Monday, August 18, 2014

Showing Your Sketch

This past week my school provided training about project based learning (PBL) from the Buck Institute of Education (BIE). I'm happy to say that the training was not a waste of time. I came away with some great plans for the year but, even more importantly, I gained tools to help the students recognize that the crazy stuff I do in class is part of a learning process. I always considered my teaching style to be one where I tricked students into learning. Unfortunately I'm so good at it that the students think we're not doing anything until they get that "OH!" moment at the end. Lesson learned: I'm good at projects, I'm bad at linking objectives to the content in a way the kids understand.

During these workshops we participated in an exercise called "Show Your Sketch." You get a ridiculously low amount of time to draw a sketch of a person across the room... then you show it to them. The perfectionists didn't just cringe, they cursed. How can you be expected to share work that is sooooo rough? Doing so makes you very vulnerable to criticism. It's not fair for my artistic skill to be judged after so little time. The purpose of this exercise was not to show how bad we were at art, but to open ourselves up to critique early in the creative process, to be vulnerable, and to be all in it together. My colleagues and I all had that, "a-ha!" moment and were able to apply this early/often critique need to the project designs during the remainder of the workshop.

Writers are not foreign to the concept of perfectionism, insecurity, and critiques. We are constantly revising and praying for a better quality product. Critiques are gifts, even when they make us doubt ourselves. Without them we exist in a bubble. Thank God for being able to show your sketch early and often BEFORE putting it out there to be judged by the writing industry.

As much as I like to think that I'm secure in my skills and strong enough to take criticism and turn it into a better book, I'm freaking out a little right now. For whatever reason, I'm comfortable sending my manuscripts to complete strangers, but when I got a  request from a writer friend, I got all nervous. It might be easier if I was showing a sketch, or the first chapters of a book in progress: sending a completed, revised, revised again and then one more time, manuscript to a friend (who asked for it, which is a blessing in itself), someone I've known for years, makes me doubt the quality of my product. The vulnerability involved here is tremendous and it shouldn't be. I can't place why -- I only know that I'm trying to write right now, and keep wondering if she's reading, what she thinks, etc... and can't get it out of my head.

On that note, I'll put my contemporary aside and get back to planning my projects for this year. I may be teaching middle school art (which was the plan) or 7th and 8th grade English (which meets a need), so I'm prepping for both.

How do you feel about showing your sketch? Any advice for taking criticism?

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Stupid Alphas

At the Romance Writers of America conference in San Antonio this summer I attended a workshop titled Deconstructing the Alpha. To be honest, I only attended because Eloisa James was one of the moderators and I have a fangirl crush that leads me to believe everything she touches will be golden (justifiably so).

I have struggled with the alpha male ever since I cracked open my first romance novel. He frequently frustrates me. Usually arrogant and domineering, it doesn't make his personality any more palatable to see that he's right in most instances. As a reader I think one of the factors that makes a book re-read-worthy is that you fall in love with the guy a little. I have a hard time falling for the alpha .

That said, alpha sex is hot (disclaimer: the modern alpha male is no longer the date rapist from the '70s -- I can't even read those plots without gagging. It's one of the only things that will make put down a book unfinished). In the workshop, the authors and editors hosting discussed why the modern woman responds to the alpha. In a world where women are expected to be super mom and super executive and super hot, it's a great fantasy to have that cave man who will carry throw you over his shoulder and be counted on to provide for his woman's every need. Sophisticate that a few notches and you have Gabriel Cross. The uber powerful, ruthless, unattainable, implacable, hard bodied demigod who has a soft spot for that one woman. The alpha is a fantasy in regard to appeal and resources, but also in that the woman tames him (breaks him like a wild mustang, painfully, without a horse whisperer) and, ultimately, she has the power because she has his heart (or other parts as the case may be).

I write about this today because I'm trying to write an alpha. I think my fatal flaw is in including his point of view. Already, I've made him too vulnerable. I went for someone who strategizes and assumes the role needed to win in a Machiavellian vein rather than a straight up confident/arrogant master of the universe. Strategists weigh probability, consider outcomes -- and this is taking me out of alpha territory. Would an alpha care about the outcome? Not really, because he KNOWS he's right. My pseudo alpha might be too human.

This my fifth book and my first attempt at alpha. I chose this course on the advice of a friend. I'm trying to hybrid the sexy hard edges of Sylvia Day with the quirky fun of Kristan Higgins and I think I have to step back and regroup. It may be like trying to cross a tea cup poodle with a Saint Bernard--what could possibly go wrong?

That I'm writing this book at all is a departure for me. Call me a whore in that I'm writing what I think will sell (versus my other books which I wrote because I wanted to tell the story). I'm not prostituting my talent completely though, because I really am invested in this story (now). It's actually the best pre-plotted story I've created so far (pantser!), but I'm worried it's not staying the course (which makes it more organic, a good thing) and who knows how it will end?


