An Essay

As we flew out of Hartsfield-Jackson, I studied the summer landscape for pops of blue. They were everywhere. A sprinkling here. A dense patch there. Cool blue rectangles blinked up at the sky like iPhone screens. The occasional cobalt circle marked an above ground pool. Every now and then, I saw a lake shape, or an oval the color of minty blast toothpaste. An hour and forty minutes later, as we descended into Newark, I saw them again—blue oases punctuating the neighborhoods of New Jersey.

Growing up, my family always had some kind of pool—the kiddie pool in which Dad could just about fit a leg, the three-foot deep, twelve-foot wide Calico that kept us cool for the few summers it lasted. Then, came the pool that defined my childhood summers through high school—four-feet deep, eighteen-feet in diameter, and solid walls you could push off of, so long as Mom wasn’t looking. There were even golden plastic anchors on the top caps.

It seemed like everyone in the neighborhood got a pool the summer we did. I could walk down my street and point out each one—most of them, above ground, like ours. The occasional in-ground pool would crop up, stirring within me the desire to jump the fence and test the waters.

Fall was the saddest time of year, when we had to drain the pool and cover it in this horrible black tarp that would collect rainwater and attract ducks. One fall, a rumor circulated that a pool in the neighborhood had burst. It belonged to Jamie M, my sworn nemesis since the third grade, when I told her I hated her guts and she told me the same.

Word on the bus was that her brother had been inside the house, watching television when the pool collapsed and sent a flood of water into the living room. At first I didn’t believe the story. It sounded like a grand flood myth. But later that year, as I rode my bike past the M’s street, I glanced a peek at the backyard. A bare gray spot marked where the pool had once stood. I almost felt bad for Jamie, but mostly, I felt sorry for her pool.

I am thirty-two years old now, and it has been at least fifteen years since our pool has gone to pool heaven. It didn’t burst. Like most things on earth, it got old and fell apart. My parents had patched the liner so much that it looked like one of those pebbled pool bottoms.

This past summer, when my sister and I visited home at the same time, we lamented the absence of the pool, as we had done every summer since Dad took it down. Grass had grown over the perfectly flat plot of ground where the steel walls had once contained 7,600 gallons of water, along with all of our childhood hopes and dreams. My sister and I sat in lawn chairs, on the very spot where years before we’d have been floating on rafts.

“You know mom thinks D— started using heroin because we got rid of the pool,” my sister told me. Several years ago, our younger brother got into drugs. He was lucky to survive the few bad trips that left him hospitalized and in need of rehabilitation. He’s clean now, as far as we know.

That night, my husband and I took a walk through the old neighborhood. My head turned toward anything that sounded like a pool filter. Mostly, I found myself gazing at air-conditioning units, but once in a while, the sound was actually coming from a pool filter. I would lose myself, gawking through a fence at the crystal waters that I so badly wanted to touch. Jamie M has since moved from the neighborhood, her yard, still without a pool.

My husband knows I want a pool. “Just a little above ground thing,” I keep telling him. I have no idea if our town will allow us to get one, and we would need to build a fence, that’s for sure. Not only that, but our yard is tragically sloped—terrible conditions for a pool.

Toward the end of our walk, we came to this one fence that I’d remembered seeing a pool behind, as we’d driven past earlier that afternoon. My husband didn’t believe me when I told him there was a pool in the yard. The fence did a good job of concealing it.

“It’s one of those giant inflatable ones,” I exclaimed, with all of the enthusiasm of someone trying to convince someone else of a dire truth. “Look, there’s a skimmer.” I pointed to a pole with a net on the end of it, hanging horizontally across the opposite side of the fence.

My husband still didn’t believe me. It wasn’t until I made him trespass onto the property with me and stare through the fence that he saw what only I had eyes for—a jumbo inflatable pool, as blue as the internet icon on his desktop.

“I want one,” I said. And it’s the truth. I would settle for an inflatable pool because that would mean having one.

Later that week, I asked my mom about what my sister had said about our brother.

“It’s true,” she told me. “I don’t think D— would have gotten into drugs if we’d kept the pool.”

“Why?” I couldn’t follow Mom’s logic, but that didn’t surprise me. This was the same woman who, when she found out that I was moving to Atlanta and my sister to Shanghai, asked me, “Atlanta, Shanghai, what’s the difference?”

“If we’d kept the pool,” she explained, “his friends would have spent more time here. He wouldn’t have gone to their houses so much. They all had pools. That’s why he hung out with them in the first place.”

I got where she was coming from, but pool or no pool, I still think drugs would have found my brother. I didn’t say this to Mom.

