Wednesday, November 15, 2017

How to Analyze Your First Page

Last week's blog post was about what it takes to create a good first page. The experts at the SCBWI -Iowa conference I attended talked mostly about these six things:

1. Let the reader in on what’s at issue right away- don’t hold off for a “reveal.” 2. No flowery language. 3. No super detailed descriptions. 4. Let reader know who is telling the story. 5. Stick to one main problem/issue. 6. Use emotion to grab the reader. 

I've applied them to the first page of my novel, THE INK OF TIME.  This my actual first page. The red areas are my comments and ideas about what I've written based off the experts advise. Here's how I saw it:

The beautiful Ewan McGregor
as Otto Daniel.
(Courtesy of Google Images.)
He didn’t have one tattoo on his body. His skin was marred with scars, and he felt no need to hide them. Otto Daniel didn’t care who noticed. (This tells a little about main character’s physical appearance-just enough to make the reader wonder about him.)When he walked into the tattoo shop, the one with the “help wanted” sign in the front window, he told himself he could use the irons (Is this word too “jarngony” or is it showing main character was in the business for some time?) again, if just for a while-until he figured things out. (The first issue is that he doesn’t want to have to go back to tattooing for a living. But why not?)

Olde City Tattoo in Philly
Established in 1999 by Jason Goldberg
Always aware of his 
surroundings, (This tells a little of the main character, Otto’s personality.) Otto walked through a half-lit shop into the darkness, toward the back of the room. Tired black leather chairs faced smoke-colored plate-glass windows. Black and white tiles alternated, like a giant checkerboard, on the floor. Dividing the reception area from the work area was a cluttered glass display case. The display case held binders Otto knew were full of artist samples. A poster advertising an upcoming tattoo fest had been taped to the glass from the inside. On top a cash register presided. Its design, sleek and space agey at one time, now just looked like a caricature of the modern era. Behind that four tattoo stations were cleaned, stocked, and ready for artists and customers. (Is there too much description of the setting, or just enough to give us an idea of where he’s at?)

“Needin’ a tat buddy?” asked a broad-shouldered man in a form-fitting T-shirt. His tattooed biceps rolled as he twisted to look Otto’s way from the portable tattoo chair he sat in. On the television a game show contestant gave the right answer. She ran up the steps to the stage while the audience roared and applauded. (A glimpse into this guy’s character-lazy maybe?)

“Naw. Lookin’ for work,” Otto replied. (Both characters talking in ‘everyday’ language.)

Still turned in his chair, the big man hit the volume button on the remote as he deliberately looked Otto up and down. “What do you know about tattooing?” he asked, “Don’t look like you have any.”
“Been in the business for a while now. I know the irons. I’m pretty good with a tattoo machine.”

Andrei Arlovski as the
tattoo shop guy. Why not!?
(Courtesy of Google Images)
The man clicked a button and the TV went dark. He unfolded himself from the black leather tattooing chair, and mic-dropped the remote control into the chair’s seat. (This could be the main character’s next problem! Not only does he need a job, but they guy he’s trying to get work from is uncooperative.) He hated having a new tattooist in the shop. He hated change period. But what he hated most of all, were men tattooists. He preferred working with women tattoo artists. (Aggressive behaviors by one character-how will the main character handle it?)

And that's the first page. Not much space to get a story going, right? Yet that's what it has to be. As you can tell, the knowledge I gained at the conference helped me see where my first page had potential, but also caused me raise more questions about my first page. 

And the big thing is that I haven't gotten to the real issue of this story. That isn't revealed until the second chapter. I've heard it said that most writers should delete their first chapter because the story really begins at chapter two. I just don't know...

Lucky for me, I've hired another editor. And this time, I actually have a signed contract. But more about that later.

Until next time,

Be Good to Yourself.


