Here Be Dragons

here-be-dragons

During the summer of 2014, our son’s best friend moved two states away. Speedy, his beloved box turtle of the past three years, was unable to go with him. When he asked if we could foster Speedy until he returned home “or whenever” of course we said yes. It was a turtle. How difficult could it be?

speedy-02
This is Speedy. Yes, we saw a vet about his overbite.

Keeping a box turtle turned out to be incredibly easy. I joined a Facebook group for reptile owners and learned a lot about our new four-legged, tough-shelled friend. He ate his turtle food. We spritzed him with water. He climbed on the turtle-friendly playground we created in his newer, bigger habitat. Everything was going really well.

And Then There Were Two… And Then Three…

Everything was going so well that when the Facebook group presented the opportunity to add a gecko to our menagerie, I jumped at the chance. The next month, we added a second gecko to our growing menagerie.

geronimo-02
Geronimo is a female Giant Day Gecko. She’s bigger than this now and kind of looks like the GEICO gecko. His previous owner was going overseas and had to give him up.
jack-shedding-02
This is Captain Jack. He is a Crested Gecko. Most reptiles like to shed in private but Jack seems to be the exception. He really loves showing off for me. His previous owner went to college and unfortunately the dorm has a no-reptile policy.

This put our number of pets at seven – four dogs and three reptiles. All the humans in the house agreed – we were done. Our home is one step up from a tiny house, and it was full. No matter what animal became available or its circumstances, the answer would be, “Sorry! We’re unable to take in anything at this time.”

Famous Last Words…

So we agreed to take this pair of bearded dragons temporarily. They were in bad shape – as in, I was afraid they wouldn’t make it through the night. Their prior owner left them in the hands of someone who, it turns out, disliked reptiles. In my head I was already calling them Lenny and Squiggy.

lenny-and-squiggy
Lenny and Squiggy are 2-year-old bearded dragons. Their previous owner was unable to take care of them due to extenuating circumstances.

Their habitat (which came with them) was filled with lettuce and what looked like old cat food. The person had kittens who urinated on the screen – and the poor dragons – and the habitat was flea infested.

We added a heat lamp and did some quick research on the best foods to supplement their diet of gut loaded crickets. (Gut loading is a process of enriching the food eaten by live food, like crickets, worms, or mice, so the nutrients get passed on to the bigger animal.)

My husband began making the dragons a medley of diced squash, apples, greens, and other reptile-friendly foods. Within a couple of days they showed signs of improvement.

Because the primary living space in our home has an open floor plan, Where we put their habitat is visible from practically any seat in the living and dining areas. While under our near-constant supervision, we grew rather fond of these new creatures.

Then my husband began referring to them as his dragons. His boys. His buddies. He and our sons gave them nicknames like Cheech and Chong, Beavis and Butthead, Spongebob and Patrick.

Life as Foster Failures

When I mentioned finding them a new home, my husband scoffed. They were already settled in here. A routine had developed. We wouldn’t want to stress them out by moving them again, would we?

And that’s how we ended up with nine pets. We are foster failures – people who agree to provide temporary care for an animal but then end up adopting the animal ourselves.

Now I have to figure out how to work Lenny and Squiggy into my book. Fortunately it’s a cozy mystery, so they’ll fit right in with Harvey Wallbanger the Golden Retriever and Calico the cat.

Do you have pets? Do you work them into your writing projects? I’d love to hear about it in the comments!

3 Ways Introverts Can Interact with Society from Home

The older I get, the more of an introvert I am. If someone were writing my life, some days it would look a lot like this:

the-narrative-voice

Even when things look good on the surface, underneath that top layer labeled, “I’m fine! It’s okay!” it’s really not. I worry too much. Eat too much. Stress too much. Watch too much TV. Play too many video games. Drink too much coffee.

Let’s scratch that last one. There’s no such thing as too much coffee.

Leaving the house sometimes proves to be a debilitating mental challenge. One friend punctuates her invites to me with, “And I understand if you just can’t people today. If that’s the case, then we can do this another time.”

I love her for that.

