You Don’t Need Talent to Be a Great Writer

You Don't Need Talent to Be a Great Writer

Think you need talent to be a great writer? In working on my VCFA WCYA Graduate lecture on how to believe in yourself as a writer, I came upon a game-changing book: Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin. It blew away my ideas about what it takes to excel at anything.

Myth: You Need Talent to Be Great
Truth: Deliberate Practice is the Only Path to Greatness

Common Sense and the Talent to Be a Great Writer

Recently, when I shared the title of Colvin’s book with an art student of mine, he made a “You crazy!” face at me. He was sure the only thing he needed as an artist was talent, and without it, he was sunk. I don’t think he is alone. It seems to be common sense that only talented people succeed as artists, as writers, as cyclists, as chess masters, as business moguls, as great leaders, as anything. So many people believe this. Maybe you had a teacher who told you to give up on your dream because you didn’t have the talent. Everyone knows getting good takes talent.

Turns Out, Everyone is Wrong

Amadeus: Talent is Overrated
Mozart is shocked to discover deliberate practice, not talent, made him great.

Don’t you wish people trusted science more than they trust common sense? I do. Look around. Watch the news. I really wish… but, anyways….

In Talent is Overrated, Colvin, building on the work of psychologist K. Anders Ericsson, debunks the role of talent. He says that even Mozart, that poster child for the power of talent and divine inspiration, got great through something called “Deliberate Practice.” After all, Mozart started making music at the age of three, and his father was not only a highly respected musician and composer in his own right, but a taskmaster with crazy high standards, and an astute teacher.

In the world of psychology and business, there is a field of study called the “Science of Expertise.” It has already upended the eminence of inborn talent. Experts in this field have studied not only sports figures and chess masters, but musicians, artists, and writers. What they found is that early ability did not yield greatness.

What did? Deliberate Practice.

Malcolm Gladwell on Deliberate Practice
This Guy is Deliberately Smart

What is Deliberate Practice?

People say “Practice makes perfect,” but it’s not just practice that yields great work. (Plus, there’s no such thing as perfection, and I think it is a damaging concept for artists. I’ll probably do a future post on this.)

Art teachers like me say you have to make a thousand bad drawings before you can start making good ones. But it isn’t just making a ton of crappy work, or playing the same set of scales every day that does the trick. It’s a particular kind of practice. Colvin describes these key characteristics of Deliberate Practice:

  1. It is focused specifically on improving performance. This means working on the stuff you don’t do well. You need feedback to figure out your particular weak spots . If you’re playing tennis, you may already know the forecourt backhand is your Kryptonite. But as a writer, you need a critique from a trusted source to know that dialogue or character development, or plotting, or sentence structure is not your strong suit. Designing your practice to improve your performance also means breaking down skills into their component parts. Only by breaking it down can you improve. For example, if my main characters are weak, I have to go micro to figure out what isn’t working. Is it my POV voice that doesn’t feel specific enough? Is it that my character is always reacting instead of taking action? Does their dialogue sound wishy washy, or like every other’s dialogue? Does my word choice make the reader feel patronized, or is my tone too distant, creating a big psychic gap between protagonist and reader? Do I have the real sense of what the character is feeling, all of it, in all its complexity? Once I know what isn’t working, I have to design a repeatable practice that improves those skills. More on that below.

  2. It must be done repeatedly. This is the part where the Carnegie Hall cliché is correct. Where it’s about putting in the work and stacking up the hours. O, Grit, why is there no substitute for you? There just isn’t. We know it instinctively as storytelling creatures. A tale with a hero who doesn’t have to learn, to try repeatedly and fail, well, that story doesn’t feel real to us; it lacks gravitas. We know anything worth getting takes work.

  3. It requires continuously-available feedback.  Feedback can come from a teacher, or from a source that is easy to interpret. Benjamin Franklin, seeking to improve his essay writing, studied a publication called “The Spectator. ” He read an essay from it, then put it aside, summarized the main points, rewrote them in his own style, then compared his version to the essay, noticing specific aspects of his writing that needed improvement. Franklin used “The Spectator” as his master teacher, and his own well-honed objectivity. Not all writers, I find, have that objectivity. Franklin was also a scientist. Personally, I love having a mentor. I also love having feedback from other writers whose work and opinions I respect. And there are particular craft books that I keep rereading.

  4.  It is highly challenging mentally.  Learning builds new neural connections in your little gray cells, which means it is mentally taxing. Therefore, most people can’t do Deliberate Practice for more than 5 hours per day. Often, they do it in sessions around an hour to ninety minutes, say the scientists. For writers, who often need day jobs to stay solvent, this is good news. Five hours per day is a lot, but it’s doable with a day job, or with a family (probably not both).