Wednesday, November 8, 2017

How to Write a Killer FIRST PAGE

Courtesy of Google Images
I learned so many great things at the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) Iowa conference in Cedar Rapids a few weeks ago. One of my favorite sessions was called, “First Pages.” During this session three experts in the author-of-children’s -books-field analyzed pre-selected first page of a work-in-progress from conference attendees. (On an anonymous and voluntary basis, of course.)

The expert panel included Jill Santopolo, editorial director of Philomel Books, and author of several children and young adult novels, including, The Light We Lost and the Sparkle Spa series, among others. Lisa Cron, motivational speaker (my definition of what she does) and author of Wired for Story and Story Genius, and Calla Devlin, author of Tell Me Something Real and Right Where You Left Me.  Big guns, let me tell ya.

Courtesy of Google Images
The moderator read the first page of each piece and the experts talked about what sounded good/promising and conversely, the red flags or problems that stuck out in the beginning of these stories. Industry experts always say they can tell if something has potential as soon as reading the first page, so that page has to be good to keep them going! This was my chance to see it in action.

The first story was about a teen named Rose who was wearing a hippie costume and waiting for a ride. After the first page was read, I could just tell the story didn’t have IT. I couldn’t say what was wrong; I just knew it wasn’t ready to be called finished.  I was anxious to hear what the pros had to say.

They said the first page had no context of Rose’s issue, and we have no idea of what’s going on. Also the experts said not to worry about sensory details, (sights and smells, etc.) they pull away from the story you’re trying to tell. Additionally, the story must ground the reader right away. The opening paragraph is the author’s pact with the reader and we have to let the reader know what’s at issue right away.

Problems that arose in other first pages included the reader not knowing who was talking and what the speaker (narrator) had to do with the story. Another story’s character had too many issues, and the story moved too quickly to be understood. The writer needed to figure out what was the most important thing and focus on that only. 

Another story had a lot of stuff happening but gave no reason why. There was a fight scene but since, we, the reader didn’t know the character yet, we had no investment, no reason to care about him/her. Yet another story gave to many details about a car. Doing that takes the reader out of the story-something a writer never wants to do.

Courtesy of Google Images.
The stories that held potential on their first page had, as you can imagine, the opposite of the above pages going for them. I also instinctively knew they were good starts…

The sun peeking through the shade woke the main character. He let the dog out and saw a teen girl passed out on the lawn. Right away, we, the reader, know something is wrong. The character was scared because he knew who girl on the lawn was and went into backstory (a good technique) about his brother being in jail and how the brother knew her. As readers, we’re sucked in to this story on the first page because we need to know what was going on. 

The experts recommended to the writer that the reader should know a little more about the kid who let the dog out and tell more about him. Such as, was he scared because he was only 17? Or was he 25 and on probation?

Courtesy of Google Images
The experts continued to discuss how writers need to make sure the issues of the story are set up right away. They said to start with the overarching conflict then tell the story through layers. Also, make sure your characters are believable and talk like real people. Too many writers get carried away with flowery or complex language. Additionally, make sure you’re showing some emotion. Stories "in a void" are not going to be read. 

Image courtesy of Pixabay.
So to recap:
Let the reader in on what’s at issue right away- don’t hold off for a “reveal.” No flowery language. No super detailed descriptions. Let reader know who is telling the story. Stick to one main issue. Use emotion to grab the reader.

Courtesy of Google Images
Seems so easy. But it’s not. It takes some self-education and awareness, a lot of practice, a lot of re-writing and a heartless eye to cut out the crap to get a story whittled out of a stump. But if you keep at it, layer by layer, your story will emerge.

What are you working on getting better at? Keep going, my friends. We'll get there together! 

Until next time,

Be Good to Yourself.


Wednesday, November 1, 2017

My Writing Guru

I recently attended a writing conference for children’s books authors.  The Iowa chapter of Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators (SCBWI) held their annual conference in Cedar Rapids, Iowa this year.

You may wonder why I went to a children’s book conference. I don’t really write children’s books (but I might…), and I for sure am not and cannot illustrate a book of any kind! Why did I go?