At the same time, I hate that any of my friends would ever have to say that because of all the junk taking place underneath that top layer. I don’t want to be a burden by showing up. By not showing up, I’m a different kind of burden.

Nobody Wins at Introverting

Introversion in a lot of ways is a lose-lose situation. Once someone remarked to me, “You got what you wanted, though. You got to stay home.”

Introverts don’t always want to stay home. It’s something they need to do. They may have crippling social anxiety. They may lack the “oomph” that makes them want to put on a smile and interact with others in a face-to-face setting. Regardless of the reason, their introverted nature is a serious issue.

Helping Overcome Introverted Tendencies

If you find yourself falling into the trap of not being able to people very well, here are some things that have helped me:

  1. Cut back on your social media use. The more time I spend on social media, the easier it is to stay home. I already talked to all my friends. Therefore there’s no need to meet up with them in person. Right? Wrong. Use a social media blocker to prevent you from visiting the pages except for limited amounts of time, and redirect your internet use to something more productive.
  2. Volunteer. Volunteering doesn’t always mean face-to-face time with people. If you volunteer in a library, then you could wind up working in a small office or re-shelving books. Animal shelters often need volunteers to spend time with the animals. (This is especially fun if you’re Pokemon GO hunting!)
  3. Join an online group to talk to people in real-time. Almost every Friday and Saturday night you can find me in a Google Hangout for Sprints and Spirits, a free online writing community on Facebook. Even though I don’t see these people face-to-face, the video chat is sometimes just what I need for social interaction.

Are you an introvert like me? How do you balance the urge to stay home with the need for social activity? Let’s talk about this in the comments!

Query Letter Do’s and Don’ts

FT 03 submissionsA good query letter should be like a hobbit – short, sweet, and to the point. Even more importantly, it should be professional. Here are some tips you can use for querying both editors and agents.

  1. Use the person’s name in the greeting. Using “Dear Editor” or “Dear Agent” sounds impersonal, like you’re sending the exact same letter out to multiple people at once. If you are sending your book or short story to several editors or agents who allow simultaneous submissions at once, then you should still personalize the query letter. It takes a couple of minutes and is a real attention grabber.
  2. Start with a hook. Now that you’ve grabbed their attention by personalizing the greeting, you need to hook them so they read to the end of the query letter. The hook is essential. If you can’t hook the editor or agent from the start, then you might as well not not send the letter at all.Don’t try to sum your whole book up in a sentence or two. Pick one intriguing thing that will convey the uniqueness of your book – much like a tagline that you’d find on the front cover of a book. Here are some examples:
    – “Hide. Seek. Run.” THE LOST GIRLS by Allison Brennan
    – “A child killer stalks the frozen streets…” COLD GRANITE by Stuart MacBride
    – “Nine Americans and their epic quest for gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics…” THE BOYS ON THE BOAT by Daniel James Brown
  3. Keep your bio brief. This is not the time to share your entire life story. Stick to facts related to your writing career including publishing credits, awards you received, and membership in industry-related organizations.You’ll also want to include any professional qualifications related to the work, such as – I am a dedicated genealogist and researching my family tree was the inspiration behind my cozy mystery, ONE-WAY TICKET TO THE FAMILY REUNION.[Note: That’s not a real book title but now I kind of want to put it on my list of things to write.]

And now for the don’ts. These need less explanation because most are basic common sense.

  • Don’t send work in a genre the agent or editor doesn’t accept. (i.e. Don’t send cozy mysteries to someone who makes it clear they want paranormal romance.)
  • Don’t bad-mouth anyone, anywhere, ever. It gives the impression that anyone is vulnerable to comments you make on-the-fly.
  • Don’t list every other place you submitted your work. It’s okay to leave it at, “This is a simultaneous submision.”
  • Don’t say “fictional novel”. Your genre will tell the editor or agent it’s fictional.
  • Don’t compare your book to an entire list of novels similar to yours. One or two is enough to get the idea across.

If you have an unpublished manuscript collecting dust, then what’s your holdup? Write a query letter and get it out there. Every day you do nothing is another day farther away from holding your published novel in your hands.