  5. It isn’t fun. This is the bad news, but it’s an important point, because if a skill is fun for you to practice, it means you are in your comfort zone. And you don’t learn in your comfort zone. You also don’t learn in the panic zone, where the task is hard enough to strike fear. You learn in a special zone where the task is difficult, but still doable, with a bit of work and grit. This is called the Learning Zone by Professor Noel Tichy. I’ve heard it called the Growth Zone, but whatever you call it, you know you’re there when you are more satisfied having done it than you were while you did it.

Talent is Overrated: Learning Zone

Nobody Said it Was Easy

Maybe the reason people persist in believing in the myth of talent is because hard work is hard. If getting great were really all about talent, then you either got it or you ain’t. Done and done. Go watch Game of Thrones and pop a cold one.

Deliberate practice is difficult. But the hugely good news is, it can be done. And, since it is hard to do Deliberate Practice, not everyone will do it. That gives those willing to do it a competitive edge.

hese Guys are All Ernest Hemingway (Hemingway Days in Key West) Talent to Be a Great Writer
These Guys Are All Ernest Hemingway (Hemingway Days in Key West)

Deliberate Practice for Writers

So what would deliberate practice look like for a fiction writer? Veteran writing teacher Barbara Baig has an incredible set of lessons on her blog. She has based them on the precepts of expert performance studies like Ericsson’s. Definitely check out her lessons, and her books. They can help you build your own writing Deliberate Practice regimen.

Here is my brief summary of the Deliberate Practice steps I am testing out as a writer. Try them for yourself, and see what you think:

  1. What do you need to improve? Get feedback on your work from a trusted source: a mentor, an editor or author who is willing to read your work critically and give you details. I don’t think there is any substitute for experience here. Find a master, if you can. It’s worth it. That is part A. Part B is being able to take that sage advice. Taking feedback is a special skill in and of itself, and it’s worth a post on its own. For now make a list of the skills you want to improve.
  2. Design your practice. My practice has a warm-up, which I do every day, and when  do it, I put a sparkly sticker on that day in my wall calendar. I kid you not. Rewards are important, and my Inner Child enjoys sparkly stuff. The warm-up is the morning pages, which is 3 pages of free-writing. Morning Pages come from The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. This book should be required reading for anyone who wants to be creative. After the warmup, I work on exercises focused on improving my character development. I do side writing, in which I speak directly with my characters. I ask them pointed questions. I ask them about what I need to do next. I brainstorm ideas with them. I also hang out and ask them about the meaning of life. Really. I have this one vampire character who is so wise about many things. I do all this in addition to getting words on the page that are meant for my draft. Cool things can happen. Sometimes I’m writing scenes in my morning pages. I let it happen. I type them into my side writing in Scrivener. Or they might even end up in my draft. Why not?
  3. Make a schedule, commit to it, set up rewards, and do it! Since talent doesn’t matter, why should inspiration? Life is unpredictable, so I get my writing done first thing in the morning. Every day, with very few exceptions. I get up, grab coffee, and start my morning pages.
  4. Get feedback. I review my work critically a few days after I have drafted it. I know my weaknesses by now because I’m getting expert feedback in my MFA program. Once I graduate, I will be in a weekly critique group. I take the feedback, cry if I need to, give myself a bit of time to recover, then try again.

This is how I do it. How do you make sure you are improving? Comment and share below.

Also, next time your inner critic tells you you don’t have the talent to do this, tell them that Barbara Baig, Anders Ericsson, Geoff Colvin, and I said they’re full of it. Because you don’t need talent to do this, or anything, with excellence!

Tell Your Inner Critic He Is Full of It!
Full of It Inner Critic

Read This Next

“How Deliberate Practice Can Make You an Excellent Writer” by Barbara Baig

How to Be a Writer by Barbara Baig

The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron; Talent is Overrated

 

Peak: Secrets From the New Science of Expertise

 

My Top 5 Writing Craft Books

Top 5 Writing Craft Books

Top 5 Writing Craft Books, because who doesn’t live a good top 5 list?

I am hard at work on a middle grade novel set in Bermuda, and my graduate lecture for VCFA on The Alchemy of Radical Self-Belief, and it’s fun! And tough. And fun!

For my lecture, I’m reading a particularly eye-opening book. Although not a writing craft book, it has powerful info on how to be a high performer in any field. It involves something called “deliberate practice.” Check it out by clicking below:

Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin

The List of Top 5 Writing Craft Books

Now that you have the bonus recommendation, right up front, here is my list of great writing craft books, in no particular order:

Self-Editing for Fiction Writers

Self Editing for Fiction Writers by Browne & King

Straightforward and usable. Brings clarity to the revision process. Many aha! moments lie within these pages. Think you understand show don’t tell? Read this and you may be in for a surprise. Great stuff on leaving space for the reader to collaborate with the story.