Me and the brilliant Lisa Cron
Two words: LISA CRON. Yes, MY writing guru, the chick that I get, the one who helped this novel writing business really click for me, Lisa Cron was the keynote speaker!

Lisa Cron is the author of Wired for Story and Story Genius. I’ve written a post about how I applied her theories from Story Genius to my first novel, THE INK OF TIME. 

Courtesy of Google Images
The first time I heard Lisa Cron she was being interviewed by  JoAnna Penn, creator of  The Creative Penn Podcast. When she talked about how the brain works and its/our biological need for stories I knew she was on to something. As a former teacher, I’ve put in many professional development and continuing education hours studying how the brain learns and/or why it doesn’t.

Besides The Creative Penn podcast interview, I’ve watched Ms. Cron give a TED Talk on the subject of brain science and its connection to story, I’ve read Story Genius  one-and-a-half times*, and yet I still wanted to see the lady in person. I was not disappointed!

Right after being introduced :)
Ms. Lisa Cron can talk. Fast. She is passionate and knowledgeable about her topic and it shows. Lisa walked probably five miles in her first two-and-a-half hour presentation. She never stood still. Up and down the stage she walked. And she’s a ‘hand talker’, too. It was never a dull moment. I wrote so fast, only to be distracted by her animations, that my notes look like a battlefield! Good thing I’ve read the book!

This is some of what I’ve learned from her. These are the big points. Each one had many details about how to make them happen. Lots of writerly stuff.

1. The ability to write and the ability to tell a story are not the same. Events, quests, and a bunch of stuff happening is not a story. It’s a bunch of stuff happening.

2. All stories are about change, and change is hard. Stories allow us to experience something and learn from it. This makes me think of all the fables and tales that, throughout every culture, teach a lesson. Think about some of your favorite novels, what was its lesson or the cautionary tale?  I think about the book (and movie) Girl on the Train, by Paula Hawkins. The obvious is ‘don’t be a drunk loser on a train’, right? But really, that book is about ‘trusting yourself and your instincts.’

One of many pictures Tim has taken
of me while I'm reading.
3. The first job of an effective story is to anesthetize the part of your brain that knows it’s a story, and puts you, the reader, IN the story. I so get that. 
How many times have I been so deeply in a book that I don’t even hear other people talking to me? Lots and lots of times!  Tim will tease me by saying, “The house is on fire!”  That's when I know he’s been trying to talk to me but I was oblivious. Does that ever happen to you? If so, you’ve struck story gold.

4. Story is not just entertainment. Stories tell us what to do, allow us to step out of the present and envision the future, and stories allow us to see the unknown and unexpected. (Remember, there is no such thing as “mindless entertainment.” You know the saying: “you are what you eat”? Same goes for entertainment. You may not even know how it affects you.)

So, every story worth its salt is created with these points in mind. Kinda makes writers pretty important, doesn’t it? Writers’ jobs are to give us food for thought. Something to contemplate. Something to learn from. Something to think about. Pretty big stuff, I say.

Then, THE INK OF TIME, right? Luckily, I already understood the concept of story being events that lead to a conclusion, so I didn’t have any actions or scene to delete because of that.  However, the part about change was a big aha moment for me. Otto had a lot of stuff happen in his life that made him who he was at the beginning of this story. I wrote some pretty heart-breaking scenes with him and his sisters to illustrate that point. (Thanks again, Lisa Cron!)

I hope my readers (when I publish) will become engrossed in Otto’s story. One of the tricks is to tell very little about his physical appearance. This gives the reader the ability to step into his shoes. Also, the story is about a man who gets a job in a tattoo shop, but that just the vehicle, if you will, for the story. The overarching theme of my story is family. Who is family and what defines a family.

Think about what you read. Think about what a gift the author is giving to you - the opportunity to learn, experience, and explore. Big stuff.

And another picture of
me reading!
Until next time,

Be Good to Yourself.


