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You’ve Been Activated!

This week, I’m taking a break from talking about writing and am talking about reading. The book commercials I do for my students seem to be successful, so I thought I’d share one or two here.

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You. Guys. Look. At. This. Overview.

Tyler Bennett trusts no one. Just another foster kid bounced from home to home, he’s learned that lesson the hard way. Cue world’s tiniest violin. But when strange things start happening—waking up with bloody knuckles and no memory of the night before or the burner phone he can’t let out of his sight—Tyler starts to wonder if he can even trust himself.

Even stranger, the girl he’s falling for has a burner phone just like his. Finding out what’s really happening only leads to more questions…questions that could get them both killed. It’s not like someone’s kidnapping teens lost in the system and brainwashing them to be assassins or anything, right? And what happens to rogue assets who defy control?

In a race against the clock, they’ll have to uncover the truth behind Project Pandora and take it down—before they’re reactivated. Good thing the program spent millions training them to kick ass…

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And if you’d like a visual of Aden Polydoros’ mesmerizing world, check out the book trailer here.

Here’s my take…

This story has lots of action, intense amounts of intrigue, and ALL the Greek Mythology references you could ever want. The characters aren’t particularly likeable at first, but as I was dragged into their tortured psyches, I ended up rooting for them anyway. Since there are four points-of-view, you can deliciously suffer with each of the characters equally. (Two adverbs in one sentence? See what this book is doing to me?)

And, like everyone else, I am jumping on #TeamHades. I can’t decide if I want to hug him or have him arrested. Also, I’d ask for a poster of him to hang in my classroom, except I don’t think anyone would ever get any work done. Yes, he’s THAT gorgeous.

Polydoros is exceptional at characterization and the slow burn, not to mention cliff hangers. Like, WHERE IS THE NEXT ONE K THANKS.

About the Author:

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Aden Polydoros grew up in Long Grove, Illinois, the youngest of three children. Aden’s family moved to Arizona when he was in second grade. As a kid, he spent much of his time exploring the desert near his home. When he wasn’t searching for snakes and lizards, he was raiding the bookshelves of the local library. As a teenager, Aden decided that he wanted to be a writer. He spent his free time writing short stories. He was encouraged by his English teacher to try his hand at writing a novel, which inspired him to begin PROJECT PANDORA. The YA thriller is set for publication with Entangled Publishing in Summer of 2017. He is represented by Mallory Brown of Triada US.

Website | Twitter | Facebook | Goodreads

Thanks to Entangled Teen and NetGalley for making this book available! You can find the book at the following:

Amazon | Amazon.com.au | Amazon.co.uk | Amazon.ca | B&N | iBooks | Kobo | Entangled

The Importance of the First Page

Hey Everyone! If the picture above didn’t give it away, it’s time for this month’s #AuthorToolBoxBlogHop, created by the lovely Raimey Gallant. Hopefully as you check out the different posts here, you can find little nuggets of wisdom to help you improve your writing skills. Or maybe just find one or two cool GIFs.

Today’s post is going to be what I’ve learned about that all-important first page of your manuscript and everything it’s supposed to do. I was going to call this post Trapped In the Never Ending Hell of Self Doubt and Revision Hell, which should give you a little indication of how tricky getting the first page right can be. Unfortunately, the original title didn’t really flow, so I went for a more simple approach.

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Actually, it only feels that way until you figure out the basics. Once you have those down, you can spend your revision tears on other fun things like filler words and passive voice… so let’s get started, shall we?

In revising my own novel, I must have rewritten my first page a million times. My first draft had my character in a car pulling up to her new home, hating her forced circumstances and dreading her new life.

This is not good. I learned this is a cliche opening.

Then I moved the start point to where she was in her new room trying to make sense of her new place. Better, but editors and critique partners told me my start was still cliche. Why? Because it was the wrong place to start the narrative. No action, too much thinking.

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There’s an entire list of cliche opening pages. With the help of a Writer’s Digest article, I’ve put together a list:

  1. Character is waking up.
  2. Character has been pulled out of their ordinary world and is driving/parking/walking to new one.
  3. Starts in first period or as bell rings (This is obviously more YA).
  4. A tour of who’s who in the story. Could be household or lunch room assignments.
  5. Character is sitting around thinking about all their problems.
  6. Looking at self in the mirror. (Please never do this. Even on page 100.)
  7. Being the new kid.
  8. Having to do something/go somewhere/be someone they don’t want to be for the summer.
  9. Newly orphaned and placed in any of the above situations.
  10. Being sorted/chosen for dystopian world the main character will eventually destroy/make better/accidentally help another creepy power guy gain control.

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So what CAN first pages do?

Last week, to prepare for this post, I read about thirty different first pages. Most of them, admittedly, were in the YA category, but I chose a few adult novels as well as a few written by the Big Names. If a book was part of a series, I only looked at the first one because subsequent stories can sometimes bend the rules.

