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The Organized Writer

I’ve resorted to spreadsheets!

I’m cringing at the idea of this. Not because I don’t plan out my novels, because I do, but it’s a loose informal thing that changes often. The spreadsheet is supposed to help me organize my thoughts. I hope.

This summer was supposed to be a focused effort on finishing my MS. And I did–sort of. I finished it, I read it, I revised (majorly), wrote some more, and now at the end of summer, I’ve decided on some pretty major changes. Which means I’m not done. Now, I’m disappointed and trying not to beat myself up over it. Hence, the spreadsheet.

If you’re curious, you can find the one I’m using here. Thee are a few of them on this site, so take a look!

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Shelfie Obsession

Simply put, a “Shelfie” is a picture of your bookshelf. I’ve seen it on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook, and now I am jumping in with my own Shelfie, but with a slight twist. My book shelf is an ever-changing reflection of my personality. I go to the library, find five or more books I want to read and then they are shelved until I get to them. I have weeks where the only thing I want to read are about teens with emotional drama and weeks where love conquers all. Or weeks where I want to be scared out of my wits or transported to as many dystopian societies ever written. Do the books a person reads tell something about them? Most definitely. So, here’s a little peak inside my head with this first Shelfie shot.

Oh, and because this is such a great way for book recommendations, show me your Shelfies too!

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Choosing a Setting

 

A few weekends ago, my family and I went on a little trip. It wasn’t far, maybe an hour or two away. I wasn’t expecting a whole lot because we go on these excursions pretty regularly. It was for a BMX competition, which I had no idea was even a thing until my husband enlightened me. Anyway, it’s basically a time where we sit in the dirt and watch boys, girls, men, and women race around a track on bmx bikes. And there’s a lot of downtime between their races–sometimes over an hour. In this time, I read, I write, and I edit. This time though, I wanted to do something a little different. You see, we were near a town I visited quite a bit when I was a kid and I remembered liking it. So, I scooped up my daughter and her and I went on a side trip in between races. My kids are quite adventurous, so the mention of it got her really excited.

We got in the car, turned up the radio, and sang our way down a two-lane highway covered in trees and run-down farmhouses. I parked and we did the rest on foot. Let me just say, there are places and then there are PLACES. PLACES are characters. They live, they breathe, they exist in a unique way that just feels different somehow. We found a park where a bunch of long-hair-dreaded teens played instruments and kids dipped their feet in the fountains. I took pictures and my daughter played. And then we walked. We found a post office with a hidden entrance which led up to a bell tower. We found a farmer’s market where local gypsies sang and sold trinkets. We bought fruit and breads and then walked some more. None of the stores and restaurants were chain establishments. They were all mom-and-pop type places with character and individual flare.

In that hour, I felt like I had found a true gem and I wanted to return the next day. The next time, the rest of my family came too. And my husband didn’t like it.

He couldn’t put his finger on it. He said the whole place made him uncomfortable. Well, I couldn’t let it go. I started researching this small town with all of its charms and found something more. This town had history. I love histories–especially old ones. As it turns out, there are a number of ghost stories that are popular in some of the exact places we visited.

My wheels were turning! I could do something with this. And I am. This is how I found the setting for HBY–my current young adult WIP.

It’s A Sad, Sad World

Last night I attended my school’s annual film festival. On this night, we (the audience) got to watch all of the short films from students in our district. There were about ten of them, ranging anywhere between 30 seconds and 30 minutes. The acting was awesome, the camera angles were creative and unique…but, all of the storylines ran the same depressing path. Maybe it was a fluke. But, what if it’s not? What if this is what teenagers are into right now?

Now, I’m always up for a good cry. I just read “If I Stay” by Gayle Forman and I loved it. I loved the relationships, the intensity of losing someone you love, and I loved that it made me cry. But last night was different.

Last night’s movies were all about suicide and feeling alone, about the pressures of being in high school, not having friends, and trying to figure out how you blend into the world you’re creating. I wonder if this is the future for storytelling.

What teaching has taught me

I’m a teacher. Sounds like some sort of weird admission. Yes, that’s right. I’m a teacher. And guess what, I actually love my job. There’s not a lot of people that can say that, but it’s true. Now, believe me when I say it’s not all rainbows. It’s most definitely not. I have tough days and tougher weeks and even tougher students that like to challenge me until I don’t think I can take it anymore.

Last week, I got this email from a mom and she proceeded to tell me how her son is intimidated by me because I made this comment: “People like you never make it in life.”

I sound like an awful human being! First, I never said anything like that. Second, there’s a whole lot of backstory that led to this. This boy has missed roughly one months worth of classes BEFORE any of this ever happened, and when he does show up he’s at least 30 minutes late. On this particular day, he came in 30 minutes late and then told me that he needed to go somewhere else. He eventually came in around an hour later with only 20 minutes left of class. That’s when he decided that he needed to know what he missed while he was gone. I shook my head and said, “I’m worried about your future.”

Okay, I know what some of you may be thinking. “HOW DARE YOU SAY THAT TO A KID?” “YOU’RE A TEACHER, YOU’RE SUPPOSED TO ENCOURAGE!”

And my answer to you: This kid is 18 years old. Someone needs to tell him to figure it out. I don’t believe he’s intimidated by me. I think it’s an excuse he’s giving his mom to get out of coming to school. And mom’s being mom’s, believe it. I have kids too, and I know I have a hard time hearing anything negative about my kid.

