The Road to Perfection

My successes as a baker have been very hit and miss. I can make one recipe and a month or two later, when I try to make it again, end up with a failure. Same cook, same products, same mixer and house and stove and attention and . . . flop.

I was reminded of this a week ago when I made a family favorite – Blondies. This single pan of cookie joy is my favorite because I don’t have to stand in the kitchen for two hours putting in and pulling out baked goodies. I’ve made it so many times that I don’t have to flip through the book to find it, I just feel for the flour covered pages (I’ve never claimed to be a clean cook either).

When I checked on the cookies in the oven, the looked perfect. Golden goodness, chocolate chip gooey-ness, a little bit of crust on the outside, the smell made everyone ask when they’d be done.

At first, they were okay. Warm sugar usually is. But as they cooled, the top got hard, the inside stayed gooey and they literally fell flat. I let them stick around for about five days – after all, I have teenagers and they like food. But these didn’t even make the teen appetite cut. Finally, yesterday, I threw them all away.

The Road toWriterly Perfection.png

Coming from a family, particularly on my mom’s side, known for their cooking, there are times when this feels like a massive slap in the face. I can read and follow instructions. I’m using the exact same recipe they are. Theirs turn out amazing, mine turn out amazing to meh. But the real slap in the face (besides killing the whole idea that I’ll be “that mom” who has yummy treats whenever friends come over) is that these mistakes create disappointment AND cost money. I know, it’s not a lot – ingredients that I mostly have and the sacrificial bag of chocolate chips. The sting lingers longer, though, right now as I’m both gearing up for back to school (and my kids have all grown out of their clothes and two need new glasses) AND saving for a trip that I’m very, VERY excited about. Okay, there’s a little bit of disappointment from the kids I have to deal with too.

And still I bake. Or at least try. Because I like the taste of the yummy treats. I like when things turn out well and my efforts are rewarded. I like showing my kids that just because something doesn’t go right the first time, doesn’t mean I get to quit.

Why, then, do so many of us think that our writing is going to turn out well the first time? Why do we think our efforts to create character and setting and story are actually going to turn out the first time? Those of you who read the first part of this cringing because your cookies have always been awesome would probably, very quickly, tell me to try this next time or that, something that comes intuitively to you as a baker. Would you offer the same suggestion to someone (maybe yourself) when you are in the midst of writing a story? Because when you are writing and you make a mistake, you didn’t tease with the essence of goodness. You didn’t have to mourn the chocolate thrown away instead of eaten. And tossing words can be painful, I’m not saying otherwise. But it is absolutely, unequivocally part of the process if the desire you have for your end product is something that you will feel good about and, maybe, will even have the honor of having others feel good about too.

The reason why we utter “Practice Makes Perfect” so many times, in so many situations, isn’t to insist that each practice is going to BE perfect. It is acknowledging the road to perfect is paved with lots and lots and lots of imperfections.

But as far as I can tell, it is the only way to build such a road.

_________________________________________
TashaTasha Seegmiller is a mom to three kids and coordinator of the project-based learning center (EDGE) at Southern Utah University. She writes contemporary women’s fiction with a hint of magic, and thrives on Diet Coke, chocolate and cinnamon bears. She is a co-founder and the managing editor for the Thinking Through Our Fingers blog as well as a board member for the Women’s Fiction Writers Association. Tasha is represented by Annelise Robey of the Jane Rotrosen Agency.

Understanding the Inciting Incident

We had a wet and relatively mild winter, followed by a fairly mild spring. Along came the soaring temperatures with the accompanying winds of June, and the backstory was set. All it took was one person who probably thought he was doing the right thing by burning down the dried out weeds, but the one person set the mountain on fire. Over two weeks later, over 1,000 firefighters have worked through incredible heat to fight the flames that have consumed 68,000+ acres of mountain forest in the #brianheadfire.

1858021

Photo Credit: Stuart Johnson, Deseret News

I could have told you about the lovely temperatures of spring or the fact that there was an insect plague over two decades ago that left the trees on the mountain compromised, but the reality of the situation is that you, as a reader, don’t have anything invested in that, not until you know why I’m telling you. As writers, it is our job to give readers enough of the backstory to understand where the character is coming from and then get on with it.

We can all nod our head and say, “Yes, I understand,” but then when we try to write the inciting incident? Nothing.

July is coming up.png

Sometimes it’s easiest to understand the inciting incident better when we can see it in something we know well. Here are a few well known incidents to help provide some clarity:

The Wizard of Oz

Without the assistance of the tornado, Dorothy, Toto and the viewers would all still be hanging out in Kansas with Auntie Em. We get just enough of the story to allow us to see a bit about Dorothy, to understand that she’s a dreamer, and then the story takes a wild turn into a land of unknown and we get to really see what Dorothy is made of.