What's Your Story? by Marion Dane Bauer

What’s Your Story by Marion Dane Bauer

Especially helpful when you are mulling your story over before getting it on paper or into the computer. Says it’s for kids, and it’s great for adults, too. Simplest and clearest description of plot and conflict I have ever seen.

The Plot Whispere by Martha Alderson

The Plot Whisperer by Martha Alderson

This is the most intuitive approach to plot structure I’ve found. Plus it includes the writer herself in the hero’s journey. Stories, Alderson believes, are about the writer going on their own hero’s journey. How else can we bring the reader along?

Reading Like a Wrier by Francine Prose

 

Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose

How to take your favorite books and learn exactly how the author did a particular thing, then do it yourself in your own work. You can learn to write crowd scenes like Tolstoy, or Omniscient POV like Rowling.

Getting Into Character by Brandilyn Collins

Getting Into Character: Seven Secrets A Novelist Can Learn From Actors by Brandilyn Collins

When the writer feels what their characters are feeling, the whole story pops off the page and feels authentic. This book has so many great techniques for inside-out, method character development.

Hope this is helpful to all you writers out there! Have a great week!

Have a favorite writing craft book I didn’t mention? Comment below and let us know why you love your favorites.

Strong Characters Through Side Writing

Consider How Side Writing Could Deepen Your Fiction

 

Brandilyn Collins wonderful craft book Getting Into Character

If you don’t feel close to your characters, you can’t expect your readers to.

When you think of a friend, you don’t imagine what makes them like everyone else, do you? No, you remember their quirks, their contradictions, their particular turns of phrase, their noble traits, their flaws. These are the things that make you laugh, wonder, and bring you close.

But as a writer, how do you discover vivid character traits that ring true?

Creating Strong Characters

I’m reading a wonderful craft book that is helping me get in touch with my characters from an unusual creative source—acting.

Brandilyn Collins’ Getting Into Character: Seven Secrets A Novelist Can Learn From Actors has terrific techniques.  I’ll share just one with you. Really, you’ll want to read the whole book.

Blue Sky Thinking - Writing Your Story World
Blue Sky Thinking – Writing Your Story World

Side Writing

What is side writing?

Many writers find they can build strong characters through side writing. Side writing is anything you do as a writer that isn’t designed to go into your final draft. It’s the study, the inner exploration that helps you build your story world, the psyche of your characters, and the relationships between them that drive the conflict.

Side writing for a novelist is akin to an artist’s sketchbook. An artist tries out all kinds of techniques in their sketchbook. They draw studies of their subjects, they doodle, mess around, use pencils, or ink, or whatever medium they like, they tape in ideas. Sketchbook work doesn’t have to be good. It’s all fodder and inspiration for the final polished art pieces.

Your side writing should be your playground, where you flesh out and test your ideas.

Try this: Main Character Interview
  1. Set aside at least a half hour to try this exercise.
  2. Do a brief meditation in which you try to picture your main character. Close your eyes and visualize them sitting in front of you. Just take a few minutes and focus your energy on your protagonist. When you start to feel a little ridiculous, and like, wow, we writers sure are eccentric, then open your eyes and start writing.
  3. You can try writing by hand, or typing into your writing software of choice. If you are having trouble feeling in touch with your main character, I recommend trying doing this by hand, at least at first. It makes you slow down and pay attention.
  4. Start by greeting your main character like he or she is a real person. (This is a game of let’s pretend for grown-ups.)
  5. Then start having a conversation in which your goal is to chat and get to know each other.
  6. As you go along, get to the heart of what you really want to know about your character. Why are they so bent on revenge? Why are they so mad at their best friend? Whatever unanswered questions you have, ask them. You may not always get answers. Deflection is interesting, and you may want to ask again later.
  7. Get more specific and pointed as you go. Ask questions that will help you know the character’s big sticking points, their big terrors, their deepest most secret yearnings.
  8. Here are some suggested questions for after you are past the small talk: What would you die for? What do you live for? What is your biggest fear? If you won a billion dollars tax free, what would you do first? If you could change one thing about the world, what would it be? (Big questions like these can help you see what matters most to your main character.)
What to Do with the Interview Text

Once you are done with your interview, you may find you like the process. You may want to begin each writing session with one of these, to warm up, to get into your character’s voice. Great!

Keep everything and refer to it later, before you write scenes from this character’s point of view. You can start a writing session by asking a character what they want in this upcoming scene. You can even ask them advice on how to write future scenes.