*I will finish reading it for a second time, as part of my work on my second novel.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Rock Talk

Look what I found at the LeClaire, Iowa Community Library! I found this TRUST rock first. It was on the top step, by the railing. I thought it was so cool. I didn’t pick it up, but rather, ran inside and grabbed my phone to take a picture of it. 

Then my eye caught the red one with a white star/flower painted on it. It’s a smaller pebble and it was sitting on a large landscape boulder. I noticed a corner of a white paper sticking out from underneath so I picked it up. On the bottom it read: “By. K.W.  Maryville Rocks 865.  Please post  pic to FB”

I went back to the TRUST rock to check for a tag on the bottom. Sure enough, the same tag was there. I decided to walk around the library to see if any other painted rocks were hiding in plain sight. The smallest of the three pebbles, a little yellow guy,  I found on the edge of a window well.

Courtesy of Google Images
I wonder how many hands and how many different terrains those rocks passed through to get from Tennessee to Iowa. Maybe someone visiting Nashville found one at Tootsies. Maybe one of these little rocks spent time at The Land Between the Lakes. 

Courtesy of Wikipedia
I’d like to think the one that says TRUST had a stop at Christ of the Ozarks, near Eureka Springs, Arkansas. Maybe one went to the top of the Gateway Arch in Kansas City, Mo.

This artistic form of communication is delightful, and you don’t have to go far to find a Rock Group in your area. Wendy Reyes, a former colleague of mine, started QC Rocks (Quad City Rocks.) You can find them at  The Quad City Times did a story a few months back about Wendy and QC Rocks. You can read it here:

This past summer the national news had a feature about a woman who wrote inspirational messages in cards and randomly left them to be found by others.The story was about how her random messages seemed to be picked up by just the right person. The person who needed those words of encouragement the most right at that moment. 

In fact, I’ve written a couple of notes myself to library patrons. As a library clerk I see a lot of what’s going on in our patron’s lives based on the subject matter of materials they’ve had shipped in from our cooperating libraries.(Kind of like the mail carrier, right?) A person’s library check-outs are private and not to be discussed or shared with others in any way.

Ummm… I may have overstepped that line when I wrote two post-it notes one day. One note was to a patron I know well. She’s always checking out self-help books. I think she’s a lovely person and too hard on herself. I put a note to that effect in a book she had on hold. And signed my name. The second note went in a pile of cookbooks. The subject was healthy eating when dealing with cancer. This patron had six different books on the topic shipped in from other libraries. I just felt the need to tell them I was praying for them. I did not sign my name to that one.

That day I felt great! I was “being the good I wish to see in the world.” That night, instead of sleeping, the privacy policy ran over and over in my brain. What a way to be fired.  Well, I wasn’t fired. The patron who knows me thanked me for the kind words.  As far as the cancer patient patron’s note, I don’t know who they were,or if the note gave them any comfort.

I don’t think all of this creative communication is random at all. I believe good people are working hard to make our world a better place: That’s all. Just one person at a time. Let’s help each other friends.

Until next time,

Be Good to Yourself.


Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Used Book Sales

I love used book sales held at libraries. I live in a metro area that has about a dozen public and college libraries within a twenty-mile radius of my house. I went to a sale this past weekend and will go to another next weekend. Fall seems to be book fair season around  here. Yay for me!

I want to share with you some of my (old) new books, but before I do that, let’s take a look at some that I didn’t buy.

How Not To Read: Harnessing the Power of a Literature-free Life, by Dan Wilbur. The blurb boasts of techniques on how to fake your literature knowledge. Additionally, it states that if you must read something, tips on how to read fast and cut corners are within the books pages. That’s one hundred-seventy-six pages a non-reader has to slog through to learn how to fake having read. I love it. It’s so ridiculous!

Next up: How To Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading, by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren. This book, dubbed “a living classic,” was first published in 1940. It’s a guide for comprehension techniques for a variety of reading materials, including fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and so on. It’s a hefty book, four-hundred-twenty-six pages of information.