Point of this blog post: Do you like alphas? How do you define an alpha? Do you think seeing the alpha's gooey center is a turn off or downplays his power?

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Stalking Agents

This will be my third year at the Romance Writer's of America conference and every year I use their spreadsheet of agents hearing pitches to create a stalking list. It's not creepy at all. Well, maybe a little -- I prefer to think of it as being prepared.

I make a list in order based on how well I think we'll fit. I include their picture, a list of clients that I have read and those that seem to be similar in theme/voice, and a quote from their site about what they're looking for. The list has been helpful (even though I remain sans agent)

I write this today, not to creep you out, but to share an epiphany. Year to year I use the RWA area of interest grid to update my prey potential agents and it changes very little. This year I noticed that only half the agents want paranormal romance. Given that I am pitching one paranormal and halfway through a second, I have to curse under my breath. Three years ago they all wanted paranormal. This year they all want contemporary. Did that last year? I don't know, I didn't look for that information because I only had historical and paranormal. This year I'm adding contemporary to the mix and it seems like a smart move.

My point? I was using the grid to see if I'd want them, if I had a chance. It never occurred to me to use the grid to guide what I should write. In a way, the grid acts as a not-so-secret view into the mind of the agent based on what they think they can sell. It is a prediction, if not of future trends, of what IS selling. Of course I wanted to be aware of the market and I did that by looking at the best seller lists, etc... I realize now that RWA gave me a tool, a comprehensive list of things agents actively want. I'm just lucky that this year I have something to offer within that area. 

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Making the Dress

A few years ago I wrote a post about how Irish dance is like writing. Basically the analogy was based entirely on how you don't quite realize what you've gotten yourself into until you're neck deep. Irish dancing, I thought, was just a nice little dance class where the girls didn't have hooch-y costumes. It's not. It's a huge competition based tier system with increasing difficulty and expense, but once you've invested yourself there's no getting out.

As Irish dancing is not just about dance lessons, writing a book is not just getting the story out, it's immersion in a writing community, hours of inspiration and perspiration, lack of sleep, excitement and dismay, great and crappy writing, and all of it hinging on non-objective opinions that could make or break you, but once you've written that first book there's no getting out.

Lily's dancing is now at the point where a solo dress is required (not technically, but it's allowed and not having one might put her at a disadvantage). Without going into every step of the process (which began months before I ever put scissors to fabric), I designed, redesigned, researched, watched tutorials, analyzed the current trends, made a bodice, started over with a whole difference fabric, made a dress, cut off the sleeves and made new ones, beaded and
embellished, removed beads and added better ones and, when it was finished and Lily was dancing happily in it, I still saw room for improvement. I'm adding more embellishment before the next feis, just a bead here and there that, from the audience perspective (you can't see these things when you're too close) were clearly missing.

I have written books and thrown out chapters. I
recently threw out most of my first book in a rewrite attempt that basically turned into a completely different book. I've taken critique that I didn't understand until I gave myself space from the project. I've put a lot of work into things that will never see the light of day and I've gotten better with each step. Lily's dress is fine, but I know that it's not going to be the best I'll ever do, and that makes it hard to put it out there and be open to criticism.

Lily did not place high enough in any of her dances to be promoted to the next level and that's fine with me. This dress is a fine novice level dress, but not prizewinner.

As I get ready for another conference, I have to take a look at my writing from a distance and see how it stacks up against what's out there. Does it stand out? Does it stand out for the right reasons? Does it stand out so much that it doesn't belong? This is all something that is hard to determine from a close perspective. 

Monday, May 19, 2014

Genius Lost

I have a fair to middling commute daily during which time I listen to talk radio, sing along with my iPod playlists, or drive in silence.

Driving in silence, more and more, is becoming the norm. During this time I brainstorm plot lines, get to know characters, and come up with amazing blog posts. The problem I have is transferring all this genius down later. The result? My blog posts are few and far between.

Blogging used to be a precursor to writing. I would check the blogs on my feed, compose a post or two, then get down to the dirty work. Time seems scarcer of late, so if I want to write forward in my manuscript, I can't dillydally. My blog has suffered.

But, oh, those unwritten posts would have rocked your world. :)

In tribute to those never-written posts, I leave you with this. Enjoy.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Selling Your Package

By "your package" I mean YOU. (What did you think I meant? You have a dirty mind.)

I started off in my troll cave. I researched the agents and their submission processes and I spammed out queries. During the querying process you hone your letter, trying to showcase your voice and cover the key points of your story with  brevity and hook the attention of the inundated agent assistant. At this point, the package is your query, not your manuscript. You might have the best book in the world, but if your query doesn't get their attention, no one will ever see it.