This side writing exercise has a distinct advantage over the commonly recommended character questionnaire. In this exercise you are talking to your character directly, so you get to speak and hear their voice. And you are answering as your character, so you will get new information about how they feel. They may even share new secrets with you.

Your novel’s world and people begin to live inside your imagination long before the plot swings into action. Side writing exercises the one above can be a terrific way to start sketching out that world and those people, so that your main character starts off vivid and strong.

Outlining Your Story

Flying high now!

Outlining Your Story

One of the most daunting tasks a writer ever faces is to outline their work. We’ve spent so much time creating the fictive dream, developing our characters, crafting dialogue and description, that to reduce it all to a play-by-play, point-by-point overview of plot can seem an overwhelming challenge.

Somehow it hurts to boil it all down. And, let’s be honest, with everything going on in your story, it’s hard to know what to include and what not to.

Ya Gotta Do It

Still, outlining is necessary. Agents and Editors will thank you for a good chapter outline. It helps them give you notes, and sell your story to others. You’ll need a clear, tight synopsis when you’re querying agents and editors, too, and without an outline, you’ll be stuck weeding through your text page by page.

So, fellow novelists, let’s roll up our sleeves and learn how to outline.

cropped-margaret_mayo_mcGlynn_tiber_1260x240.jpg

Outlining Methods

A Quick Method for Outlining

  • Put each story element on file cards
  • put them in the order you want
  • go through and tell the story to several people. Voila—story feedback without having written one word of prose! (From Robert McKee’s book Story)

Snowflake Method

Source: Randy Ingermannson at http://www.advancedfictionwriting.com/articles/snowflake-method/

If you have a limited amount of time and need an outline before you write, this is a great method. I used it myself before my first NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month).

In 10 steps, The Snowflake Method will give you a wide array of useful tools once you’re done. You’ll have an elevator pitch in the form of a one-sentence log line. You’ll have a full page synopsis. You’ll tackle character description, three-act structure, and you’ll really get to know your characters, including your villains, super-quick. Check out Randy’s website above. He also has a full-length book on The Snowflake Method.

Dan Wells’ 7 Points Method

Dan Wells, (author of the John Cleaver series), along with Mary Robinette Kowal, Brandon Sanderson, and Howard Tayler, has a FANTASTIC PODCAST CALLED “WRITING EXCUSES.” He also has a useful method for outlining. You can find it on YouTube here. Using a Star Trek Role Playing game manual, Dan worked out how to outline any storyline in 7 points.

I love this one because it’s relatively easy to remember what the 7 points are, and how they work. It gets complicated when you realize that each of the story lines in your novel should have its own 7-point arc.

Dan Wells 7 Points Genres
Dan Wells 7-points applied to various genres

A Brief Breakdown of Dan Wells’ 7-Point Method

Here are the 7 Points:

  1. Hook – The hero has a sad boring life.
  2. Plot Turn 1 – Hero becomes a NEW ROLE.
  3. Pinch 1 – Bad Guy attacks.
  4. Midpoint – Hero learns the truth about SOMETHING and swears to defeat the VILLAIN/ANTAGONIST.
  5. Pinch 2 – Companions fail the Hero, and Hero is left alone.
  6. Plot Turn 2 – Facing VILLAIN, the Hero discovers the power is within him.
  7. Resolution – Hero defeats VILLAIN

Here are the 7 points, using Stars Wars: A New Hope as an example:

  1. Hook – Luke is misunderstood farm boy who longs to be a star pilot and have adventures.
  2. Plot Turn 1 – R2D2 plays Princess Leia’s distress signal to Luke. Luke brings the ‘droid to see Obi-Wan Kenobi, who gives him his father’s light saber and offers to teach him to become a Jedi. The Force is strong with him, and Luke is now a Jedi in training.
  3. Pinch 1 – Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru are killed by Imperial Troops.
  4. Midpoint – Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru are dead; Luke decides he wants to rescue the princess and join the rebellion and become a Jedi like his father.
  5. Pinch 2 – Obi-Wan Kenobi is killed in a duel with Vader.
  6. Plot Turn 2 – Luke turns off his targeting computer and uses the Force to drop the proton torpedo into the ventilation shaft and destroy the Death Star. The power is within him.
  7. Resolution – Death Star is destroyed. Rebel base is safe. Time to hand out some medals!

Wait, Didn’t A Lot More Stuff Happen in Star Wars?