I looked at things like character name, cliche openings, voice, stakes, action, setting and dialogue. Very few novels gave the main character’s name or described him or her right away. More of them described the setting, but not always. Mostly there were hints that would ground the reader into some sort of placement, but rarely was the world elaborately built. Typically, the main character either acted or reacted to something, but none of them had both action and reaction. In every instance, it was one or the other.

A few novels did start with a cliche, but they were written by rock star authors who have built their brand and established their writing chops, so they can basically do whatever they want now.

So what did they all have on their first page?

Stakes.

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Every novel I looked at presented what the main character would be up against throughout the entire story arc. Some authors were clever about it. They alluded to the larger stakes by setting up a smaller version of the Big Stakes for the character to overcome. But most authors jumped right in and let the readers know what sort of roller coaster ride they were in for.

The one other thing every novel had was voice. What is voice exactly, you ask? This is the verbiage and sound that creates your character’s specific dialect. No, this doesn’t mean you need to give your antagonist an over the top, cheesy British accent. Voice just means the reader can tell who’s talking or thinking. Voice is the “feel” of your story.

I polled quite a few editors and #PitchWars mentors, and every one of them said voice was the number one thing they looked for in a manuscript.

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Now that I’ve said all of this, here’s the rub. Only you know how your story should start, and only you can make that final call. I resisted changing mine for a long time. If you are getting advice to rework your opening, take a poll and see if the advice is coming from just one finicky person or it seems to be the general consensus among all your betas and CPS. If more than one person is saying the same thing, it may be worth considering.

The worst thing that can happen? You get a stronger manuscript or you feel more confident about how you’ve already opened your story. And you won’t be saying this:

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Pimpin’ That Bio

I know. I used pimpin’ in the title. The teacher in me has already assigned detention. But the author in me is like fa sho fa sho.

It’s that time of year where aspiring authors who are taking part in PitchWars get to share details about themselves and the book they’ve been crying over, erm, working on.  You can find more of these fab authors here on Lana Pattinson’s blog.

And be forewarned. PitchWars peeps LOVE GIFs. Seriously, it’s practically an art form.

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So let’s move on, shall we?

Part One: All About the Book

A long, long time ago, this YA book started as a story about what would happen to a shy girl if her BFF moved away (based on  my daughter and her best friend, and pretty sure there’s a MG plot in there, still). And while it’s kept the very basic premise, this story has evolved into what happens when girls don’t have the vocabulary or the self-confidence to take care of themselves when things like dealing with boys, parents, and social expectations get tricky. Take a look at the aesthetic for Within and Without:

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Yes, it looks country, but it’s Northern California country, where food is grown and wine is made, but Target and the mall is, like, 20 minutes away.

Within and Without is a YA contemporary that shows girls what can happen when they choose themselves. Granted, Wren doesn’t fire an arrow into any roasted pig’s mouths, but she can be just as bad ass as Katniss. Once she figures out how, anyway…

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And while there isn’t a cool Roman/13 American colonies thing happening, I did manage to work in more than a few Great Gatsby allusions for all you literary fans out there…

Here’s the pitch-in-progress:

Sixteen-year-old Wren believes her bulimia helped attract her long-time crush. But when he pushes her into a physical relationship she’s not ready for, she must decide if the illusion of love is worth her health.

Part Two: A Bit About Me

My parents tell me I am an only child, but I’m pretty sure my siblings live in books. From the time I read The Monster at the End of This Book until the binding gave way to the hundreds of Danielle Steele romances I read in high school to the time I laid (that’s the right tense, right?) in the middle of the deserted, midnight streets of my college-town, contemplating the way Anne Rice uses “vermillion” in her Interview with a Vampire Series with my weirdest and closest friend, I knew I belonged where the stories lived.

I tried being “normal,” whatever that is, by working at a bank. I did pretty well, managing to promote to vice-president and the private bank in a short time. I managed hundreds of millions of dollars in assets for my clients.

But I wasn’t happy.

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Then a bunch of things happened. The housing market tanked. My daughter started having seizures (This is the basis of my next WIP). I was spending more time with her than making my sales goals- DUH. I would help out in her class as “room mom,” and her teacher-at-the-time kept telling me I should be a teacher.

Truthfully, I always wanted to be one. Even had the old school desk I’d sit my stuffed animals in when I was young and “teach” them about spelling and grammar.

#nerd.

The idea embedded itself in my psyche and I eventually went back to school to get a degree and started teaching English. Ten years later, not only do I have a BS in Business Administration, but I also have a BA and MA in English. I’m also working through a PhD program of Mythological Studies with an emphasis in Depth Psychology. Basically, that’s a lot of words to say I LOVE WORDS and the stories they make.