3 Tips to Increase Writing Productivity

Every time I sit down to write, it never fails. Something interrupts me. It might be the dog, the ding alerting me to a new email, or the daydreams of other projects I might someday work on in the future. If you’re a writer who is reading this right now, then I know you can relate to distractions interfering with the writing process.

you should be writing

Distractions are detours on the path to becoming a bestselling novelist. They’re like quicksand, dragging you far away from competing your work in progress. Fortunately there are things you can do to combat the daily distractions that interfere with your writing.

Take a Page from the Plotters

You don’t have to be a plotter to produce content like one. Writing in the void without knowing what comes risks producing tens of thousands of words that you’ll end up cutting later. Some authors find this essential to the process. I find it’s word vomit that gives the quicksand of distraction a slightly foul smell.

  • Come up with a tagline for your story that embraces the basic plot. Even if the end of your story changes, the basic plot usually remains the same throughout the book.
  • Replace your traditional outline with a mind map. Write the basic plot in the center of the page. Then use lines (straight, squiggly, or zigzag – your choice!) to connect ideas to the plot. I like to use straight for characters, squiggly for places, and zigzag for events.
  • Fill out a character development page for each one of your main characters. Use Google Images to find people who best resemble the characters. Keep these pages handy as you write to remind you of the details. Middle-grade author Laura Emmons says, “I find that if I know my characters well before I start writing my novel, I’m less likely to develop writer’s block.” She’s right!

Use NaNoWriMo Strategies

As a social media manager, I have to keep up with social media. It’s an essential part of my job. I also need to write however. How do I manage both? I’m a sprinter.

No, I’m not talking about sprinting like Abbey D’agostino and Nikki Hamblin from the Rio Olympics 2016.

Writing sprints are short bursts of time in which you do nothing but write. That’s it. I find it helpful to sprint with a group. (If you’re looking for an online sprinting group, then check out Sprints & Spirits on Facebook. It’s free and the members are awesome.)

Join a Writing Group

My local group, The Mountain Scribes, is awesome. The other members are not only a constantly source of emotional support, but they also challenge me to write outside my comfort zone. I wouldn’t be where I am today without them.

When searching for a local writing group, ask yourself these questions:

  • When does the writing group meet?
  • Where does the writing group meet?
  • Is the writing group gender-specific?
  • Who is in this writing group?
  • What are the goals of the group members?

Members of the Mountain Scribes, for example, share a common goal – getting published. Whether on our own blog or on a bestselling book list, although the scope of our goals differ the end result remains the same. We want our works out there for others to read.

How do you increase your productivity as a writer? I’d love to hear about it in the comments!

 

Life Is Stranger than Fiction

Have you ever heard the old saying, truth is stranger than fiction? If you ever doubt the validity of that statement, then just head over to Facebook.

Authors wear many hats. Mine include writer, beta reader, and most recently social media manager for The Write Services, home of the Instagram for Authors course. This means I spend a lot of time on social media, whether it’s scheduling posts or cruising my newsfeed for interesting content.

Sex Pigs Halt Traffic After Laser Attack on Pokemon Teens

I kid you not, that was the title of the news article Neil Gaiman shared a couple of weeks ago. Apparently a couple of Swedish kids were out playing Pokemon when they ran upon a pig mask-wearing couple. The couple shot lasers at the kids. Later drivers saw the same couple having sex by a waterwheel.

“It can’t get any stranger than this,” I thought, mind reeling as I pondered why anyone might do this.

But Wait There’s More

The PEOPLE ALSO SHARED feature on Facebook gives you an idea of what else is trending among users of the social media giant. The pig mask-wearing couple sounded like something out of the movie Deliverance. As I scrolled down, I felt relieved that West Virginia didn’t hold a monopoly on weird happenings.

people also shared

Then I saw the third item in the list.

Oh well. At least it makes for interesting speculation that may someday show up in my short stories.

I’d love to hear what interesting, true things you’ve found in the news. Let me hear all about it in the comments!