Since our return to Atlanta, I’ve seen my husband googling inflatable pools. He keeps bringing up the cost, telling me how much water it will take to fill even a small one. He’s right, and I also realize I don’t need a pool. Hot as Atlanta summers can be, a pool is a luxury. Gosh, air conditioning is a luxury, and we already have that.

In an attempt to fill the 18’ x 48” hole in my heart, I took our daughter to swim in our county pool this summer. At a mile and a half away from our house, it’s our closest body of water. I will spare my county the embarrassment of the details, but let it suffice to say, the conditions were sad.

Many friends have let us join them at their (much nicer) community pools, and we have crashed every pool party imaginable, but there’s nothing more enjoyable, or convenient, than opening the back door of your house and walking across the lawn to your very own blue oasis. Yes, pools have to be maintained, but I would gladly vacuum the liner and tend to the waters, just as Dad made me do when I was old enough to read the pH test.

When I think about the world, the way most people live, I feel guilty for even wanting a pool. I once visited a lady in my church after her house had been robbed. The thieves took everything of value—electronics, silver, family heirlooms. As we sat at her kitchen table, talking about the robbery, I noticed her journal was opened to a page entitled “Gratitude List.” The page was filled from top to bottom with things she was grateful for. She said she always made a gratitude list whenever anything bad happened to her. It helped her to see what she had.

Last week, as I sat in my living room, watching our thermometer reading break ninety, I made a list in my head. I was grateful for food, water, air conditioning, clothes, my husband, my daughter, music, literacy, books… The list went on. I could have sat there listing things all day, which is something in and of itself to be thankful for.

I still want a pool. The desire is as deep as the hole we’d have to dig in our yard if we decided to get one. I don’t wish this desire away. I don’t go to yoga and exhale it out like stale air. I like my desire. I like the fact that I don’t have something I want.

In the deep end of my heart, there is still a little girl who cries in the department store when her mother won’t buy her the doll she’s been stalking. Something in me empathizes with that little girl. I almost like her. She knows what she wants, and she wants it deeply. How inhuman it would be, to never feel the guilt of wanting something you know you don’t need. How very dull.

I’ve been singing since I was five and have composed dozens of songs. I’m working on getting more more videos on YouTube. Here’s my latest:

“The Power of Love” (Acaepella, in the style of Celine Dion)
Yes, I stood in the middle of my living room and did this:

 

“Sway” (cover of the classic version)

 

“Kiss from a Rose” (cover of Seal)

 

 

My favorite online resources for vocal training:

~Eric Arceneaux
~Tom Burke
~Freya Casey
~Power to Sing
~Felicia Ricci
~Dr. Dan
~Andrew Byrne

Blog_sad

A Poem?

I. Denial

I shouldn’t have let you read my book.
It’s not your genre.

You must have skimmed the good parts.

Were you reading with your eyes squinted?

II. Anger

You’re a bad reader,
or maybe you’re just stupid.

No, I think you’re jealous.

III. Bargaining

What’s wrong with present tense?

Okay, maybe I’ll experiment with the tense.

Plenty of movies begin
with a person waking up from a dream.

Yeah, I guess that’s cliche.

How about I start with my main character getting dressed
in front of a mirror?

I see what you’re saying about character consistency,
but that’s a huge edit.

My structure needs a little work,
my voice too.

I should read that ELEMENTS OF STYLE book
you told me about three years ago.


IV. Depression

My book sucks!

I’m so stupid.

No one is ever going to read my book.

Agents hate me.

I’ll never get into #PitchWars.

I’ll never get published.

I’m never doing NaNo again.

V. Acceptance

Thanks for the feedback.

I know I look annoyed,
but I really appreciate your comments.

You didn’t have to read all 280,000 words
of my novel.

You’re actually a pretty
perceptive reader.

My book will be better because of you.

Will you read it again
after I revise?

You’re such a good friend.

Let’s be critique partners.

I might self-publish someday.

If you like this poem, share it on Twitter:

Follow Alicia for more writing tips and insights:

Image from: http://wallgator.com/sad-love-stories-wallpaper-free-download-in-categories-love-stories/

cat at computer
I’ve been working as a fiction writer from home for the past two years, and many times, when I tell people what I do for a living, I get this reaction: “I could never work from home. I don’t have the discipline.” The truth is that successfully working from home does require discipline. It’s been my experience that this discipline doesn’t come naturally. It took me a year to get my priorities straight and to find an effective work rhythm. Below are some practices that have helped me along the way.

