Friday, December 30, 2011

"Sacred Fire" is on Facebook

On an impulse, I decided to make a Facebook page for my novel about the Vestal Virgins.

Is it silly to create a page for a book no one has read?

Yes. But I did it anyway.

It was fun. I made some cool photo albums of statues and pictures of Vestal Virgins. My favorite is a collection of every inaccurate picture of the vestals I could find. (There are many.) Every time I see a new picture, it's like solving a puzzle to figure out what's wrong with it, which I get a kick out of.

I also posted some awesome videos, titles of books about vestals, links to blog articles, and I'm going to keep adding more.

Click here to see it.

I'm not asking you to "Like" the page. I just want people the check it out. If anyone wants to leave comments... well, that would be extra awesome.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Are There Too Many Writers?

Kid, I feel the same way.
Sometimes I think of how many writing blogs are out there and I get overwhelmed. How do I stand out? How can I get more readers than everyone else? The competition is so fierce, it's frustrating.
I feel the same way when I walk into a bookstore. In 2009, 288,355 books were published in the United States alone. It makes me wish people would stop writing to make room for me!

I realized something that made me change my attitude:

My initial thought was less bloggers = more readers. But guess who reads more blogs than anyone else? Other bloggers. If writers gave up on their blogs, I could actually lose readers.
Who reads more books than everyone else? Writers!

There are more writers in the world now than ever before. Everyone wants in on the action. This is because literacy is at its highest point in history. We're all reading, we're all writing, we're all blogging, and sometimes it makes the world feel too big. But it's all to our benefit... mine, and yours.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Advice for Keeping New Year's Resolutions

I completed my New Year’s Resolution and read 44 books – twice as many as I read last year. Wi-hoo!
This is the first time I’ve ever kept a resolution, or any year-long goal, for that matter. I’ve made plenty of resolutions before, but none of them stuck.
This feels great! I read some amazing books this year, and it really made a difference in my life. I’m going to make resolutions every year from now on.

There are several reasons why this goal worked for me when other goals haven’t:
  1. The goal was meaningful. I didn’t make a pointless goal like lose 25 pounds or post every week on a blog I don’t care about. Making reading a habit was important to me.
  2. The goal was enjoyable. I didn’t have to drag myself out of bed at 6:00 am to go jogging in the cold. I like reading, and I wanted to do this.
  3. The goal was simple. I didn’t have some lofty aspiration like finishing my novel by the end of the year or getting my house remodeled.
  4. If I stopped working on my resolution, I could get caught up. I didn’t make a goal of not smoking for a year, smoke on January 12, and say, “Oh well, I’ll try again next year.”
  5. I only made one goal. I didn’t make a long list, so I was able to focus. 
Did you make a goal last year? Are you going to make one this year?

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Critique Partners: Internet vs. in Person

At my writer's group last Saturday, I read the first chapter of FierceI was pretty nervous because this book is still young and the idea is fragile. I hate to admit it, but I needed encouragement.

We discussed the premise and they actually got excited about it. They brought up the same concerns I've already heard, but there was one big difference.

There are many benefits to having online critique partners: there's a wider selection of readers to pick from, for example,  and they're easier to communicate with. 

But there's a big problem: it's hard to tell when your partner is sincere and when she's BSing.

In my writer's group, some of my ideas made my partner's faces light up while some made them scrunch their eyebrows together. People don't fake that.  

One person didn't get the chance to read the chapter, and someone whispered to him so that I wasn't meant to hear, "It was so good." That means more than an email filled with compliments because even if my internet critique partner feels the same way, she has no way of expressing it.

I've learned the value of always having people in my life who can talk to me about my writing face-to-face. I highly recommend finding a group in your area... if there's one in Starkville, Mississippi, there are groups everywhere.

By the way, my group met in the same bookstore where I made all those recommendation of authors I met at the HNS conference. Last Saturday, I checked to see if they were on the shelves. Not only had the owner bought everything I recommended, but Pope Joan had a prominent place on the wall of bestsellers. I felt proud.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Why I Finish Every Book I Start

Life is short and we can only read so many books before we die. Why waste a second on a book we don't like?

