Photo Challenge: Transient

Not to get all maudlin on y’all . . . but the older you get, the more you realize that everything is transient. Especially in Kansas, the original ‘fly-over state.’ Day to day, moment to moment, it all changes.

storm 1The light changes. Furious hail storms give way to rainbows.

 

butterfly 7

Butterflies give you a few seconds’ grace before they fly away. The wildflowers, too, have their own set rhythm – the Indian paintbrush blooms for just a week or so before being usurped by the St. John’s Wort.

turtle 1And turtles. Turtles have set territories, but oh my God, are they transient! This little guy ended up in my front yard. (And I do mean little – the size of a quarter. Amazing that he’ll grow up to weigh nearly 20 pounds!)

 

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As a historian, I find it sad that even the buildings seem transient. This old barn has been a favorite of local photographers for a long time – but how much longer will it hang on?

The best a photographer can do is try to capture at least a few of those moments before they, too, flee.

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/photo-challenges/drifter/

 

Photo Challenge: Focus

I hate photos that are out of focus! In fact, I delete them. But sometimes, the blurry background adds an accent to the foreground object. Then, it’s okay. 🙂

dandelion 3

This is a dandelion I shot a couple of months ago, on a very dewy morning. I loved the way the tiny droplets of water clung to the fragile stems.

flower 6

And this lovely little wildflower – weed? – was shot earlier this month. I thought it fit well with this week’s theme.

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/photo-challenges/out-of-focus/

“Learn to Love the Pauses” – Poetry for Prose Writers

“Read your work aloud.” How many times have we all heard that? Raise your hands. Yeah, you in the back, too. I see you!

Now. How many of us actually practice it? Ah. I see the hands going down. I see you looking at your desk. Some of you silently shaking your heads.

And why is that? Truly, I don’t know, because I do it all the time.

At the OWFI conference this year, there was a workshop on “Prose and Poetry,” which frankly, I hadn’t thought I’d go to because another session looked better. Unfortunately – or fortunately, depending on your point of view – that session was cancelled and the stand-in presenter was . . . yeah. No. So I snuck out and went to the poetry workshop instead.

Truthfully, I don’t read much poetry. Too many flashbacks to “The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner” and “The Wreck of the Hesperus” and “The Wasteland.” Poetry, I was given to understand in middle school and high school, had rules. First, it had to rhyme. It had to have a deeper meaning. It had to Be About Something Very Important. When we wrote poetry in Literature, we had to follow these rules. Do you know how bloody hard that is? Let me tell you. It’s bloody hard!

And when I started taking creative writing classes in college, my poems were always trashed because they weren’t About Something, and they didn’t Rhyme, and – OMG – sometimes they even told a story. Try as I might to write something that the teacher and other students considered Poetry with a capital P, I just couldn’t do it.

Which is why I hadn’t wanted to attend this workshop to begin with. Poetry is not fun for me.

But the session was fantastic.

The presenter, Nathan Brown, is a poet. In fact, he was the 2013/14 Oklahoma Poet Laureate. He started to use poetry as a coping mechanism for dealing with personal tragedies, then got into the habit of writing a poem a day. Yes. I said a poem a day. Sometimes his friends give him challenges – write a poem a day for a month about X or Y, or use this word in all your poems for the next year, etc. He also takes things from his daily life – sometimes entire conversations – and uses them as inspiration.

What Nathan wanted to do in this workshop was show us prose writers that poetry can have a place in our repertoire. Doesn’t mean we have to try to become the next Poet Laureate of the United States (yeah, like that’s going to get funded next year), it just means that we can learn to use it to our advantage.

I know. I hear you. I occasionally write short little funny poems from the viewpoints of my cats (and once, my Mini Cooper), and if it takes me more than 3 minutes to write one, it’s taking too long. Here’s an example:

I tell Mum
that the penalty for waking me up
is to rub my tummy.
And to watch me stretch,
shut my eyes
smile
purr.
Curl my paws around her hand
Rub my head against her arm
And fall asleep again.

At the start of the workshop, Nathan looked at us – we all looked equally afraid and befuddled – and said, “Okay. How many of you write poetry?”