Romeo and Juliet

We get it. The Montagues and the Capulets don’t like each other. Why? Not important. We just need to see that people from these families are willing to kill each other for a perceived snub to understand the level of tragedy that will accompany the star-crossed lovers, something we know from the moment they meet (hint: this is their inciting incident).

The Scarlet Letter

We get enough of the setting to know that we are dealing with the Puritans, that they have a harsh judgement system, and then we are with Hester Prynne, on the scaffold, holding her baby. She refuses to state the name of her co-sinner, concealing the identity of the child’s father and then looks across the crowd to see her husband (a man who was believed to be dead and who she hadn’t seen in years) staring back at her. Talk about a love triangle with some serious consequences.

So, dear writer, it’s your turn. Where does your character pivot onto a path that will make readers want to follow? How much are you asking your readers to know before you let them understand why? Are you trying to showcase all the work you did, and by doing so, compromising the opportunity for a reader to get engaged?

These are hard questions to answer, and sometimes even harder to answer honestly. But being clear with our story, our characters, our writing will allow us to move toward the story of greatest engagement.

_________________________________________
TashaTasha Seegmiller is a mom to three kids and coordinator of the project-based learning center (EDGE) at Southern Utah University. She writes contemporary women’s fiction with a hint of magic, and thrives on Diet Coke, chocolate and cinnamon bears. She is a co-founder and the managing editor for the Thinking Through Our Fingers blog as well as a board member for the Women’s Fiction Writers Association. Tasha is represented by Annelise Robey of the Jane Rotrosen Agency.

The Secret to Writing Good Kissing Books

“Is this a kissing book?”

Oh hell, yes. Those are the best kind.

Ways toincorporatepurple hues inyour wedding.png

The secret to writing a good kissing book is: don’t have too much kissing.

I KNOW. It seems counterintuitive. And yet it’s true.

Because you know what we love more than the kissing even if we don’t realize it? The stuff leading up to the kissing. Yeah. All that delicious tension, building, making us downright impatient, and then BAM. Kissing. And the crowd goes wild!!!!!!

But only for about five seconds. Then they get bored and you have to pull out a different trick.

And that is why we don’t have too much kissing and it doesn’t go on too long.

I remember my earliest exposure to this principle: Moonlighting with Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd. Mind you, I was the child who would flee the room in embarrassment when the Close Up toothpaste kissing commercial came on. But even I got to the point where I was screaming for David and Maddie to get together. And at last they did and the nation rejoiced! And then . . . yawned.

Remington Steele did the same thing, now that I think about it. You’re just dying for Laura and Remington to get it over with and then they do and YAY! And then . . . yawn. But when Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth get together, we stay happy because it fades to black right after the payoff.

So the tension matters, and the trick is finding the balance between how long you can play it out before you lose the reader while not playing it out so long that you can’t pay it off.

There are two primary schools of thought on this. You can take either the Half Plus Final or End Game Only approach.

I like the Half Plus Final approach. This is when you build up to a character kiss about a third to halfway through, drive them apart through an external conflict, and then reconcile them with a final, epic kiss. That allows you to play with some levels here, pushing the chemistry to a high, then dropping it, then leveling up again. It also allows you to establish the chemistry early and lead the reader to cheer harder for the couple to work toward reconciliation.

End Game Only is one kiss at the end. This is trickier because it means you’ve built the tension longer so the emotional payoff and the kiss are going to have to meet higher expectations, but if you pull it off, then it’s a deliciously rewarding kiss, the dizzying, epic kind.

So what’s the build up? How do you ratchet that tension higher?

Think middle school. Yeah. All the answers to the best tension are there. Think about how loaded every moment felt with your early crushes: every look, every glance was carrying major freight. But why? Sometimes there’s just that chemistry thing that happens. Pheremones, basically. But since books aren’t scratch and sniff, we can’t depend on that as writers.

That’s okay, because if you think about it, the deep crushes were built on the stories we imagined around who the person was, whether it was true or not. I had many middle school crushes on quiet boys because I convinced myself they were still waters that ran deep. (Sometimes that was true. Sometimes they were just seventh grade boys who hadn’t found much to talk about yet.)

So to keep it sustainable, character chemistry must be rooted in something: attraction to physical appearance is the simplest and shakiest foundation to build on. Attraction to that mystery of who someone is, even when a character is fighting it, sets up a mini arc as the characters involved begin to peel back each other’s layers and expose vulnerabilities that make a kiss both emotionally risky and inevitable.