Please understand that everyone’s work experiences will vary. What works for me may not work for you, and you might come up with tips that I haven’t discovered yet. Feel free to leave those in the comments. Also, working from home isn’t for everyone. Some people enjoy going to a place of work, and they are better producers in that environment.

If you do work from home, then I hope you find these tips to be helpful:

1) Be social. One of the greatest challenges that I face at home is not having colleagues to interact with on a daily basis. For me, social media has been a great solution to this problem, specifically Twitter. I’ve formed and maintained relationships with several people through Twitter. I’ve found that mindfully communicating with about 100 users, as opposed to trying to reach out to all 1.3K of the folks I follow, has helped me to share information, stay informed, and improve my craft.

As great as social media can be, I also strongly suggest meeting up with friends in person. Over the past two years, I’ve identified other people in my life who have flexible schedules. I schedule at least two in-person lunches or coffee dates with these friends during the week. I’m always amazed by how these appointments energize me and push me to hustle to meet my work goals.

2) Break the silence. Some people like to listen to music when they work, and that’s fine. I, however, need silence in order to write effectively. As much as I appreciate and love silence, I find that I grow weary of it over time. To combat this silence overload, I sometimes listen to classical (or lyric-less) music while I work on less mentally demanding tasks, such as checking email or cooking a meal. I also listen to podcasts when I work out or take an extended break. My favorite podcasts are those that stimulate my thinking, such as The Accidental Creative, TED Radio Hour, and Ravi Zacharias’ “Just Thinking.” I also sometimes listen to audio books and short stories.

3) Set a daily work goal. First, determine what a full day’s work looks like for you. Take an 8 hour chunk of time and just work. During this stretch, take a 5-10 minute break every hour, and a 30-45 minute lunch. The work that you accomplish during these 8 hours is your work goal for an ideal day’s work. Going forward, if you meet this goal or can come within 80% of completion, then you’ve put in a full day’s work. If you meet half of this goal, then you’ve worked a half day. Sometimes, you will have other tasks and activities and will only be able to partially meet your goal, which is okay. If you worked at an office, you would sometimes work half or partial days on account of meetings and/or other scheduled events. In general, since you don’t work at an office, try to hold yourself to a full day’s work.

4) Periodically reassess your daily goal. The more time you spend working from home, the more effective you will–hopefully–become at accomplishing your work. Every few months or so, reassess how much work you’re capable of completing in 8 hours. You will probably find that you’ll be able to up your workload as time passes. Either that, or you’ll affirm where your limits are and strive to maintain them.

5) Exercise your body. Yes, get up and do something physical. Walk, jog, swim, dance, lift weights, train on the elliptical, take a Pilates class–whatever gets you moving. Do it! I like to workout for 45-60 minutes, 4-5 times per week. At minimum, aim for 30 minutes, 3-4 times a week. An oxygenated brain is sharper and healthier than one that doesn’t get oxygenated. Not to mention, the kinesthetic break helps your brain to reset for your work tasks.

6) Structure your day. Understand that even in an office setting, you probably wouldn’t be off in a corner working for 8 hours straight. Shape your day by incorporating short, regular breaks, and treating yourself to a longer lunch break when you need to refuel. The key to structure is balance. Don’t work for too long without taking a break, but also don’t break from your work for too long.

You might try breaking up your daily work goal into chunks that can be accomplished in 1-2 hour intervals, and take small breaks afar completing each chunk. Everyone will structure his or her day differently. Some people have a more freestyle approach to structure, knowing what tasks they need to accomplish and squeezing them in as they can. Do whatever works for you, but be sure that your structure fuels your work. Ineffective structure can create a false sense of accomplishment that will ultimately leave you short of your daily goal.

7) Exercise your mind. In addition to exercising my mind by listening to podcasts on breaks, I enjoy reading the news and following various blogs on a daily basis. I have found that taking 30-60 minutes to do this every morning refreshes and energizes my mind before setting out to hammer out my word count. I also like to always be reading a book, and I aim to complete one book ever 1-2 weeks.

8) Enjoy the perks. When you work from home, you lose the perks of working in the office, like having colleagues, attending work events, having a set schedule, and having a boss. Yes, having boss can be a perk, especially to people who thrive when someone holds them accountable for their tasks. When you work from home, however, you gain other benefits, like skipping the morning commute, working in your pajamas, having access to your kitchen, petting the cat, having a flexible schedule, being able to squeeze in domestic duties during breaks.