A few hands went up.

“How many of you write free verse poetry?”

Most of the hands went down.

He smiled. “Everyone thinks poetry has to rhyme. But free verse poetry lets us explore and play. Take, for example, the sentence ‘You are not going to believe what he did next!’ What words do you want to emphasize? How do you hear it in your head? Can you write it like that?”

And then, he typed it out:

You

are not 

going to be-

lieve 

what he did

next! 

Maybe you didn’t think about it that way. Maybe yours was more like

You are 

not

going to 

BELIEVE 

what he 

did next! 

Can you see and – more importantly – hear the difference? Read it out loud. Go on. Don’t just read it silently. Read it out loud! There! Now do you hear the difference? Does one sound better than the other? Line breaks become hesitations and pauses (“Learn to love the pauses!” Nathan told us). Capitalized words become shouted.

Why is that? Because we read it out loud. One of the reasons I so hated poetry when in middle school and high school is because we read it silently. It’s not meant for that! Here’s an example. The first link is to the poem “Still I Rise” by Maya Angelou. And then there’s a short video of her reading her poem.

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/46446

Listen to it. Hear the power of her voice, the emphases on certain words, the line breaks. Does it make you stop and reread the poem? Will you ever see those words the same way again, having heard them?

And this, Nathan argued, is why prose writers should write poetry.

But there’s another reason, going back to my opening paragraphs:  the fact that as writers, we need to be reading our work aloud. He asked if any of us did that, and only a few of us raised our hands.

A recent study found that when we read silently – whether it’s a book, a poem, whatever – the muscles and ligaments in our throat and jaw try to ‘speak’ microscopically. We’re not even aware of it. But this is in part why awkward prose tends to trip us up, why we notice it – even when we’re reading silently. So, we really do need to read our work aloud!

Poetry can help with that. I’m not saying you need to dust off your old Lit book. Poetry, as I’ve discovered in the last few years, doesn’t need to rhyme. It doesn’t need to be about Big Issues. It can be inspired by everyday things. I mean, my kitties write them, for crying out loud! How literary can they be? 🙂

And since poetry should be read aloud . . . it will get you in the habit of doing that, too. 🙂

https://www.brownlines.com/

https://www.worldliteraturetoday.org/2012/september/karma-crisis-nathan-brown

http://publishingperspectives.com/2015/01/nathan-l-brown-self-publishing-poet-laureate/

Photo Challenge: Friend

I know I’ve posted before – probably ad nauseum! – about the Baby Fiends, but I couldn’t resist posting this shot for this week’s challenge:

fiends 1

If you’ve missed previous posts, Maximus Imperius is on the left, Tiny on the right. A year and a half ago, I walked into my barn and heard kittens crying – a feral mama kitty had given birth prematurely and abandoned the litter. So I’ve raised these guys since they were about an hour old.

babies 1

Once you go through weeks of bottle-feeding (and eyedropper feeding!) every 2-3 hours, sneaking them into your office, taking the with you on trips because you’ll be gone too long and will miss a feeding . . . I’ve raised many kittens, but these two are extra-special.

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/photo-challenges/friend/

Trusting the Reader

The other day, I was talking with a friend (who is not a writer, but IS an avid reader) about the problems I’m having with one of the novels I’m working on. He’d asked me about my goals for the summer, and I told him I wanted to finish at least one novel draft.

“Your rumrunner?” he asked.

“No. It’s got too many problems,” I said. “I don’t know where it’s going or what to do with it anymore.”

“What’s wrong with it?”

So I told him that one of the main issues I’m having is trying to figure out why my antagonist – who has already killed three people in cold blood – doesn’t just shoot my 14-year old rumrunner one night. Or burn down his house while he’s out on a run. “It makes no sense,” I said.

“Maybe he’s not as bad as you think he is,” my friend said.

“No, he is,” I said. “Every time I try to write from his POV, all I get is how much he hates Nicky and wants him dead. So why doesn’t he just shoot him one night? I can’t answer that question, and I feel like it’s a big plot hole.”

“Why do you have to answer it?”