It’s fire, baby. You kindle with it those looks, those jabs and feints, those little brushes of hands, those caught-you-looking moments, those conversations that take each other a little further behind each other’s facades.

And then . . . then you light it up and let it burn.

__________________________________

Melanie Bennett Jacobson is an avid reader, amateur cook, and shoe addict. She consumes astonishing amounts of chocolate, chick flicks, and novels. She lives in Southern California with her husband and three kids and a series of doomed houseplants. Her seventh novel, Southern Charmed, released in October. Melanie is pursuing a Masters degree in creative writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her contemporary YA novels are represented by Alyssa Henkin..

Writers Must Practice Reflection

This week, as part of my day job, I’m attending a conference “dedicated to educating leaders in higher education, K-12, and non-profit organizations on experiential and project-based learning”. The principles discussed here fit in with the model established by David Kolb. There is lots of information about the Kolb cycle online, but one of the key factors that I think should be woven regularly into the process of writing is that of reflection.

The idea of reflection is not new. If you are like me, you may do this often after a situation has gone wrong. In those situations, you may think “I could have…” or “I should have…” or even “If I hadn’t…”. It may even be accompanied by a feeling of regret or the longing to take something back. But as a writing tool, reflection is invaluable.

I love you morethan there are starsin the sky..png

I think there are two kinds of reflection: accidental and intentional. Accidental reflection comes when you are reading through a craft book, listening to a presentation about character development or world-building where many of the things that are shared are reminders instead of new lessons. It might be when there is a Q&A and as you are listening to the questions being asked, you will realize that you know the answer, or at least a way to answer. It’s like what my own children are experiencing on a semi-regular basis lately where they are being asked to stand up or next to someone and realize they have grown.

Accidental reflection is an exceptional way to know how far you’ve come. It is a reason to celebrate knowledge and understanding and better appreciation of craft. But it isn’t the kind of reflection that allows you, as an artist, a weaver of words, a composer of character, to grow.

When we engage in intentional reflection, we are seeking out a way to learn and to improve. We are looking at our stories, our characters, our emotional impact, our setting and deliberately considering what is working, what isn’t working, why it is or isn’t. Intentional reflection means we know what we did to make these things work; it means we are searching and studying and reaching for an understanding of why something isn’t working.

The way this infiltrates our writing could be varied depending on our writing methods. As an outliner, I try to think through the complications and be intentional during my drafting process while I know many people who are pantsers or people who revise as they draft who prefer to weave or layer the details in as they become aware of them. Intentional reflection requires analysis of not only our stories, but of those that have an impact on us, whether that be movies, TV shows, books or plays.

If we desire to continue to improve as a writer, intentional reflection is a fundamental key to that success.

_________________________________________
TashaTasha Seegmiller is a mom to three kids and coordinator of the project-based learning center (EDGE) at Southern Utah University. She writes contemporary women’s fiction with a hint of magic, and thrives on Diet Coke, chocolate and cinnamon bears. She is a co-founder and the managing editor for the Thinking Through Our Fingers blog as well as a board member for the Women’s Fiction Writers Association. Tasha is represented by Annelise Robey of the Jane Rotrosen Agency.

My Name Is Barry Allen and I Write Fiction

Too many ideas run through my head. Different genres, age levels, etc… And as an already slow writer these clusters of ideas can be quite hazardous. They start to bleed into whatever current work is happening, only to be deleted once the mistake is realized. However all these ideas can be used to your advantage…with the help of more writing.

Quotes_Creator_20170612_075939.png

Flash Fiction is described as fictional work of extreme brevity. By most accounts they should be no more than 2000 words. Most are much shorter. There’s Six-word Stories which is fairly self-explanatory. Then there are selections known as Twitterature that are 140 character pieces. There are Dribbles topping out at 50 words and Drabbles going to 100 words. The last subsection (to my knowledge anyhow) is Sudden Fiction which is a story told in 750 words.

Using any variation of these can help relieve some of the pressure of story ideas. You can allow yourself to wander a bit before coming back to the main path. While you take your little detour it’s possible to have it enhance your story. Let’s say you’re writing a particularly dark work yet a lighthearted tale has been pressing on you. That light can be added to the dark to grant it some humanity. Or maybe what you come up with can create a character desperately needed to develop your story. If nothing else you may just want to revisit your flash fiction at another time, and boom you got yourself another story to work on.

Use these short stories to jump start ideas or be a fidget spinner for your brain. Nothing has to come from them in the end other than allowing you a bit of a reprieve. Well that’s how I take a bit for myself anyway. Until next time have a writeous day!

