Julie Lythcott-Haims Raises the Bar

One fun thing about being a writer is getting the chance to connect with other writers you admire. Julie Lythcott-Haims wrote How to Raise an Adult and a memoir called Real American about being black and mixed race in America. Check out her website here.

I first heard of Julie Lythcott-Haims when I found How to Raise an Adult and read it from cover to cover. I recommend it to everyone who has kids, knows kids, is thinking about having kids, or once was a kid. (Current kids: you have to wait.)

The parenting book grew out of Julie’s experience as a Stanford dean watching young adults navigating their first experience away from home without the necessary skills to do their own laundry, pass their classes and make decisions. Yes, this terrifying book is non-fiction, but writing is writing so when the opportunity to talk with Julie one-on-one came up, I jumped at it.

I asked Julie about her decision to leave her job and take on a new career as a writer. Turns out she had already made a radical life change before when she left corporate law to become dean at Stanford. Julie used phrases such as “the future I wanted to create for myself” that made me realize 1) this is a person I need to listen to and 2) I need to plaster that phrase across my forehead or at least incorporate it into my vocabulary.

I learned a lot about Julie’s current rock star life that includes travel, speaking engagements, and working on her next book, which will be a sequel to How to Raise an Adult, composed as a letter to her children (now 18 and 16) about what it means to be an adult. What stayed with me long after our conversation, though, was this (paraphrased):

“Writing is not an identity anyone else can confer on you. We claim the identity of writer. Call yourself a writer. Make room for writing. Make it a habit. Speak of it, care about it. Give it the time it needs. Treat writing as essential to your wellness.”

I love this so much and am planning to print it out and post it on the wall (it won’t fit on my forehead).

This blog is one way I’m claiming myself publicly as a writer and making room for it in my life. Other ways include meeting with other writers to write (happening tomorrow), carving time out to write each day (almost), submitting to writing contests, and joining online and in-person writer communities.

Fun parenting/writing fact: Most of this post was written on my phone, in the car, parked in front of a playground while my son slept in the backseat and my daughters played on the swings. 

 

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It’s a Mad (dee James) World

Maddee James is the queen and empress of xuni.com, a website design company that creates and maintains author websites. I met Maddee at a workshop for writers and wondered if her career involved much writing. In my quest to be Jessica Fletcher, she who writes and does other things, I requested an interview with Maddee to find out exactly what she does and how she came to do it.

During our conversation, I discovered that like me, Maddee once had babies and needed something she could work on from home. Unlike me, she taught herself how to build websites.

As far as her process goes, Maddee reads her clients’ books and uses a questionnaire to get to know their preferences. Then she applies her own artistic eye to create a website that reflects the author and their work. Her job is much more visual and colorful than writing is, and more collaborative than most novel writing (if you don’t count conversations with the people in your head). Still, both jobs involve bringing ideas to life so that others can appreciate them.

That got me thinking about my own online presence, who I am as an author, and what readers can expect from my work. Like my blog voice, my book voice is female and humorous. My book has an academic setting and takes place in the fall. Unlike me, my protagonist has no children because if she did she would have no time to solve mysteries. The other reason there are no children in my book is that I write a lighter kind of mystery and putting kids in danger is too icky.

Maddee also shared that because she loves her work, she does it almost all the time. It’s hard to turn off or take a vacation. The work/life balance is something I think about because I have responsibilities other than writing, but when the story is flowing, it’s hard to stop. I can imagine a looming deadline would also make it hard to stop. The combination of a looming deadline plus children needing attention, dinner and clean diapers sounds really challenging.

So while I have no plans to teach myself how to design websites anytime soon, I left my conversation with Maddee feeling inspired by her journey and her achievements. And maybe, hopefully, one day I’ll be in need of her services myself.

 

Boosting Your Social Karma with Karma Bennett

Recently I had the pleasure of attending a workshop on using social media by Karma Bennett of WordPress Blogs for Writers. The workshop was not titled Social Media for the Non-Social, but it might as well have been. The target audience was writers. Need I say more?

The first point she made was that social media is all about connecting with strangers. A collective shudder may or may not have gone through the audience. Perhaps it was just me.

There are times when my relationship with my husband is sustained through texting, so the idea of putting time into connecting with strangers seemed a bit daunting. But, as the presentation went on, it became clear that interacting with strangers on social media doesn’t have to be time-consuming or scary.

First of all, you are trying to connect with your readers, who probably like you already since they read your book.

Secondly, your online persona shouldn’t be too different from your off-line persona. It’s best to share about topics you’re genuinely interested in. You’ll find your niche of others who are interested in the same things and suddenly all these people are not the scary kind of stranger anymore. They’re just other people who like goats in tutus as much as you do.