Now, obviously, there is a lot more going on in Star Wars, A New Hope than the 7 points listed above. There’s Han Solo needing to escape Jabba the Hut. There’s the ‘Droids plot line as they squabble with each other and try to survive on Tatooine, being captured by the Jawas and sold to Luke’s Uncle Owen. There’s the plot line of the Rebels, and the stolen plans for the Death Star. There’s Princess Leia’s plot line in which she is captured and tries her best to save her home planet, but to no avail. Darth Vader even has a plot line of his own, in conflict with the more modern approach to evil represented by Governor Tarkin. Obi-Wan Kenobi’s plot line is important as he faces Darth Vader in an old school sword battle. He represents the entire world of the Jedi Knights. Star Wars was planned by Lucas to be an epic, so its plot lines are sprawling. But you get the idea.

A Fancy Spreadsheet For You!

I have used Dan Wells’ 7 points to create a Google Sheet. In it you’ll find the 7 points for Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Star Wars: A New Hope, The Wizard of Oz (the movie), Pride and Prejudice, Othello, and The Telltale Heart. This shows how the 7 points can work for all genres. The only major genres missing here are Mystery and Suspense. At some point I’ll add those in.

Download the Spreadsheet HERE.

Chapter Outline Technique from the Editor of Harry Potter!

The chapter outline is a useful tool for when you are submitting a final manuscript to an editor. It will help them track all kinds of information in your story, from ages, to dates, to conflicts, to plot points. It will make the editor and the copyeditor your friend. You can also use it as a tool to refine and polish your manuscript before submission.

Plot like this on a spreadsheet:

Column headers:

  • Name of Chapter
  • POV Character – only one.
  • Location
  • Day, Date and Time
  • Conflict
  • One-line synopsis
  • Chapter Question – what question keeps the reader turning pages?
  • Key Plot Points Revealed

Fill in each of these for your chapters, one chapter per row, or, if you have complex chapters, one row per scene. Then go back through. It’s going to be easy to see if you don’t have enough conflict going in a chapter or scene. If you don’t, think about summarizing that section of the story, and saving the scene for the more dramatic moments.

For more on this method, see Arthur A. Levine Books Harry Potter editor Cheryl Klein’s Second Sight and her podcast (with knowledgeable screenwriter James Monoghan), the Narrative Breakdown. Cheryl is a rock star editor, and this podcast has wonderful stuff on all aspects of storytelling.

Best of luck plotting your stories! Do you have Outlining methods you recommend? Share them in the comments below!

Happy reading and writing!

–Margaret

Writing Tools: My Love-Hate Relationship With Scrivener

Scrivener Program's Interface Margaret Mayo McGlynn

What is Scrivener?

For those who are saying, “what the heck is ‘Scrivener?'” here’s what it is, in brief.

For those of you who are saying “Isn’t that what Bartelby was?” your English Lit teacher is smiling in heaven, or in the teacher’s lounge with the burned coffee and permanently stained carpet.

Scrivener is a program, very reasonably priced, I might add, that helps writers of all kinds organize their files however they like.

What’s Cool About Scrivener?

It has various kind of templates, for instance, one for novels. It has a template tailor-made for NaNoWriMo.

What’s NaNoWriMo?

If you don’t know what NaNoWriMo is, then click any one of my links herein. NaNoWriMo is a magical internet land that encourages anyone and everyone to buckle down and write the novel that is aching to be born straight from the head of Zeus and begin slouching toward Jerusalem. It is, in short, a wonder of the modern age.

What’s Cool About Scrivener: Take 2

But back to Scrivener. The program has all kinds of useful templates for writing projects, for research papers, for scripts of various stripes and flavors.

The beauty of it is that it helps you organize your book the way you probably think about your book, that is, in scenes, chapters, and parts. And it’s wildly customizable. You can put all kinds of metadata in there. You can tag chapters and scenes with neat codes, notes to self about them, the which you can search later, when your buzz has worn off. You can import entire webpage contents to your research folders. You can color code the crap out of your text with custom highlighting colors. There’s a template for characters, for places, and you can design your own templates.

I love being able to drag scenes from chapter to chapter, willy nilly. I love that each chapter gets its own little index card on which you can put its synopsis. Love, love, love all of this.

Here’s a picture of the interface:

Scrivener Interface, and yes, that is the prologue of my novel Guardian of the Chalice, as it stands today

What’s Sucky About Scrivener?

But the hate starts when I try to sync it with my iPad. It doesn’t yet have its own iPad app, and the folks at Literature and Latte, who designed scrivener, have been promising and promising that the app will be here, any second.

But it’s not here yet. Oh, this novelist is getting so tired of waiting for it. When they finally deliver said app, they might do well to name it ‘Godot.’ Because, damn!

Compile This!