The best way to avoid a bad book is to not pick one up in the first place; that's why I read reviews and ask friends' advice before picking up a new novel. But when you're halfway into a book and you realize you don't like it, then what do you do?

I recently noticed I don't put books down, even when I hate them. This wasn't a conscious decision; it just works out that way. After pondering on this, I realized my reasons:

1. You can learn just as much from a poor quality book as you can from a good one. For example, I suffer from POV switching. Sticking to one character's viewpoint just didn't click for me. I recently read a book where head-hopping was rampant, and I thought, "Ah, I get it now. That really does sound bad."

2. I'm picky about books. If I wasn't determined to stick through them, I would have found an excuse to put down almost every book I've ever read. I could have missed out on many good stories.

3. The ending of a novel changes everything. You can understand the point of all you just went through, or everything can get resolved in a satisfying way that makes it all worthwhile. It's not fair to judge a book you didn't finish.

4. My library sucks, so I own almost every book I read. If I'm going to pay $4 for a used book, then so help me, I'm going to get my money's worth.

5. Often I want to put down a book because it upsets me. If I stop reading right when a story gets disturbing, that last image will stick in my mind. If I finish it, I can move past it. (This theory didn't work out too well with "Kite Runner".)

6. Often I want to put a book down because it offends me. I try to resist that. The world is a diverse place; everyone has at least one idea that's offensive to someone else. I search for the good in books (sometimes with a magnifying glass) even when they include an idea that bothers me; otherwise, I wouldn't read anything.

7. Offensive and poor quality books drive me to write more than good books do. When I read a good book, I feel content because the world of literature is in good hands. When I read a book I hate, I run to my computer because someone needs to stand up to trash.

What about you? Do you ever put down a book you've started, and if so, when?

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Smiling: Huh, it Actually Works

During the Christmas holidays, everyone shares stories of how they went out of their way to touch someone's life. I love these stories.

I've never been a fan, though, of stories where a person smiles at another and it makes a dramatic difference: lightening someone's mood, helping someone make good decisions that day, inspiring someone to help another and causing a ripple effect, etc.

It's not that I don't value smiling at people. I just think people should do something a little more spectacular. Something that makes a real difference.

I had an experience, though, that changed my mind.

Back when I lived in Utah, we had a long, frigid winter. I smile to people I pass as a matter of course (another reason not to take stock in the magic of holiday-smiling), and I noticed that people would start out grumpy and seem surprised when I smiled. I figured the cold was dampening everyone's mood. I decided to make it a point of smiling, since it seemed like they needed it.

I approached this one guy in the snow who seemed particularly down. On my way past him, I gave him the brightest smile I had. As soon as I had my back turned to him, I heard him say these three words:

"I love you."

It took me four paces before it sunk in. I looked over my shoulder, but he was still walking away as if he hadn't said anything.

He wasn't on a cell phone, and there wasn't anyone else around he could have said it to. He must have meant me. The really odd part wasn't just that he said it, but the way he said it: with deep sincerity, almost with fervor, like he was speaking to a lover.

I'm still scratching my head over it, but I guess this proves the value of something as simple as a smile.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

One More Reason to Outline

After this, I promise to stop harping on outlining so much. I just heard something stupid and had to respond to it.

Pantsers argue that the best part of writing a book is making discoveries in the middle of the writing. You’ll be halfway through a scene when an idea pops up that makes your novel evolve. I just read an article where someone said a novel is a living, breathing entity that will rebel against the author if it’s contained.

That’s a pretty idea. He should write poetry.

In my current meticulously outlined novel, I made discoveries while writing. Not often, but occasionally a phrase, character trait, or event would pop into my head and become a part of the story. It’s thrilling to watch the dynamic creative process work.