“Because! It’s  . . . I can’t just leave this hole there. Hargrove is bad. Really, really bad. He was a soldier in World War I. He kills people. He doesn’t blink an eye. So why not Nicky? I know he hates Nicky. Why doesn’t he just get him out of the way?”

“Well, maybe that’s something you need to let your readers decide for themselves.”

There was about a fifteen-second pause while my brain attempted to process this information. “WHAT?!”

“Let them decide that reason for themselves,” my friend said. “Every time your antagonist has a chance to kill Nicky, he doesn’t. Let the readers wonder why. Let them draw their own conclusions about it.”

“But . . . it’s a plot hole!” 

He laughed. “Does the antagonist have a reason not to kill Nicky?”

“Well  . . . he does have PTSD from the war. Shell shock. So he doesn’t carry a gun; he carries a knife, because he can’t take loud noises.” (There’s a couple of others, too, that we didn’t get into.)

“So that could be a reason. Remember, antagonists aren’t all bad. Maybe it’s just that Nicky IS fourteen, and he can’t bring himself to kill a kid.”

I had my doubts about that. I know Hargrove, and I know he wants Nicky dead. But my friend’s thoughts have made me think about things a bit differently. Because honestly, this was one of the things holding me back from continuing with Nicky – I could not figure out how to get around the fact that Hargrove should just kill Nicky and get him out of the way. And no matter how I tried to move forward with the story, that was the thought standing in my way.

Or . . . Is it possible that I’ve been standing in my own way here? I’m still not quite convinced of this, but . . . if I can make myself trust the readers, if I can make myself ignore the voices in my head that tell me I have to sew up what I still consider a giant plot hole, could this be the answer to my problem? Could it be that I don’t need to explain absolutely everything?

Trusting the reader is something that we kind of skirt around as writers. We’re not really sure that we’re getting our point across, so we tend to beat it to death. We tend to not let our descriptions, or our characters’ actions, speak for themselves. We tend to feel we have to explain everything. But do we?

Last year, on a message forum, some of were discussing favorite authors. Several of us chose Diana Gabaldon, and I’ll never forget what one person – who disagreed – said:  “I know there are sex scenes, but she never describes what’s going on! I don’t KNOW what’s happening!” And I remember thinking, WHAT?! Diana’s sex scenes are some of the hottest around – in large part because she doesn’t do that annoying A-tab-into-B-slot stuff. She lets the reader figure out what’s going on for themselves. She lets our imaginations take over. She lets us become involved in the story.

And as writers, shouldn’t that be our end goal? To let the readers become part of the story? 

In a blog post, writer Michael J. Sullivan gives us another example:

In the novel “Me Talk Pretty One Day,” David Sedaris provides a simple example of this technique where he speaks of a young boy thinking of all the things he did that he might be in trouble for and one of those items listed is: “…altering the word hit on a list of rules posted on the gymnasium door…” Mr. Sedaris never says how he altered it. He leaves this for the reader to figure out. The result is like a perfectly delivered punch line.

So the question becomes . . . how far can we, as writers, trust our readers? And maybe more importantly, can our readers trust us? This is the hallmark of every good mystery novel – the writer needs to leave the breadcrumbs of clues that a savvy reader will pick up on. This makes the reader invested. They’ll read on to the end to see if they’ve come to the same conclusion as the detective.

But even if we’re not writing a mystery novel, doesn’t the same hold true? Don’t we have to trust our readers to get our descriptions, understand our characters’ actions, figure out what’s going on?  

That is, if we give them the means to do so.

A tricky balancing act, that.

So this week, as I mull over my friend’s words and wonder if I can pull this off, I encourage you to pick up some books and see how – or if – the authors have been able to make it work.

Trust me. You’ll know it when you read it.

 

Michael J. Sullivan’s blog post on trusting the reader:  http://riyria.blogspot.com/2011/09/writing-advice-12-trusting-reader.html

OWFI 2016: Great Query Letters for Great Agents

A few weeks ago, my friend Debra Dockter and I went to the Oklahoma Writers’ Federation (OWFI) conference. It’s one of two that I get to attend every year – well, almost every year. We get to meet other writers, hear from great agents and editors, and have fun. And we also get to learn something.