And don’t get me started on the Compile feature. I don’t understand why it’s even in there. Too customizable, and in a way that makes no sense to little ole me. Say I just want to export my Scrivener file of my novel just to a simple Word doc. Oh, the bewildering options that come up when I click ‘Compile,’ none of which work the way I would anticipate. To me, it seems somehow easier to have Scrivener translate my novel into Sanskrit than just to output it with some simple formatting, a page break in between chapters, sequentially numbered chapters, a header with, oh, I don’t know, my name and my book’s title upon it. Woe, woe to Compile. Fie upon it!

I got started, but now I’m stopping. Because I’ve decided to do a fast on complaining to clear my psychic space, if you know what I mean. And this sister from New Jersey, she can do her some complaining! Oh it is a major vice of mine.

There’s the Rub

In any event, I love Scrivener’s computer self so much that I can’t give it up, even though I want open a can o whup ass on its mobile “features” and its “Compile” excrementiness. Am I in a shame spiral? Possibly. Send your dollars today.

Any-hoo, below is a post I placed upon the Literature and Latte forum in which they innocently asked for feedback on the Mac version. I don’t think they saw me coming, do you?

Do you use Scrivener to work on your writerly stuff? If not, what do you use?

Please do scroll down and tell me all about your travails, and the little moments of your process, won’t you?

Thanks for visiting my blog. Comments more than welcome, if that’s possible in this space-time continuum.

:)Margaret

I have a love-hate with Scrivener, and here’s why:

Nothing else helps me organize and update my novel so well while I’m working on my laptop. But when I want to go mobile, oh then, dear reader, do I end up in a spot of difficulty.

Syncing with Simplenote doesn’t do it for me. The sorting files alphabetically thing would be great except I don’t want to inject extraneous chapter numbers in my chapter titles which I will then have to delete by hand in my final draft. And update manually when I change my order of chapters or add a new one. Over and over again.

I don’t like that when I rename a chapter or add a new one, I then have to go through the long checklist and make sure that I check the box for that new item when I sync. My world moves fast, and again, I wish there were a simple idiot-proof way to sync without all the time-consuming customizable stuff.

And I know this isn’t Scrivener’s fault, but I find that when I make changes to a Simplenote file in a browser, it doesn’t always transfer over to the same Simplenote file on my iPad.

Last night I was at my weekly writing class, and not once but twice I was not able to read the proper file, the most recent version, to my teacher, to whom I am paying a certain degree of cash in exchange for time. I found it to be an untenable situation.

My ideal scene is that the fine men and women of Literature and Latte really buckle down and get that gosh darned iPad app up and rocking. This year.

Or I may be looking for other options. Just sayin.’

And if you, lovely reader, have a bit of advice, an easy fix or even a medium difficult fix, which might solve my woes and result in smiles and relaxation on my part, oh, please do chime in!

Many thanks!



Margaret Mayo McGlynn
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My Writing Process Blog Tour

Many thanks to the mellifluously funny and gifted writer Chelsey Monroe, a truly amusing gal I was lucky enough to meet at the San Francisco Writer’s Conference, for tagging me in this hullaballoo. Please to enjoy her talk about her writing and its process here.