Why I Did Not Share #NakedTrump on Facebook

Last week when those statues of Trump popped up around America, I laughed. If I’m being perfectly honest, I thought it was pretty hysterical.

And then the New York City Parks Department tweeted this response.

nakedtrump

I was in stitches. It’s funny, right?

Actually, when you think about it, it’s not that funny at all.

After several hours of whooping it up at the expense of this statue, my good friend Adrienne Wright posted this to Facebook:

trump shaming

Adrienne makes a very good point. It’s one that was a huge wake up call for me. Was I really so blinded by poking fun at the reality TV celebrity that I’d lost sight of right and wrong?

Yes, I was, and yes, I had.

I went from being a liberal-leaning, feminism-promoting, #IAmWithHer supporter who claims to #FeelTheBern to someone who blatantly advocates #BodyShaming. My laughter over the statue was on the same level as Trump’s thoughtless comments about immigrants and refugees.

Over the next few months, I’ll definitely be more careful about what I share, where I comment, and what I say when I do comment.

Not only does it affect how others see me online, but I have two sons who, despite being old enough to vote, are still easily influenced by their parents. The last thing I want to do is make comments that push them in a direction that I feel is wrong.

So what about you? How did you react when the statue appeared? Do you agree that a statue like this is akin to body shaming or do you feel Trump got what was coming to him?

Writing a First Page an Agent Will Love

literary_agent_conference

When I finish my current novel and begin querying agents, I want them to ask me for the first few chapters – or better yet, the entire manuscript. Either way I’m posed with the same challenge. I have to get them past the first page.

The First Page – What Agents Want to See

  • Start with Activity – The Intern at In the Inbox suggests starting with activity because, “Manuscripts lose the reader’s attention when they start in characters’ heads. Frustration, anger, and apathy are week beginnings.”

    Don’t tell the reader what’s happening. Show them by the activity taking place on that first page. If you feel you have to start with an internal monologue, then maybe it’s time to rethink the starting point of your novel.

  • To Prologue or Not to Prologue – The prologue takes place before your story begins. Sometimes the author puts the prologue in italics to distinguish it from the rest of the novel.

    Although there are some books that use a prologue and are better for it (Orphan Train, Water for Elephants, and The Lovely Bones come to mind), Elmore Leonard suggests avoiding them. He calls them annoying back story and claims the writer can drop the information in wherever they want.

  • Create a Well-Balanced Opening Scene – The opening scene should combine the right amounts of tension, setting, and action to cause the reader to want to turn to Page 2. In a guest post on Jane Friedman’s blogDarcy Patterson, the author of Start your Novel, says:

    The first pages of a novel encapsulate much of the story and are extremely important in establishing setting, character, pace, audience, tone, and voice. First pages give readers a door knob to turn, an opening to the whole story. Editors are sophisticated, critical readers, and they immediately pick up on missteps such as the following.

    Holding back too much information can cause confusion for the person reading your book. Giving too much information is akin to giving someone a spoiler alert to how a movie ends before the previews finish playing.

Now It’s My Turn

Here are the first few paragraphs from my work in progress.

CHAPTER 1

“A funeral home?” Harriet McConnell exclaimed. She paced the length of the galley kitchen in her ranch-style home, a route that took about eight steps in either direction. “Why would my brother die and leave you a funeral home?”

Joe slouched into one of the two chairs on either side of the table in the adjoining dining area with a shrug. He laid his hand on the table’s Formica top and stressed, “I swear, Ma. I dunno why he’d leave me his funeral home.”

“A funeral home,” she repeated. “I know he was single and didn’t have any kids, but I figured he’d leave it to one of his charities. Or maybe your… well, never mind that.”

“Or maybe my what? Wait. He supported charities?” Joe tilted his head. “When did he do that? After Grandma and Grandpa’s funeral? Was that why after they died you told me he was too busy to come to my birthday parties?”

Joe vaguely recalled his uncle’s presence in his early life, but truth be told, until the lawyer’s office called he’d nearly forgotten the man existed. The news of an inheritance surprised Joe as much as it did his mother.