And now I want to create my own written pictures so the world can see a little of what I see in it. And how beautiful it can be.

When I was finishing my master’s degree, I had to write a ten-page paper once a month for ten months, not to mention all the extra written assignments in the program. And then there was the 37-page annotated bibliography and 40-page master’s thesis I completed in three months. I say this to show I’m not afraid of work, and I can do “butt-in-chair” very well.

Fun… no, interesting story: my last master’s class was ENG 666 (I KNOW!), Silent Film as Literature. My instructor, retired from NYU and teaching part-time, returned my first assignment claiming it was un-gradeable because I had no idea how to write. I took a day cursing him and his cows, but then returned to DO THE WORK. I ended up with a 96.7% in the class (An A- because he required a 97% to get an A).

This shows I’m not afraid of criticism and can “Rise Up” when needed. (Insert Hamilton because #WERK).

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Also, I’ve recently managed 10k words on my new project in two and a half days. My arms and shoulders may be sore, but like Hamilton, I write like I’m running out of time…

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Part Three: All the Extras

I have two amazing kids. My daughter, mentioned above, is now 20 and has survived a TBI at birth, epilepsy, brain surgery and subsequent partial paralysis, and now migraines. She managed to graduate high school ON TIME, and now works proudly at TJ Maxx. She’s recently been given a raise and a chance to work the registers.

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My son is 18 and just graduated high school. He is on his way to college to study music production, although he’s been told multiple times he should be acting or a model. Seriously, his sense of humor just isn’t fair.

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Also, I can’t leave out my daughter’s semi-retired service dog. Her name is Lady, and she is just as weird as her girl.

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She’s the one on the left…(And just for the record, she prefers Pluto to Goofy.)

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Part Four: Okay, So…

I have loved the way the 26 characters of the English alphabet can be rearranged to connote emotion and love and bittersweetness since I could listen to stories. I’m so grateful for the opportunity to contribute to the way people see and feel things.

I’m hoping to write more stories and make people feel all of the feels as they read them.

More than anything, I’m SUPER grateful to the PitchWars community for making me feel welcome and that my stories are relevant.

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Please leave a comment on why you write or read. And feel free to share!

A Dog Called Ego

I remember the moment I found out I wasn’t a good writer.

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Like most introverted masochists, I’d always wanted to be able to say I’d written a novel. It couldn’t be that hard, right? People have been doing it for a few centuries now. Lots of people. Like childbirth. So one Halloween, I’d eaten the last of the good candy, turned out the porch light and signed up for NaNoWriMo. If you’re not sure what that is, click here.

Two months later, I’d written most of a novel. For the record, I did make the 50,000 word goal to “win,” but as I wrote, I figured out my book was going to need to be a tad longer. I tinkered with it for another six months or so and came across a tiny little contest called PitchWars. You may have heard of it.

As the contest burst into full bloom, I began reading blogs the mentors were kind enough to write for beginners like me. I learned cool things like WIP meant work-in-progress and proper dialogue tags are pretty important. What I never expected to learn was that my writing kind of sucked. Like a Hoover.

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I had two choices. I could scoff in the critics’ faces (a favorite pastime of introverted masochists, believe it or not) or I could listen to what they had to say. There was just one problem. Actually three:

  1. No one else knew my work like I did.
  2. I knew what I meant. They just weren’t reading closely enough.
  3. If I could explain…

The thing is, that wasn’t really me talking. It was my ego. You know, that part of the brain that’s responsible for a person’s take on reality and measure of self-importance.  Once I realized my ego had gone into super-competitive-drive, I could try to distract it with shiny objects and let the truth of the matter marinate until I learned a thing or two.

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But how do you that? How do you quiet the ego, especially if you’re fresh out of shiny objects? Lucky for you, I consulted the experts. I conducted a massive research project and compiled lists of data…

Okay, I asked a few editors and writers on Twitter and in Top Secret Writing Groups on Facebook about their experiences with dealing with criticism, and this is what they had to say:

Editor, Jeni Chapelle, says there’s a difference between a writer who doesn’t know how to receive feedback and one that refuses to hear it. She says, “I recognize it as a sign of a new writer, both in their ability to set aside their personal feelings about their work and in understanding how to approach revisions based on feedback. These are the first of many skills not solely about writing that every author must learn on the road to publication. If you’re lucky, feedback from a critique partner, beta reader, or editor is only the first in a long line of opinions you’ll hear about your work, from agents, various editors at your publisher, and reviewers. Not all of these will be kind or even constructive. Even if you are open to feedback in your day job or other areas of your life, you may have to learn again with your writing.”

So that’s good news! Getting good at receiving criticism can be learned as a skill.

Editor, Christine Stewart, says ego has no place in receiving feedback because “it’s impossible to work with writers who come to conferences or book an editor in order to be validated, rather than to learn. That writer can’t be helped.”