Don’t let the perks detract from your work, but rather appreciate these perks, and use them to nourish your work. For me, getting to work in my bathrobe is one of my favorite perks. My robe makes me feel warm and comfortable, and it settles my mind so I can create more effectively. On some days, however, I need to wear my regular clothes because the comfort of my robe can be too distracting, particularly if I’ve suffered from a poor night’s sleep.

9) Get out of the house. By the time my husband comes home from work, he just wants to sit on the couch and relax at home. I, having been in the house all day, sometimes want to get out. I’ve found that getting out during the day helps me to strike a balance here. I might go to the gym, rather than workout from home, or I might run out for groceries on one of my longer breaks. Physical distance from the workplace can be quite energizing, but when I’m out, I almost always have to fight the temptation to leave my work behind for too long. I like to stop and ask myself, if I had a boss, would she approve of me taking time from work to complete the task I’m doing?

10) Respect your workday. When I first started working from home, I dove into all kinds of volunteer work and offered myself freely to friends in need of personal favors. As important as it was for me to help others, I quickly realized that I wasn’t getting my work done. I was frustrated that others weren’t respecting my time, but the truth is that I wasn’t respecting my time. I’d ignored the schedule component of my flexible schedule.

Once I learned to respect my time, I began to schedule volunteer activities for evenings and weekends, just like I would if I were working at an office. I also began to limit my personal favors to emergency situations only. If a friend can hire someone else to complete the task she’s asking me to do, then she might just need to do that. Also, if my friend wouldn’t dream of asking someone who goes to a physical place of work to complete the same task, then why is she asking me? Yes, I work from home, but I do work. At first, it was difficult for me to not take offense to personal requests, but as I learned how to respond to these requests–kindly yet firmly–I became less frustrated.

As per emergency situations, I’ve come to define a true emergency as a special situation that can’t be planned for ahead of time. Emergencies happen, but not nearly as frequently as some might imagine. Exercise your best judgment when trying to distinguish between true emergencies and situations that can be managed without your assistance.

Basically, effectively working from home comes down to finding out what works for your work, and sticking to that. Producing good work from home is a struggle, that I can guarantee. I can also guarantee that the struggle is worthwhile. For me, it’s astoundingly rewarding to meet my daily mark, while also having a home cooked meal ready for my husband.

If you like this article, share it on Twitter:

Follow Alicia for more tips and insights:

Photo from http://www.morguefile.com/archive/#/?q=typing&sort=pop&photo_lib=morgueFile

Almost any writer who has queried agents knows that the task is daunting, and the odds of gaining representation are rather low. Agents get thousands (maybe tens of thousands) of emails a year, and from that, they might sign 2-3 clients–at best.

I’m not discouraged by these odds, but I have discovered an alternative route to pitching that I’ve really enjoyed–going through writers to get to agents. This doesn’t mean that I use my writer friends to pitch my book for me, or that I ask favors of my favorite authors. Rather, it means that I’ve been participating in Twitter pitch events hosted by agented writers who freely–and generously–offer their time to help emerging writers find agents.

I am a fan of this approach to pitching for many reasons. For one, the writers who host these events usually add a critique or feedback feature to their event, which means that writers get something they wouldn’t normally get via traditional querying–feedback. Most agents, like everyone else in the publishing world, are supremely busy, and they want polished manuscripts. Participating in Twitter pitches has helped me to see that some of my projects weren’t as polished as I thought, and this insight has saved me the grief of querying prematurely. Not only that, but I’ve gotten some decent feedback from these events, and that has helped with my revisions.

Another reason why I love participating in writer-hosted pitch events is that I make connections. I follow the mentors and writers participating in these events, and they follow me. More followers = more potential books sales when/if I finally do land that contract. More importantly, more followers = more friends and writing support.

All of this is to say that I think the traditional method of querying is changing. Instead of cold querying an agent, writers can participate in writer-sponsored pitch events first. The writers who host these events essentially serve as agency assistants–weeding through the slush and presenting agents with what they feel are the strongest entries. Many writers land agents this way and, those who don’t, still reap some kind of benefit.

If you’re interested in participating in such events, here’s a little list of some dedicated writers and groups who host them. I highly recommend following their blogs and following them on Twitter. If you know of anyone else who hosts similar events, then please, be a gem, and leave your recommendations in the comments.

Brenda Drake: @brendadrake
Michelle Hauck: @Michelle4Laughs
Authoress: @AuthoressAnon (FIY, The Authoress is not Miss Snark.)
Writeoncon: @WriteOnCon

Happy querying! And may the odds be ever in your favor.

