more than a spot-on voice. Push yourself and don't give up until you find it.

What about you guys--any tips for finding your author voice? And how would you define your own "voice?"

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Writing Dialogue: Shannon Style

Okay, I had a request from a follower to talk about my methods for writing dialogue, so I'm going to give it a try. But I should probably preface this by saying that the title of the post is a little bit of a misnomer. I will be talking about writing dialogue, but I won't be talking about how *I* write dialogue, because I honestly don't know how I write most of the dialogue I do. I write dialogue almost completely unconsciously. (No really, I can't tell you how often I stare at the screen and think: where did THAT come from?)

Thanks to all my character building exercises (and my way too vivid imagination--my characters are so real they talk to me) I don't really spend a whole lot of time thinking: what would the character say here? I just know. In fact, I usually get so lost in the scene that it's like I can't type fast enough to get the conversation down, and I only really know what I wrote once I go back and reread.

That doesn't mean I don't have to revise though. Usually I have to cut at least a third of the dialogue simply because the characters rambled on way longer than they needed to. And sometimes I'll have to revise because the character(s) hijacked the scene and took the emotions somewhere I don't want them to go, so I have to step in and find a way to stop them from saying what they seem to want to say. (Yes, I realize how crazy I sound. I swear I'm relatively sane.)

But none of that is, I'm sure, particularly helpful to any of you, since I have a feeling most of you are far more normal than that. I do maintain, however, that one of the key elements to writing dialogue is knowing your characters.

I know filling out character profiles can feel like drudgery, but it is so worth it. So if you're struggling with dialogue, that's my first and best piece of advice. Step back and get to know your characters better. Figure out what makes them THEM, what makes them different from everyone else. Their dialogue usually comes naturally after that. (You can find more info on how I build my characters HERE.)

I'm sure that's still not enough, though, so I'm also going to share three tricks I learned in film school (screenplays are allllllllllll about the dialogue), that I have occasionally used to shine up some conversations in difficult scenes:

Remove the dialogue tags and reread: One of the hallmarks of good dialogue--imho--is that it needs to be specific to the character. Your reader should know who's talking just from the way the dialogue is worded, without needing a dialogue tag to tell them. And dialogue should never be interchangeable between characters. Each character should have their own distinct "voice." So the best way to check that is to remove all the dialogue tags and reread the scene to see if it's easy to figure out who's saying what (and don't worry, you'll put them back in when you're done). If you can tell who's talking without being confused, you probably have the dialogue right. But if you have to stop and think, "who's saying this?" you need to revise.

Act out the dialogue out loud: I know most of you probably read your draft out loud to yourself before you declare it, "done" (and if you don't, you should try it. It's AMAZING what you find that way). But that's not quite what I mean. I mean: pretend you're auditioning for a play and the scene you're performing is your book. Read the lines that way, attempting to convey the emotion or comedic timing or verbal cadence of the characters. I know it's embarrassing (best to do this one when no one else is around) and I know we're not all actors, so it probably won't be an Oscar-worthy performance. But it doesn't have to be. You'll still be able to spot problems, even if your acting skills leave much to be desired. If there's no way you can say what's supposed to be a sweet, romantic line without giggling, well...that tells you something, doesn't it? Or if the sad lines don't really feel sad. Or if the jokes don't feel funny. You really get a sense for what feels like real, believable conversation when you do this. Give it a try if you're struggling with your scenes.

Ask yourself: what's the character's motivation?: "What's my motivation" is a classic actor cliche for a reason. They need to know why the character says or does the things they do, so they can understand it  and be able to perform it. So when I was studying screenwriting, it was drilled into me that I needed to know the motivation behind every line or gesture, because the actor might ask me about it. And it was amazing how often, when I analyzed my scene from that perspective, I found out the answer was simply, "I don't know." Not good enough. Take the time to really think about why the character says what they do. And if you can't find a reason for it, change what they say to something that does have a reason. Totally takes the scene to a whole other level.

I wish I had a more magic formula than that--or that I could really explain how my dialogue appears on the page--but that's kind of the best I can do. I hope it helps.

Any of you have any other suggestions for writing dialogue that I missed? Please, help a girl out and share your secrets in the comments!

Oh, and if there's any particular aspect of the way I write you'd like me to cover in this Shannon Style series, (or even other stuff like queries, blogging, Twitter, whatevs) feel free to leave me a suggestion in the comments. I have a bunch of them planned already, but I'm always open for more ideas. :)