As an editor with industry experience, it’s literally an editor’s job to make sure your book will do well in the current market. If that dog of an ego doesn’t allow hearing the tough stuff, maybe it’s time to consider self-publishing. Which is cool, but…

As Rachel says, we’ve all seen critical comments of books on Twitter, Goodreads and Amazon. Wouldn’t you rather see those comments before the book is published and living out In the Wild?

Editor, Jami Nord, says to ask for clarification on what the critic is getting at. If something doesn’t work for you, there’s always another way to solve the underlying issue.

In fact, everyone who responded said similar things. Be open-minded. If one person offers criticism, trust your reaction. But, if multiple people are saying the same thing, it may be worth looking deeper into the issues. Sit on the critique for a few days and see what comes of it. (A personal favorite.) Sometimes initial reactions aren’t our true thoughts, but ones conjured to prevent pain. Once that passes, it’s easier to see the truth.

Have you ever seen the Seven Stages of Editing Grief? (Thanks, Michelle, for reminding me about them!) They look like this:

  1. Denial – “That editor doesn’t know what she’s talking about.  My manuscript was fine ’til she got hold of it.”
  2. Pain & Guilt – “I can’t believe this is such a mess.  If only I used that word there, I wouldn’t be stung by that stupid red pen.”
  3. Anger – “What the *%$& does that editor think she’s doing?  Does she even know how to write?”
  4. Depression – “Why did the publisher ever send me a contract?  I should’ve been a banker.”
  5. Acquiescence – “Well, maybe I should look at this and see what she has to say.  I mean, she’s supposed to fix things, right?  How bad can it be?”
  6. Reconstruction – “Hey, this is fairly decent, in fact some of these changes make the story stand out a little better than before.”
  7. Hope – “Wow, this is pretty cool.  I wonder what else I can fix to make it more compelling?!”

Bottom line: Writers pour their hearts and souls into the words bleeding on to the page. It hurts when someone says your blood isn’t arranged well enough to make a pretty picture. The good news is, however, that once the words are there, so is the picture. It just may take a little rearranging to make it sparkle. Like a good contour palette.

If you’re into that sort of thing.

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How Twitter Made Me a Better Writer, an #AuthorToolBox Special Edition

I know. It sounds weird. But hear me out.

Twitter is a ginormous place with many sub-Twitters fit for just about every walk of life. Imagine a universe filled with many galaxies populated with their own solar systems, planetary delights, and many, many moons. If you look closely at that weird little collection of planets just to the left of that burning mass of gasses, that purple one with dragons and teenage heroines saving their broken societies is the Twitter I know and love.

 space stars galaxy universe space gif GIFWriter Twitter.

A magical place filled with generous writers who willingly share their knowledge of the writing craft. There are heartbreaking stories of rejection letters, celebratory successes of finding representation, and even well-timed threads on proper manuscript formatting. Don’t quote me, but I’m pretty sure there have been some pretty gruesome GIF wars over the Oxford comma, too. The best part is, to be a part of this world, you just have to follow one of the hashtags. No red or blue pill needed.

The first one I found was #amwriting. Then #amediting. Certainly #amcrying came shortly after. Because editing.

But I digress.

Then, THEN, I discovered #PitchWars, a contest that pairs writers who have completed and polished a manuscript to the best of their ability with a writer or editor. Together they fine-tune all the words and make them shiny for agents to peruse and make requests.

And that’s not the best part!

The cherry on the contest sundae is all the learnin’ and socializin’ done on the hashtag before the picks are made. I met my amazing critique partner, Keli Vice, through PitchWars. My writing has never been better. She sees things my eyes glaze right over! (In fact, I should’ve probably sent her this post before I published it.) Guys, these writers bend over backward to share all the ways to becoming better at the craft. And all we have to do is listen. Well, and apply. But they make it easy!

For example, Jami Nord has put together straightforward and reasonable advice that covers everything from conceptualizing plot and points of view to polishing word choice. I have never seen anyone work harder at making writing skills more accessible to anybody who would listen. The amount of blogging and individual feedback given during #PitchMadness, another writing contest, would’ve put mere mortals out of commission for good. Jami made it look effortless.

Michelle Hazen offers writerly motivation as well as advice on how to write steamy sex scenes. And then some! Side note: I employed Michelle’s editing services on my last project, and she showed me how to fix pacing, dialogue tags, overused tropes, and more. You know, minor stuff. Ahem. The best part is she made me feel like I didn’t suck as a writer and maybe, if I worked a little harder, could actually make something of my book.

Another priceless site I learned about from Writer Twitter is #MSWL. This is where agents and editors post their submission wish lists. You can also find exact directions on how to submit all your pretty words to them in the manner they prefer. (Trust me, follow directions here.) Even better, #MSWL has launched Manuscript Academy, classes and workshops designed to get you up close and personal with industry professionals in a risk-free manner. Completely worth the investment.