And, while I’m sharing “opposites,” how about this one?  The Christian Atheist: Believing in God but Living as If He Doesn’t Exist by Craig Groeschel. This title’s a toughie. I think we all can relate to this kind of behavior. I know I can. Groeschel, a minister, reflects on his life when it does not match up with scripture. The word atheist turned me off to this book. It caught my attention because of the oxymoron in the title. Now that I’ve done a little on-line research, I kind of wished I would have picked it up.

Oh, and one of my all-time NOT favorites: Who Moved My Cheese? By Spencer Johnson, M.D. I hate this book so much because I once had a principal who made it ‘required reading’ for the staff. The worst of it was that she was a lunatic and expected us to follow her lead. Every time I see this book, I cringe. And I always seem to find several copies at library book sales.But then I found Who Cut the Cheese? By Stilton Jarlsberg, M.D. It made me happy to see a parody on my most hated book ever! (It too, is a self-help book, but with a sense of humor.)

Now, on to my great buys: I found three first edition books this time! That doesn’t happen very often. 

I’ve done some research; these first two are only worth a few bucks in the book market. All The President's Men by Bernstein and Woodward and First On The Moon, by Armstrong, Collins, and Aldrin. I’ll hang on to them because of the subject matter. I’m sure at some time the asking price will rise. (Who knows if I'd sell, anyway...)

The third book was a flash-back to grade school. I remember studying the Kon-Tiki way back in the day. I looked this book up on-line and it seems to be selling in the $300.00 on up range. I hit the jackpot on a seventy-five cent investment. (But I’m not selling just yet.)

I purchased four other books of interest, for a total of $6.75. A very good investment I think.

Visit your local libraries’ book sales. They’re great fund raisers for your public library’s programming and you’ll get all the really good stuff in return! Now excuse me while I read a new (old) book.

Until next time,

Be Good to Yourself.


Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Las Vegas Strong

Courtesy of Google Images
Ten days ago. It’s already been ten days since shit hit the fan in Vegas on October first. It wears a person down. Depression and anxiety rear their ugly heads. It’s all part of the radiating evil of the whole thing-to make us feel afraid and vulnerable.

Evil will not win. We can’t let it. Even though we might be afraid, might feel vulnerable, we will keep on keeping on. It’s the American way. It’s what we do. I love that about us.

On Tuesday, October 3rd, my sister,Nanette, her husband, and some of their family members were heading to Vegas for a family wedding and vacation. I talked to my sister before she left. She said she would stay aware of her surroundings, but she would not let some bastard dictate how she lives her life. Hear! Hear! little sister! I agree whole-heartedly.

Courtesy of Google Images
On Thursday, October 5th, Tim and I and our daughter and son-in-law went to a Chris Stapleton concert. The arena opened the doors and hour earlier than they typically do. Every person was wanded. Every purse was looked in, and every hat, too. Every single person was patted-down as well. We knew this would be happening, and yet we were determined to live our lives and keep on keeping on.

During the concert Mr. Stapleton talked a bit about the tragedy in Las Vegas. He stated that by them (his group and him) being here at the concert, (Taxslayer Center in Moline, IL) and us (the audience) being here meant that we denounced evil and all of its potential ramifications.

Then, for the victims, survivors, and families of the shooting,(and really, all of us, I think,) he sang his song, Broken Halos (Click the title to listen to his song.)

I just talked with my sister, and asked her about the mood in Vegas this week. She said everything seemed to be “business as usual.” Other Vegas visitors, like her, mentioned it to each other on elevators and in waiting lines, but that was it. “No one seemed to be thriving on it,” she said.

Oct 8, 2017. Courtesy of ABC News
One thing she did tell me was that on Sunday night, all the lights on the strip and in the casinos dimmed for eleven minutes. (That’s about how long the rampage lasted.)

Peace my friends.

Until next time,

Be Good to Yourself.


Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Empowering Girls through Princess Stories

Even the male illustrator is listed before
the female author. That's just not right!
Usborne is a well-known children’s book publisher. They create beautifully illustrated books for children of all ages. People who purchase Usborne books expect a quality story for their children. Unfortunately, all is not well in the Usborne Kingdom.