_______________________

Matt Williams is an avid reader, a collector of many pens, an ever improving father of two, and an all-around fanboy. When he’s not wrestling with cats or a long commute you can find him hunkered down writing something imaginative. He’s working on publishing his first book Beyond Here, a middle grade story involving a coma and a singing flower with a bent stem sometime in 2016, along with a few projects with his other daughter.

Can you REALLY give up on writing?

A few months ago, I sat in front of my computer and stared and stared at my manuscript, hoping that something would start talking to me soon because I had a deadline to meet. This wasn’t an abnormal thing. Staring at a Word doc (or Scrivener doc) while time passed and still no words were written had become more common than not, and I remember thinking, “Okay… I think this is it. I’ve completely lost the ability, talent, and passion… desire… mojo… whatever you call it, to write.”

I started to reminisce about the times when I would ache to write. The story would unfold so quickly in my head that my fingers itched to get it on paper. I’d spend hours nonstop typing, completely submersed in the characters’ world, oblivious to the real-life stresses around me. It was my escape, my coping mechanism, my utopia.

And then I went from aspiring writer to published author.

I hate complaining about the “after publishing” parts of the journey, because I know how it feels as a writer who isn’t. I was snapped up by one of the Big 5, had an agent, had several book deals coming in… this is what I’d been working toward. This was the dream! So when I saw the authors who posted about the woes, the stresses, the pressure that follows, I’d secretly think, “At least you have a book deal.”

So, I apologize right now for being blunt about it. But getting a book deal is only the beginning of the next, very difficult journey that comes with writing.

Tangent, sorry. Back on track! So, while I was at my computer, contemplating ways that I could still make money and give up writing, I realized that this wasn’t just a fleeting thought of “I give up” that I’d had so often but never acted upon. This was the real thing. I was done. I would meet this deadline and then I’d only be an editor. I ran the editing business, and it was profitable—more-so than my writing—and so maybe that’s what I was meant to do.

No one shineslike you do..png

They say when you are ready to give something up, you know it’s the right then when you feel relief. And boy, did I feel it. It washed over me like I’d been dipped into a nice warm bath. I was free again. I knew that this book would be my last.

About a month later, I was getting ready for the Storymakers conference—very big writer’s and reader’s conference in Utah—and being on the committee, I felt a little bit of a fraud. Sure, I’d published quite a few titles and I was attending as not only an author and committee member, but a vender as well for my editing business. Yet, I still felt like I was a walking false advertisement. During my counseling session that I’d been taking weekly for anxiety/depression, those thoughts came up. I was given the advice to let those thoughts go and just enjoy being there. So I made every effort to do just that.

Like I said before, I was done. Writing was gone and over, and I would focus my efforts elsewhere. I was relieved, I felt like I was on a path to healing…

But…

There was this small part of me that missed it. Whenever I was editing for one of my clients, I could feel it there. I could sense that desire to create, to make something out of nothing. I pushed it away, convincing myself that I’d made the right choice.

During the conference, my anxiety had been alleviated. I really was able to just sit back and enjoy. And because of that, I was able to really listen, really take in all the juicy, writerly goodness that comes from it. When the amazing Ally Condie gave her keynote address, I felt she was speaking directly to me.

“Write in the light,” was the message. Write what comes, not what you think you have to.

It hit me right in the feels, you guys. That, paired with the message of not living in the crevasse on your way up to the writing summit, ignited that passion I’d thought had long burned out. I came home filled to the brim with the desire to write. To tell a story, not to make money, not to meet a deadline, not to please the readers I was so desperate to please, but to tell the story I needed to tell.

I was my pre-published self again, writing past midnight, thinking up scenes on my morning walks, never staring at the screen, but itching to put down the words in my head. It’s been about a month, and I’m still going strong, because I think I’m looking at writing differently now. I feel it differently now.

There are many times we want to give up, that we aren’t sure if it’s all worth it, but after having gone through the drafting stage, the querying stage, the getting an agent stage, the subbing stage, the publishing stage, and the rinse and repeat stage, I’m just now realizing that it’s not about getting to the next thing and hoping that’s when it will all be rainbows and roses.

It’s about your story.

It’s about you.

You have something unique and genuine to bring into the world, something only you can create. And even when you feel like you just can’t do it anymore, and you feel that relief like I did when you decide to give up, know that it’s okay to set it aside, but acknowledge it is a part of you. It can always come back, sometimes when you need it most.