Yesterday I spent the entire day preparing for a vacation I’m about to take, but instead of cramming in as many words on my WIP (work in progress), I spent the day scheduling my tweets for the week. I have an unspoken rule with myself: in order for me to call a day “productive,” I must meet a minimum word-count requirement of 2K, ideally 3K. According to these terms, yesterday was a very unproductive day. When I think about it, Twitter and blogging are the two activities that normally hinder my word count on these less productive days. I began to wonder if I should reassess my definition of “productive.” Yes, writing is all about the writing, but there’s got to be a reason why I spend so much time tweeting and blogging.

For me, Twitter is like a water cooler. It’s were I go to mingle with other writers and to gather information on the industry. But Twitter can also be a time drain for many writers. I know this from personal experience. Far too often, Twitter is like my candy dish, as opposed to my water cooler. I know I shouldn’t reach into the dish every time I pass it, but I do.

When all is said and done, I am a writer and my loyalties rest with my word count. Yes, it’s okay to have a day or two of Twitter/blogging activities every so often, but anymore than that, and I’m only making it harder for myself to jump back into that WIP.

Here are some tips I’ve developed in attempt to keep myself from falling into the “Twitter Abyss”–that nasty state of wandering from tweet to tweet while ignoring your writing. I hope other writers will find these tips helpful in structuring their days and in improving word counts.

1) Know your ideal word count, and aim for 50-75% of it every day. To determine your ideal word count, pick a day without distraction (yeah, right), and write for 5-8 hours straight, taking a 10-15 minute break after each hour of writing. Make sure to have an outline for each scene before you start this day, and make sure to keep writing, no matter what, in between those sweet breaks. Your word count at the end of this session is your ideal word count (for now). Your ideal word count will most likely increase as your writing skills grow.  Now, calculate your daily word count goal. So, if you wrote 3K in 5 hours, then you should aim for a minimum of 1.5-2K words/day, 4-5X’s/week.

2) Post your daily word count on Twitter at the end of every day. I started doing this a few months ago, and having that public accountability has upped my sense of duty. I want to meet my word count because I know I will be posting it for others to see. This was terrifying for me at first, but now that I’ve been doing it, I can’t stop.

3) Host writing sprints on Twitter. If you’re dragging or feeling distracted, send out a tweet inviting others to join you for a writing sprint. Set the time. I like to do 30-60min sprints, during the afternoon. Ask participants to tweet their word count at the end of the sprint. Then, write. To illustrate, the last sprint I hosted was a half-hour lunch sprint in which participants wrote as many words as they could from 12:00-12:30p.m. EST (or something like that). This little sprint motivated me to write 500 words during that session, and I’m hoping it motivated others on toward their goals too. Just imagine how many words you could write per day with 3 one-hour sprint sessions.

4) Use TweetDeck to prioritize what tweets you actually read. HUGE TIME SAVER. I do this, and now, instead of weeding through tweets from the 1K+ accounts I follow, I can simply create a column for my top 40 accounts. I only see the tweets from those accounts, so I’m less tempted to keep scrolling through the endless feed from every account I follow. Okay, I still scroll through the endless feed sometimes.

5)Use a service like FutureTweets to schedule your tweets ahead of time. I find that I’m less tempted to search around on Twitter when I do this. I also feel less pressure to constantly log on, find something to tweet about, then tweet. I can take care of all my tweets in one or two sessions per day, and I don’t have to worry about killing my followers with a pile up of tweets at one time.

6) Twitter and/or blog on your breaks. At some point, you will need a break from your writing. I like to take mini breaks (5-10min) every hour, and a longish lunch break. Whenever I return form these breaks, I usually check my Twitter feed. Yes, these Twitter diversions sometimes take much longer than anticipated, so you might want to only check Twitter once every two hours or so.

The Key to Avoiding the Twitter Abyss

Whatever the case may be, I’d say that keeping yourself on the “write track” and not falling into the Twitter abyss boils down to 1)knowing your word count and 2)developing and sticking to a daily routine that helps you to maximize that word count. As much as writers may resist cliches, I can’t help but say it: The numbers don’t lie.

This weekend I attended the Atlanta Writers Conference at the Airport Westin. This conference is very basic in its layout, and if you sign up for the right events, you can get some really great industry feedback. I’ve attended AWC twice so far, and I’ve found that the most worthwhile events are the mixer, the query letter critique, and the pitch sessions.

The mixer is free with your registration for any other conference event, and the agents and editors are obligated to attend. For the cheapest access to the mixer, attendees can sign up for a 30.00 Q&A panel and pay the required Atlanta Writer Club fee, which is 40.00. That would get you into the mixer for 70.00. Yes, for just 70.00 you can spend 3 hours nursing a martini while mingling with 6-8 industry professionals. I’ve made more contacts, and I’ve gotten more requests at this informal event than I have at any other formal pitch event that I’ve attended. Not to mention, I’ve met some of my best writer friends at this mixer.