There are so many good and talented writers to learn from, agented, published, or not. Editors, too. Other hashtags to follow are #ontheporch and #RevPit. You’ll meet plenty of people that will be happy to critique your query or even tell you what a query is, if need be. We all start somewhere!

If you have any other recommendations or referrals, please add them in the comment section. Like the writing community always says, there’s always room for more books! To read more from other writers participating in the #AuthorToolboxBlogHop, click here.

 

5 Things Hamilton Taught Me About Story-Telling

Lin Manuel Miranda’s Broadway production of Hamilton did what few plays have; it broke the barriers between theatre and mainstream entertainment. Everyone is talking about it. Celebrities have collaborated together to make a mixed-tape based on it. 60 Minutes did a behind-the-scenes segment. Twice. Even my 15 and 16 year-old students are listening to the soundtrack. In fact, one student asked me if I would play the rap battle songs so she could study for a history quiz.

Well done, Mr. Miranda.

Needless to say, I had to listen. Once I did, I couldn’t stop. The story is compelling and the characters are complex. And even though the plot is about America’s beginning, it couldn’t feel more relevant to today. All this got me thinking about how Miranda told the story. And as Alexander said of himself about his desire to participate in the revolution, “Enter me, he said in parentheses.” My brain went into overdrive, and I analyzed the structure of the story. If you don’t mind spoilers, here are five things I learned about making a story more compelling:

Tell the story from a unique angle.

The play is called Hamilton, so it seems safe to assume that the play would be about Alexander Hamilton. And it is. Except he doesn’t tell his own story. The main narrator is Aaron Burr, Hamilton’s long time nemesis.

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Think about it, though. If Hamilton told his own story, how interesting would it be. Someone way smarter than me once said that we understand other people by their actions and ourselves through intentions. If Hamilton had told his own story, every decision he made would be validated by his intentions and, therefore, would have little conflict that didn’t come off as whiny.

By using Burr as the narrator, Miranda creates immediate conflict. The audience gets a richer story and has a greater interest in following it to the end.

So, how can you as a writer implement this?

No, you don’t have to use your antagonist, villain , or otherwise evil dude as your baseline. But it is important to remember that stories need fresh perspectives. If you’re story is in first person POV, ask yourself who has the most to lose in your story, and put them at the mercy of the narrator. If you’re using third person, what new take can you employ to show the raw sides of your characters?

Even minor characters should have stakes.

Eliza

I love quoting people smarter than me, so here’s another one for you: Every character is the hero of their own story. Angelica is Hamilton’s sister-in-law and is responsible for introducing her sister, Eliza, to him. As a result, Hamilton marries Eliza, so Angelica is important as she helps progress the plot. But that’s not what makes her interesting.

Angelica could easily have been shuffled off stage after her wedding toast to the happy couple. But then Hamilton would be a less interesting character. You see, Angelica was in love with him, but she knew it would be imprudent to marry him. As the oldest out of only girls, it was her job to find a husband that would keep her rich…erm, happy. Since Hamilton was an upstart at the time, she politely “gave” him to Eliza. And although Hamilton loves his wife, he alludes to yearning for Angelica when he gets into tough spots and is at his weakest. With this subplot, Angelica adds depth to Hamilton’s character while filling out her own.

If you have characters that feel underdeveloped, try getting to know them apart from how they interact with your protagonist. I like to have my characters clean out their closets, garage, purses, backpacks, etc. Then I spy on what they find, what they decide to keep and throw away and why they make those decisions. Then I bring that information back to their dealing with the protagonist. Most of the time, the clean out session information doesn’t directly make it into the story, but just knowing about it allows me to create more depth in them that makes it onto the page.

Foreshadowing done right creates all the feels.

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Warning-Tissues people!

One of the songs in the play is called 10 Duel Commandments. In the song, the cast sings about the rules of engagement when someone insults another person. If an apology is not made or the offended cannot be satisfied in any way, a shooting duel is required to set things right. In the first third of the play, Hamilton and crew decide George Washington’s name is being unfairly dragged through the antebellum mud, so they conduct a duel on his behalf. The accused is wounded, but seems able to recover.

In the second third of the play, Phillip, Hamilton’s son, is likewise offended by a man spouting insults about his father. He challenges the loud-mouth to a duel and then consults his father on how to proceed. Hamilton councils his son to shoot into the air if no agreement can be reached. He proclaims if the other man is a gentleman, he will do the same. He didn’t, and Phillip ultimately dies of an infected wound.

This isn’t the worst!

Near the end of the play, Aaron Burr has had about enough of Hamilton for a multitude of complicated reasons, and they agree to a duel. If you are paying attention, you see the writing on the wall for Hamilton, even if you’ve never cracked a history book. Because Miranda’s use of foreshadowing tells us everything we need to know.