___________________________________

Author photo 2017.jpg

Cassie Mae is the author of a dozen or so books. Some of which became popular for their quirky titles, characters, and stories. She likes writing about nerds, geeks, the awkward, the fluffy, the short, the shy, the loud, the fun.

Since publishing her bestselling debut, Reasons I Fell for the Funny Fat Friend, she’s published several titles with Penguin Random House and founded CookieLynn Publishing Services. She is represented by Sharon Pelletier at Dystel and Goderich Literary Management. She has a favorite of all her book babies, but no, she won’t tell you what it is. (Mainly because it changes depending on the day.)

Along with writing, Cassie likes to binge watch Once Upon A Time and The Flash. She can quote Harry Potter lines quick as a whip. And she likes kissing her hubby, but only if his facial hair is trimmed. She also likes cheesecake to a very obsessive degree.

You can stalk, talk, or send pictures of Luke Bryan to her on her Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/cassiemaeauthor

 

Imagination vs Observation

“It doesn’t really matter who said it, it’s so obviously true. Before you can write anything, you have to notice something.” — JOHN IRVING

“Write from what you know into what you don’t know.” — GRACE PALEY

As a person who has taught more university writing courses than I care to mention, I regularly hear some version of the following: “Creative writing? Isn’t all writing creative?” That question used to really get my goat, but I’m starting to feel like it’s actually a pretty important one, especially when it triggers thinking about whether the writing is supposed to be about something that happened or if the writing is supposed to be about something that did not.

I am a firm believer in the notion that there is no ex nihilo creation. It’s a very Law of Conservation of Mass kind of perspective, but I don’t think the imagination runs without some kind of fuel, and I think that fuel is experiences. In my life even events that feel a lot like inspiration are more about the miraculous connection of disparate ideas than they are about an idea coming to me out of nowhere.

Imagination is described as the ability to form new ideas, images, or concepts that aren’t present to the senses. Observation is process of perceiving something or someone carefully or in order to gain information or understanding. So, in a lot of ways these are opposite activities. Imagination traffics in what’s not there, while observation deals with what is.

So, to my thinking, writers have to start with an observation, with some kind of phenomena that has been either observed or taken in. Words are always referential, and even though I have experienced the sorcery of having ideas emerge from the act of writing, I have found it impossible to go from zero to words, or to have the words precipitate out of nothing. And still, even though writing begins with an observation in the world, the act of observing things in the world changes them.

Screen Shot 2017-05-26 at 8.44.07 AM.png

This concept is common in the scientific world. The physicist Neils Bohr has a marvelous little book from 1934 entitled Atomic Theory and the Description of Nature. In his introduction, Bohr discusses the similarities between problems found in the theory of relativity and those found in quantum theory, arguing that in “both cases we are concerned with the recognition of physical laws which lie outside the domain of our ordinary experience and which present difficulties to our accustomed forms of perception.” According to Bohr, these difficulties of perception can be challenging but we can “by no means dispense with those forms of perception which color our whole language and in terms of which all experience must ultimately be expressed.” (5)

Basically we have trouble with perceiving things outside our normal experience and yet we can’t just write off the problems because our language as well as our ability to express anything are affected by perception. In a film class in college I heard this another way. John Greirson, the man who started the National Film Board of Canada once said, “Art isn’t a mirror, it’s a hammer.”

Quantum theory suggests all kinds of problems with observation. We know that observation changes the thing observed. This is a matter for physicists and psychologists. It’s also what made scientific understanding of exactly how a cat purrs to understand. The minute you hook sensors up to cat, it’s done purring. To make matters more complicated, Einstein has famously said “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” It’s difficult to divide out which matter more to the writer, the observation that must come first, or the imagination that shapes and forms the observation.

I’d like to argue that writers often blend imagination and observation together. I’ve noticed that my writing loops back and forth between imagination and observation. I start with some idea for a scene, chapter, or moment in my fiction, and I do my best to imagine it. Even when I feel like I’m making something up from scratch, I’m not. There are always ingredients, and they are always being changed and shaped by what I’m planning to do with them. Nothing is ever neutral.

The process is never linear, and now that I’m this far into my writing life, I can’t recall that distant first observation. In my memory, it has blended to become one thing.

——————————-

Works Cited

Bohr, Niels. Atomic Theory and the Description of Nature: Four Essays with an Introductory Survey. Cambridge UP (1934).

_____________________________

Todd Robert Petersen is the author of LONG AFTER DARK  and RIFT. Originally a YMCA camp counselor from Portland, Oregon, Todd now directs Southern Utah University’s project-based learning program. You can find him online at toddpetersen.org and @toddpetersen for tweets and Instagrams.