So what have I learned from all of this. I’ve learned that sometimes you have to ruffle a few feathers to get through. That’s what I’ve learned from this one kid. But from countless others, I’ve learned what it’s like to be different, to be gay, to be depressed, to have anxiety, to feel pressure, to be on drugs, to have a baby at 15, to get accepted into your dream school, to find out you’re not going to have a home when you graduate, to go to jail, to have parents who go to jail…the list is endless. It’s also given me first hand experience for the characters I like to create!

For those of you considering teaching, it’s rewarding and it’s challenging and it’s awesome.

Are Word Counts a Blessing or a Curse?

Word counts seem to be one of those things that very few writers understand. They look at the Twilight books and the Harry Potter series and think that a 2-3 inch book is acceptable. Well, the Twilight book was a huge exception to the rule, but the first Harry Potter book was right around 80k–it was, I promise!
Here’s the thing, though. You can’t count on being the next exception. It’s a risk for any publisher to take on a book that is too costly to produce. As a new author, don’t you want the best possible chances? Of course you do! So, here are the acceptable ranges for different genres:

Adult novels: commercial and literary–80-90,000 is a safe range. Give or take 10,000 words on either end is probably okay, but more than that is risky.
*Chick lit can go as low as 70,000

Sci-fi and Fantasy–100-115,000 is good for this genre.

Middle grade: 20-55,000

Young Adult: 55-70,000.You can go a little higher if you are writing sci-fi or fantasy, but be careful not to go too high.

Again, all of these word counts are guidelines and there are always exceptions to the rules. Some agents say not to pay attention to word count and to focus on your story and pacing. But most get so many queries a day, they are looking for reasons to dismiss your manuscript. Your goal is to not give them any.

This information is readily available all over the web. You could find it on the different literary agent blogs too. So, why do so many people struggle with keeping their words within range?
When I first started writing, I struggled to keep my words within a certain range. At one point, my WIP bloomed well past 100k, which is way too high for a debut young adult novel. If you go to any of the writing forums, you’ll find that so many writers ignore the basic guidelines too. I often see numbers skyrocketing at a 150k. I’ve even beta read for a few of these bloated manuscripts. And what do I see?
Word vomit. Huge word vomit. Overused adverbs, weak verbs, lots of purple prose. Get rid of it people. You don’t need it. And your readers don’t want it either.

On Writing Horror…do characters matter?

I grew up on reading horror novels by authors like Stephen King, Dean Koontz, and a few others that wrote one scary as hell novel and then disappeared forever. I remember feeling scared and shaken enough to make sure the windows were locked and the area under my bed was clear. I remember thinking about these stories the next day and hoping IT could never happen to me or in my town. It’s funny how some stories stick with you and some don’t. Why is that? Is it the story itself? Is it the characters?

I’ve read three novels in the last couple of weeks that claim to part of the horror genre (I’ll talk about these three books in another post). None of them were particularly memorable. All were written well. They had the right amount of eeriness, the plot moved forward at a heart-pounding pace, and in some instances I felt scared. A little bit. What did they lack? Characters. Oh, they were in there all right, but they felt so flat and one-dimensional that I forgot about them the moment I stopped reading and I never really cared if they lived or died. The stakes change a little when you don’t care what happens.

You see, as a writer, I read books for entertainment and to learn from. Lately, I’ve been choosing books to learn a little something. Unfortunately, I’m learning that horror novels don’t care about character development, and they should.

Now, I can’t say that ALL horror novels fail at this, they obviously don’t, but the three I read hoping to educate myself in the genre, sure did.

New Year, New You

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The decisions I have made this year (with the plan to actually meet these goals).

1. I will write for at least ONE hour. Every. Single. Day.
2. I will finish my manuscript. Finally.
3. I will not take it personally when I am rejected by an agent.
4. I will start taking pictures again and I will post one every day to Instagram. (Find me at jess.becker)
5. I will flex my creative muscles in new ways.
6. I will learn a new language.
7. I will travel to a new place.
8. I will stop beating myself up for not being able to do everything.

Okay, now I’m off to work on #1. What are your goals?

Planned Creativity

Being creative is hard work. It takes time and motivation. Did I mention how much time it takes? Seriously, I never really thought about how difficult it is when you are so out of practice. Sometimes I need to stare off into space for a bit just to get started. And there’s nothing worse than staring at a white screen/paper/whatever with nothing to put on it. It’s been months since I’ve drawn, photographed, or written anything. All my creative energy is getting sucked out by the classes I teach. By the time I get home, I’m either drained or all my time is accounted for by my kids. Sometime around 8:30 I plop myself in front of the computer and expect a miracle to happen. I’m still waiting for the miracle to happen…

But I have some plans up my sleeve. I’ve decided that maybe I need to embrace the fact that I teach photography and have all these resources at my disposal that I never really take advantage of. And, I’ve been super into creepy horror books/TV/movies. Hence, a creepy photo series that I really want to attempt and maybe even a few short stories that accompany them.

Anyways, the point is that none of this will happen without some serious planning on my part. This goes back to my Filling the Well post. I got myself a new notebook (I sort of think I like the new notebook part of the planning the most), some pens and highlighters, and a new Pinterest board. I really wish I would have started this before my Winter vacation started, so I could actually see my progress. Then, I am (I really will this time) setting aside two hours every other day that are mine. In those two hours, I can either write, take pictures, or blog. I can’t search the internet, read email, or get stuck on Pinterest boards–that’s all couch time when I’m too tired to do much else. I’m also setting a goal. In two weeks, I will post my first photos AND a short story. Ok, you all get to hold me to it!

What do you want to do? Make a plan. Set a schedule. Tell us about it in the comments and we’ll hold you to it too.

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