A few days ago, my three-year–old granddaughter chose a nap-time story for me to read to her. It was a beautiful pink color with a cute little girl princess on the cover.

The Unsborne Book of Princess Stories. Looks good, right? Wrong. And let me tell you why. There are four short stories in this book. Two of them are fine, but the other two are ridiculously anti-girl power. Here’s the gist and my take on each story.

The first story is entitled The Princess and the Pig. In this story Prince Max and his sister, Princess Alice, are playing outside. Alice finds a little pig stuck in a big mud puddle. She pulls the little pig out of the mud, while her brother, Prince Max, reminds her that she’s not supposed to get her dress dirty. “Don’t let Queen Mama see you. She told you not to get your dress dirty.” (Seriously????? What year is this? 1960?)
Alice ignores her brother and washes the piggy...and she gets in trouble for getting her dress dirty. Alice is undeterred.  She kisses the pig and it turns into a little boy prince. (Sure, why the hell not? Makes perfect story sense…) Queen Mama says, “We can’t have a strange prince in the castle, change him back.” So Alice kisses him again and he turns back into a pig. (What kind of a queen mom would refuse a little boy who’d been turned into a pig? If I was a kid hearing this story, I’d be so stressed about having the boy turned back into a pig!)

The next story, thankfully, is better. In The Dragon, Alice and Max find a hungry little dragon. They bring him home and feed him. And because he’s a fire-breathing dragon, he becomes the royal fireplace starter. (He gets to live in the castle but a pig-turned-little prince-turned-pig-again is sent away? I’m still bitter over that one.)

The third story is a real piece of work. It’s called The Tournament. The castle is excitedly preparing for a jousting tournament.  Max gets to practice jousting but Alice can’t, because no girls are allowed. Alice, bless her little rebel heart, won’t have it. She dresses in her brother’s clothes and calls herself “Alex.” While jousting, “Alex” knocks a boy off his horse. Alice is found out when she trips and falls off her horse. (She didn’t even get the respect of being jousted off. Just another clumsy girl, I guess…) Queen Mama says to her, “You’re a very naughty girl.” (I thought this story was so bad, I talked with my granddaughter about how girls can do all kinds of stuff that boys can do, too. Then I re-read it two times, changing it to: “The boys and girls all practiced jousting together. Sometimes they fell off and got hurt, but they got back on their horses and kept practicing.”)

I didn’t even want to read the final story, The Royal Broomstick, but I did because my granddaughter had to put off nap-time as long as possible. Luckily, this book ends on a stronger note. The children go to visit their grandmother in her tower. Grandma is not there so the kids decide to wait for her and end up playing with her magic broom.They get on it and fly out the window. They have great fun and even find grandma’s pet cat stuck in a tree. They bring the cat home and grandma is happy her kitty has been found.

Fifty percent of the stories in this book are stupid. The marketing department at Usborne did a great job on the cover and back blurb. They made it sound so inviting, without telling a lie about the contents of the book. No mention of the Princess Alice being naughty or dirty or trying to do ‘boy things.’

This post is getting long, but hang with me for a minute more. I can’t close without telling you about an awesome, strong princess book. The Paper Bag Princess, by Robert Munsch is the kind of princess story children should be reading. 

In this story, a nasty fire-breathing dragon burns up the castle and everything in it. The dragon carries off the prince and leaves the princess behind. Since everything is gone, destroyed by the dragon, including her clothes, she finds a paper bag to wear as a dress and heads out to save the prince. She goes through hell and high water to get to the dragon’s lair and rescues the prince. BUT, he’s an asshole, so she tells him off and leaves. It’s a great story of courage, perseverance and self-respect.
"Elizabeth, you are a mess!
You smell like ashes, your hair is all tangled and you are wearing a dirty old paper bag. Come back when you are dressed like a real princess."

Until next time,

Be Good to Yourself.