Another great event is the query letter critique. For 50.00, participants get feedback on their query letter, and at the end of the session, you can always ask your industry professional if s/he would like you to email them your revised query letter. If s/he says “yes,” then you’ve just tacked a successful pitch onto your critique. Way to kill two birds with one stone. Also, when I attended the query letter critique, there were two industry professionals present, which doubled my chances of getting a request.

Lastly, the pitch sessions can be helpful. I had a mixed experience with this event, as the written instructions didn’t match up with what the industry professional was expecting. The person who pitched after me had the same experience, and I wouldn’t be surprised if many others did as well. I’m guessing there was a miscommunication in the written instructions that we’d received. It’s really unfortunate to be in a situation like this, as it can sour the tone for everyone. Even so, the feedback from the pitch sessions is generally helpful.

On the flip side, I’ve talked with conference attendees who’ve expressed feeling disrespected or misinformed by their industry professionals during the pitch events. I’d imagine that this happens a lot at conferences everywhere. Think about it: A handful of weary, travel-worn agents and editors are in constant contact with droves of aspiring writers. Someone is bound to get cranky. It is unfortunate when feelings get hurt, and in my opinion, disrespect of any kind is inexcusable. But who am I?

There are some events at this conference that could benefit from improvement, namely the workshops. I usually pay for these because the titles sound enticing, but I have yet to be impressed by any of the speakers or the content.

I have never attended the manuscript critique, which is the most expensive event, at 150.00. I have nothing to say about this event as of yet.

I also have yet to attend the Q&A panels, but I’ve talked with other attendees who have said that the panels are helpful.

A word of advice to writers who are planning to attend an AWC event. You will maximize your time there if you research the industry professionals beforehand. Chances are that of the 6-8 editors and agents who attend, only 1-2 will be acquiring projects in your genre. I highly recommend studying their Twitter pages, bios, and any other relevant information you can find. Know thy audience, right?

I remember fondly learning about the Freytag Pyramid in elementary school English. The pyramid was a great introduction to my understanding of plot and climax, but as I got older, and the stories that I read became more complex, I discovered that this neat little pyramid just didn’t cut it. But through college, my lessons on plot never seemed to present anything different. Even recently, I attended a presentation in which the pyramid was brought up by industry professionals when discussing plot. That’s when I began to seek out some other analogy that would help me to better understand plot structure. 

I love a good roller coaster as much as I love a good book, and just this weekend it hit as to why that might be. Both roller coasters and (many) books are structured to give those who dare to enter a thrilling ride. I’m generalizing here, and I’m well aware that not all books and roller coasters are created equal. But for many books, I think that a roller coaster may be a more relevant analogy for plot than is the old pyramid. 

For those of you who might be scratching your heads when I mention the Freytag Pyramid, here’s an illustration of what I mean. In a nutshell, pyramid plot structure dictates that the story should begin in a state of normalcy, become complicated and conflicted, rise to a climax, and then return to a changed or renewed state of normalcy. I love this pyramid explanation of plot, and I think it’s a great way to get novice readers and writers to understand structure.

But I think a roller coaster is a more appropriate analogy for novels, especially the high concept ones. Here’s why: A roller coaster usually has more than one peak, or pyramid, if you will. I can’t think of any novel that I’ve recently read that didn’t have multiple climaxes. Yes, many stories contain a single major climax, or pyramid peak, that encompasses all of the others, but there are other climaxes.

In this way, each drop of a roller coaster is its own pyramid. Notice how many roller coasters begin with a huge drop. In stories, this first major drop is the first major incident in the novel. It’s the event that turns the main character’s world upside down. It’s the event that sets the tone and the course of action in motion for the rest of the story. In many ways, this first event is like that first gut-wrenching drop of a roller coaster ride. As a friend pointed out, this biggest drop should actually come at the end of the story. As you can see, just as roller coasters are limited by the laws of physic, this analogy has its limitations.

Secondly, roller coasters, like stories, contain loops–events that literally reverse the events of the story. These loops are the moments at which the reader realizes that a certain character isn’t who she said she was, or those moments at which the main character is set back on his or her journey. We could say the same of twists, too. Story twists, like roller coaster twists, throw unexpected motion into the plot.