“What’ll you do with it? Oh Joey, you can’t keep it. You know that, right? Just think of all the corpses that passed through the place. And worse things. Oh, Joey.” Harriet punctuated her words with a shudder, avoiding her son’s earlier question. Turning to face him she asked, “You’re not going to keep it, are you?”

What do you think? Without hearing the elevator pitch, does it make you want to know more?

When People Give You Advice – Whether You Want It or Not

writing advice

After my husband retired from his career as a firefighter, it soon became apparent that one of us needed to get out more. We aren’t the kind of couple that enjoys being connected at the hip 24/7. Not even a little bit.

So I bought him some power tools. When he pondered aloud about what he could make with them, I pointed him to Pinterest. Before long we’d started our family’s arts and crafts business – Hammerhead Woodcrafts. We make signs, furniture, and home decor items out of reclaimed materials, like hardwood pallets. There’s an entire movement dedicated to this. It’s kind of a big deal – just look on Pinterest.

Last week we set up at a street festival downtown. It’s an election year which means politicians put themselves in the public eye to shake hands and kiss babies. Our local ones were out in full force. Four years ago I helped with the graphics for a prospective delegate, linking me to most of the county politicians by just a few degrees.

(That reminds me – I have a Bacon number of three. My dad did some construction work for Robert Duvall, who was in the movie Jayne Mansfield’s Car with Kevin Bacon. I also have a Bacon number of three two other ways, through both Sinbad and Raymond Burr, but I won’t bore you with those stories. Pardon the digression, but I just had to share that random bit of trivia.)

During the last half hour of the event, an older guy sauntered up to our booth and looked around at our stuff. After a few minutes, he proceeded to tell us what kind of items we ought to sell and then stalked off.

What the ever loving heck happened there? My husband and I had no clue. We quietly discussed the man’s suggestions then dismissed them as they were both too complicated and required reclaiming materials that were either too expensive or too difficult to acquire.

When Writers Get Unwarranted Advice

Sometimes the writing advice can prove similarly baffling. Random comments and reviews that come out of left field make me wonder if the person ever read anything I’ve written. After all, why would they say that about the work I put blood, sweat, and tears into writing, re-writing, and re-writing again.

When these comments happen, I’d rather whiz toward the second star to the right and straight on til morning. I’m a little past Neverland though, which leaves me with a 3-step process for confronting the comments head-on.

  1. First I take some time, a few hours or even a couple of days, to digest what the person said. I ask trusted friends if I’m overreacting in thinking the advice was out of line.
  2. Be grateful, always. When talking to the person who gives me the advice, I thank them for the time they took to read your work. Regardless of what they said, they actually read something I wrote, which means there’s a chance they had to buy it. Barring that, they acknowledge that I’m a writer, which is an achievement on a whole other level depending on the person.
  3. And now comes the hardest part (for me, anyway); I tell them I welcome the chance to discuss their thoughts and give them a way to contact me – even if it’s just through private messages via my author page on Facebook.

I have to confess. Sometimes I don’t go through with #3. Sometimes I say, “Thank you for letting me know” and go about my business.

Some people come to writers with advice because they genuinely believe that writer is the person to tell a particular story. Some people give advice on a whim. I’m guilty of this one.

That would make a great story!
Inspiration for a new story?
You’re going to put that in your book, right?

Guilty, guilty, guilty – and that’s just in the past week.

Regardless of whether or not you agree with someone’s advice, the person will have more respect for you and be more likely to invest in your future works if you reply with a tone of kindness.

Sometimes Advice Precedes a Bigger Message

The old guy at the street festival? He came back to our booth a few minutes before time to tear down for the night. We treated him with the same kindness we had during his first visit, despite his boisterous suggestions.

This time, instead of giving us more advice that didn’t suit the nature of our business, the man explained how he and his wife had recently adopted a son. This man wanted to get the kid something, but nothing seemed “right” for a boy that age. Beware of the Teenager was too abrasive, and Welcome, Little One was too babyish. The advice he gave described the the type of item he hoped to find on his previous visit.