Here’ the thing, though: when I sat down and outlined my novel, I made discoveries that were just as exciting. Outlining was the most creative part of the whole process. At that stage, I was dealing with raw, unstable material that needed to be shaped.

I couldn’t fall asleep at night because I had to keep getting up and scribbling in my notebook.

Whether I come up with the ideas before I start writing or after, I’m still coming up with ideas. When I outline, I’m still watching the dynamic creative process, and it’s just as thrilling.

The only difference is I don’t have to go back and fix thousands of words that no longer work with my new idea.

When people say outlining stunts their creativity, I think they just don’t know how to outline. Planning what will happen in your novel should be invigorating. You should be more excited about your book while outlining than at any other stage because it’s new, and you can already see how beautiful it’s going to be.

At least, that’s how it is for me.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Support, and The Magic Porqupine

Today, I want to talk about the importance of supporting our loved ones. 

I never doubted I'd make it as a writer mostly because my parents and husband always took my success as a matter of course. The belief that I would be published was drilled into me since I was eight, and when you learn something that young, it sticks with you.

My mom always encouraged my creativity. For example, when we went on road trips we liked to make pass-around stories where she'd tell one part of a story, I'd tell the next, and so on until the story was done. Some were silly, some we gave up on, but some made us proud.

When I was six, we came up with a story we still remember.

My mom started it:

"Once there was a great king who was kind and fair to his people. Everyone loved him, but he was unhappy because he had no children. One day, a wizard came to his door seeking shelter, and in exchange, he granted the king one wish. Pass."

My turn:

"The king wished he could have lots of children, so the wizard gave him a magical porcupine."

My mom later told me what she thought: Huh? A magical porcupine? Well, let's see where this goes. 

I went on: "Each day, the king could take only one quill from the porcupine and it would turn into a child with magical powers. One child could shoot fire balls. Another could read minds. Another could move things without touching them. Pass."

The story continued like this: The king was very happy with his large family of magical children. But another king was jealous. He wanted the porcupine for himself so he could build an army of magical soldiers. 

He went to war with the kind king, and while the countries fought, he snuck into the castle and found the porcupine. He tore as many quills from the porcupine as he could.

The porcupine transformed into a beautiful woman. She cursed the greedy king and drove him out of his lands. When the kind king returned to his room, the porcupine was gone. But it was okay because he already had all the children he wanted. He and his family lived happily ever after.

My mom was so impressed by how this story developed that she turned it into a script. When my church had a talent show, our youth group performed it. They pulled out all the stops: the characters were dressed in fancy medieval clothes, the king had a crown and a throne, and they even made a porcupine puppet who could speak. 

Imagine what something like this would do to a six-year-old child. Everyone loved the play, and everyone knew I helped write it. One of my earliest memories is of being praised for a story I created.

I hope I can show the same support to my children. I wish everyone in the world could. It makes all the difference.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Developing Unique Characters: Stroke Causes French Accents

The video below is about a British woman who went to bed with a headache and woke up with a French accent. It's called Foreign Accent Syndrome. Seriously, this is a real thing.

The syndrome is caused by damage to the speech section of the brain, which can happen during a stroke. This woman's stroke was so minor that she didn't notice it until morning.

My initial reaction was, "Holy cow, the brain is so complex." My next thought was that she would make for a great character in a book.

In most books, characters are cliche. They have the same attitudes, the same life experiences, the same struggles. In modern settings, sarcastic characters are popular right now. In historical fiction, it's always independent women who refuse to be dominated by men. It's getting old.

Imagine how your book would read if a character had a brain condition that made her French. That would be different.

When I create a new character, I like to ask myself, "How is this person different from everyone else?"

There's a plethora of ways to answer that question. I was watching a show on Amish people who decided to leave their community; what if your character's love interest used to be Amish?

Instead of having a Stepford wife as your MC's neighbor, you could have a little person; maybe he's a doctor or a lawyer. You could have someone who used to weigh 500 lbs and lost the weight. You could have someone who used to be a child celebrity, or the child of a celebrity.