So how does this help you?

Once you’ve written your story, go back through your draft and decide how you can drop elusive hints that your readers will likely take for granted when they first encounter them but will have them beating their heads on their tables once they’ve read the climax. Try not to make them too obvious, or your readers will figure out what you’re up to and beat you to it. For example, if your character ends up trapped somewhere, maybe have them have to wear a too small coat or something that will show us how they react in tight situations. (Okay lame example, but you get the idea.)

Flawed characters are more interesting than perfect ones.

 burn hamilton alexander hamilton phillipa soo GIF

Alexander Hamilton was a great man who created many successful aspects of the American government. He was also a tool when it came to the women in his life. And the play is all the better for it. Because of Angelica’s love for Hamilton, and his longing for her, we know he may not be able to stay faithful to his wife. (Another point for Team Foreshadowing.)

Lo and behold, when he is left alone and under pressure, he succumbs to temptation. And is coerced into blackmail because of it. Double douche. And when he’s about to be exposed, he publishes a pamphlet proclaiming the entire affair, shaming his family right along side of himself. Triple douche. But this is better for the story, because how boring would the story be if he came to the colonies, helped win the Revolutionary War, and then helped run the country? We get that mythical being in our 8th grade textbooks.

But a man with desire for fame and flesh? Who has to overcome his own demons to gain what he wants most? Now we can identify. Try that on yourself. Imagine what you want most. Now, make a list of all the things you do to sabotage yourself from getting it. That makes you interesting. And also way more like the rest of us. Flaws make characters unique and much easier to root for.

The best thing you can do for your own characters is to put themselves in their own way. External conflicts are great, but internal conflicts keep the reader turning the page.

Music makes everything better.

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Okay, so maybe this isn’t necessarily true for books. Wait a minute, yes it is. At least, sound makes everything better. One of the great things about this musical is its recycled lyrics. I know, initially that sounds lazy. But the genius is, even though the words are used repeatedly, the intent behind them is nearly always different. And the music underscoring the words denote differentiated emotions indicating growth, pain, and even victory…all the things we want for our characters.

Even if writers can’t use actual music in a story, we can immerse the reader in sounds. Yet another smart person once said that sound is the most under-utilized sense in writing. Try adding sounds to your scenes for depth. And if you’re brave, recycle sounds to produce memory links that result in emotional carry-over. Maybe one day while your character is on a picnic with the love of their life, they hear a particular bird chirping. Then later, when they are at the funeral for the same love, they hear the same type of bird chirping. Imagine the power of that memory!

And there you have it. Five things I learned about story telling from the play, Hamilton. If you haven’t had a chance to check it out, I highly suggest it. At the very least, listen to the brilliance that is the soundtrack. Your characters will thank you for it!

Hamilton

Pause for Thought

Commas. Amirite?

First, with all the authority vested in me as a writing instructor, I will let you in on a little-known secret about commas. There is not a page quota. That’s right. You don’t have to add commas because you don’t think there aren’t enough on a page. Nor do you have to take any away simply because the page is littered with little black marks that aren’t left-over Oreo crumbs from the cookies you inhaled while sobbing over your paper/manuscript.

“Okay, Miss Smarty Pants Writing Instructor,” I can hear you say. “Where do I put a comma, then?”

I’m glad you asked. Follow me on a little trip I like to call…

Well, I don’t really have a name for it, but if you think of one, let me know. I’ll edit this entire part and add it in. More important than a witty title, let me show you where to start.

Part One: The Basic Sentence

No, this sentence doesn’t wear yoga pants and a ponytail to order a Venti half-caff whatever. This is your basic active voice sentence. One that contains, IN THIS ORDER, a subject, a verb, and an object, or S-V-O for short. Here’s an example:

Mom threw out my clothes.

If you aren’t sure which part is the S,V, or O, always start with the verb. The verb is the action, right? So find the action word. Got it?

V=threw out.

Now, the subject will always be the he/she/it performing the action. So, who did the throwing out?

S=Mom.

Finally, the object will be the person/thing receiving the action. Ahem.

O=my clothes.

Simple, right? Good. While we’re here, do your reader(s) a favor and try to format all your basic sentences this way. If you put the object before the action, you get a passive voice which will bore your readers. Here’s an example:

My clothes were thrown out by Mom.

See what I mean? Anyway…

Now that we have the basic sentence lined up, we can add what the professionals call a modifier. This can be one word like an adjective or adverb, or it can be a phrase. There are many types of phrases with all sorts of intimidating names that only linguists, grammar teachers, and really stuck-up people can distinguish. If you want to know more, click here. Otherwise, follow along for the basics.