Your book = the face.
Your tube top = the butt in the mirror.
I finally left my cave and started attending conferences. I live in Southern California and the dress code here can be described as, "what's a dress code?" Most of the industry professionals are from the East Coast where, if you believe What Not to Wear, they dress up to go to grocery shopping. Shopping aside, the agents and editors at the conferences are dressed professionally. Ergo, if you want to show respect and present yourself as a professional, you should dress professionally. You're pitching your manuscript(s), but the first thing they see is you. You are the package.

Note: I am not a fashion guru by any means. I would describe my look as "scumbag" and am currently wearing yoga pants and a TMNT t-shirt my brother 'accidentally' left here two Christmases ago. I'm actually a little more done up than writing alone at home usually warrants -- My hair is clean and am still wearing a bra.

You may ask, "Erin, aren't you being shallow? Don't you think the agents/editors care more about my writing than what I look like?" To that I would answer this:

Of course they care about the writing, but they are considering whether or not you will make them money. They are wondering if they can work with you. All of this comes from that first impression. Are you worth more than that one book you're pitching? How will you handle public relations? Signings? Social media? Simple things like sitting up straight, smiling, and making eye contact is worth almost as much as your pitch. Hygiene, breath, clean/pressed clothes -- all of this goes to showing who you are. If you rock the scumbag look to an agent session it may seem like you don't have your stuff together or that you don't respect their position. You may have a great book, but if you're covered in cat hair, smell like old beer, and are wearing the same sweats you wore yesterday that is the first thing they see. The same thing goes if you decide to present yourself as sexy (something I see a lot with my high school students who equate "dressing nice" with what they would wear to a club). Think of the position you want as a writer, not a stripper. Put your boobs away and wear shoes you can walk in. While everyone says not to judge a book by the cover, we all do. First impressions matter.

No, I'm not an agent or editor, so I am not speaking from experience in their specific field but I have worked in sales. Think about what you're selling. Your book? That's part of it, but during a pitch you're selling the package of yourself as a writer. The agent/editor is a professional -- you should aspire to be, too.

I'm not telling you to buy a new wardrobe for a conference. Nor am I telling you to be someone you're not. I look on the well groomed version of me as just another facet of the whole. Be clean and comfortable (although, personally, I'm willing to deal with a little discomfort -- sometimes the discomfort is a reminder not to get too relaxed, to remember my purpose, and to sit up straight). At conferences I wear suits, slacks, and dresses that fall into the business professional category. I make sure everything is freshly pressed, not missing buttons, etc... I may be just shy of hobo when I'm grocery shopping, but at conferences I am pulled together, clean, and tailored. Ultimately the entire conference is like a job interview and you need to be on constantly.

Saying the word "package" so many times brought this video to mind. Though it has nothing to do with professional attire, I'm posting it for your viewing enjoyment.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Out of My Comfort Zone

I'm writing a contemporary romance.My first love in writing is historical. I branched into paranormal, but I didn't leave historical far behind. In fact, even though my paranormals are set in modern times, history plays a huge roll.

Not so with contemporary. Previously known as Chick Lit, contemporary is traditionally set in a small, Americana, town full of quirky characters. The main characters are either coming home, reinventing themselves somewhere new, or long time residents stuck in a rut. This can be either the male or the female. Then the love interest arrives. Attraction and conflict ensue. Character arch involves personal growth, forgiveness, etc... then happily ever after. There isn't usually an external stake. The internal stakes are all about the main characters finding happiness.

The current hot trend in male love interest is the emotionally unavailable tycoon, and why not? The unlimited money really leaves a lot of options as much as having the hero in a historical be a Duke. So, yes, I'm going there. My only concern is that I don't generally write 100% alphas. Why? I don't respond positively to them (maybe this is why I'm not published?). I like balance in the relationship and all my books include the heroine discovering she is worthy of love and wielding her own power in a relationship of equals. And, as the unnecessary trolls in Frozen said, everyone is a bit of a fixer upper. I don't write perfect people.

My contemporary will not include perfect people either, but it will be in a small town brimming with quirkiness (I can do that). My hero is super rich and super hot, of course. My heroine is established in her own right. Both have given up on love. He misjudges her place in life as lack of sophistication. She misjudges his place based on being a cold bastard. Then they get over themselves, actually communicate, and, viola! HEA. I'm even including a puppy.

I can do this. I know what I'm going to write and I can write it. I have to keep saying it and then I'll believe it.  I know it doesn't sound like a challenge and it shouldn't be, but I'm working outside my purview. I'm putting my Irish paranormal on the back burner to write this one, not because the muses told me to, but because it would be good for my career. I always told myself that any agent would be lucky to have me because I am capable of writing anything. You tell me what you need and I'll write it. Well, now is the time to prove it. Use it or lose it. Put my money where my mouth is. Look a gift horse in the mouth. Eat yellow snow. Or something.

Wish me luck. I'm only 2k into it  (aiming at 80) and need to write like the wind.
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