Karma encouraged each of us to think about what topics we always like to talk about and to engage online about those topics. The things I like most to share on social media are about odd or interesting writing topics, humor, and social justice. I also like to follow or mention authors I enjoy reading, and it’s really exciting when they respond to a tweet.

If you are interested in interacting with me on social media, please look for me on Twitter (@MariahJKlein) or on Goodreads. I’ll do my best to socialize virtually with you when I should be sleeping.

 

 

Bringing the monsters to life

I don’t normally think of myself as Dr. Frankenstein. Occasionally when my kids are running around the house buck-naked and screaming about poop, I do wonder what sort of monsters I’ve given life to. But usually I can blame my husband for those kinds of behaviors.

Being an author, you don’t always create monsters (depends on the genre) but you do create characters. And characters have to come to life on the page as clearly as the characters who live in your everyday life. They have to have quirks, likes, dislikes, and histories. They have to be fully realized in your mind or they won’t be fully realized on the page and in the reader’s mind.

So how do you do this?

One way is to plan. Create a chart, color-coded spreadsheet, list, rambling page of thoughts, or intricate and detailed mind map, whatever suits your style. Start brainstorming who your character is and what makes them unique. Interview your characters, and try to respond in their voice. Beth Barany at Writers Fun Zone has a useful list of essential elements to think about when creating characters.

If you’re not into planning, try imagining a character, then start writing. Put the character in a situation and go for it. Don’t over think, but let the character reveal themselves through your writing. You might end up with a hot mess, or you might discover a gem of a character you never knew was hiding inside your mind. Letting the story come through naturally can be a good alternative to overplanning, especially if you’re feeling stuck. And of course, you’ll always need to go back and revise once your characters have revealed themselves to make sure the story hangs together.

Whichever way you develop characters, make sure to give them a dark side. An Achille’s heel. What are they terrible at? What are their deepest, most intense fears? Then make your characters confront them. I know, it sounds so cruel. But a character without flaws is a Mary Sue–an idealized version of humanity, AKA uninteresting. Unless your readers are under the age of 5, they don’t want to read about Jane Doe’s fabulous, predictable life where everything always happens as it should. Great for her. Boring for us. There’s no story there.

Characters need to be tested by facing up to the bad/scary/hard things that happen to them. Readers need the excitement of living vicariously through someone else’s disaster while reclining comfortably on their couch eating chocolate bon bons. Unfair, but that’s how it goes.

Do you have any tips for developing character? Please share!

Tips For Writing a First Page that Rocks

In my last post, I described the Sisters in Crime meeting I went to where a panel of authors read and critiqued members’ first pages. Here’s some of their advice about how to make sure your first page hooks a reader or agent.

1. Less description, more emotion

overacting21

This tidbit came up more than once as the first page submissions were read out. That detailed description of the wallpaper in the heroine’s guest bedroom? No one cares. Readers are looking to connect with a character and a story. Descriptions should be sprinkled in at appropriate times.

2. Start in the middle of the action.

A recurring comment from the panel was some variation of, “If you cut out the first three paragraphs, you’ve got a great page.” Which the writer may hear as, “Just cut off your right ear, you don’t really need that.” Painful but true. Readers don’t need a lot of build-up to become engaged. In fact, with too much exposition, they get bored. Start in the action and save the explanations for later.

3. Readers should know early on what’s at stake.

If the main character finds herself on a speeding bus with a bomb on it, would she use the time to reminisce about moving to LA to pursue an acting career? This confuses readers because they don’t know what the story is about. Is it the bus or her quest to be an actress? On the first page, and the first chapter, stay focused on the conflict that drives the story.

4. Write for your audience.

People who don’t like epic fantasies may not choose to read your epic fantasy, even if your first page puts Tolkien to shame. That’s okay. Don’t try to write a book that will please everyone. Know your audience and write the best book you can for them.

1419618-unicorn2 Fantasy

romance-jan2 Romance

live-free-or-die-hard Live Free or Die Hard

Some other fun tidbits about the market:

  • Vampires have been done (no, really) so if you’re writing a vamp novel, you need a twist that makes your story unique.
  • Thrillers set in the Middle East are still selling.
  • The Holy Grail is the YA novel with a male protagonist. Everyone wants to find it but it’s notoriously hard to hook teen boys into reading, so the standards are quite high.
  • YA novels rarely involve the protagonist’s family. They’re mostly about the character forging her own identity.

Other tips for hooking a reader/agent? Please share!