Thirdly, many roller coasters have a big drop or surprise toward the end. In stories, this final surprise is the main character’s final obstacle. Oftentimes, this obstacle is surprising and unexpected. For instance, it’s when the villain who we thought was killed comes back to life, grabs his gun, and aims it one last time at the hero. Good stories, like good roller coasters, save this thrill for the end, executing it at the moment at which the audience least expects it.

And finally, a good roller coaster will gently drop you off at the exit, unharmed, but changed and exhilarated. Isn’t that just how a good story should leave you off? 

This roller coaster analogy is particularly helpful to me when I think of my role as a writer. I’m an engineer, a job title that is a lot easier for me to understand than “pyramid builder.” I guess writers are pyramid builders to some degree, setting our stories into place one brick at a time, but when I think of myself as a roller coaster “engineer” I can visualize my role better. I can see the design. I can feel the weight of responsibility in building my tracks properly. I can almost hear the screams and can picture the thrilled looks on my riders’ faces. As a story engineer, I understand better what it means to gain my readers’ trust while leading them through a perilous journey that makes harrowing amusement park lines well worth the wait.

I had the pleasure of attending SCBWI‘s SouthernBreeze SpringMingle 2014 in Atlanta this past weekend, and I must say, this conference packed a lot of punch. Not only did SCBWI schedule some of the industry’s most renowned editors and agents, but also the very reasonable entrance fee included three great meals, Starbucks coffee, and cookies that fell straight from the ovens of heaven. Let’s be real; it’s all about the food. In all seriousness, this conference was rich, both in its format and in the support that it offered to its attendees.

SpringMingle is by far the most spiritual conference I’ve been to, with several faith-based books making slideshow appearances. The facilitators held a moment of silence for “thanks” before each meal. Even the regional advisor, Claudia Pearson, wore a wide-brimmed hat, one for each day, that brought me right back to the Easter Sunday mornings in the old Presbyterian church of my childhood. I still see a hat like that every now and then at the church I attend a in Atlanta, but those sightings are few and far between.

Enough about food and hats. What about the conference itself? I went to the conference to meet agent and author Ammi-Joan Paquette as well as editor Cheryl Klein, perhaps best known for her work on the last two Harry Potter books. In addition to meeting these two lovely ladies, I got to see an inspirational presentation from the prolifically talented Ruth Sanderson, and a heart-warming presentation by Cheryl Willis Hudson, editor and author of “My Friend Maya Loves to Dance.” I also got an inside look at what an art director does thanks to the lovable and humorous Lucy Ruth Cummins.

My interactions with the panelists were warm and cordial and the unspoken “no pitching” rule, as in no pitching your books outside of a formal pitch appointment, added to the nourishing atmosphere of this conference. “No pitching” may sound like a huge turnoff to writers looking to sell their book, but let me explain why it’s not. “No pitching” encourages attendees to be in listening, as opposed to talking, mode. Removing the possibility for pitching also makes the presenters less on the defense and, thereby, more likely to strike up natural conversations with attendees. They don’t have to worry about being put on the spot, and attendees can get to know them on a personal level.

Just because you can’t pitch your project in person, does’t mean you can’t pitch via email later. In fact, all attendees were given special pitch instructions for each panelist. The message behind this pitch-later approach is clear: The quality of your writing is what really matters. It’s true that agents and editors might sign with you because you’ve successfully sold yourself to them, but when your book comes out, it’s the writing that sell its. Your book must sell itself. Unless you’re a celebrity, it usually doesn’t matter how charming, smart, or witty you are. Having thousands of Twitter followers is great, but numbers won’t impact the quality of your writing. The agents/editors at this conference are serious about publishing, and when they’re considering your book, they want to know that it can stand up on its own.

If you are planning to attend SCBWI conferences in the future, which I highly encourage you do if you write children’s books (all ages through YA), here are a few tips that I hope will help you to maximize your experience:
1) The Southern Breeze website is buggy. Be diligent and follow up with anything you sign up for.
2) The email list is hard to find, and if you’re not a SCBWI member, you might miss out on important instructions. Try to get on the listserv, if you can find it.
3) Follow the instructions (if you can find them) for anything you submit to the conference. The facilitators are strict about this.
4) Sign up immediately for critique sessions and one-on-one meetings with panelists because these slots fill up FAST.
5) Don’t expect questions or materials you’ve submitted for group activities to get addressed during the conference. You might be one of the lucky ones whose material/questions reach the top of the pile first, but think of any such feedback opportunities as icing on the cake.
6) Be patient. Almost all of the activities are run by volunteers, and things don’t always go smoothly.