You could have an employee of a chicken farm whose job is to check the sex of the chicks. I saw that on Dirty Jobs. He had to squeeze the chick to make it poop before he could feel the sex organ.

When it comes to characters, stretch your creativity. The sky's the limit.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Juggling Multiple Story Lines

Fierce has three main characters with their own story lines. They have their own points of view but experience the same events, so I have to weave their stories together.

I had a hard enough time organizing the scenes for Sacred Fire 

Having multiple points of view will make the book richer, but it's not easy. How do I pull this off?

This is what I've done so far:

1. Create a separate outline for each character in a word document.
2. Write each scene on a card. 
3. Lay all the cards out on the floor and organize them so the character's lives intersect in a way that's coherent.
4. Write the book the way I've organized it.

These steps weren't so bad. It's the revision part that gets tricky. I'm trying to make sure each story is fully developed and can stand on its own. When I read through the book, I'm working with so much information that it's next to impossible to give each my individual attention.

I've added a few more steps. The process is an experiment and it makes me nervous, but I think it'll work:

5. Separate all the scenes into three word documents, one for each character.
6. Work on each document one at a time. Develop each story line enough that if they were three different books, they'd be complete and satisfying.
7. Reweave the stories the way I originally organized them.

Have you ever tried to juggle multiple story lines? What was your process?

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Waiting Game Continues

I heard once that if an agent doesn't respond to you right away, it means she's not interested. An agent would jump on a good book as soon as possible to keep anyone else from getting it.

I heard in another place that if an agent doesn't respond right away, it means she's seriously considering the book. Taking on a new client is a big commitment, and it involves a lot of thought.

If the agent doesn't like a book, there's nothing to keep her from responding immediately.

You're killing me, guys. You're killing me!

Monday, December 12, 2011

Fudge and Keeping Ideas Secret

I'm going to share something with you. Something big. I put a lot of thought into this, and I've made my decision.

When I was young, my mom taught me how to make fudge. "This is a secret family recipe," she said. "My mother gave it to me, I'm giving it to you, and you will give it to your daughter. It has an ingredient that no one knows. You must promise not to share it with anyone."

My eyes were wide. "I won't!" I promised.

I kept my promise well into adulthood. The recipe my mother gave me makes the best fudge you can even fathom, and whenever people asked me what was in it, I proudly told them it was a secret family recipe.

One day I was talking to my mom about our special fudge, and she said in front of a big group of people, "Oh yeah, the kind with sour cream." It wasn't really a secret. It was just a game!

I was disappointed. Then I realized, what do I gain by keeping this recipe secret? I'm not going to sell it. I'm not going to open a bakery. I don't even make it that often.

In a world where ideas are more valuable than gold, we tend to cling to everything we come up with. What people fail to realize is that an idea is only as valuable as the work you're willing to put into it. 

If you sit on an idea because it could make money, even though you will never do anything with it, you deny the world a great blessing.

Andrew says engineering companies do this often. Scientists might create an invention that would cost a fortune for companies to implement but could drive them out of business if someone else implemented it. They buy the invention and sit on it so no one else can have it.

When I first heard this, I was incensed. "What about science?" I asked. "What about progress for the good of mankind?"

I'm not saying you should give all your ideas away for free; I would encourage you to pursue as many creative endeavors as you can. At the same time, we have more ideas and more skills than we can market. Instead of being greedy with our dreams of fame and fortune, we should be realistic and share the wealth. 

I am going to share some of my wealth with you. Here, for the first time in public, is my Secret Fudge recipe. (Cue dramatic music.)