Now here’s my thang:
What am I working on? 
Young Adult Fantasy Novel Guardian of the Chalice. 
Here’s the logline: 
16-year old Avery Dickenson discovers the has magical powers and inherits a magical chalice that makes her the most powerful witch on the planet. A cabal of dark immortal magicians want to use her power, so they take her father hostage and steal him away to Rome. To get him back, Avery must sail to Europe with her friends and her hippie witch aunt, learning magical combat. But can Avery resist the ultimate temptation—to bring her dead mother back to life—in order to save her father and friends from the ultimate evil?
How does my work differ from others of its genre?
  • Two Kinds of Magic: A key conflict in my novel is between two different ways of doing magic—the Left Hand path, which derives power from causing pain and extracting energy from others, and the Right Hand path, in which strength comes from being in harmony with nature and ones true self.
  • The Eternal City: Rome used to be called the navel of the world in ancient times. Rome is the center of magic in my novel, which gives my work a DaVinci Code feel. Avery’s italian heritage and the Italian witchcraft she learns from her Aunt Nina are unusual and culturally rich motifs in my novel.
  • Time Travel: One of Avery’s key powers is traveling in time and space. So my novel has special fun with time travel, issues with paradoxes, and timelines across centuries that affect each other.
  • A Tiger in Your Tank: Oh, yes, and Avery can shape shift into a tiger, but only when she’s particularly angry.
  • Creepy Decaying Historical Bad Guys: My bad guys are real historical magicians who made themselves immortal in the past. Every 21 years they must renew their immortality by an especially brutal ceremony. But every once in a while a witch like Avery comes along, with so much power that if they can use her, they can make the immortality permanent. All previous attempts to do this have failed but they all believe this is the time it will work. As it gets closer and closer to the time of renewal, which is Midsummer Eve, the bad guys’ bodies start to fall apart a bit. It starts with peeling and cracking skin, and gets yuckier from there.
  • The Knights Templar: Oh, yeah, and wrapped up in all of this are the Knights Templar, and a conflict which stretches back to the Crusades and the Inquisition. 
  • Modern Goths: But also, Avery and her friends are Goth teenagers at a fancy prep school with normal teen issues like staying loyal to friends, getting good grades and trying to get into the college of their choice.
  • Team Neither! And since all of this is going on in this book, the first of a trilogy, it’s a darn good thing there are no vampires or werewolves in sight!
Why do I write what I do? 
  • Thank you, Harriet The Spy! Children’s books were my best and only friends in elementary school. I write books for tweens because I want to do that for someone else. 
  • Who are you? I really like challenges that come into play with Young Adult fiction. I’m fascinated by questions of identity. The process of choosing who we will become, what contribution we will make in the world, how we will use our strengths—I find all of that fascinating and mysterious. It’s such an important time in life. And yes, I think I’ll always be fourteen inside where it counts.
  • Burn, Witch, Burn! I was, for a time, a practicing pagan. There are so many different kinds of magical systems and pantheons and ways of practicing. I met people who worshipped the Hawaiian gods, the Norse Gods, the Faeries. I met people who practiced Kabala, too, and alchemy, and Freemasonry. I still love the idea of a spirituality connected to nature that balances masculine and feminine, that honors the earth. There’s a book called The Chalice and the Blade that most pagans have read, and it tells an alternative version of Western History with a feminist slant. It may not be great scholarship, but it’s a great idea.
How does my writing process work? 
  • I did Nanowrimo in 2012 and revised my novel for 2013 Nanowrimo.
  • Knowing I was going to do Nanowrimo, I came up with a rough outline.
  • I am an outliner, not a pantser.
  • During Nanowrimo I wrote for 45 minutes every day at lunch. Most days, that got me up above the minimum daily word count of 1667 words. If I got behind, I’d catch up on weekends. I just wrote like the wind, letting it all come out and not revising at all as I went. I still think that’s the best way to get stuff down on paper. Just go.
  • My novelist husband has this motto for writing: Make it crap; fix it later. It works.
  • I like writing in public, with lots of distractions, but I do turn on my White Noise app and plug in my earphones.
  • I can’t write with the TV on.
  • If I get stuck, I skip that chapter and go to something that happens later in the story.
  • I work on Scrivener, but please O Scrivener Literature and Latte Folk, My Kingdom for an iPad App!
  • Sometimes I procrastinate.
  • But usually I put the meat in the seat and write, no excuses.
Next on the Hit Parade:

Stay tuned for these wonderfully talented tagged writers, Posting on May 12, or thereabouts:

Back in the roaring eighties, Peter “Stoney” Emshwiller was the managing editor of six international magazines (including Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone Magazine, Night Cry, and Gallery Magazine). Since then he’s had two science fiction Bantam Books novels published (The Host and its sequel, Short Blade), an original TV sitcom pilot produced, and numerous movie options taken out on his work by the likes of Jerry Bruckheimer. When he’s not writing, he’s acting — particularly as a voiceover artist. Yes, that’s Stoney you hear resonating mellifluously in radio ads, making silly voices in cartoons, and dying a thousand horrible deaths in video games. (Hey, it beats working for a living.)



Just What I Need: Revision and Self-Editing for Publication

Revising a novel is a lonely business. It gets overwhelming.

Last Friday I went to a reading at Skylight Books, a Los Feliz neighborhood gem, and in their sparse but well-curated Writing section, I found James Scott Bell‘s book, Revision and Self Editing for Publication: Techniques for Transforming Your First Draft into a Novel that Sells.

In my experience, books on writing can be full of fluff, throat-clearing and nattering to beef up content that might fit into a half-hour PowerPoint presentation. This one, happily, has almost no non-nutritive filler. Mr. Bell’s tips start in the introduction—including a great little exercise on how to sharpen your sense of plot.

Books on writing sometimes contain only uninterrupted prose, paragraph upon paragraph with few bullet points, sidebars, or headings. This one isn’t like that. It’s got headings and bullet points aplenty, so you can read it front to back, or you can scan it for the bit you need right now.

And the prose is beautiful, with lots of varied sentence construction. I really appreciate that. If you can’t write great prose, please don’t try to teach me how to write.

I also love all of the examples from books and movies I already know. And, if you don’t know these examples, Mr. Bell lays out the plot or sets the scene so you will get it.

I was around page 24, and I already felt so grateful that I tweeted the author to thank him. He tweeted me right back. So this guy is also savvy about social networking. A definite plus.