Don’t let these minor glitches stop you from missing out on the wonderful opportunities awaiting you at the next SCBWI conference. Also, if you’re not a Christian, no worries. The faith-based touches are subtle and the quiet moment of “thanks” before dinner is religion-neutral. This group is truly all about the writing and the nurturing of that writing. For me, attending SpringMingle was like getting a big warm hug from a Southern grandmother who loves her pastel hats.

Image

A big thank you to Ninjaitis for nominating me for the Leibster Award, an award given to promising blogs with less than 1,000 followers. This is a just-for-fun kind of award, and it helps to promote new blogs. As a recipient of the award, Ninjaitis asked me to answer interview questions. Here they are.

1. What is a movie you could watch over and over? Matrix

2. What is your favorite book genre? (bonus points if you give me a recommendation for a book!) Can I add an “s” to the end of “genre,” to make it plural? Okay, if I had to pick one, I’d say YA, because YA encompasses LOTS of awesome books. HUNGER GAMES is probably my most recent favorite in the world of YA books.

3. Do you have a schedule for blogging or do you update randomly? Randomly, but I try not to go longer than a month without a posting.

4. How do you beat procrastination? I’ll let you know someday.

5. What is one thing in life that you will regret if you don’t try doing it? Reading at least 5% of the books on my ever-growing “to read” list.

6. What is your biggest fear? Not doing good or kind things when I know that I should.

7. If you were granted any wish right now, what would you do with it? I’d wish for world peace. Then, I’d have nothing to do, nobody would.

8. When you go to a theme park, what do you head for first? The roller coaster with the biggest drop and the most loops.

9. Who is your favorite Harry Potter character and why? Mrs. Weasley. She’s warm and maternal…and a witch.

10. What song is stuck in your head right now? Sting – “Don’t Stand so Close to Me”

I was also asked to list 11 random facts about myself. Here they are:

1. I drink at least 1 cup of tea a day.
2. Organizing drawers satisfies me like a gourmet meal.
3. I have a love-hate relationship with French macarons–love to eat them, hate to make them.
4. I cry whenever I watch Olympic ice skating.
5. Travel inspires my imagination more than pretty much any other life activity.
6. I love both cats and dogs, but I would classify myself as a cat person. It’s a texture things. Cats are just so fluffy.
7. In an alternative reality, I’d like to BASE jump from the Freedom Tower.
8. I chew gum like a cow.
9. I’m from the Jersey Shore.
10. I spent a night in a Mercedes in Italy once.
11. I boxed in graduate school.

My Nominations

Part of the fun of this award is that recipients get to nominate other blogs for it. I’ve selected the following blogs for the awards:

thejerseyfarmscribe
Caity’s Readviews
Writeous
MyInnerMG
The Writing Well


Accepting or Declining my Nomination

If I’ve nominated your blog for the Liebster Award, and you don’t accept, then that’s a-okay. Simply ignore my nomination. No response necessary. If you would like to accept the award, then please follow the 8 steps below:

The Official Rules Of The Liebster Award
If you have been nominated for The Liebster Award AND YOU CHOOSE TO ACCEPT IT, write a blog post about the Liebster award in which you:

1. Thank the person who nominated you, and post a link to their blog on your blog.

2. Display the award on your blog — by including it in your post and/or displaying it using a “widget” or a “gadget”. (Note that the best way to do this is to save the image to your own computer and then upload it to your blog post.)

3. Answer 11 questions about yourself, which will be provided to you by the person who nominated you.

4. provide 11 random facts about yourself.

5. Nominate 5 – 11 blogs that you feel deserve the award, who have a less than 1000 followers. (Note that you can always ask the blog owner this since not all blogs display a widget that lets the readers know this information!)

6. Create a new list of questions for the blogger to answer.

7. List these rules in your post (You can copy and paste from here.) Once you have written and published it, you then have to:

8. Inform the people/blogs that you nominated that they have been nominated for the Liebster Award and provide a link for them to your post so that they can learn about it (they might not have ever heard of it!)

Questions for Nominees:

1) What’s you’re favorite city in the world and why?
2) When’s the last time you sang? What song?
3) Name three items in your wallet, purse, or pocket.
4) What’s something you always desired as a child–real or imagined–that you still want?
5) If you could give the future generation one sentence of advice, what would it be?
6) What’s something you never did in high school that you wish you had?
7) What three books do you think everyone should read?
8) What’s one thing you would do if you were invisible for a day?
9) Name a book that you don’t like to admit you’ve never read.
10) Give two alternative first names you’d go by if you had to.
11) If you could say one thing to your favorite teacher, right now, what would you say?

All the Best!

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 3,254 other followers