7 oz Kraft Marshmallow Crème
1 ½ cup sugar
1 cup sour cream
¼ cup butter
¼ tsp salt
11 ½ oz milk chocolate
6 oz semi-sweet chocolate
1 tsp vanilla extract

  1. In a heavy sauce pan, combine crème, sugar, sour cream, butter, and salt.
  2. Bring to a rolling boil over moderate heat, then boil 5 minutes
  3. Add chocolate and vanilla, stir until completely dissolved
  4. Chill for 2 hours
  5. You can add raisins and rum extract, add orange extract, add nuts, or add peppermint and press crushed candy canes on top. The sky is the limit.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Roller Derby: Best Sport Ever

For my somewhat weekly "The World is Awesome" article, I'm going to talk about the most awesome sport in existence: roller derby.

People ask me how I got into this sport. A few years back, a friend gave my husband a movie he knew I would like: Whip It. Andrew joked that he shouldn't let me watch it.

"How come?" I asked.

"It's about roller derby. That's a woman-power sport."

It was at that moment that I knew. I wanted to play this game!

For those of you unfamiliar with roller derby, it's a women's-only sport that's played on roller skates. I posted the USA vs New Zealand World Cup game below... it's amazing. I'll post a video of me at our next game in March; in all the videos we have so far, I look like a noob.

Each team has one player called a jammer whose goal is to break through a pack of girls. Each time she gets through, she gains five points. The girls in the pack have to try to prevent the other team's jammer either by pushing her out of bounds, standing in front of her, or knocking her on her butt.

At the same time, they have to keep the other blockers from blocking their jammer by using the same methods.

You'll notice in the video that each girl comes up with a cool name, like Jenita Smacking, Dr. Doomlittle, and Shanaconda. My name is Cleofracture.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Taking My Own Advice

I've given a ton of advice on my blog this year. Since it's all stuff I learned as I went along, every article was one step behind what I was doing. Now that I'm reworking a rough draft, the advice is relevant to me all over again.

I went through my old About Writing articles to see which ones I need to use. Below are the articles and the links. If you're in the rough draft/revision stage, they might be helpful to you too:

1. Keep a work diary.
2. Write 2 hours a day.
3. Cut out unimportant words.
4. Use all eleven senses.
5. Flesh out the writing.
6. Only accept useful doubt; ignore everything else.
7. Every time I catch myself narrating, write in-scene and see what happens.
8. Start novel as late in the story as possible.
9. Edit one thing at a time.
10. Develop my characters fully.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Dance, My Puppet, Dance!

Once when Andrew and I were going to meet up for lunch, I asked him to pick me up a Subway sandwich.

"What kind do you want?" he asked.

"Oh, I don't care. You know what I like."

He brought my sandwich and it was seriously the best sandwich I've ever had at Subway, bar none.

The next day I had him take me to Subway again because I wanted the exact same sandwich. Andrew tried to tell me everything that was in it.

"Could you just order for me?" I asked.

He frowned. He likes strong women, so he gets annoyed whenever I'm too dependent. "No, I'm not going to order for you. You're not a kid."

"Come on, I'm never going to remember everything you just said."

"It's not that hard...."

"Fine, I'll do it."

I marched to the counter and looked at the choices. I couldn't even remember what kind of bread to get.

"Hi," I told the server, "I'd like chicken teriyaki on... um..."

I looked over my shoulder to Andrew. He rolled his eyes. "Honey wheat."

"That's right, honey wheat. And I want lettuce, and... um..." I looked to Andrew again.


"Yes, I want cucumber."

"And red onions."

"And I want red onions. Swiss cheese, too."

"You don't want Swiss," he said, "You want Provolone."

"I want Provolone."

While the lady put together the sandwich, she asked me if I wanted anything to drink. I don't like soda, but I thought Andrew might want some, so I looked back at him again.

"Mountain Dew," he said.

"I would like a Mountain Dew."

The woman got a cup for the soda. Before wrapping up the sandwich, she said, "Is there anything else?"

"Nope," I said, "that's everything."

She looked to my husband and waited for him to answer.

As she waited for Andrew's approval, I realized how this scene must look to outsiders; like my husband was so controlling, he told me what sandwich I had to eat.

I quickly explained to her the situation. She looked relieved.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Writing Should Never be Lonely

People say writing is a lonely hobby. I've never felt that way. There are too many writers in this world and too many opportunities to meet them.