This revision stuff scares me like Mrs. Brody is scared of Quint. There is much to do. I have to delete delete delete sections and stitch the remaining scenes back together in a way that doesn’t leave the manuscript all effed up like the skin of the Frankenstein monster. I can get into a downtrodden frame of mind about it. Mr. Bell’s book tells you up front that this dark mood will come. It gives you several techniques to help combat it, like a little post-it somewhere in your space that says ‘I can fix it.’

Yes, darnit! I can!

I think this book is going to be my best friend as I tromp all Hobbit-like through the revision marshes toward the distant burning mountain of Draft Four.

Hooray, I say!

San Francisco Writer’s Conference 2014 – Day 1

I am dog tired and it’s only day 1. This is intense. Lots of energy. Trying to learn how to pitch your novel rapidfire with only 5 clear bullet points, and networking like crazy, bonding as quickly as possible with folks doing the YA Fantasy genre thing. Many business cards were given, many gathered. Hope to God I can put faces with cards when it’s all done. Already building my YA Fantasy cohort.

Things I learned from the Children’s, Midgrade and YA Pitchathon

Who was there:

  • Natashya Wilson, Editor at Harlequin Teen (Editor of Julie Kagawa’s Iron Fey series)
  • Laurie McLean, Forward Literary Agency
  • Pam van Hylckama Vlieg, Forward Literary Agency
Gems and Nuggets:

Elevator Pitch:
  1. Just give them enough to interest them.
  2. Four sentences, 25 words or less.
  3. They really like the high-concept pitch, aka, it’s like Silence of the Lambs meets Charlotte’s Web, except good, because that would be sucky and what the heck does it mean, anyway? For this, use movies, books, and even video games that everyone knows.
  4. Never claim your novel is the next Harry Potter.
  5. It should be punchy.
  6. Don’t tell the end.
  7. Only tell the A plot.
  8. A YA Fantasy should be from 85 to 90k words.
  9. Another formula for the pitch “Who fights who to get what?”
Speed Dating:
  1. Your name
  2. Genre of your novel
  3. Title of Novel
  4. Word Count
Query Letters
  1. Don’t make me scroll
  2. First line is your logline high concept, aka Indiana Jones meets The Mummy (The Hook)
  3. Second paragraph is your back of book copy (The Book)
  4. Third paragraph is about you (The Cook)
  5. Another formula to describe the above is the The Hook, The Book, The Cook
Things I learned from Pitchcraft by Katherine Sands, Literary Agent
  1. In any pitch you only have time to cover 5 points, so choose them carefully
Basic Novel Pitch Formula
  1. Place (also time, era, modern day? 1066 Hastings? What?)
  2. Person, for instance, Bill, a 45-year old accountant who has always wanted to be an opera star
  3. Pivot: The dynamic moment that sets the whole story in motion.
General Notes About Pitchcraft
  • Set off sparks
  • Get interest
  • Show, don’t tell
  • Comparisons to other books, for example, “For readers who loved “The Hunger Games and the mortal instruments, my Contempory YA Fantasy pits the heroine against real historical magicians and alchemists who are seeking to use her power to make their immortality permanent.
I also attended a great talk by Rusty Shelton about ‘Discoverability in the Age of Social Media’ lots of great way to leverage social media to build ones brand, even as a novelist.
But as I am now a steaming pile of OMG, I must rewrite my pitch, asta la bye-bye for tonight!

I am a Writer

I’m almost done with my second draft of my first novel, Tigers Slow Awake. I’ve been thinking I should have a blog about writing and process and how the heck do you get from just a few vague ideas to 160,000 words. And how do you get from there to something you actually feel confident querying an agent or editor about?

I don’t know yet what that will be like, but I know I’m going to do it.

I’m writing a synopsis, something like you’d see on a book jacket, something that tells the story and sells it, too. But it’s scary to face the task of putting all my plot in one place. I suppose there’s something daunting about every phase of writing a novel.

I’m using the program Scrivener to wrangle this draft, and although I like it, I find the Compile feature was not at all intuitive. I had to do a deep web search to get it to come out the way I wanted, and it’s still not quite there. I’m so ready for Scrivener to have its own app. Apparently they have been working on that at literatureandlatte.com for more than three years. This is supposed to be the year they get there. I wish them the best of luck! I could really use that app!

And I’m working with a great writing teacher in Sherman Oaks, Claudette Sutherland. I’ve put her website link here. She gives great supportive feedback and I think she’s helping get my prose into line, among many other helpful things!

One thing I’m struggling with is how to inject imagery into the action so the reader knows exactly where they are and can really picture it. It’s quite a discipline to write that way, a good challenge.

Wish me luck! I’ll keep you posted!