I’m going to add a prepositional phrase to my basic sentence. For example: After I left my clean laundry on the floor…

Here’s where comma use comes in handy. I can add this modifying phrase to my basic sentence three ways. Two of them need commas. One doesn’t. Watch…

  1. After I left my clean laundry on the floor, Mom threw out my clothes.
  2. Mom threw out my clothes after I left my clean laundry on the floor.
  3. Mom, after I left my clean laundry on the floor, threw out my clothes.

So you see, if you add the modifier BEFORE the basic sentence, you need a comma to separate the modifier and the sentence. If you add it AFTER the basic sentence, you don’t need a comma. If you add the modifier IN THE MIDDLE of the sentence, you need TWO commas. These are called parenthetical commas because they act like a tiny little comma hug around the modifier to make it feel safe and welcome. Okay, that’s not really why, but I like personifying grammar. Makes it easier to remember.

We good so far? One more point to make…

The next proper use of a comma revolves around quoting stuff, like dialogue.(This is to appease your mentor eyes, Sharon-buy her books because she’s amazing.)

Characters are weird, right? They do all sorts of things without our permission. Usually that’s okay. Better, even, for the story-line. But when it comes to comma use in their dialogue, they have to play by the rules, no matter what they try to tell you. That said, all previous rules apply when said characters are speaking.

But what about dialogue tags?

Hopefully, you’re only using said or asked as tags. Even better, use movement/action AFTER the dialogue. It gives the reader a better picture. Let me show you…

Here’s standard dialogue:

  1. “Hey,” Mom said.
  2. “Hey back.” I walked into my room and saw my usually full closet empty except for a few stray hangers. “Where’s all my clothes?” My throat clenched as I spoke.
  3. “Oh, those things?” Mom filed her nails and grinned. “I thought all that was garbage since it was strewn all over you floor.”

So, what did you notice? Besides the bad dialogue.

  1. Standard dialogue with a standard tag. Notice the comma in INSIDE the quotation marks. As a brilliant friend of mine once told me, the comma is a puppy, and the quotation mark is rain. When it’s raining outside, the puppy stays in. (Thanks, Kether.) Easy, right?
  2. Notice there is no comma associated with the dialogue in the second sentence. Instead, there is a period. In the next, separate, sentence, the speaking character is identified by his or her action. More dialogue from the SAME character follows in the same paragraph. Once that character is done speaking and acting, the next character who speaks gets his or her shiny, new paragraph.
  3. The same rules from #2 apply here, except there is a comma in the actual dialogue. This comma follows the rules of the modifiers. The interjection (Oh) must be followed by a comma since both sentence sections can be considered complete sentences. For more on FANBOYS (coordinating conjunctions), click here.

How we doing? Brain okay? Lucky you. This here ends the comma lesson.

Funny story: I searched GIFs for “benediction” and got “Benedict-ion”… You’re welcome.

Hopefully this little grammar pause (see what I did there?) helps your writing adventures. Feel free to ask any questions in the comments or contact me on Twitter if I can help in any way.

Happy Writing!

The Feminist Agenda: A Typical Day in the Belly of the Beast.

On the surface, today was a good day. I was able to get a lot of work done yesterday during a four hour bonus quiet time, and now I’m only sort of behind instead of in complete panic mode.

Actual picture of me working and going to school full time.

And because I was able to get a lot done on an actual work day, I was able to take care of some family things today. Like guilting my nearly 18 year-old son to help me take my gramps shopping in the morning and then going car shopping in the afternoon (okay evening, too, because it’s car shopping and OMG they need to streamline that shit).

You might offer me a knowing nod and a pat on the head, sympathizing with helping an elder relative ease into his new life at the retirement home. And then you might give your congratulations on the purchase of my brand new Pacifica, as one usually does in times like these. And I would appreciate it. Because, hey. New car! New Minivan! New ways to embarrass my kids!

But this isn’t a story about a typical day. This is the story about the undercurrent of what looks like a typical day.

Backstory: A few days ago, Gramps called me with a request to find some sort of shelving for his new place at the senior facility he recently moved into. Wanting to make him as comfortable as possible (and pacify his need to see his great-grandson) I offered myself and The Boy for a Saturday shopping extravaganza to Target. Also, for all kinds of reasons, I needed a new car.

Present day: While shopping, Gramps and I “found”  a shelf that would fit his room (that means I pointed him to the shelf I picked out a month ago but couldn’t buy without his consent), and we bought it. Said shelf was in a heavy and bulky box that I could’ve managed. And yet, I chose to let my strapping 17 year-old handle the heavy lifting.

And I knew I was letting his brawn do the work I didn’t want to do. I also knew that I would be perceived as over-protective and bossy if I chose to lift the box into the basket or carry it from the car to Gramps’ room. I knew both my son and my grandpa were expecting the youngest and supposedly (okay, he is) strongest to do it.

I wore this persona.