This year, I was able to attend several sessions. The first was with agent Sam Morgan (“If I am your agent, I am your friend, your parent, your sibling, your coach, your cheerleader, your lover – well, maybe not your lover! – but I will be whatever you need me to be!”), who is with Foundry Media.

As an agent, Sam gets hundreds of queries in a month. Some can be tossed in the first sentence. Some lead him to new clients. What makes a good query letter stand out? Sam wanted us to know.

  • While there are some rules Sam has seen broken, there are some you can’t ignore, such as:
    1. Get his name right!
    2. Know what genres he represents! And don’t send him something else.
  • In the query, he wants to learn a few things about your book. Top of that list is: Who is the main character? Get this across – not just their name, but who they are, and especially what’s your MC’s problem?
  • Give a taste or a hint of what’s to come. Put yourself on the page. Your voice will come through. Is the novel humorous? Your query should give us a taste of that humor.
  • Having said that, don’t write your query letter in the voice of your MC. Just don’t.
  • Get him to want to read the book, by any means necessary. Ask others to read your query. Do they want to read the book? If not, keep revising. Sam generally wants to see authors follow the basic rules of querying, but noted that a couple of his current clients broke every single rule imaginable in theirs – but that’s what it took to get him to want to read their books. Not to say that you should, however.
  • In the query letter, show why you wrote the book. Show what made you stay with it and finish it. Show him why you gave up time with your family and friends, why you had to DVR the last season of Game of Thrones, why you got up an hour early or went to bed an hour later, to finish this book. (I know, I know! A tall order!)
  • If you’ve published in the past, you can put that in – it means someone else has read your work, and liked it enough to publish it. However, if you don’t, it’s not a deal-breaker for him.
  • Likewise with social media – if you have a large social media following on Facebook or Twitter, great, include that in the query if you can, but it’s not necessary.

(This is querying, as in sending a letter or email to an agent, not pitching. While similar, they employ totally different methods, so keep that in mind.)

But Sam wanted to be sure we understood that it’s not all about him choosing a new client – it’s also about you choosing an agent. Believe it or not, it’s your choice, and you are in charge! Just because the agent makes an offer to represent doesn’t mean it’s the right person for your book, or you should accept without hesitation. You need to ask questions. You need to be sure this is exactly the right person for you and your novel. You need to make sure you can work with this person for the next 6 – 24 months. So Sam gave us some questions you need to ask potential agents:

  • Editorial work? How hands-on is this person in that process?
  • How many other clients do they have? How many books have they sold? To which houses? (And, although he didn’t say it, for how much did they sell?)
  • What does the agency do in terms of advocating for TV/foreign/audio rights? What about e-book rights?
  • Then decide: is this person worth 15% of your profits? If you have any doubts at all, you need to keep looking.

One other thing Sam wanted us to know is something that Deb has been dealing with for the past couple of years:  especially if you’re a debut author, assume the publisher will do NO promotion of your book. Plan to do it yourself. It becomes a cyclical thing – the publisher will tell you that they won’t promote your book because it’s not selling. You think, “But how can it sell if you’re not promoting it?!” Their response? “Not our problem. It’s not selling.” So you need to be able to discuss promotion plans with your agent as well.

So if you’re planning to query agents soon, hopefully some of these tips will help you out. And if you write fantasy or science fiction, I would encourage you to query Sam – he’s funny, enthusiastic, and if I wrote in these genres, I would definitely query him!

Here’s Sam’s page on the site Manuscript Wish List:  http://www.manuscriptwishlist.com/mswl-post/sam-morgan/

Photo Challenge: Danger!

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This is one of my favorite bridges – the iron bridge east of Blackwell, OK. It was built in the 1920s and has been closed for decades – ever since a new road/bridge was built. The bridge itself still seems in good condition, and I’ve walked it. But lest you miss the point with all the trees and shrubs and the mound of sand and gravel in the way, both ends also have these lovely warning signs.

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/photo-challenges/danger/