Working together, we finally found something that would convey the love this dad had for his new son without completely embarrassing the kid. The guy took our business card on his way out after asking if we did custom orders for holiday gifts.

May I be as fortunate with my writing.

Rejection – An Example of What Not to Do

snoopy rejection letter

So there’s this writer named David Benjamin who uses his blog to recap his latest rejections. I didn’t hear about him until he started trending on Twitter for his reflections post-meeting with Jennifer Johnson-Blalock from Liza Dawson Associates.

NOTE: He took the original down but you can find a copy of David Benjamin’s post on this blog.

If his blog post were an elevator pitch, it would read something like this:

Misogynist, ill-prepared, wanna-be writer meets with a no-nonsense, hardworking agent at a conference. After completing the list of “Things You Should Never Do When Pitching to an Agent”, he drones on and on about the unfairness of it all while throwing insults at the agent for good measure.

His plan involved schmoozing the agent by talking about her interests and then presenting her with his material, from his “extensive oeuvre, that matched her deepest literary heart’s desire.”

That’s where his plan went wrong.

When you meet with an agent at a conference, you have ten minutes to make a lasting impression. What this guy did is not the lasting impression you want to make. Don’t waste it talking about things unrelated to your book. If he wanted to touch on the agent’s interests, then he should have related it to the work he was pitching.

Jennifer Johnson-Blalock is a fan of the Gilmore Girls. If I were pitching to her I might use that to segue into my WIP, or work-in-progress.

I see you’re a fan of the Gilmore Girls. Hester, the supporting female lead in my WIP, is a bit like young Lorelai Victoria Gilmore. Instead of showing up at a hotel in Stars Hollow to live in the potting shed behind the Independence Inn, Hester shows up on the steps of a funeral-home-turned-bookstore where she….

By the time I got to the part about the demons, the loaded handgun, and the ex-girlfriend, we’d have a full six minutes left and the agent would be totally captivated. If she wasn’t, then I hope I would use the opportunity to learn something and not create a cringe-worthy experience like this guy.

The moral of this blog post is getting face time with an agent is priceless. Make the most of it. Practice, practice, practice so you don’t waste even a second. They want to hear about your book, but for them to get excited about it, you have to be excited about it.

Speaking of books, I’m heading back to the funeral-home-turned-bookstore to see if the antagonist revealed himself yet. Only finishing the manuscript will tell!

Free Writing Assistance

CatDogWishingRedPen_500w
This is how I imagine Cinnamon, my golden retriever, is when left alone with my work-in-progress.

Sometimes my grammar stinks.

There. I admitted it. No matter how hard I strive for flawless grammar, sometimes I goof. I might confuse which with that, end a sentence in a preposition, or the very worst thing ever – use passive voice.

I know, right? Every time this happens I cringe. Every freaking time.

Why can I spot flaws in other’s writing but miss it in mine? WHY is that?! It drives me nuts!

Writers need thick skin. In a perfect world, writers would sport the skin of a rhinoceros or crocodile. In reality, writers sport the skin of a Giant Day Gecko, fragile and easily torn.

When I first co-founded The Mountain Scribes, a writing group serving West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle, I had a bad habit of submitting my first draft for critique from other members.

Boy was that a rotten idea! I quickly learned to read through and fix as many mistakes as I could before submitting to the group.

Thankfully friends like author Laura Emmons, who I met through my local NaNoWriMo group, suggested tools that helped them polish up their literary works. Here are my top three free, cloud-based editors, and best of all, they’re free!

  1. Hemingway App – The Hemingway Editor not only polishes up your writing, but it also allows you to format the text, import text from MS Word files, and export it as HTML right to your blog.
  2. After the Deadline – This was the first service I used. It’s also cloud-based but unlike the other two apps listed here, it only offers the bare basics. The one thing it does better than the others, in my humblest opinion, is find passive voice. It may hate passive voice more than I do.
  3. ProWritingAid – While you can get a premium membership, the free service reviews up to 3k words at a time, giving you 19 different reports in return. The reports range from diction checks to sticky sentences to overused words and a lot more.

Have you ever used these apps? Are there any in this list you haven’t used? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section!