Fast forward through three dealerships and two test drives later. I was sitting at a table, after the deal-making handshake, when the sales guy saddles up next to me with is all-knowing nod and says, “Daddy loves you.”

I blinked as all of the sound in the room went silent. “I’m sorry. What did you say?”

“DADDY LOVES YOU.” He winks.

I look at my husband who was returning from a water fountain excursion. He has a confused look on his face. “What did he say?”

I told him. We both blink.

But here’s the shitty part. I didn’t say anything. Well, that’s not technically true. Inside I was all like…

But on the outside, all I did was shoot him an obviously fake smile that made him over explain what he meant.

BUT I SAID NOTHING. WHY?

Here’s why:

  1. A man says something that touches a sensitive nerve and, instead of reacting, I question why I’m reacting the way I am. Why does X make me feel Y? I question my own feelings of worth. Stomach churns on what should be said, but never makes it past the esophagus. This is a pattern.
  2. I’m afraid of being seen as some hysterical female that over-reacts to a harmless idiom that really marginalizes and negates the equality of a female partner to a man. I mean, it’s just a funny thing to say, right? Everyone knows he isn’t really my “daddy,” especially since we make the same amount of money and have a shit ton of education between us. I mean, in a few years, we’ll be Mr. and DOCTOR…I’m hyper-sensitive to what a lot of people use as nicknames for each other. Who knows if this guy would say the same type of thing to a man…”Mommy loves you for buying this car…” Even though, deep down, I know he wouldn’t. But what if he would…?
  3. If I make a scene, I won’t be perceived as lady-like, because ladies never make a scene unless we’re fainting over our men or the heat or some stupid shit.

None of these are good reasons. And yet I remained silent. (If you don’t count the millions of scenarios I played in my head.) In retrospect, I’m ashamed to admit this was my reaction. Because I always thought I would stand up for myself better than that if I ever needed to. I think of my mother and how she risked her very livelihood to stand up against blatant sexism, and I am mortified at myself. See her experience here.

And I was wrong because I couldn’t Gloria Steinem the sonuvabitch. But I did do something.

I left. I couldn’t bring myself to tell them why I left, but I did. There was an issue with the original deal that never got sorted, so I used that as an excuse to not deal with that sales guy again.

Funny thing, money. It makes people do just about anything you want. Which is cool, but also WAY scary. I was barely a mile down the road, and Condescending Sales Guy called with a deal. Lots of deals. Like, $2000 of extra deals on top of what we’d already demanded. We couldn’t say no.

Not going to lie. I feel a little dirty having gone back to purchase the car. But I do know this: we got the absolute best deal we could’ve gotten, plus a ton of extras on top of it. Free navigation, three years of oil changes, and a nice gift card to the auto store filled with stupid things I don’t need. And that’s what seems to matter these days. Instead of measuring integrity, we count how many dollar bills we keep out of “the enemy’s” pockets, because that’s what success is. Capitalism warfare.

Doesn’t relieve the mounting pressure in my gut, though.

Someday, I’m going to be able to tell a man outright when he offends my sense of independent femininity. I know this may take a while, since it took me nearly 35 years to be able to even say the word “penis” out loud and not die of embarrassment.

But baby steps, right?

Meanwhile, I’m left with the irony of how I handled two aspects of the same day. In part one, I used the damsel card to appease my own laziness and the men around me. In part two, I succumbed to the shame I inherited with my uterus, even though I’ve had great examples of how to overcome it.

I guess the main lesson is to try and do better next time. Own the mistakes that need owning and don’t belabor the ones that don’t. I will eventually forgive myself, and I will work on forgiving him. Because that’s what needs to happen. Until then…

My car has pretty good bass.

*DISCLAIMER*
I am a White, cisgendered female, and I’m not immune to the issues other people face. This post is not intended to marginalize any other person’s experience. I experience other issues vicariously through my students nearly every day.  This is simply an account of my own experience with the frustration with what it feels like to be categorized by something beyond control.

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KISSING MAX HOLDEN Valentine’s Day Giveaway!

Fun fact: There’s a Valentine’s Day scene inKissing Max Holden.

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“Saturday’s Valentine’s Day,” I say. “Can we hang out?”

“Yeah, of course. What should we do?”

I ponder while he toys with the ends of my hair, and then inspiration strikes. “Seattle. I want to take you to my favorite restaurant.”

“Cool. Can I plan the rest of the day?”

“Depends on what you’ve got in mind.”

“Fun stuff. Stuff that’ll cheer you up. Maybe you haven’t noticed, but my happiness relates directly to yours. I never want to see you cry again.”

“That might be the sweetest thing you’ve ever said, Max Holden.”

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To celebrate this most romantic day of the year, how about an ARC giveaway?!

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      Enter my Rafflecopter giveaway here!      

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(Fine print: Giveaway runs February 10th – February 16th at midnight. One winner will be…

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