For example, there's a writer's group here in Starkville, Mississippi (of all places). Paticipating in the group has been incredible. I met a dozen intelligent, creative people who support each other and swap ideas.

A group member who is a modern dancer offered to dance to a poem. I offered one about how flavors relate to break-ups (you gotta love random poetry). Watching her movements sync to the meaning of my words was captivating.

This hasn't been my only opportunity to socialize with writers. There's conferences, readings, forums, and (of course), blogging! My beta readers have been the greatest support of all; they held my hand and communcated with me almost every day about my book and how it should go.

Each year on the Nanowrimo forums, I invite people in my area to meet for a kick-off party. We also had a fantastic Night of Writing Dangerously this year. It was great to meet them in person and continue talking to them on the forums.

I do feel lonely sometimes when I start a first draft. People can help me revise when I'm finished, but no one can tell me the words to write. At some point, it's all you, and you have to go at it alone.

All the same, you can share your idea with your friends and other writers (and blog followers), and they can tell you how great it is even when it sucks.

Support is out there, and it's for you to use. Other writers are just as eager to meet you as you are to meet them.

Monday, December 5, 2011

My Imaginary Rejection Letter

I had a dream last night that a particular agent rejected me. She sent me a letter with two pages full of criticism.

In the dream I was upset, but full of determination. I would apply the changes she suggested and try again. I would prevail!

Since this was a dream, the criticism wasn’t as helpful as I hoped. She said the beginning was slow, the book had no commercial appeal, and she didn’t understand why the Romans lived in Africa.

The most hurtful thing she said was, “I had my mom read this, and even she didn’t like it.”
I was disappointed, but I decided it wouldn’t get me down.

(Then I had a dream about a man on the run because he was so smart, scientists wanted to harvest his brain. I usually dream in stories, and they often have something to do with either amnesia or running from the government.)

Hopefully my reality will turn out better than the dream. At least now I know my subconscious has a good attitude.

Friday, December 2, 2011

About the Author Photos

Yesterday I talked about my visit to Vesta's temple in Rome. While we were there, Andrew told me it would be cool if my author picture on the sleeve of my novel was of me in front of the temple. 

The next day I got all dressed up and went to my "photo shoot." Andrew calls these my glamour shots.

I don't know if they're good enough to use, but I love them.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

House of the Vestals: Danget!

I don't know whether to be thrilled, or furious.

When my husband and I went to Rome to do research for Sacred Fire, my novel about the Vestal Virgins, the first thing we went to see was the Palatine hill. Half-way through, I saw the forum down below us out of the corner of my eye. I saw Vesta's temple.

My husband wanted to sneak our way into a tour group passing nearby, but I couldn't be still. I grabbed his arm and dragged him down the hill to see it.

Tuccia once stood right where I was standing. All my characters did; Aemilia, Pinaria, Postumia...all of them. 

I'd spent so long piecing together clues from ancient history, trying to figure out how the vestals lived, and all the secrets used to be right in front of me. I was only six feet away from where the sacred fire burned for almost a thousand years.

The house the vestals lived in was roped off. I knew it would be, but it was still hard to see it and know I couldn't go inside. I was a heartbeat away from jumping over the railing anyway, but Andrew said he didn't want me to get stuck in an Italian prison. I think that would have been awesome, but we couldn't afford another plane ticket if the imprisonment made us miss our flight home.

I leaned over the railing and tried to see the remaining statues lining the courtyard. I wondered if Tuccia had her own statue; she was the most famous vestal who ever lived, so surely she was in the atrium at some point. Two of the vestals still had their heads; the odds were astronomical, but what if I could see Tuccia's face?

I knew not going into the vestal house would always be a regret.

The other day I was googling Vestal Virgins to see if anything new has been posted, and I made quite the discovery; the house of the vestals is open again. I missed it! But maybe someday I'll go to Rome again, and then I'll see it.
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